"Tipping Point: Near-Term Systemic Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production" -- Civilisation, the Economy, & Complexity

Recently, a 55 page paper called Tipping Point: Near-Term Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production (PDF warning) was published as the joint effort of two organizations: Feasta and The Risk/Resilience Network, with lead author David Korowicz. Last week we published the Summary of the paper. Today, we are publishing a section from the middle paper, talking about the dynamics of complex civilizations. It is because of the complexity and connectedness of our current economy that the failure of one part of the system is likely to lead to failure of another. --Gail

3.1 Civilisation, the Economy, & Complexity

This paper is concerned with humanity's impact on its environmental resource base, and the effect the resource base has on human welfare. What mediates between these is our complex civilisation[i].

The idea of civilisation has inspired intellectuals and propagandists for millenia, and it is not particularly helpful to enter the debate here. We shall define it broadly, and in a way that serves our purposes in the current context. Civilisation is firstly a system, a singular object that connects all its constituent elements together. The constituent are people, institutions, companies, and the products and services of human artifice. The connections are people, supply-chains and transport networks, telecommunications and information networks, financial and monetary systems, culture and forms of language. It has dimensions of space, in the momentary transmission of goods, images, money, and people across the globe. And it has dimensions of time as stored in libraries, education and institutional knowledge, the patterns of fields and city streets, ideas of who we are and why we do as we do. It also places, through its history and evolved structures, constraints on its future evolution.

Our particular globalised civilisation is one that has grown to connect almost every person on the planet. One is in some way part of it if you have heard of Barak Obama, seen a moving image, used money, or have or desire something made in a factory. There are very few people on the planet who are unconnected, most are more or less integrated. We can also look at this as our level of system dependency. Imagine if suddenly across the globe; all the advanced infrastructure of civilisation-banking, IT, communications systems, and supply-chains suddenly stopped working. For developed countries relying upon just-in-time delivery of food, digital money; and complex information systems, starvation and social breakdown could evolve rapidly. In developing countries the situation would not be much better. Only for the most remote tribes on the planet it would make little or no difference. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the issue as during the fuel depot blockades in the UK in 2000, when supermarkets emptied and the Home Secretary Jack Straw accused the blockaders of "threatening the lives of others and trying to put the whole of our economy and society at risk"[ii]. More recently, the collapse of Lehman Brothers helped precipitate a brief freeze in the financing of world trade as banks became afraid of perceived counter-party risks to Letters of Credit[iii]. The more we become part of the system the more we share its benefits and the more system dependent we become.

It is a cliché, though true, to say that civilisation has become more complex. We can understand complexity as involving the number of connections between people and institutions; the intensity of hierarchical networks, the number of products available, the extent and number of the supply-chain functions required to produce these products; the number of specialized occupations; the amount of effort that is required to manage and operate systems; the amount of information available, and the energy flows through the system. Here is a vivid description of one aspect of complexity by Eric Beinhocker who compares the number of distinct culturally produced artifacts produced by the Yanomamo tribe on the Orinoco River, and modern New Yorkers. The Yanomamo have a few hundred, the New Yorkers have in the order of tens of billions, and this wealth is a measure of complexity:

To summarize 2.5 million years of economic history in brief: for a very, very long time not much happened; then all of a sudden all hell broke loose. It took 99.4% of economic history to reach the wealth levels of the Yanomamo, 0.59% to double that level by 1750, and then just 0.01% for global wealth to reach the level of the modern world.[iv]

Or we can look at it from the point of view of the supply-chains that are required to transform raw materials into products and services that criss-cross the globe. It is said that a modern car manufacturer has about 15,000 inputs to the manufacturing process. If each of those components was made by a supplier who put together on average 1500 components (10%), and each of those was put together by a supplier who put together 150 components, that makes over 3 billion interactions- and we have not included staff, plant, production lines, IT and financial systems. Nor are we at the end of the story here. For the car manufacturer would not exist were there not customers who could afford to buy a new car, which depends upon their economic outputs which are themselves dependent upon vast complex supply chains, and so on. Nor could these vast networks of exchange exist without transport, finance, and communications networks. And those networks would not be economically viable unless they were benefiting from the economies of scale shared with many other products and services. In this way we can start to see how intimately connected we are with one another across the planet, and why we see the global economy as a singular system.

The remarkable thing about such a complex economy is that it works. Each day I buy bread. The person who sold me that bread need not know from whom the wheat was bought, who manufactured the mixer, or who provided export credit insurance for the bulk wheat shipment. The person who delivered the bread to the shop did not need to know who refined his diesel, who invented the polymer for his gasket, or if I personally have money to pay for bread. The steel company did not know that a small manufacturer of bread mixers would use its product, nor cared where its investment came from. The process required to simply give me tasty and affordable bread, required, depending on the system boundaries, millions, even hundreds of millions of people acting in a coherent manner.

Yet in all this there was no organizer. The complexity of understanding, designing, and managing such a system is far beyond human and computer assisted abilities. We say such systems are self-organised, just like the formation of birds in flight, and the patterns of walkers down a city street. Self-organisation can be a feature of all complex adaptive systems, as opposed to ‘just’ complex systems such as a watch. Birds do not ‘agree’ together that arrow shapes make good sense aerodynamically, and then work out who flies where. Each bird simply adapts to its local environment and path of least effort, with some innate sense of hierarchy for the lead bird, and what emerges is a macro-structure without intentional design (readers will notice the same non-teleological explanations within evolutionary biology).

Our globalised civilisation has evolved and operates as a complex adaptive system. From each person, company or institution, with common and distinctive histories, playing their own part in their own niche, and interacting together through cultural and structural channels, the global system emerges.

What ties our globalised civilisation together is the global economy. It is to our civilisation what blood and the central nervous system is to our body. The economy allows the exchange of goods and services across the globe. And the more system dependent we are, the more we rely upon the global economy.

If one side of the global economy is goods and services, the other side is money. Money has no intrinsic value, it is a piece of paper or charged capacitors in an integrated circuit. It represents not wealth, but a claim on wealth (money is not the house or food we can buy with it). Across the globe we exchange something intrinsically valuable for something intrinsically useless. This only works if we all play the game, governments mandate legal tender, and monetary stability and trust is maintained. The hyper-inflation in Weimar Germany and in today's Zimbabwe shows what happens when trust is lost.

One of the great virtues of the global economy is that factories may fail and links in a supply chain can break down, but the economy can quickly adapt to fulfilling that need elsewhere or finding a substitute. This is a measure of the adaptive capacity within the globalised economy, and is a natural feature of such a de-localised and networked complex adaptive system. But it is true only within a certain context. There are common platforms or ‘hub infrastructure’ that maintain the operation of the global economy and the operational fabric, without which they would collapse. Principle among them are the the monetary and financial system, accessible energy flows, and the integrated infrastructures of information technology, electricity generation, and transport.

We can make an analogy here with another complex adaptive system, the human body. Hub infrastructure for the human body would include blood circulation (heart), the signaling and information (central nervous system), and the respiratory system. If any of these fail, we die. However our body can self-repair cuts and light trauma, and can survive quite major local damage (limb loss). If the local damage is significant enough (or death by a thousand cuts), the body can fail. So collapse (death) can result from hub failure or significant general system damage. We tend to find that final collapse is driven by the interactions of these elements (death caused by heart or respiratory failure caused by trauma).

This current integrated complexity was not always so. We have adapted so well to its changes, and its changes have been in general so stable, that we are often oblivious to its ties. Imagine if all the integrated circuits introduced within the last 10 or even five years should stop working. Financial systems, the grid, and supply-chains would fail. Our just-in-time food systems would soon leave the cupboard bare, and our inability to carry out financial transactions would ensure it remained so, real starvation could appear in the most advanced (system dependent) economies. The question poses itself, how can something introduced only in the last five or ten years cause such chaos if removed, after all we were fine just ten years ago? Even just consider the consequences of losing the mobile phone network. Our most basic functioning has become, almost by stealth, more and more entwined with rapid turnover technologies, the complex supply-chains that carry our needs and labours across the planet, and the financial and monetary systems that hold them all together.

3.2 The Evolution of the Global Economy

For most people living before the late medieval period, sustenance and welfare depended upon one's own efforts and those of one's close community. In such a context, abundant harvests could co-exist with nearby famine[v] From a general welfare point of view there was a production and a distribution problem.

The central problem of distribution was firstly that money was a small part of the local economy, as most communities were largely self-sufficient. Secondly, there were very rudimentary transport links, and actual communication between towns may have been infrequent and haphazard. This meant that there was neither a proper signaling mechanism to indicate shortages, a tradable store of value, nor a trade and transport system to facilitate the resource redistribution. Rural villages could find themselves vulnerable to harvest failure (from flooding say), which was the bedrock asset of community welfare, and therefore they had to bear all the risk locally. The risk could be partially managed by storage and storage technology, but the ability to store for a rainy day also meant that there needed to be surplus production. But investing in increasing production tends to require surpluses, traded inputs and knowledge from elsewhere.

One of the great advantages of a growing interconnectedness between regions, and more trade with money was that localised risks could be shared over the whole network of regions. Surpluses could be sold to where prices were highest in the network, and the money received in return would hold its value better than the stored grain prone to rot or rodents. Distributing surpluses across the network was also the most efficient use of resources. What economists now call comparative advantage meant that more specialised roles could be performed in the network than in a similar number of isolated regions or towns with greater efficiency. This meant new products and services could be developed, especially ones that relied on diverse sub-components. This promoted further efficiency, increased wealth, surpluses, capital and a growing knowledge and technical base. Now increased investment in future wealth could be more ambitious in building the size of the network (through assimilation, integration and conquest) and its levels of integration (bridges, markets, and guilds).

There are push-pull drivers of growth; in human behavior; in population growth; in the need to maintain existing infrastructure and wealth against entropic decay; in the need to employ those displaced by technology; in the response to new problems arising; and in the need to service debt that forms the basis of our economic system. The process of economic growth and complexity has been self-re-enforcing. The growth in the size of the networks of exchange, the level of complexity, the economic efficiencies all provide a basis for further growth. Growing complexity provides the basis for developing even more complex integration. In aggregate, as the operational fabric evolves in complexity it provides the basis to build more complex solutions.

We are problem solvers, arising from our basic needs, status anxiety, and our responses to the new challenges a dynamic environment presents. That could be simple such as getting a bus or making bread; or it could be complex, putting in a renewable energy infrastructure say. We tend to exploit the easiest and least costly solutions first. We pick the lowest hanging fruit, or the easiest extractable oil first. As problems are solved new ones tend to require more complex solutions. Our ability to solve problems is limited by the range of possible solutions available to us, the solution space. The extent of the solution space is limited by knowledge and culture; the operational fabric at a time; and the available energetic, material, and economic resources available to us. It is also shaped by the interactions with the myriad other interacting agents such as people and institutions, and because all may be increasingly complex, they may re-enforce growing complexity as they co-evolve together.

As new technologies and business models (solutions or sets of solutions) emerge they co-adapt and co-evolve with what is already present. Their adoption and spread through wider networks will be dependent upon the efficiencies they provide in terms of lower costs and new market opportunities. One of the principle ways of gaining overall efficiency is by letting individual parts of the system share the costs of transactions by sharing common platforms (information networks, supply chains, financial systems), and integrating more. Thus there is a re-enforcing trend of benefits for those who build the platform and the users of the platform, which grows as the number of users grow. In time the scale of the system becomes a barrier to a diversity of alternative systems as the upfront cost and the embedded economies of scale become a greater barrier to new entrants, this being more true for more complex hub infrastructure. Here we are not necessarily associating lack of system diversity with corporate monopolies. There is quite vigorous competition between mobile phone service providers-but they share common platforms and co-integrate with electricity networks and the monetary system, for example.

This however can lay the basis for systemic vulnerability. That is, if our IT platform failed so too would our financial, knowledge and energy systems. Conversely if our financial system collapsed, it would not take long for our IT and supply-chains to collapse. The UK based Institute of Civil Engineers acknowledges that the complex relationships between co-dependent critical infrastructure is not understood[vi]. Our operational systems are not isolated from the wider economy either. Because of the expense of infrastructure and the continual need for replacement of components, a large number of economically connected people and economies of scale are necessary to provide their operational viability. What has helped make such systems viable is that they are being cross-subsidized throughout the whole economy. The resource required to build and maintain critical complex infrastructure demands that we buy games consoles, send superfluous text messages, and watch YouTube.

The growth of civilisation has costs, and as it grows, costs rise. The biggest driver of environmental destruction is the growth process itself. Rising soil and aquifer depletion, collapsed fisheries, deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and polluted groundwater are just some of the consequences of the requirement for continuous flows for the maintenance and growth in GDP. There are also the costs of complexity itself. As systems become more complex there are growing costs associated with managing and operating the systems and the investment in educating people who will work in more specialised roles.

Joseph Tainter has argued that declining marginal returns on growing complexity provide the context in which previous civilisations have collapsed[vii]. The benefits of rising complexity are finally outweighed by the rising costs. But problems still arise, and a society no longer can respond to those problems in the traditional way-increasingly complex solutions. It becomes locked into established processes and infrastructures but is less able to recover from shocks or adapt to change, it loses resilience.

3.3 Evolution of Science & Technology

The assumption that science and technology will automatically respond to meet the challenges we face has become an article of faith. It is related to our conceptions of 'progress', and its power and potential may be asserted with authority by anyone. In discussions of sustainability, science and technology is often invoked as the deus ex machina destined to fill the looming gaps between our demands and the earth's ability to supply them. In this sense it may act as a collective charm wielded to chase away the anxiety induced by glimpses of our civilisation's precariousness. The following section attempts to locate science and technology within the evolutionary and material conditions of our economy. We also wish to illuminate a little more why high technology infrastructure is vulnerable.

Science & Technology Suffer from Declining Marginal Returns

In 1897 J.J. Thompson discovered the electron, then the cutting edge of physics, all on a laboratory bench. The understanding of this particle laid the foundation for the digital infrastructure upon which much of the world relies. Today it requires a 27km underground tunnel, 1,600 27 tonne superconducting magnets cooled to less than 2 degrees above absolute zero, and the direct involvement of over 10,000 scientists and engineers to find (possibly) today's cutting-edge particle, the Higgs boson. In the 1920s, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, with a huge benefit to human welfare, for a cost of about €20,000. Today it costs hundreds of millions to develop minor variations on existing drugs that do little for human welfare.

Science and technology are an exercise in problem solving. As generalised knowledge is established early on in the history of a discipline, the work that remains to be done becomes increasingly specialised. The problems become more difficult to solve, are more costly, and progress in smaller increments. Increasing investments in research yield declining marginal return[viii]. We see this in the growing size of research groups, levels of specialisation, and the knowledge burden[ix].

The conclusion is that further research and development is likely to be more resource intensive, yet on average give smaller returns to society. For a society trying to undergo an energy transformation, this means that more and more of possibly declining energy available to society must be devoted to research and development, but with less likelihood of significant breakthroughs.

The Most Advanced Technology is the Most Resource Intensive

Because new technologies tend to be solutions to more complex problems, are built using high technology components, and have relied upon the continually upgrading operational fabric; they tend to be more resource intensive. We can see this in the evolution of key manufacturing processes over the last century where one analysis shows a six order of magnitude increase in the energy and resource intensiveness per unit mass of processed materials. This was driven by the desire for smaller and more precise devices and products[x]. A 2 gram 32 MB DRAM chip would now be considered archaic, but it required 1700g of resources to fabricate, one expects that contemporary Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) chips require vastly more resources[xi]. While popular focus tends to be on the direct energy used by final goods, it is the embodied energy and material resources that is staggering[xii].

Yet the high-tech products we use (computers say), require the networks, telecoms infrastructure, software, and the computer use of others to realise their value. Which in turn depends upon an even vaster infrastructure. So in a way, asking about the resource requirements of your computer is akin to asking about the resource requirements for your finger, it make sense only if you assume the rest of the body is well resourced.

Finally, we note for completeness that rising energetic and material costs from growing complexity (more specifically energy flows per unit mass) is just what we would expect from thermodynamic principles.

The Most Advanced Technology Has the Most Complex Supply-Chain Dependencies

The more complex a product and production process the more tightly integrated it is into the global economy. There are far more direct and indirect links in the supply-chains upon which they are dependent. Its production process is also dependent upon the inputs of more specialized suppliers with fewer substitutes. Let us consider the integrated circuit as our standard-bearer of technological complexity. Intel, who supply 90% of the processors in personal computers relies upon high-tech research-led companies providing sophisticated optical and metrology systems, control electronics, and a vast array of specialty chemicals. Those companies rely upon further sophisticated inputs with few substitutes. High-tech is less geographically mobile, relies upon very specialised staff and institutional knowledge, and generally will have a very large sunk cost in the operations and plant. Thus we can say that the more technologically advanced a process the greater risk it faces from supply-chain breakdown, just like the old rhyme:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Because of the complexity of chip manufacture no company has the knowledge to build an integrated circuit (IC) 'from the ground up', that is, by starting with the raw elements to build all the production and operation systems, and process inputs. Many companies have co-adapted and co-evolved together, so that the knowledge of fabrication and the tools of fabrication, and the tools of those tools is really an IC-ecosystem knowledge, which itself is co-dependent on the global economy.


[i] Korowicz, D. Things Fall Apart: Some thoughts on complexity, supply-chains, infrastructure, and collapse dynamics. ASPO/ The Oil Drum 'Peak Summit', Perugia, Italy (2009). Gives an overview of some of the issues discussed here. At www.theoildrum.com/node/5633

[ii] Jack Straw BBC News. 4 November 2000.

[iii] Here we are referring to the 95% drop in the Baltic Dry Shipping Index. See www.globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com/2008/10/baltic-dry-shipping-collapses.html.

[iv] Beinhocker, E. The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics. Rh Business Books (2005).

[v] Blanning, T. The Pursuit of Glory (2007). Describes harvest failures and famines in Scotland and the north of England at the end of the 17th Century, in which some regions were saved the worst by canal networks. Page 53.

[vi] State of the Nation: Defending Critical Infrastructure. Institute of Civil Engineers (2009).

[vii] Tainter, J.A.(1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge Univ. Press.

[viii] Tainter J. (1996) Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies. Getting Down to Earth: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics. Island Press.

[ix] Jones, B. The Burden of Knowledge and the Death of the Rennaissance Man: Is Innovation Getting Harder? Review of Economic Studies 76(1) (2009)

[x] Gutowski T. et. al. Thermodynamic Analysis of Resources Used in Manufacturing Processes. Environ. Sci. Technol. 43(5) pp1584-1590 (2009).

[xi] Williams. E, Ayres. R.U, Heller. M. The 1.7 kilogram Microchip: Energy and Material Use in the Production of Semiconductor Devices. Environ. Sci. Technol. 36, 5504-5510.(2002)

[xii] De Decker, K. (2009) The Monster Footprint of Digital Technology. Low-tech Magazine July.

To me, the analogy of our economy to the human body is most relevant. There may be occasional parts of our body we might be able to get along without--but not quite as well. Even the loss of a little finger, or one eye, would present some problems. We know that the loss of a significant amount of blood, or an essential organ, like the heart or lungs can mean immediate death.

Many of us have witnessed the death of a family member from an illness. In this case, it seems to take about a week for all organs to shut down, after the first organs have started to shut down.

Other less closely connected systems, like an ecosystem, take longer to completely shut down. The ocean, for example, is under severe stress. There are currently dead zones, but generally the ocean is still functioning, although not nearly as well as before all of the human influence.

The question is how close the analogy really is--how much is there a connection from one part to another. If we lose very much of international trade, or the financial system, can we keep our current complex system functioning?

I've been taken by the idea of ecological debt, can't recall who's idea. Considering we humans chew thru our replaceable resources sometime around mid October, take pause. Ecologic debt jubilee? Who do we have to get on the phone to start workin' this out?

It was my idea.

RE ecological debt--there are lots of approaches to this idea, but my favorite is in a book by that name by Andrew Simms.

Gail, it seems to me that the crucial difference is that societies are much less tightly interdependent than organisms; they're much more comparable to ecosystems. When one vital system in an organism shuts down, the organism dies. When one vital system in an ecosystem shuts down, a lot of the system's component parts may die, but the system as a whole, after a period of chaos, reorganizes itself at a lower level of complexity.

That's what societies do when they fall apart, historically speaking. Some people die -- in some cases, a lot of people die -- but the society reorganizes into simpler. more localized forms that make use of the resources that are still available. One relevant example is the transition from the Roman Empire to Dark Age Europe: a complex, literate, cosmopolitan society integrated over nearly continental distances fell apart into smaller, poorer, much less populous, and much less sophisticated successor states, which nonetheless turned out to have surprising staying power -- some of them are still nations today.

This is where I think this paper falls short, as I think I mentioned in the earlier discussion. They're dead right that we're almost certainly on the cusp of crisis; they miss the mark in assuming that the collapse driven by that crisis will go all the way down at once.

Gail, it seems to me that the crucial difference is that societies are much less tightly interdependent than organisms; they're much more comparable to ecosystems. When one vital system in an organism shuts down, the organism dies. When one vital system in an ecosystem shuts down, a lot of the system's component parts may die, but the system as a whole, after a period of chaos, reorganizes itself at a lower level of complexity.

I wonder, is it really a matter of societies being less tightly interdependent, or just being made up of modular parts which originally evolved to stand alone, and can not readily evolve past that?

Recently-evolved aspects of our societies can't really directly leverage themselves off, say, our reserve kidney function the way other organs in a body can. The connections that make up our current society are probably not knowable, but the fact that there is a firewall of sorts between the programmed organism level and the self-organizing societal level certainly is.

Societies and ecosystems are both "complex adaptive systems of complex adaptive systems", so will show many of the same sorts of resilience and fragility. Organisms which have evolved death have chosen one optimization of tradeoffs by accepting inevitable full system collapse in exchange for reorganizing back to full complexity every time or not reorganizing at all. This set of tradeoffs has been an inherent control on complexity overshoot at the organism level.

Interdependency may be a qualitatively different thing than the degree of "cellular" independence, if that's the right word.

Then again, what do I know, it's late. Good to see you posting here, JMG.

and so to bed. I like this bit of the paper, I think it was quite well-done. I do think that collapse will likely be a series of events that will be somewhat adapted to. But there are certainly plausible mechanisms out there for some pretty deep and abrupt collapses.

a stray thought: the interesting thing about an asteroid causing the KT extinctions is that similar-sized impacts have happened without causing mass extinctions. When it starts, a collapse doesn't "know" how big it's going to be.

"That's what societies do when they fall apart, historically speaking"

The problem is that no society or civilisation before us has even come close to the integrated complexity of the modern technological electrical society. I believe historical comparisons to previous colapses are basically not very valid.

In a broad sense there are only three possible futures for human integrated technological civilisation i) BAU and somehow technological society reaches sustainability with the biosphere, (this now appears to be almost impossible) ii) a slow managed decline to sustainability (such as happened frequently to some civilisations) and iii) a rapid decline or collapse.

Integrated complexity almost guarantees rapid collapse, at least in cities and towns.

For example the critical nodes inherent in technological society become vital. These include the electrical system, the fuel (oil, diesel, gasoline) refining and delivery sysrem and the transport (trucking) system. Without one of these systems modern cities collapse in a few days. And I mean collapse. New Orleans did not collapse because of the hurricane. Its society collapsed in a horrifying manner because of electrical and fuel loss. Without "outside" help it would not have been able to rebuild. In a systemic complex decline there will be no "outside" help.

Unlike many previous "declines" or "collapses" of human civilisations modern cities IMO will be extremely dangerous places to live. In the past a declining civilisation contracted around cities and their regional food producing regions for ptotection and organisation.

Modern cities on the other hand will die explosively if or when the fuel or electricity supplies become interrupted for very long.

I believe if energy decline is imminent you will want to be living as far away from cities as you can possibly get.

New Orleans did not collapse in a "horrifying manner". There was no widespread breakdown of society even with the horrible mismanagement from the New Orleans police department and FEMA immediately following the storm.

Most of the sensationalist media coverage was dominated by subtle racism "look at these people!" and focused on the small outbreaks of violence and looting after the storm, instead of the fact that the vast majority of people reacted calmly.

Don't get me wrong, it was a disaster, but there was no "horrific" collapse, just people trying to make due on a very trying situation. People are resiliant, much more resiliant than many here seem to want to credit.

I know what you mean Madvillain and maybe I was a bit melodramatic wrt The Big Easy but No food, no electricity, no communications, no drinking water, no transport - well if that's not collapse then ?

Mayor Nagin did manage to talk about a million folks to leave southern Louisana before Katrina hit but the 20 to 30 thousand who sat in the Dome saw the effecs first hand of modern society falling apart pretty quickly.

I have friends born & raised who just got back last year. Their own personal society as far as they were concerned (house, belongings, jobs, and friends) all ended August 2005.

My point stands ie once modern complex integrated cities relying on fuel and electricity for the basics of food, water, sewerage, transport, communications and governance lose this infrastructure, then society collapses.

instead of the fact that the vast majority of people reacted calmly.

Other than the people with guns who shot at others trying to cross a bridge.

Wotfigo, the same processes of collapse have occurred at scales ranging from small Neolithic communities to integrated, cosmopolitan empires on a continental scale. The differences of technology and scale between an ancient Mayan city-state and the Roman Empire are arguably as great as those between the Roman Empire and today's declining industrial civilization. The same processes happened to the Maya and the Romans, and it's not hard to see them happening among us as well. Thus I'd suggest that dismissing the lessons of the past out of hand, because they don't fit current narrative stereotypes, may not be as good an idea as it seems.

John Michael Greer hello & thank you.

No way am I dismissing the lessons of the past and I did not mean to infer that.

Initial causes of a societies decline may be resiurce depletion, climate change, invasion, political decline etc. The difference this time compared to all previous declines in civilisations, is the dependence on electricity and oil.

It is this dependence and integration that significantly increases the probability of a major systemic collapse in our civilisation.

As I said further on I hope you are right and my concerns are wrong.

This has been a great discussion. I guess we will never know until our descendents look back in history. Too many variables.



The biggest difference between past societies like the Maya and the Romans and today's society, is we are much more interconnected and populous. The speed of collapse and the distance of fall to the "simpler less-complex" societies remaining will be much greater. That is the central theme of this post, and I believe it to be correct.

Assistance, such as it gets, will likely be from outside, more resourceful areas into the affected cities of a particular country. There could also be some assistance from countries that are less affected to those more so, likely only temporary, but with transport being affected, this may be more wishful thinking than reality.

And (it seems embarrassingly obvious to point out) the problems are global.

In the past, centers collapse and the peripheries had some resilience. There are certainly still centers and peripheries today, but in a deeper sense, we are all in the same sinking boat.

Not to say historical precedence is not important to study--I spend much of my time studying history from a variety of perspectives.

But we have never had CO2 levels anywhere near the current levels, and this has sparked a number of feedbacks that are pushing us over a climate cliff into the unknown. Local resource deletion and climate certainly played a roll in former collapses, but none were in the context of:

a world of nearly 7 billion people

a majority of said population now urbanized and cut off from knowledge or experience of how to grow their own food

mass extinction approaching the largest extinction event since the beginning of complex life

Resource depletion, again on a global rather than regional scale

Pollution of various types destroying the abilities of living communities to regenerate

Crashing of worldwide fish populations


(need I continue)

By all means, we need to localize and try to secure basics--water, food, heat/shelter...

But few will survive unscathed from, for just one example, the massive methane release that seems to be underway in the Arctic. The main reason, to me, for localizing is not survival in the usual sense, but that it is central to any strategy to reduce our carbon (and general ecological) footprint--a worthy goal in itself, no matter what the future brings.

But there are certainly plausible mechanisms out there for some pretty deep and abrupt collapses.

I would say that two of those are full scale nuclear war and grid collapse.

I would say that with the events concerning Iran seeming to be escalating a bit that it is possible nuclear war could be triggered sooner rather than later. I find it had to believe that we will descend the energy cliff without some country getting desperate enough to let loose the nukes.

Duncan at one point thought it would be grid collapse. That could happen by an EMP attack, or infrastructure. If all the grids in continental US (and Canada) went down about the same time for whatever reason I would give industrial civilization about 1 week before expiration.

Of course there is one more - global climate change that is fed by negative feedbacks that we no longer can control or stop. I suspect we are already there or close.

All three probably will happen - more a question of which comes first - and I suppose Nuclear Winter could cancel Global Warming but the results for humans would be just as dire.

I would say that two of those are full scale nuclear war and grid collapse

I can see a plant based pathogen that attacks the crops. The people at the top betting their money/power will keep them fed, meanwhile killing off the, what is the phrase - "useless eaters".

That could happen by an EMP attack, or infrastructure.

You forget big ball in sky - it has hurled destruction at the earth before - but back then modern man only had telegraph.

Early religions talk about not wearing metal - that could be because of a past CME and anyone wearing metal hurt. Bad.

Does that miss another point, that the past declines occurred during steady energy states. All depended, for the most part, on wood, with some easily found coal and oils or waxes. And, when easy wood was in short supply, after a short time, trees do grow. Oil doesn't [abiotic oil excepted, I suppose].

Hence, with 80 percent of the population, in a numerical sense, depending on oil to transport and produce their food, cutting off oil will create a rather fast decline, with no way to rebuild to the former levels. Thus, the decline becomes, not the Long Decline, but the Great Decline.

If Tipping Point is correct, and the fall off in food is quick, my opinion is that the die off will be as well; people can live a few weeks without food, but become too weak to mount an insurrrection or create any great degree of unrest fairly rapidly. How does this balance with your premise?

I thought the article was weak in facts, strong in opinions. And yet, who really understands the complexity with sufficient clarity? Predictions are easy to make, and seldom correct. Only by looking back do we feel we 'understand' what caused the changes we see. And, being human, we often cherry pick facts from the past, in order to support our deterministic views. Perhaps the changes will be random, correlations only, and are already inescapable.


Does that miss another point, that the past declines occurred during steady energy states.

I don't think that's true. Trees may grow back, but not necessarily fast enough to be a steady-state energy source. (Indeed, there are some who argue that Rome fell due to "peak wood.")

The difference here is that trees, when sufficient people die off and quit harvesting, will recover. Oil will take, what, 60 million or so years? The peak wood that helped to bring down Rome returned to heavy forest during the dark ages. Human population will rise and fall, and wood will fall and rise as the fuel source available. Burn too much, and mankind dwindles. Etc.

Fossil fuels, though, are a one shot deal. When they're gone, there's nothing to replace them... we are back to wood, and wood supports maybe a Billion people, more or less. And, it is steady... perhaps cyclic, but it will support a significant and reliable number of folks.


We are not back to just wood. You ignore wind, solar, nuclear, negawatts, and the fact that other than oil, no other fossil fuel is even half depleted.

Doomers listen. The system is not going to fall apart. Society is not going to collapse. Humanity will succeed. We may kill a hell of a lot of each other off. We’ve done it before and we are still here. In the telephone industry I’ve seen very complex problems overcome with hard work and ingenuity. People can take care of complex systems. Systems that most folks don’t understand. I am concerned about population control, but that will be dealt with if by no other means death by war. It’s almost a human tradition. So don’t worry have some pizza.

The system is not going to fall apart. Society is not going to collapse.

Hi Lineman.

Have you ever walked through the streets of the cities of Ephesus (Roman), Luxor (Egypt) or Tikal (Mayan). All of them now dead but once vibrant, wealthy, well managed, complex cities with libraries, churches, government buildings, restaurants, public spaces, theatres, sports arenas, market places and commerce and business centers.

Go tell those people long long ago on a gorgeous moon filled evening that their system is not going to fall apart. Society is not going to collapse.

Or perhaps those ancients were just too dumb to manage their own complex systems. Then go tell the guy sipping coffee with his wife on the leafy boulevard of one of the modern worlds most cosmopolitan and highly educated cities in the summer of 1939 in Berlin that his society was not going to fall apart.

Societies fall apart all the time.

War is a failure of society.

If the pin gets pulled on the supply of fuels of modern technological cities (diesel and electricity) baby you can kiss YA goodnight.

Speaking of Ephesus:

One of the colonies used to gain shipbuilding lumber was Ephesus on the western coast of Turkey. By the fourth century, BC the harbor was so silted because of deforestation and soil abuse in the uplands that the harbor had to be moved farther along the coast. The new harbor quickly filled in and the location now is three miles from the Mediterranean. In Italy and Sicily soil destruction has been epidemic. "The Italian coast from south of Ravenna; north and eastward almost to Trieste has been extending itself into the Adriatic Sea for at least twenty centuries," one scholar reports. The city of Ravenna, once on the coastline is now six miles inland.

The impact of the successive empires on the "breadbasket" of North Africa has been to destroy it. Both Greece and Rome used the luxuriant North Africa as a mainstay of empire. Finally the Arab, Ottoman Turks and other minor empires destroyed the last shreds of the ecology. At one time six hundred colonial cities stretched from Egypt to Morocco and the area provided Rome with two-thirds of its wheat budget. Now much of the area is barren, eroded and can hardly support goats.

Ron P.

Yes societies have collapsed in the past and will in the future but humanity will still be here. There will be civilizations intact with cities, factories, and farms. Whether everyone or anyone will be driving a car is up in the air. My grandchildren will see, I won’t be here. We will not all return to the farms. There will be rich people and there will be very poor people. That has always been the case as long as there has been civilizations. Men dominate men and always will. Women will have babies and because they naturally are able to produce milk will feed their babies. They may lose some power in the future but upper class women have always had power. Slavery will probably be reintroduced but there has always been slavery. I hope for a utopian world of peace but that world is not in our history and it probably won’t be in mankind’s future. What I foresee in the near future is some very dark days but I fully expect a rebirth. It could be a better world but if history is an example you better have your marching boots on.

Lineman, Hi again.

I absolutely agree with you and like you I hope for peace. If the guns come out in the difficult years ahead let's all sing along with Bob "it's all over now baby blue".

And yes, there will be human society in 100, 200 years from now and no it won't be utopian but let's hope it is more in tune with nature, Gaia and the biosphere. It will have to be.

The transition though, aahh, that's the worry. And like many I now fear the probabilities of a fast chaotic decline from the FF era are growing.

I hope with every fiber of my body that John Michael Greer is right and I am wrong and that it will be A Long Descent.

And JMG thanks for posting. I do read you but I have trouble sharing your optimism sometimes. Chaos theory and The Dynamics of Complex Civilisations make it difficult to be too optimistic

Wotfigo - What the flip is going on? Cheers

I think there is a need to capture the wisdom gained in this period in a way that will live on into the future. Much of what we know is now stored on media that will not survive or be accesible in the future.

What I'm thinking of is something like the core major ideas that enable a better existance to be captured on metre-square engraved titanium plates. The plates would then be stacked and stored in something like a nuclear bunker with limited access by what would become an order (eventually the power of The Knowledge and the lifestyle it enabled by using the ideas would probably raise this order to religous status). The plates could be used to produce paper copies for mass circulation. In thousands, tens of thousands or millions of years these plates would remain as testament to our time like the pyramids.

"The Oil Drum" plate (#42 of 12,000) would explain with graphics the brief period we lived through that made such an undertaking necessary...

Regards, Nick.

There will be no societal collapse into a nightmare future


The end

Right, either God, providence or science will save us. I favor providence. At any rate collapse is just too horrible to think about therefore it must be denied.

So everyone deny it dammit! I say deny it!


The End

(Such nonsensical declarations seem to work when one is too damn lazy or just not smart enough to make a logical argument.)

Ron P.

I wonder if "science" is a necessary part of the solution-puzzle these days. We kind of know what the basics of chemistry achieve; and physics and the like (sure, there's more to discover, but might such discoveries be relevant?). Surely it's the engineers, working at scales small and large, that need to lead the way forward...

Then again, what the hell would I know?

Regards, Matt B
Average Joe

This is a very interesting viewpoint. I agree that there isn't much more useful reductionist science to discover. But that doesn't leave just engineering. Essentially all of modern physics, chemistry, and biology research is looking at how to understand and control complex systems whose reductionist behavior is well known. It is that kind of science (you might call it engineering since it is using known laws, but it hasn't been done before so it is research and usually called science) that we need to archive and continue to develop.

we will save us... because we understand the problems or at least you do.

what is the main problem and how do we resolve it?

"what is the main problem and how do we resolve it?"

The main problem? Look around. It's us. It's you. Too many people, too many that don't get it and don't want to. The scale of the (multiple) predicaments requires humans to adapt, and do so quickly. They don't understand that these aren't problems to be solved but predicaments to be adapted to. They still think we can grow our way into a future of continued prosperity.


because we understand the problems or at least you do.

As Ghung points out, very few understand the problem and even when they get close to understanding often they think growth is the solution.

this is an intrinsic problem to the doomer no hope position... you have to know the answer (what ever that is?) to able to hold the position. otherwise you suffer from the same "because I say so" mentality I displayed in my first (admittedly troll)post

In this case we "know" that not enough people understand the problem and too many think growth is the answer.. well if that's the problem address it..

fundamentally the doomer position is pretty pointless.. excepted some alarmist warning mode may have some merit but I doubt it does much round here..

I favour rationing myself and I suspect we will end up there eventually

For lack of energy, energy became expensive. As energy became more expensive the economy went sour. As the economy went sour people lost jobs and income. The State couldn’t collect enough taxes. The State had to borrow more money. Because of debt the state lacked even more money. For lack of money the State couldn’t pay the policeman. For want of pay the Policeman couldn’t stay on the beat. For want of security the shop keeper couldn’t protect the store. For want of food the hungry raided the store. For want of protection from the mob the store keeper shot the mob. The mob killed the shop keeper. Next day the food was eaten. No food. No money. No State……

Let's hope not.

Stable media is one thing - I have a couple of ideas on that - but the "order" might represent a vulnerable failure point. Sooner or later someone would decide to destroy their graven images and hang them all.

Of course, from the point of view of other species, this could be a good thing; future tablet-readers might go for the quick-payoff notions and skip the wisdom caveats. That's why Altair Four had to be destroyed, after all.

Still, if you wanted to "jump start" future societies and thought that "appropriate" wisdom could be strained through a sieve; it might be better to have a thousand or so caches arranged in a grid across the world and carve the location scheme into various mountains, Mt. Rushmore style, or even writ large on the surface of the moon. That way it could suffice for a sequence of collapses and restarts. The moon thing might be an interesting lesson in the price of hubris, as well.


Good idea, just make sure and provide a "Rosetta Stone" so there is some home the descendants can figure the plates out! One of the most transient cultural artifacts is the distinctive language of any particular culture. The Aramaic of Christ is almost extinct, and that's been only 2,000 years, and much of the pictoral language system of Centrel American high cultures (Mayan, Incan, etc. is essentially gibberish to us for now...



Following a link below, I watched the CERN LHC kick off yesterday. It was rather touching. This experiment, like so many others may have only a few more years to go before society is no longer able to support them. The knowledge gained may be seen as the last contact with a far receding shore. It may be that future generations barely even understand what such experiments were about in the first place as the very specialised and time intensive training will not be available to frame the discussion.

Maybe they will be seen as our civilisations Moai (the standing figures of Easter Island); signs of our hubris, wastefulness, and total lack of foresight- a giant ring that mocks its creators. And yet, the physics is wonderful to me, it's part of the reason I'm writing this.


davidk said of the CERN LHC Collider,

"This experiment, like so many others may have only a few more years to go before society is no longer able to support them."

A few years may be all it needs. You think of the stone heads of Easter Island...I think of the Medieval cathedrals of Europe...what the historian Michael Wood called "The White Veil of Churches". For the moment we are leaving dogma and belief arguments aside, to simply look at the cathedrals as what they turned out to be, repositories of learning and literacy, built at great expense from the poorest age Europe had ever known...holding literacy and culture together for just one more day...and then one more...and then one more,providing communication and a rational Latin language until Europe began to congeal and regain it's former Roman cohesion and confidence.

Today, the super computers of the corporations and universities hold the storehouses of knowledge and are the communicators of advanced cutting edge technology, while the cathedrals are tourist attractions, trampled over by people who seldom stop to think about why they were built or the role they served in salvaging the cultural knowledge we take for granted.

Someday, such will be the fate of the super collider...it will make a hell of a bicycle or go cart track! A place for the tourists to say "damn, it's big", the only compliment they know how to pay. But that is okay, like the cathedral, it only needs to deliver its message and it will have done its part.


I realy like the idea of striving to gather knowledge while we can get it.

We got wonderful tools, lets use them while we can, we dont know if the next decade will bring even better tools or realy bad times making it impossible to do the realy tough stuff we can do today.

Will any imaginable future civilization, if they know what ours did to the planet, hold any of our "knowledge" in very high regard?

Yes, most likely. The science, medicine and mathematics of the Classical world was treasured and revered for over a thousand years before it was really developed upon or surpassed. I wouldn't dismiss the utility of our accomplishments lightly, whatever the future holds.

Of course, this is possible, but you may not fully appreciate how tenuous our connection to the ancient past was and is. Much was lost, and, since few appreciated it, in much of Europe there was little to no effort to save the full 'glory' of the past. The church mostly viewed it as devilishly pagan, and most everyone else was illiterate.

A concerted effort by a similar combination of religious zealotry and ignorance may have a more total effect. I certainly think it is exactly the right question to ask what parts of our vast collective knowledge is really valuable to the furthering of life (not just our life) on the planet, and which knowledge is most likely to lead us down the same paths of self and planetary destruction. I'm sure this position will get me labeled all sorts of names. But if this isn't a moment to deeply take stock (rather than just blindly praise and adore) our approach to knowledge, I don't know what would be.

Few hold the Nazi 'civilization' in high reguard yet the data of hypothermia is still used. The rocket tech put America in space.

And the bits about mass marketing - look at Advertising!

The "knowledge" gained from vietnam is what put my body back mostly together.

but humanity will still be here.

Humans ability to kill one another and other species - humans may just pass from the Earth.

Ephesus was partly destroyed by an earthquake in 614 AD.
It was sacked by the Arabs in 654, 700 and 716 AD.
By the time of the First Crusade it was a village, and so lacked the resources to dredge the harbor.


The Mayan were worn out by a constant state of war.

In addition to mountainous terrain, Mesoamericans successfully exploited the very problematic tropical rainforest for 1,500 years.[36] The agricultural techniques utilized by the Maya were entirely dependent upon ample supplies of water. The Maya thrived in what to most peoples would be uninhabitable territory. Their success over two millennia in this environment was "amazing."[37] The self-induced ecological collapse model gives little credit to the Maya and overstates the scale of environmental damage they could do to themselves in the absence of global climate change.


The Old Kingdom of Lower Egypt capital was at Memphis(Cairo).
The Middle Kingdom capital of Upper Egypt was at Thebes(Luxor).
It was mainly at Thebes during the New Kingdom but also was sometimes at Memphis.
Where the ruler and the court was, was often more important for a city than collapse dynamics.

For example, the Western Roman imperial court moved from Rome to Milan in 263 AD
and returned to Rome after 420AD, during the final collapse 410-476 AD.

Ephesus was partly destroyed by an earthquake in 614 AD.
It was sacked by the Arabs in 654, 700 and 716 AD.
By the time of the First Crusade it was a village, and so lacked the resources to dredge the harbor.


just to stir the pot a bit more we should note archaeology is a somewhat speculative and interpretive science prone to biased readings of the data.

not only are models of roman decline based on ecological mismanagement hard to verify the actual results of so called collapse seem less drastic than the term collapse suggest..

was there even any real reduction in population after the so called collapse?

was the change in societal structure for the worse even?

if Ephesus is indicative of the evil Romans degrading the environment how come the wage in grain for unskilled in the supposed period of environmental catastrophe goes up?


the ability to interpret negative data in context is leading to some holy cows being put to slaughter and a realization we know a lot less than certain voices would have us believe

the reading of the archaeological data is undergoing a wide ranging review from different perspectives that attempt to understand the data so that any myopic conclusions that produce contradictions with in the broader picture are resolved..

ie if the roman population was in decline from the 2nd cent on how come it came under pressure from immigration? was the population actually decreasing despite the influx of many peoples in the late roman period..you see arguments for both sometimes by the same author in the same publication

the understanding of past complex societies and their demise is an exercise in resolving contradictions..if you can't explain everything you can't explain anything.

initial simplistic readings of one type of data are not always correct..

maybe she was dead already?


Now all this doesn't mean our current civilisation isn't about to drive of a cliff (or not) but the weight archaeological models should be given in this debate IMO should be tempered somewhat

not least in that at the end of the day the data may support systemic failure to even a greater degree but in a different manner!

wotfigo, you words make me think of the collapse and it's effect down at street level...

"By the rivers of Babylon…we wept, when we remembered Zion…If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy." (From Psalm 137)

Several years ago I saw interviews on a PBS with a people for whom the world was coming to an end. They were aging aboriginal Australians, old men and women who were the last carriers of their language, their culture, their religion, their very concept of existance. They knew they were the last ones, they knew that when they died the world as they understood it, with their belief in "the dreamtime", the place before existance began and after it ended, the time before and after time, all this would leave the world with them. Essentially, when these people died, the world ended. They were allowing young white European college students, people they did not normally trust and tried to avoid communication with, to tape them speak, to tape them tell their stories, talk about the dreamtime, because this would be the last chance they would have at saving at least something of their world. It was one of the most heartbreaking things I ever saw or heard, when the show was over my eyes were full of tears.

Those who scoff at collapse, or wish for it, have seldom thought about it, or more importantly FELT what it really means. How easy it is to rejoice at the thought of collapse from a comfortable middle class home.


Your argument is not tight. In fact, it is more a pessimistic mood than a detailed argument. The Apocalypse Now crowd has never explained why demand subsitution will not save the day. Or why nuclear power or wind power or sun power or natural gaswill not ameliorate the effects of the decline in oil.

Frankly all this unsupported pessimism makes Peak Oil look a refuge for cranks.

A country's most valuable resource is not its energy supplies, but it's people. The richest countries in the world are amazingly poor in natural resourcs such as China or Japan or Europe.

By the way civilization rarely falls apart. European civilization has been on upward trajectory since the 7th century AD.

Peak Oil is a geological fact, how can you assume that nothing will go wrong and business as usual will continue forever? It's obvious there will be less liquid fuel in the form of oil 20 years from now. Wind and solar are irregular and the energy is difficult to store. Domestic natural gas has plateaued for four decades in the U.S. It is primarily a transport fuel problem but oil is used for many other products as well. Civilization rarely falls apart, but countries collapse with regularity.

The Apocalypse Now crowd has never explained why demand subsitution will not save the day. Or why nuclear power or wind power or sun power or natural gaswill not ameliorate the effects of the decline in oil.

Yes, it has. Repeatedly. There are several academic papers that have been written about it in addition to made-for-TOD posts, you'll find some here:

Welcome to the conversation...I invite you to get caught up on some reading before you make sweeping statements like you just did:

The index isn't current but it will bring you up to about 16 months ago.

Europe was a cesspool, before the discovery of the "new world".
Have you ever heard of famine and disease? Google famines and take a particularly hard look at China. People are the cause of our problems, they are absolutely not the solution.

China is not amazingly poor in natural resources. It's exploitation of coal, oil and gas has prevented further famines and even enabled population growth. China now supplements its energy use with imports just as the USA, and all of Europe does.
Countries like Japan must import their fossil fuels, they are totally dependent on export countries which have not peaked in their fossil fuel extraction.

The world was a big place but now we have reached the end of growth, there is nothing new to exploit. All parts of the ocean and continents have experienced the advances of humans.
You know I have heard that orangutans will be extinct by 2015, their habitat destroyed, the blue-fin tuna beyond recovery and the Japanese refuse to limit their catch.
How can anyone be optimistic about the future. You must read more and I highly commend to you Overshoot by Caton. I'm absolutely positive that if you had read it you would not have made the ridiculous comments above.

Alternative energy sources like wind turbines, hydro, solar, nuclear, tidal etc were made possible and are to this very day dependent on fossil fuels. I think it is up to you to show how BAU can continue using these alternative energy supplies.

the ratio between between a unskilled laborer's daily wage and the cost of living for a family didn't really change in significant terms from the black death till 1825 (some hundreds of yrs after the conquistadors gold) ie buying power of the masses did not see an improvement till well into the later part of the industrial age... for Mediterranean European cultures this buying power ratio declined

the biggest change in buying power in London is as a result of the black death

being in overshoot does not mean the end of civilisation.... the whole thing will self correct. The argument is really about how messy that readjustment will be.

also there is a tendency to polarise the argument into BAU vs Doom scenarios as thou the only opposite to beyond thunderdome was BAU.

I am not saying we are not doomed or that we are...(on an aside I think very hard times are coming for all but I don't think its teh end)

even if we accept this new world gold accelerated European civilisation argument(which you see a lot) the lead time between the capture of that gold and it manifesting itself as tangible improvements in living standards is long... these offsets in time should be thought about some more before theories about how societies behave under stress are bandied about with the same degree of confidence as single variable issues such as geological finiteness.

I don't think that the opening of the new world was about gold, it was mainly about the population pressure relief and the exploitation of resources.

well irrespective of that this pressure relief theory didn't produce any tangible changes in living standards either...

Knock your self out ... pick a theory.. for joe average in the European "cesspool" the discovery of the new world meant diddly squat...

m.d. wrote, "the whole thing will self correct"

On the larger scale, it certainly will, that is if you mean the globe will eventually achieve some new, more-or-less steady state.

But it may well "correct" partly by eliminating us (along with most other complex life).

I think the spirit of my original point revolves around your use of the phrase

But it may well

The system is not going to fall apart. Society is not going to collapse. Humanity will succeed.

The system will fall apart... society, defined as our industrial way of life, will collapse. Humanity may survive; is survival your definition of success? And, don't forget your next words:

We may kill a hell of a lot of each other off. We’ve done it before and we are still here.

Evolutionarily, h.sap. will further evolve. Would we recognize the new species?

Again, a few species of fish have survived for some time. Is that a success? Isn't the evolutionary successor more, well, successful? Ray Kurtzweil foresees a dramatic evolutionary change pending; one in which mankind is complicit. If that creates a whole new species, and the 'old' homo sapiens dies off to be superceded by the blended being thus left in charge of Planet Earth, has mankind succeeded or not?

Our system is clearly tied to energy; it seems unlikely to florish in the mid term, and almost impossiblely in the longer term. Our society - by which I suppose you mean Western Society (apologies to Asian groups and others - Europeans and Americans can be a bit presumptuous) - suffers from the same problem. Like the Greeks, Romans, Mayans and others, it is finite as well. Short term could mean months or a few years. Med term, could be anywhere from 3 to 30 years. Long term could begin in 15 years, or in 50. Who knows? And, like I said earlier, predicitons are only easy in retrospect. As for my, my crystal ball is a bit cloudy.

We hope, and hope springs eternal. And, eternity is a v e r y l o n g time.



Again, a few species of fish have survived for some time. Is that a success?

The horseshoe crab and coelacanth come to mind. How 'successful' are they?

Doomers listen. The system is not going to fall apart.

It already is, but its happening in spurts and slow motion, and is being fought with mountains of govt. debt. As net energy declines so is civilization. It was built on cheap energy and expensive energy will not sustain this many people in the manner we have become accustomed. There's just no way around it. It's not doomerish, its just plain obvious once you realize that oil is finite and as it declines from peak so will our standard of living until the system breaks, collapse.

So what's your position on Chinese society's odds of continuity or collapse? India?

trees do grow. Oil doesn't [abiotic oil excepted, I suppose].

Abiotic oil doesn't grow either. This is where the proponents of abiotic oil go astray. They think it's some kind of solution, because they think it is magically appearing out of nowhere. Why would they think that? Abiotic oil, if it existed, would less of a renewable resource than biotic oil. There would be a fixed amount, and when it's gone, it's gone. With biotic oil, organic processes would produce a little bit more every year, although not very much.

Abioticists believe there are ongoing processes "deep within the earth" that continually produce petroleum, which migrates up to reservoirs where we can find it.

However, your basic point holds, which is to say, even if this is happening, it obviously isn't happening fast enough to make a difference, because otherwise our oil fields would never decline.

I hear that Kenneth Deffeyes (prof emeritus at Princeton) is a huge a-biotic supporter.
Actually, all we have to do to solve the problem is just have the Federal Reserve print some more cash for ever increasing investments into exploration....thats it, thats all we have to do.Money can solve any problem.Just like a-biotic oil, it appears out of thin air / continually produced $ = continually produced oil.Hows that for a math equation? Just dont give that nonsense abiotic oil could actually be seepage from the outer peripheries of a given field originating from several azimuthal equidistant projections of extraction.
I really should watch what I write about Mr. Deffeyes, he might throw a law suite at me for defamation of character.
I hear the band is still playing on the deck, maybe I can catch one more show before the brave new world begins.

I hear that Kenneth Deffeyes (prof emeritus at Princeton) is a huge a-biotic supporter.

What a stupid thing to say. Are you trying to be funny or what? In Deffeys' first book, "Hubbert's Peak", Deffeyes clearly explains the biotic origin of oil in the first chapter titled "The Origin of oil". In neither of his books is the word “abiotic” mentioned at all.

If you are serious, it's really hard to tell, then you are sadly misinformed. But if you are just trying to be funny then your post totally fails in that regard.

Ron P.

I'm not trying to be funny at all, I really am that stupid.

Thank you for your congenial averments oh highly educated of wit and taste.Maybe its time you got outside and got a little sun today Ronnie...

I'm not trying to be funny at all, I really am that stupid.

If you believe Deffeyes is truly an abiotic oil supporter then I am not going to argue with you on that point. You should get a little evidence before making such a silly remark.

Ron P.

Craig, a great many of the past examples of collapse did not occur during periods of stable energy supply. When most of your society's energy comes from human and animal muscle fueled by grain, depleting the topsoil has roughly the same impact as depleting oil reserves is having today. That's one of the reasons I draw the conclusions I do -- there are surprisingly close parallels between past examples and the current one in terms of energy, as well as other variables.

Historically speaking:
* we've never been this dependent on exogenous energy before
* nor have we ever been this globally overpopulated before
* nor have the inner workings of the world upon which each individual is utterly dependent been such an utter mystery to each individual
* nor have we been this complex and individually specialized before and without individual backup skills

A collapse only "goes all the way down at once" depending on how far back from the picture you're standing. It takes years, or days, or hours for a person's health systems to start collapsing when they are "dying". But the period of shutdown, death, when all the systems go all the way down, takes minutes or seconds. Our civilized system is already in the stages of "dying", but how long will it take when it shuts down? It could be years, weeks, or days. Which of these might qualify for "at once"?

710, it's easy to draw up a list of reasons why collapse will be total, sudden, and cataclysmic. It's just as easy to draw up a list of reasons why it won't happen at all. I'm perfectly aware that most people will continue to believe the two standard narratives about the future in our culture, the myth of perpetual progress and the myth of apocalypse; I find them unconvincing, but it's unquestionably a minority view.

Narratives are funny that way. They don't generally capture what's going on in complex systems.

Of course, for that reason using narratives about history is also problematic.

How about a probabilistic outlook on it. It's reasonable to consider the future course of the system taking a fast crash, a slow decline, or about anything in between (subject to thermodynamic realities). How it plays out in a single universe will be due to the 'frozen accidents' of path dependency, not predictable now even in principle.

You know this, so I take your position to mean you're saying the odds are better for slow stairsteps down. Not knowing in advance the nature or sequence of perturbations the system will experience, I think that's a tough call.

Your essays are compelling, though.

John Michael Greer,

It seems like we are in a very different situation now, that earlier societies were, when they fell apart. Earlier societies were much less dependent on import, and villages could produce a sizable proportion of the food and goods that were needed. If one part of the system had problems, it didn't necessarily telegraph to the rest of the system in the same way, unless it affected everyone, like a change in climate.

Now each of us do tiny part of very long chains of activities that lead to production of products and services. It is much harder to "regroup" at a lower level. In fact, what little I have seen and read about the people in the transition movement is that for the most part, their plans really don't do what is needed to regroup at a lower level of complexity.

I think our dependence on the financial system is a real deal-killer; so is our dependence on international trade. I haven't seen plans that go from where we are to a maintenance level that is based on locally produced goods and services. (This may just be my lack of knowledge.) Instead, what I have mostly seen in nice permaculture plans, but with the owners driving to town to buy products they can't produce and ultimately using a bit less oil and electricity, but very much dependent on the interconnectedness of our current system pretty much staying unchanged.

....) Instead, what I have mostly seen in nice permaculture plans, but with the owners driving to town to buy products they can't produce and ultimately using a bit less oil and electricity, but very much dependent on the interconnectedness of our current system pretty much staying unchanged.

emphasis added

This is something that people do not seem to be able to get through their head's. I'm a doomer and preper. You can get an idea where I'm coming from in A Trip to Todd's, http://www.theoildrum.com/node/4979

Because of my beliefs, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about these issues; taking practical action in some cases and saying, "Oh, boy, I'm screwed" in others and why my goal has always been to "buy time" to see how things pan out. The idea that society can slowly shrink or collapse is frankly nuts IMO.

I see the interconnections and society cannot stand as they are broken. There will be positive feedbacks set in motion resulting in cascading failures. Whether they are precipitated via the financial sector or not seems immaterial to me.


Gail, a great deal of the western Roman Empire was dependent on grain imports from North Africa for its daily food; the degree of our dependence is new, but the basic fact isn't a new thing. I expect that to begin changing in the next decade or so as petroleum depletion starts to bite transportation budgets and it becomes increasingly viable to produce food and other necessities closer to home. The decline of America's overseas empire, and the likely collapse of the dollar, will only speed that up.

Mind you, I agree with you completely about most of what passes for transition planning. When members of a privileged class (and the American middle class certainly qualifies) try to imagine a future, they inevitably get stuck on futures where their current perks and privileges get maintained; that's not even remotely possible in the present case. A realistic transition plan would start from the assumption that most people in the deindustrial future will be subsistence farmers making the equivalent of a dollar a day -- but try getting that idea across to the people who are fantasizing about lifeboat ecovillages.

I'd be with Greenish on the probabilistic analysis; that said, i'm actioning preperations for worst-case-scenario, because those preps/actions carry the highest risk mitigation rewards.

Here (Ireland) I've yet to see
- hungry beggars
- beggars roaming the countryside

We *Do* see Abandoned horses (120 / week sent to abbatoir: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2010/0401/1224267476272.html), foreclosures, bankrupcies, 13% unemployment, exploding public debt, increasing homelessness ..

The optimists suppose that the economy will return to growth and job creation, and a return of asset inflation. I don't see quite how this might be achieved, but who knows..

It seems like we are in a very different situation now, that earlier societies were, when they fell apart. Earlier societies were much less dependent on import, and villages could produce a sizable proportion of the food and goods that were needed. .... I think our dependence on the financial system is a real deal-killer;

So long as there are 'vampires' that want cash flow - taxes/insurance/rents/whatever you want to call them - and the 'vampires' have some means of force to compel payment, resources will be exported to be converted into hard currency to then pay the 'vampire'.

Credit cards are an example of a vampire. Same with carbon trading.

Historically speaking have any previous empires struck out at those around them during collapse? Yes.

Has the world ever been this over populated, interdependent, and complex? No.

Has the world ever had so many countries with the power to completely destroy the entire world, several times over? No.

This is exactly why IMO JMG's prognosticating is dangerous and irresponsible.

We have one chance of avoiding the worst possible outcome and that is to acknowledge that the risk is there, its very high, and we must do everything possible to make sure it doesn't happen.

Dreaming up ones particular version of decent rate and recovery is a huge waste of time and energy and distracts people from the real issue.

I could be wrong, but I don't think anyone on this site would argue that we aren't going to have a big step down:

Staircase Model

The difference in opinion seems to be around how big the step will be and what happens after it. Earlier I was modeling our future like the graph below:


Notice how dramatic that step is. That would correspond to a systemic, cascading failure. However, after more thinking and reading of Greer's work in particular I decided that the first graph was more accurate even though the big step there is likely to incorporate some elements of a cascading failure.

Also, I'm completely in line with Gail in thinking that the big step is going to be due to a financial crisis if some other geopolitical event doesn't beat it to the punch (i.e. pipeline gets bombed, etc.) that precipitates the financial crisis. But even after that we may issue a new currency or who knows but I don't think all economic activity will just stop dead. Trade will be on life support for an extended period, though.

That's not the same thing as saying it won't be a trying time for billions of people who currently use the supermarket as an extension of their pantry. It will be very trying, in my view, likely even a bottleneck as Catton expresses it.

It seems to me that the psychological element in collapse is far and away the most dangerous and unpredictable one--and will make a huge impact on how the pattern of "collapse" works out. It's the whole fire in a crowded theater thing. I'm jumpy personally, and if I smell smoke I'm up and out. Not everyone is like that-- a lot of folks look around to see if other people smell smoke too-- as they obviously need validation of their opinions before they feel entitled to act upon the evidence of their senses. I expect likely there will be a mad rush to the exits once everyone finally feels entitled to believe the obvious.

aangel said,

"I could be wrong, but I don't think anyone on this site would argue that we aren't going to have a big step down:"

Uh, yeah, you would be wrong. If you had said "I don't think anyone on this site would argue that we are not in danger of a big step down", I could have agreed with you.

If you had said, "without radical and relatively fast changes, we are assured of a big step down", I could have agreed with you.

If you had said, "If we continue on our current path we are essentially assured of having a big step down", I could have agreed with you.

But none of these are what you said: You gave "a big step down" as an assured outcome, as absolutely not to be doubted or argued with. This is what is commonly known as predestination, or fatalism.

Let's look at the other side of this discussion: Only the most radical of cornucopians would say "no one would argue that we are not going to have a big step UP." Even the most Pollyanna optimist would admit that if the wrong choices are made, or certain 'black swan' events occured it could indeed wreck the chances for a big step up.

Let us ask the question this way, and this may be grist for a future keypost here on TOD: Does no one here on TOD admit to the possibility (even if they consider it a very unlikely possibility) of a big step "up"? In other words, is the debate for the possibility of a positve future, a general step up, already a done deal at TOD, wiht the possibility of overall cultural improvement having already been taken off the table? If so, this is a very important philosophical position, and should be stated with great clarity.


Let's make sure we are still discussing the same thing. The graphs are of the economy. You seem to have switched to discussing something else, perhaps culture or progress or well-being. Hard to say because you aren't precise.

Are you saying that that with the decline of fossil fuels and oil in particular we won't have a big step down in the size of the economy?

aangel ask me for clarification:
"Are you saying that that with the decline of fossil fuels and oil in particular we won't have a big step down in the size of the economy?"

No. What I am saying is that I cannot KNOW there will be a big step in the size of the economy. I can say that at this point it seems very likely there will be, at least for awhile. I can say that a step down in the size of the economy in the way it is currently measured may not be a bad thing in the longer scheme of things.

I can say that I simply do not know what is coming in future years. I can say that I can find no reason in science or physics or history that assures a step down in either the size of the economy or in the cohesion and future development of the economy and or the culture.

I can also say that given our (American) recent history of decision making, the risk of a huge and possibly fast step causing great pain and misery to us as citizens is a very real possibility.

But I cannot KNOW any of the above scenarios to be absolutely true.


What I am saying is that I cannot KNOW there will be a big step in the size of the economy.

Your point to my mind doesn't move the conversation forward. It's as useful as pointing out that you don't KNOW that the sun will rise tomorrow. See? Not very helpful to what we're dealing with.

I can say that I can find no reason in science or physics or history that assures a step down in either the size of the economy or in the cohesion and future development of the economy and or the culture.

I added the emphasis above. I think you should read more history because anyone who says what you just said, in my view, isn't very well read on this topic. I suggest Tainter, Diamond and Ferguson to start.

You said,
"Your point to my mind doesn't move the conversation forward."

I of course would differ, but then I am biased in favor of what I said!

My point in what I said was actually very simple: That statements setting the terms of the future as being absolutely pre-determined are...to use your words, "not very helpful". To use the example of the sun rising (or not)in comparison to the assured collapse or contraction of society (or not) would be an argument by reductio ad absurdum ad infinitum and would also be relatively useless. I would make the argument that the earth has moved around the sun in a relatively predictable pattern over history, while the history of human culture has not been nearly so predictable especially when viewed in the short term.

On the discussion of history, it has been much more predictable to this point when viewed on the larger scale and on large geographic scale: I have read more than enough history for the time being, and would only inquire as to what period in time (leaving aside relatively short time frames and rather restricted geographical locales, (a) the overall world population has gone down for any long period of time? (if it had, much of our "population" problem would not be a problem), that technology has not continued as some varying pace to move forward? (when it failed in one area of the world it was still on the march somewhere else) that there has not (over the course of history) been more and more inclusion of peoples in education, literacy, the arts, etc.?

While the argument can be made that certain cultures and certain geographical areas did indeed suffer some very serious and even terminal declines (some we could argue simply died away (Ancient Egyptian culture comes to mind) while others were essentially murdered (think of Carthage), but the overall trajectory of human culture has been forward if any normally accepted measure of culture is used.

Having said the above, I do not want to be mistaken as a Pollyanna or Cornucopian...the upcoming years may be some of the most challenging "culture" has ever known, and it will be a hard path for those who fall behind the curve in decision making and commitment to coping with the massive variety of challenges confronting us...and the outcome is absolutely not assured. I do not accept Spengler's view (heavily influenced by the work of Nikolay Danilevsky and based on naturalist Darwinist principles) of culture as an aging organism, with a set pattern of advance, maturity and death, a one shot deal like the life of a plant or animal. Cultures are potentially capable of multiple rebirth, incorporation of the ideas of other cultures, the work of millions of minds IF they make the right choices.

There is a way in which the culture of the United States is nothing like it was before the Civil War..or before WWI or before 1960...in many ways, those cultures are essentially "dead". This case would be even more true of many other cultures who survive in their deeper form (think of France from the period of Charlemagne, through the French revolution, through the conquest and occupation by the Nazi German regime and down to this day....would we declare the "French culture" as dead as it moves into the modernist international age, with it's highly recognizable patterns of language, faith and philosophy and even food? Some would/could make the argument that a major setback in internationalism/modernism might even be a gift to the French culture, viewing these as more damaging to the culture than all the wars and revolutions that have gone before.

Leaving aside for the moment (but not dismissing) Tainter, Diamond and Ferguson (and I would recommend a reading of Pitirim Sorokin, the founder of the Sociology department at Harvard even though he is not as doomer hip as your three references), and meaning no disrespect, do you really choose to refer to me as unread and wish to debate historical and cultural philosophy with me? If so, I enjoy it the way a child loves candy, so you are more than welcome. :-)


RC, I have to admit I have no idea what we're discussing anymore. I assert that the global economy is inevitably going to contract as fossil fuels decline in general and oil in particular. There is no energy source that I can see that can be deployed at a scale needed and certainly not as capital becomes scarce.

Are you saying that economic contraction is not going to happen? Or simply that we cannot KNOW that it is going to happen (in the same way we don't KNOW that the sun will come up tomorrow)? If the second point, I'll give you that but it's not a very interesting conversation to me to discuss an academic point like that.



I think the core of our discussion is actually in the sentence you used,and very fundamental to the whole peak discussion:
"There is no energy source that I can see that can be deployed at a scale needed and certainly not as capital becomes scarce."

Let us take it in two parts: "There is no energy source that I can see"...and of course we both know there is, it pours energy in vast quantities on us every day, all we have to do to see it is go outdoors into the sun. I am leaving aside hopes for fusion nuclear energy for now, because indeed, it has proven essentially impossible to "scale" at all to this point!

The second half of your sentence..."that can be deployed at a scale needed and certainly not as capital becomes scarce."

Now that's a whole new discussion! We know the energy is to fuel all the things humans do is available, and in vast quantities, but can it be deployed at a scale needed? This would dependent on a vast variety of human variables, decisions, financial choices, technical breakthroughs...the first half of your sentence is a debate in many ways about physics, but it is a debate pretty easily resolved...is the energy there? We know it is.

The second half of your sentence, can we deploy it given current financial, political and social conditions? I am not saying we can. I am not a cornucopian, so I am not saying it would be easy. I am simply saying that given the vast number of variables implied, I cannot possibly declare that the economy will either expand or contract over a given period of years. It is not like the sun rising...on that one we have relatively reliable probabilities.
On whether or not humans can or will deploy the vast amount of energy available to us, the probabilities are much more in doubt.

So I think the choice of not closing the door on potential outcomes (catastrophic collapse vs potential expansion and all ranges in between those two) is the only sensible choice.


Ah, well then we get to the nub of the matter. I think it is so close to certain that as energy from fossil fuels disappears there will not be an adequate replacement that the pictures below could capture the relative difference in net energy available to us during the transition.

We will move from this quantity of energy being available globally:

Niagara Falls

Down to something like this quantity:


And we will get that much only via an enormous effort over multiple decades that somehow overcomes the credit, temporal and (soon) geopolitical obstacles that are in the way of building out renewables. Right now the energy we get from renewables is something like this amount:


Could we provide as much energy as the topmost picture via renewables in 100 years? Possibly but not very likely, in my view. That means we are going to experience an energy deficit between what this sort of economy requires and what it will get and this has already started. (And yes, I say 'requires' because the fractional reserve credit system will not work without a superabundance of energy.)

So, given this projection, I think it's foolhardy not to plan for less energy and what that means to our economy. In other words, if I understand you correctly, your agnosticism is much like saying, "There is a giant iceberg heading toward us. It is only 10 m away and we can't turn the ship in time, which means we will collide. However, since we haven't collided yet, we should take care not to rush to judgement and entertain the idea that it is, as a point of logic, still possible that we won't collide." That might be a fine conversation for a philosopher or university professor but were you a ship captain you should be fired on the spot. That view is not grounded in reality and raising it just wastes time.

Naturally you would disagree with that metaphor but I think it's spot on. If you do disagree, I would say that you still don't understand the nature of the predicament we are in, particularly the scale of the amount of energy we currently get from fossil fuels.

Locally I prefer to plan for more electricity, more biogas, more forest biomass, there might be period with more natural gas and of course less high quality oil.

aangel, you say in reference to your metaphor, "Naturally you would disagree with that metaphor but I think it's spot on."

As metaphors go, yours is not bad as long as we remember the weaknesses in all metaphors!

Your say in reference to your first photo of the great giant waterfall, "Could we provide as much energy as the topmost picture via renewables in 100 years? Possibly but not very likely, in my view."

I would be only slightly more optimistic, but not much, IF you accept our current political, social and economic situation as continuing indefinately into the future. If you accept our current cultural/economic structure as the status quo into the future, I would say the odds of providing the energy needed for the world is HIGHLY UNLIKELY. I would also say that even if there were no problem involving energy (i.e., easily obtained oil or fossil fuel were to be abundant into the future) given our current cultural-economic structure, we would still be highly unlikely of providing the goods and services we have come to understand as expected in a modern culture. In short, this is a crisis of culture, not of energy.

Now we may be simply taking a different perspective on the same problem, because I want very much for what I just said to convey the radical nature of what I am thinking (of course I am not the first to think along these lines):

Our energy "shortage" or crisis, or "emergency" or whatever you choose to call it is (as it has always been) a symptom and not an illness (i.e., energy crisis is an effect and not a cause) and even if there were no energy crisis, the "cause" of our problem would still infect all other aspects of our culture.

The cause is very complex and cannot be easily dealt with here, but it can essentially be explained thusly: Allowing the power of vested interests to dictate the terms to all human minds in all industries, to the point that any innovation is essentially ridiculed or silenced out of existence, and if that fails, taxed or regulated out of existence. I hate to have to mention this woman's name again, because in most respects I am not a fan, but in this respect she was so correct: It is Ayn Rand's warning of rule by mediocrity, the combination of mediocre bankers funding mediocre enterprizes and ideas and being protected and rewarded by mediocre politicians in continuing to do so into infinity, or until the culture they have murdered by a thousand mediocre cuts passes away. This is the great danger to any mature and wealthy culture, much more deadly than any shortage of energy could ever be (because it causes the shortage of energy and the shortage of quality in every art, industry and in every respect). I would argue that the illness can be prevented or once it has invaded a culture, there is hope of pushing it into remission, but the odds are not good. Usually it is easier to abandon the old project and begin with a newer vibrant culture (see this in history in the transitions, the Helenistic world abandoned for Christianity, the Gothic age abandoned for Renaissance humanism, the age of monarchy abandoned for the age of inclusion and democracy, etc.) To be born again is often easier than continued subjugation to the mediocre aging dead.

But back to our somewhat more limited discussion and your waterfall photos: If we assume any real improvement in efficiency and reduction of waste through efficiency and elegant design, we can make the case that we do not need the giant waterfall at all. So much is simply being thrown into the atmosphere as waste heat that to use your anology, much of the energy in the waterfall never helps create comfort or utility for any human being. So to believe that we need as much energy as we now use simply to maintain a high culture and modern technology is to me a weak assumption. So essentially we may be able to move down to your second photo (the small waterfall) and barely even notice it IF (and this is such a big IF) advanced technical thinking and planning is used. It is really stunning to think of how little energy a relatively modern culture could do with if it were designed with low energy consumption as a goal.

So let us assume just for the moment that we could hold our culture at essentially something close to a 1955 (I choose that year relatively at random) level of average wealth consumption, BUT removing the waste...would that be the definition of a horrific new dark age? What would the average BTU consumption per person be in such a scenario? Remember, we are going to live relatively well, but on the square footage of homes and the consumption of food calories we knew as average in 1955, but minus the waste known then (oversized cars, badly engineered drivetrains in vehicles, lack of decent insulation in homes, planning the orientation of buildings to take advantage of passive sunlight and protection from micro-climate north side winds, etc., reduced excessive packaging of food and other consumer items, etc, bette use of water conservation, grey water systems to help irrigate gardens, etc. Again, what would our average BTU per person consumption be? What would our average water consumption be? Given a real effort at recycling, what would our average consumption of metals be? Would we really be suffering so greatly? It is a fascinating question to me...

Of course there are two major flies in the ointment of my utopian scenario (leaving aside the resistance by people who are used to consuming 5 or 10 times the amount we consumed in 1955): We must account for additional population, and we must decide whether we want to consign the poor of the world to live at the level of wealth they lived at in 1955...not so pretty. If we hope to accomdate the extra people and boost the poorest people in the world to at least a humane living standard, we would need to look for additional energy flows, other than your middle photo of the small waterfall. Would we ever get back to the level of the giant waterfall at the top? That is debatable for now, but we may not need to, depending on how well we used the new found energy we can develop. If we waste it, of course the power of 20 suns would not be enough. I once said here on TOD that no amount of energy can overcome perpetual waste and stupidity. It just can't be done.

I mention the sun not because I am a devoted student and supporter of solar energy (I am) but as a way of continuing your waterfall anology, because all three of your pictured waterfalls are powered from the same source...as are all the windmills in the world, as are the ocean wave systems in the world, as are the devices capturing geothermal heat. The above are all derivitive power sources, and the single source is of course the sun. The ocean and land surface of the earth absorbs more than 3,850,000 exajoules of solar energy per hour, more energy than the human race uses in a year. And most of the energy delivered to the earth last year and the year before and before that are still stored here on earth, in the heat of the earth and the oceans, in biomass, etc., going all the way back to the stored sunlight of oil. It is an energy stream that makes all three of the waterfalls you picture appear (to use another analogy) as a marble lying beside a bowling ball, and more is pouring down on us every year.

Now if for some reason we set a rule that we are only permitted to draw energy from the waterfall, we of course can quickly calculate our limits, but why would we do such a thing? Why would we assume, given the technical barriers humans have overcome in our history, that we cannot somehow tap into the power that all the waterfalls draw their power from? Why would we limit not only our energy but much more deadly to us, limit our thinking in such a way? Would it not be sensible to "cut out the middle man" (the waterfall) and go to where the waterfall gets its energy?

Of course we should know why, and if you want a brief overview, look back to my paragraph early in this post referencing the power of mediocre minds and vested interests to rule human thought, and Ayn Rand's discussion of such in "Atlas Shrugged", the alignment of mediocre minds in government, industry, banking and politics, etc. To repeat, I am not normally a fan of Ayn Rand and find much wrong with her work, but on the issue of how real wealth, technology and human advancement occur, I think she is one of a handful who grasps at least some of the larger picture of things.

Andre, I have read many of your posts on TOD, been to your website http://www.postpeakliving.com/ and consider you a smart fellow, otherwise I would not be discussing these issues in such detail with you. Thus I must answer your closing statement: "If you do disagree, I would say that you still don't understand the nature of the predicament we are in, particularly the scale of the amount of energy we currently get from fossil fuels.

I will not deny that given the normal quality of your debate I was a bit hurt by that one, an old debating trick of dismissing any differences someone may have by saying (if the modifiers in the sentence are removed) "If you disagree, you don't understand." This of course is an attempt to end the debate once and for all, because from the point of that sentence forward, anything an opposing debater may say is haunted..."the person disagrees, proof they don't understand." So many terrible things have come from this logical fallacy.

As for understanding "the predicament we are in", I think there are some aspects in which my view of our predicament is even darker than yours. You seem to see our predicament as essentially a problem of energy. I only wish it were so. I see our predicament as one of culture, of a deep cultural, social and intellectual failure of will, of a lack of ability to even consider thought outside of the normally accepted parameters, of a defiance of the very things that make us human in the most noble aspect...I would only pray that our problem was only about energy, so great would my relief be.

You say I do not understand "particularly the scale of the amount of energy we currently get from fossil fuels."

Of course it depends on whether the glass is half full or half empty...we get from fossil fuels thousands of times the amount of energy humans used only a couple of centuries ago..or about one cubic mile of oil used per year (from an article right here on TOD that totally altered my perceptions because I had assumed it must have been at least a hundred cubic miles...and in polling well educated friends, they never imagined it could be such a small number...all the oil infrastructure in the whole world, all built to produce and refine and transport one cubic mile of oil per year! It was an astounding revealation to me, one of the most perception altering events in my life, thank you TOD)...or you could say that the amount of fossil fuels we humans use is less than 1/8,765 the amount of solar heat that makes it to the surface of the planet per year. So while I don't want to underestimate the scale of the fossil fuel industry, I also don't want to underestimate the vast sea of energy humans swim in every day.

I am aware of the great advantage of fossil fuels, i.e., density and portability. I grew up in a family that was fond of automobile drag racing, and it is an educational sport in some ways. In less than a fraction of a second, using a primitive conversion device made of simple steel and aluminum, 5 megawatts of energy can be delivered, converted to mechanical energy and converted into motion, in far less than a second:

Only 5 seconds later, it has been converted to 300 miles per hour. The energy density, the portability of this type of fuel makes it astounding in it's utility, and addictive in the possibilities it offers, but it makes fossil fuels something even more important: MARKETABLE. This is why the vested interest protecting oil are so diligent in dismissing even the thought of any other possibility. The idea that oil, while it is spectacular in its utility and usefulness, is not the only alternative, terrifies those who have built their lives around it. I would argue (as I did several years ago right here on TOD) that no forward development will occur until we stop the deification of oil and cease viewing it as our god.

In the long view of history, the oil age was never going to be more than a temporary period. No thinking person could have assumed that oil was the last development of human history, it is a non-sensical position to take on the face of it. Will the modern age end when the oil age ends? It is possible, but it will be a case of coincidence if it does...the modern age will not end due to lack of oil but due to lack of will, the lack of imagination, the lack of courage, the lack of cultural soul, the failure of the human spirit to confront the challenges of our age, the failure to understand and cultivate destiny. We can blame it on oil, but if the lack of a rather nasty (albeit exciting to use) liquid fuel (made of the most common elements in the universe) is the cause of our failure, we were doomed to fail even if we had been up to our eyebrows in oil. We will have deserved our failure.

"The crisis of the West is in its essentials an ethical crisis."
Dr. Albert Schweitzer


A few decades more and we can start to sum up what the oil age bought.

Stuff like:
A handfull of flights to the moon.
Massive ammounts of infrastructure, some of it will last a long time.
Massive ammounts of scientifical discovery and technological developments that
can last a lot longer then the infrastructure and it will change human culture
forever, we dont know how since the change it is an ongoing process.
A new geological era, this is also quite bad.
Whatever we will have right after the oil era.

I feel a lot better about flying to the moon then hundreds of millions of people
commuting daily in +1000 kg cars.

there is a lot to your post and I'm not going to address all of it. I apologize the impact of my saying that you don't understand the full extent of the predicament. I am used to working with the public (all of whom thinks they are experts on energy) trot out one world-saving idea after another and accuse me of not understanding the power of technology to get out out of our mess.

When there is time, I patiently explain the size of the predicament, the problem with capital and so on. Many times at the end the people will say, "Thanks, I didn't know all that."

Many more times they dig in their heals and refuse to see the obvious. In those conversations, one of us has a more accurate view of the world than the other. Who is it?

In any case, I appreciate cordial conversation and thank you for providing that.

However, I stand by my assertion that we are going to experience a dramatic drop in the size of the world economy. Take away fossil fuels with no ready replacement and it makes no sense to me to plan for anything other than contraction. You have argued that we just don't know and unfortunately nothing you have said has convinced me that there is any merit whatsoever to your case. The past five years on the Oil Drum has taught us all many important concepts that make the future clearer. Ultimately, everyone must make up their own mind on this so we can happily agree to disagree, if you wish.

I actually don't see the whole situation as an energy problem, although I would say it is fundamental. If you have read some of my earlier posts you will have seen me discuss the notions of how conversations in the human network run our species.

Here is what I've written in the past:


There is another very useful model one can use to understand human behavior, which is that you could look at humans as a network of conversations.

Some conversations are very old (war will solve this problem, men are better than women, women or more nurturing than men) and others are very young (peak oil, what Brittney Spears did last night). Some of the oldest conversations have been with us since humans developed language (spirits, gods, etc.). All conversations are valid as conversations. That's not the same as saying they are true, however.

In this model, human action is highly determined by the conversations in which they participate. That's why there is the saying, "Choose your friends carefully." Another way of saying that is, "Choose the network of conversations you participate in carefully."

Peak oil is a relatively young conversation. To have humans repeat this conversation means that other conversations will need to be displaced. But many conversations have a sort of immune system that keeps them around, and is based on much of what your essay talks about. Survival, immediate gratification, comfort over discomfort, authority, etc. all perpetuate conversations.

The field I am discussing generally is called the study of "discourses." It doesn't take human initiative out of the equation, but it does have fascinating predictive power.


Foucault discussed epistemes, Kuhn talked of paradigms and it's now common to hear the terms discourses, stories or cultural narratives. Ultimately, they are all expressed in conversations between humans so I prefer the term conversations.

What runs humans on one level are the conversations they are speaking to each other. "Will you pick up some milk on the way home tonight?" is just a few words that will make a difference in the physical location of someone after work. "We declare war" will make an even more remarkable difference in millions of lives over many years. Conversations have immense power.

Nate has done a lot of work in understanding the biophysical factors that guide human conversations. To be more accurate I would say our scarcity programming is at the root of most everything of consequence we do as humans, including most of the conversations we participate in.

So you may say it's the pull toward mediocrity or similar and I would say humans are acting exactly as they have been programmed by evolution to act.

They have discovered an immense energy source, they are gorging on it (literally, see the rising obesity rates) and I see no reason so think they will avoid experiencing what every other species discovers once it has exhausted its temporary energy source.


Where you would say the question is whether the economy/population will grow or shrink, I would say the conversation has moved on from there. The question now is: how do we soften the decline?

Meme theory is another angle for understanding the same mechanisms.


To use your word, that is actually a very good conversation, and I think you are exactly right on the importance of conversation or words or nomenclature...but even these are growing more and more disorienting.

Regarding peak oil: It is incredible the difference in tone that occurs if you call it "peak oil" (which due to press coverage on the web and on both sides of the issue has become a somewhat loaded term) or use the term "resource depletion". For example, I work with people in the financial community who will dismiss "peak oil" out of hand as a fringe movement, and a somewhat odd one to say the least, but when I talk about "esource depletion" their ears are tuned right in, because that term works with their vocabulary (i.e., they equate resource depletion with money or capitol depletion, which by the way is very close to what Gail often talks about on TOD!).

The same is true if the issue is referred to as a transition instead of an emergency...the latter term is loaded with ideas of panic, and what folks who have anything at all to lose do NOT want is a panic (think of the way that word has been used in financial history and it is obvious that the very word sends shivers up the spine of financial folks and causes them to go defensive fast!).

Of course you could say, "well, your just trying to soften up the language, it doesn't change the magnitude of the problem we are facing" and that would be true, but the point is, what are we trying to accomplish? If our goal is simply to scare the crap out of folks, we pour on the strongest language. If our goal is to get "buy in" to the need for change, and gain supporters who will act in a way we hope will be more helpful, we look for the nomenclature that will gain the trust and assistance of as many folks as possible.

In real terms the difference between an "emergency" and a "transition" is the factor of time. If for example we had said in 1970 when U.S. oil production peaked, "this is a serious transitional situation, and we MUST begin to act on it, we have about 40 years to transition our economy away from a depleting resource", that would have been a statement about transition. I can use that example because some very clever folks were saying exactly that, and at that time, 40 years would have more than enough time to make such a transition.

However if we say in 2010, "This is a serious transitional problem and we have maybe a year or two to fix it, in fact the "peak" may already be behind us, in which case the emergency is already underway" that is a whole different issue. To use another metaphor, it is the difference between seeing a small fire in a wastebasket and having plenty of time to cover the wastebasket or pour water on the fire, or seeing the theatre in flames and shouting "RUN!".

If I am understanding your position clearly, you are saying the time to act as if the building is on fire is NOW. Thus, your position is that the only safe bet is, to use your words, "Take away fossil fuels with no ready replacement and it makes no sense to me to plan for anything other than contraction." I am assuming you do not see this as a painless contraction, am I correct?

We are now narrowing our terms up very nicely I think, and our difference would not be so great, but I about to blow the terms back open again, because I am taking the goal as being to force THOUGHT:

In my own personal life, because my situation allowed it, I have relocated in such a way that I have reduced my gasoline consumption some 90% from just over a year ago. This is not a misprint: I went from driving 43 miles per day, 5 days a week to driving 3.2 miles per day, a distance to work that I can easily walk in good weather. I went from a 1600 square foot home to an apartment of about 500 square feet, a common wall apartment that is more the size of a large hotel room, cutting my heating/air conditioning costs by 2/3rds. My overall costs for energy are now about 15% what they were in 2008. I have reduced my interest expense to banks by wiping out 85% of my debt. I can now live as well on 35% the income I could live on in 2008 even though my income has gone UP since then. And I am not, to use the term often used on TOD, a doomer! I now pay more for information (phone, internet, cable TV) than I directly pay for energy!

Bear with me for just one a few more minutes: What this means is that if everyone in the U.S. had done what I did, it would essentially destroy the energy industry in the United States!

But that is the issue: Not everyone is able to do, or willing to do what I did. (brief aside: Many friends of mine have made similiar moves, however, and are consuming much less energy, sometimes less than 50% the amount they did only a year or two ago...the logistical changes are already well underway). Note also that what I did involves NO solar, no hybrid or electric car and no bicycle. The technical advances now would be to increase my comfort level WITHOUT increasing my energy demand, not as survival devices (because I am surviving fine, but just not in nearly as comfortable a situation as I was a couple of years ago, I consider apartment living equal to living in a detention center)

This takes us to your core point: "Take away fossil fuels with no ready replacement and it makes no sense to me to plan for anything other than contraction."

As you can see, I have already far exceeded the contraction that anyone except a devoted believer in immediate catastrophe can assume will occur. So now I have to look at the second part of your sentence, "it makes no sense to me to plan for anything other than contraction." That to me is a bit of an error. I have a tendency, learned from the hardest experience, of not easily taking possible outcomes off the table. You see, I did that in my youth, and it was catastrophic to my life possibilities.

In 1977, I graduated high school with the possibility of going to college and moving away from my hometown. I was in those days, and there is no other word I can use, a doomer. I could see NO CHANCE that American industry, banking or business would be hiring people, in fact the idea that the U.S. economy could go anywhere but down fast was considered a fallacy in those days. Business magazines ran articles declaring "the end of equities", contraction was everywhere, 2 year old new cars were sitting on the car dealers lots unsalable. I planned for NOTHING but contraction. Jimmy Carter was telling the Americans that there was essentially no new energy to be found, and he was backed up on this by his director of CIA. The Saudi's were thought to be on their last big push, with nothing left to spare, thus the government didn't even consider it worthwhile to invade them and take the oil (unlike Iraq much later) I will not go further than to say that my absolute commitment to contraction was the BIGGEST error of my life, and I was in college at the age of 40 trying to make back up for two lost decades, having missed the biggest single wealth production period in known human history. I won't go too much further into this except to say that yes, I suffered, and in ways that only the poor can understand, and in ways that only someone who has seen the possibility of greatness and MISSED IT can understand. I would not consign our young today to that hell.

So yes, I now very much plan, as much as my conditions will allow for the very real possibility of further and enduring contraction. Unlike many folks in the general public, I do NOT dismiss it, I do not ignore it.

But, and this is to me of extreme importance, I do not dismiss the other possible outcome, i.e., no contraction or expansion. The early days of my adulthood has taught me one lesson, the most important one I can say I have learned in my life planning: HEDGE. THEN HEDGE THE HEDGE. THEN HEDGE SOME MORE. And I am not talking about these scam "hedges" sold by the financial houses (they are catastrophic financial tools, very dangerous to the livlihood of individuals and to our nation) but real hedging and real diversification. (brief aside: Do not believe for ONE SECOND that the insiders in the financial community buy the crap themselves that they are trying to peddle to the public. I know these people, the smart ones, and they know the garbage they are selling and would not touch most of it except at the point of a gun. Think of what Warren Buffett called them, "weapons of mass destruction". He meant it, and he is an optimist, who when asked said, "oh yes, there is not a doubt that you children and grandchildren will live better than you do.").

Andre, you said something very important: "Choose your friends carefully." Another way of saying that is, "Choose the network of conversations you participate in carefully."

I am blessed in this area also, in other words, it is important to "hedge" your sources. I have been on both sides, the "doomer" side of the discussion, and also on the other side, what some would call the "cornucopian" side of the discussion. I have dealt with those in the financial community, and dealt with those who would NOT deal with them under any circumstance. I have known coal miners and coal mine operators. And of course, all the folks I communicate with on TOD. I have found out that people often have very preconcieved notions of what they think other people from different professions and walks of life think...many would be surprised to know that there is much change going on RIGHT NOW. The baby boomers are positioning up for their later years, and demise. The financial community has been essentially disavowed...essentially NO ONE trusts them, at least for now, and the smart ones know it. The energy industry is in something close to schizophrenia (invest more...invest less? Divest and get out? Take advantage of the greatest energy transition since the industrial age? Is it too soon or too late?)

Andre, you say a major contraction is essentially assured, the only way to bet. I say that I cannot know that. I have already made major changes hedging for that posssibility, even before the real wave of change hits, but I MUST leave options open, and for this reason, and I do think we are pretty much in agreement on this point:

One of the greatest changes in cultural and social and energy structure is history is beginning to roar across the world (Toffler was right in "The Third Wave in 1980, but he was far too early and did not account for reactionary forces), and essentially there will be no place to run and hide from them.

Where we differ is this: You say you know the outcome (contraction). I am taking the position that the various and fast moving outcomes will come one behind the other so fast and be of such unpredictable nature and force, that I would think more in terms of trying to surf the wave rather than plan on assured outcome. My position is that there will be NO assured outcomes, we are essentially on our own and can be drowned at any moment, with or without the problem of "peak oil". The magnitude of what is happening culturally, economically, socially, demographically, in many ways dwarf peak oil...peak oil as a concept, as a usable metaphor, will be like us, along for the ride and very perishable.

Andre, I only WISH I could choose one option, "contraction" and plan around it, it would be so reassuring, so easy that way, such a haven of peace! I am more certain everyday that we will not recieve such a haven, no matter how much I may want it in my declining years.
Please consider telling those you inform that if they hope for the consolation of an assured "decline" they should really think about all the possibilities they can imagine, REALLY THINK. There will be no where to hide, not some peasant enclave, not some happy little gardening commune, so great is the magnitude of the technical and social changes we are about to see. There will be no way to, and no solution in disengagement. And remember, I am NOT a doomer!

Let me tell you now that an "expansion" could easily be more destruction filled than a contraction, that succeeding in our efforts to transition away from fossil fuels and all that has come with it, that our efforts to move past the industrial age could easily be more destructive and trauma ridden to the point of being maddening than a tidy little contraction. Our successes will be as dangerous as our failures. But, it has always been so.

"Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword." Matthew 10:34


Hi, RC. I meet many people who have had exactly the same experience as you so it has made them unsure when I tell them that contraction is inevitable as fossil fuels decline. I think at its heart is is a psychological thing despite their protests and the evidence they collect: they don't want to be "fooled" again because they will look bad in front of other people. More of that evolutionary programming and the need to remain a part of the "in group."

It's too bad but that's how the human brain seems to work.

Other people fully realize that they were wrong in the timing but the ultimate result, contraction, never changed.

It sounds like you are in the first group. There are ways to move you to the second group but if you haven't gotten there on your own after all your reading here on TOD I'm not sure that time would be effective. There is simply a point for many people when the self-evident is denied because the mind rebels.

I work with people who have gotten to the second group on their own. I unfortunately don't have the time to work individually with people to get them there. I have had very little luck even with family members so it is a very low benefit to cost ratio to spend that time.

Good luck planning for expansion!


"Other people fully realize that they were wrong in the timing but the ultimate result, contraction, never changed."

When it comes to financial planning, being wrong in timing is as bad as being wrong in theory. You can call my detesting having to suffer through illness with no money to see a doctor, living in houses with no hot water, not being able to afford vehicles (never mind gasoline) to get to even a relatively close job, loosing teeth due to lack of dental care, and not having good enough clothing to even appear for a job interview (some of the history of my doomer youth)plus the lost educational opportunities to be able to afford to save for a decent retirement as just being concerned "because they will look bad in front of other people." Maybe, but it is a hell I would consign the young of our nation to if it can be avoided in any way possible.

Of course, peak oil may make it unavoidable, but I do know that taking the position of assured knowledge and being wrong will absolutely assure their failure. It is easy enough to become hopelessly devoted to a theory to the point of living worse everyday than you would if your theory and fears of what it will cause actually became true. One day, too late, a person wakes up and notices that they never even had what they seemed to be so afraid of losing.

Homeless street people really care very little one way or the other about peak oil.


Yes, well it seems your mistake decades ago was in thinking all was hopeless. Contraction doesn't equal hopeless. Contraction is just another circumstance to be managed.

Let us ask the question this way, and this may be grist for a future keypost here on TOD: Does no one here on TOD admit to the possibility (even if they consider it a very unlikely possibility) of a big step "up"?

Hi RC.

Hard to tell exactly what you mean. Certainly "business as usual" won't go on for another century, and I'm sure you wouldn't disagree.

And from nonhuman perspectives, (some of them sentient, sapient, conscious and self-aware) it would be a big step up if humans abruptly curled up their toes and departed the scene ASAP.

Can the remaining humans, decades hence, be happier than they are now? Sure. Someone may develop an effective Soma. The next evolutionary upgrade of religions might bring happiness and peace. Or perhaps there is more net per capita happiness in a morlok/eloi situation than there is now. Could be. So many possibilities.

There will certainly be less human biomass. My dad, when alive, was hoping humans could be bred to be 2 ft. tall to make room for more at the table at once, and deal with declining resources. He failed to attract much interest for the idea.

So I guess the question posed by your question might be "what might constitute a step up?"

greenish, early in your post you say, " Certainly "business as usual" won't go on for another century, and I'm sure you wouldn't disagree.

Absolutely correct, I wouldn't disagree. But then "business as usual" has seldom went on for a full century. Even before major technology changes, political and social changes occured frequently enough, as political parties and religions orders rose to power and then faded, often enough violently. With technical changes occuring at a rapid rate after the industrial revolution "business as usual" was often the kiss of death.

greenish, you say "And from nonhuman perspectives, (some of them sentient, sapient, conscious and self-aware) it would be a big step up if humans abruptly curled up their toes and departed the scene ASAP"

Possibly so, but of course i could not side with that alternative, being human, no more than a bear would side with the option of a world without bears! If the world were to become a contest between human vs. bear, I of course would choose me over the bear. Some may say they would not, but put them in the wood with a weapon and a fast approaching aggressive bear and I think we would know whether they personally would die for the bear! Now if I can salvage the bear without doing away with me, I would try to do so, but I am always going to be human centric.

"There will certainly be less human biomass." Yes, I think the long trend is for less human biomass on earth, but that could occur in various ways: (a)war, (b) natural predators (viruses more than any other (c)lack of enough food and water to support the biomass level (d)technical and cultural change reducing birthrates to below deathrates voluntarily (think birth control and female liberation/education), (e)technical changes causing reduced birthrates involuntarily (think chemical pollution in food or water reducing fertility levels) (f) migration of humans off the planet into space, and probably a few I have missed. Do I consider myself enough of a prophet to be able to know which of the above factors, or which complex combination of them, will reduce human biomass on earth? No I don't. I can attribute probabilities, but they would really be more accurately called guesses.

"So I guess the question posed by your question might be "what might constitute a step up?"

That is deeply philosophical and personal question: I have always endorsed a culture that gives all, or as many as possible, citizens the opportunity to enjoy the experience of both human and natural culture...to participate as they are willing in the enjoyment of the arts, technology and sciences offered by the combined effort of all our forefathers and human cultural brothers, and also give people the opportunity to remove themselves as they see the need to into nature (I guess you could call it Beethoven, Picasso and Ferrari meets John Muir!).

Would I like to own a Ferrari? Not so much, but I would like to drive one once! Do I need to own a Picasso? Not so much, but I would love to see some of his great works? Do I need to hire a symphony orchestra? Not so much, but I love going to the Symphony when it performs a particularly good piece of work! Do I want to live in the woods for the rest of my life? No, but I would love to camp at Glacier National Park or Yellowstone for awhile!

The ability for ALL people to do these things, from all over the world, to see the Taj Mahal, to listen to Spanish music at the Alhambra...all people to have access at least for a time to the great efforts of humankind and the beauty of nature....INCLUSION.

That to me is the great step up. Can the resources be developed, cleanly and humanely, to allow this? I don't know. But it is worth the effort to try.


hi RC,

The ability for ALL people to do these things, from all over the world, to see the Taj Mahal, to listen to Spanish music at the Alhambra...all people to have access at least for a time to the great efforts of humankind and the beauty of nature....INCLUSION.

For me personally, you raise a very good question. Twice while working in India I was scheduled to take a short plane hop to see the Taj Mahal - both times some very unfriendly colon bugs decide the trip was not part of my destiny.

Wife and I have bicycled in Luberon Valley of Provence a few times and have even developed a great relationship with a family living there.

Would I like to revisit these places - you bet in a heartbeat! Given the unkind behavior of my IRA, this is currently just an academic question (making a "trip" to the grocery store is an achievement at the moment). But, what if my financial fortunes reversed and we could afford these trips? I'm seriously evaluating this idea of "experience" of this nature. Take Provence, for example, - the whole ambiance of the place is kind of mystical for us - roaring down the mountains on our tandem bicycle, the magnificent scenery of the gorges, the beauty of the ancient villages, the wonderful air, the gracious people, the old Roman history, etc.

On the other hand, transporting us and bike halfway across the globe is hardly a way to manage one's ecological footprint. But, more importantly I think, is the idea of this "experience". How much of our desire to do this has been conditioned by a travel industry that has zero interest in the "common good" of things. How much does this kind of daydreaming about places far away detract from finding the beauty of ones own area? Is this idea of scraping and saving every penny to travel away from one's home area really just a distraction from becoming more involved in your own community? How much of the thrill of cycling in Provence is more about the novelty of travel than the actual experience itself.

I suspect that if money was no issue, my wife would settle the issue and order the tickets today. But, I'm not so sure....

When I think of this "greener pasture" thing, I recall cycling in the south of Ireland and talking to a pretty young lass tending bar in a pub. The pub was on a bay of the ocean and a specular, beautiful place. The young lady was very excited about the following week because some American guy was going to liberate her from this place and take her to glorious New Jersey, USA. She was so thrilled - I really did not know what to say to her....

When I think of this "greener pasture" thing, I recall cycling in the south of Ireland and talking to a pretty young lass tending bar in a pub. The pub was on a bay of the ocean and a spectacular, beautiful place. The young lady was very excited about the following week because some American guy was going to liberate her from this place and take her to glorious New Jersey, USA...

Well, yes, strange how that works. As a tourist, one gets to take in the spectacular view, and then leave before one needs to begin coping with the mind-numbing boredom and insularity, and the governance by petty spiteful village gossip and backbiting, often encountered in places like that. When one actually must live there, rather than just pop in for a day or a week, all thoughts may well and rightly be directed towards escape. The pretty scenery, which after all stays ever the same year in and year out, can hardly even begin to compensate for the wearying cultural vacuum and social nastiness. (Which also helps explain the seeking for "experiences" - once you've gotten a good look at the scenery, that's it, you're done, there's no more to do at least for a good long while, and it's time to move on.)

This sort of thing exemplifies why I don't understand the view of those who seem to think that a world with universally imposed (whether by an all-wise self-appointed custodian of the mythical "planet", or by actual physical circumstances) subsistence farming would be some kind of utopian Arcadia. Throughout all of recorded history, it seems as though nearly everyone who had the opportunity tried to escape that sort of thing whenever they could. The main difference lately is that a far higher proportion have had that opportunity (with nearly all taking it, even to move to places far, far worse than New Jersey) than ever before.

My dad, when alive, was hoping humans could be bred to be 2 ft. He failed to attract much interest for the idea.

Pishaw. Your Dad was looking at the wrong idea.

Bonsai your child. if you just keep snipping the growth points, they'll stay under 2 feet.
(shamelessly taken from Bonsai your pet)

Eeyore, it's always a good rhetorical ploy to come up with a worst case scenario, and insist that it's the only possible outcome unless people do what you want them to do -- whatever that happens to be. Denouncing me as irresponsible because I disagree with your claims is a nice debater's trick that goes well with that strategy, too.

Right John, and saying that anything we do here on this site, or any blog for that matter, is dangerous and irresponsible, is really silly. Eeyore is assuming that there are hordes of people out there who govern their lives by what we say. That is not the case. No one is paying a damn bit of attention to us. We all rant and rave daily and the world goes its merry way, like lemmings heading toward the cliff.

Assuming that people just might do what we want them to do shows visions of grandeur at best and a mental defect at worst.

Ron P.

Not true Ron - Every morning first thing I kneel before my little Darwinian statue made of elbow macaroni and chant my TODer prayer: Ommmmm...PO...Ommmmm...PO...Omm...wait... coffee's ready.

Every morning first thing I kneel before my little Darwinian statue made of elbow macaroni

You worship before a statue of C.D. made in the image of The Flying Spaghetti Monster?! I don't know about kneel though, I'd expect you to have learned how to levitate by now! Try this prayer instead:
Ommmmm...Anti Gravity...Ommmmm...Anti Gravity...double Irish coffee!

Ohmmmm.....Cold Fusion!(leap)
Ohmmmm.....Cold Fusion!(clap)
Ohmmmmmy the bagel is ready for schmere.

Why does this work? The Ohm tying the prayer to Electricity silly.

Amp it up a bit more and we'll really get a charge out of it...

JMG - There is no "PLOY" about it.

Your dismissal of the worst possible outcome is dangerious. You lull your followers into dismissing it also, and in to believing that it will be slow and then some ecotecnocopian future to HOPE for.

I, on the other hand do not "preach" anything, I don't say what I say because I want them to do what I want them to do.

I am simply saying that to ignore the possibility of nuclear bombs being used to a catastrophic end is pure denial.

People throughout history always sit around and hypothesize different scenarios for world events and yet we ALWAYS end up going to war.

No tricks there Johnny boy.

The question of social collapse is certainly interesting. Using arguments from systems science to develop the most likely scenario(s) is probably the only way to approach this if we are to consider what will be needed to adapt to changed conditions (particularly peak net energy and climate changes).

The temptation to use biological analogues is strong because, after all, we are biological beings living in an ecological system augmented by human artifacts. It is an interesting question to wonder if our societies are more like ecosystems with many natural resiliencies due to weak coupling strengths among many interconnections allowing the breakdown of some areas while affecting others less so. Or are societies more like biological entities in a manner described in the article. Or perhaps there is a false dichotomy here.

In my one-day-to-be-completed text book on general systems science, I develop typology of systems (including complex adaptive systems) which explores the attributes of different categories of systems and the dynamics of those attributes that place a system in one of three categories (with substantial overlap, however). The three major categories are Mech-systems, Bio-systems, and Eco-systems (you can read a preview of this approach here). In the case studies that we will be providing in the text we can see that society is in many respects more like an Eco-system, or at least has in the past been more like an Eco-system. However, it is also true that societies have been evolving rather rapidly to develop internal structures that suggest that they are becoming more Bio- like, that is more integrated and individual like.

Thus, the question of whether society will collapse or merely have a rough decline is, I think, still very much open to further investigations regarding the coupling strengths and feedback loops regulating and supporting the whole system.

Then too there is another way to look at the whole issue. Rather than be concerned with the rate of change we should ask what is actually changing? I believe you addressed this in The Long Decline. Going from a highly integrated, energy-intensive, technologically-dependent culture to a smattering of permaculture enclaves might take a long time to settle out, but it is still going to look like the collapse of civilization to anyone who defines civilization as what we have now (at least in the OECD countries).

Finally, with respect to the rate issue again, I would like to point out that the decline side of the Hubbert curve is in no way settled science! Hubbert simply reflected the upside logistic about the peak to argue a neat (though completely unjustified, given his curve fitting methods) Gaussian-like curve. Many people, some here, have taken that curve as gospel, and I note that you rely on it heavily in TLD. Most peak oil writers have used those assumptions. But it turns out that the decline side may look quite different. There are now a number of good articles that have questioned the decline side assumptions of Hubbert's. Some, using a more refined curve fitting method, suggest that the trend may give a longer, more extended decline. This could, in fact be the result of the subtle feedbacks between the oil production and the financial system (with price volatility acting as friction) in a capitalistic market system. On the other hand, my physics-based model suggests that the decline rate is actually much higher than we have been expecting. If extraction were to be governed more by autocratic directive (prices be damned) that sought only to fulfill demand (oh, I don't know, like in China!) then we humans would no doubt attempt to extract at the maximum physically-possible rate and that would lead to much more rapid collapse of energy flows.

It seems to me that there is simply far too much unknown about the real dynamics of our situation to make too strong a claim about the form and timing of collapse. For my part I consider the worst and hope for the best.

Question Everything

A logistic is not a Gaussian-like curve. Curious to understand exactly what the 'physics-based models' are.

If you re-read it I didn't say a logistic is like a Gaussian. The paper is still in development, but will be available in the not-too-distant future.


I am thinking the limiting variable is either capital (similar to what Dennis Meadows of "Limits to Growth" said), or net energy, which would seem to be pretty closely related.

With our debt-based financial system, it seems to me that we have a very confused view of the amount of funds available for capital. We have been able to borrow more than we can really pay back with interest, and use this as part of our capital. The extra demand created by debt has also helped prop up prices, so that cash flow is greater than it otherwise would be, creating artificial funds for capital investment.

I see the current debt unwind as suddenly dropping the amount of capital available way back, partly because of the lack of debt for funding investment, and partly because of the reduced demand (coming from less credit availability) keeping prices lower. The effect of this sudden reduction in capital would seem to me to make the downslope of the production curve very steep. The world production curve is really the sum of the production of a lot of little wells. If one stops to think about it, there are investment decisions made all along in the life of a well, and in the decision to drill new wells, and these investment decisions affect the downslope of the curve.

For example, with a very old well, there is the decision on whether it still makes economic sense to keep the well flowing, given the cost of separating the small amount of oil from the large amount of water, and the overhead expenses involved with taking the oil away, and reinjecting the water. A drop in oil price could because of less debt and thus less demand could change the decision from continue to quit.

For infill drilling in an existing well, or opening a new well, there are other decisions, likely requiring capital investment, and certainly considering the price of oil. So they are likely to be affected by debt based capital availability. I would think the combination would make for a pretty steep downslope on the global oil production curve. (And that doesn't consider hoarding, or international trade difficulties.)

And don't forget that in our deterministic model, all of these considerations feed one on the other, creating a loop that accelerates the downturn.


Hi Gail,

I am thinking the limiting variable is either capital (similar to what Dennis Meadows of "Limits to Growth" said), or net energy, which would seem to be pretty closely related.

Don't know if you remember my premise from the Biophysical Econ conf. but in my book capital (for investment) and net energy (to do work) are at base one in the same. It is too bad that money has been so decoupled from the exergy input to the economy that it has been allowed to grow in volume beyond its true backed value (in energy). We can thank the neoclassical economists and bankers for that little bit of legerdemain. Today the relation between dollars in circulation and capacity to do useful work is so distorted that I don't think we can say anything useful about the monetary valuation of investments in energy production at all. I think it sort of tracks but with huge delays and amplitude variations that are at best stochastic (nonstationary).

In my model, investment capital in energy capture and conversion is the energy taken from current production net energy returned to capture the next increment of raw energy. Since the energy costs of extracting and converting (to net energy) are going up (EROEI going down) there is less financial return on financial investment tracking less net energy return on energy diverted from the economy to invest in new energy assets. I just wish there were a way to measure the energy flows directly and not have to convert from money to energy units.

See my response to JMG re: difference between global aggregated decline rate and US/Hubbert model decline rates WRT your last point.


Keep in mind that debt does not directly influence the amount of capital the humanity have to invest. On microeconomics, there is a direct relation, on closed macroeconomics (the entire World) there isn't. The direct effect of debit is to redistribute the capital.

Of course, capital distribution (application) does influence the capital amount. But there is a level of indirection here, and debt shouldn't be taken as a proxy, as one can work with distribution directly.

George, I look forward to your book on general systems science! Systems theory has been one of the main elements of my own mental toolkit since I was introduced to it in college back in the 1980s.

Of course there are a good many unknowns at work in the present situation. Still, it's not entirely true that the downside of the Hubbert curve is unknown territory. We've been on that part of the curve here in the continental US since 1970, and so far the curve has followed Hubbert's model quite tolerably well. The same is true of other examples, on a wide range of scales; this is one of the reasons for thinking that the Hubbert curve is more or less scale-invariant, and thus can be applied to the entire world as well.

I will send you via e-mail, some paper references (will see if I can send the papers, actually) that have demonstrated some legitimate questions about the down-side Hubbert curve. You can see it isn't quite so straightforward from those.

WRT: the experiences in the US there are several intervening factors that could be at play and that might make it a less valuable validation of Hubbert than generally assumed. As you will see in one of the papers (Forecasting World Crude Oil Production Using Multicyclic Hubbert Model) the shape of the US comes closer to a symmetric linear model (explained in one of the other papers) than a reflected logistic. Even at that there is a problem with using the US data as indicative of world production. The US was not a closed system when production rates peaked here. We were able to readily import cheap oil that may have caused the investment in domestic oil to start to look not so good, thus leading to slower extraction rates and a better seeming fit with the Hubbert model (monocycle version). The problem with global production in aggregate is that there is no other sources but earth! So the dynamics could be quite different. Of course the problem with my hypothesis is that it may not be testable in that I don't know of any way to tease out the actual lower 48 production (not counting off-shore which was not included in Hubbert's model) compared with total consumption, then back out the imports to estimate the offset that imports might have caused. Maybe someone else here at TOD has a way to do this.

In the end we may just have to wait for the whole world to be well on the downside to have enough real aggregated data to see what the curve looks like. From a scientific point of view that makes sense. From a societal point of view it sucks!


There are limitations on this analogy. The human body places genetic limitations on growth to prevent an overall systems collapse. Cancer on the other hand is a more fitting analogy. The economy and cancer both need the same material and energy throughputs, have reinforcing feedbacks, and both subsystems will continue to grow at the expense of the whole eventualy causing runaway system collapse.

Grautr, of course the organismic analogy has limits, which is why I suggested a different one!

Re the analogy of current-day civilization to the human body - it is a useful one, indeed, regarding the interconnectedness of it all, but .... the human body is much better designed. The basic biochemistry has been tested and refined over 100s of millions of years of evolution. It's clear that all the systems are dedicated to the survival of the organism and to the successful passing on of genes to the next generation.

Current-day civilization is another story. The overall goal is what exactly? Making some people rich? Allowing for the maximum harvest of the planet's bounty by people? Nor is it clear that all systems are working toward the overall goal, whatever it is. It seems much more random and internally contradictory than an organism.

"me with the doves" asked a great, fundamental philosophical question, such a BIG question:

"Current-day civilization is another story. The overall goal is what exactly?"

It is this question that is at the root of why cultures are created and why people will die to protect them. It is this question that defines a culture in it's rise, and for our discussion here, defines it's collapse.

What is the BIG goal of a great civilization? I never could figure that one out for many years, and studied from the age of 10, read the "greats", everyone from Plato to the Church fathers (Augustine and Aquinas) the neo Platonists (Plotinus), the Capitalists, Emerson, Goethe, Hegel, Marx, Oswald Spengler, Berdyaev, Whyte's "The Organization Man", C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures", Marshall McLuhan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Toffler...etc, etc. I was still stuck...what is the definition of a GREAT culture?

Then I picked up a small paperback for a quarter at a used book shop in Corydon Indiana (I know this sounds like a novel, but it is true): "Forewords and Afterwords", a collection of just that, collected Forewords and Afterwords for other books by the poet W.H. Auden. I am holding it in my hand between keystrokes as I write this, duct tape holding it's worn spine together (I have had the book for some 26 years and it was well worn when I bought it). On the definition of great cultures, the great poet handled it in one sentence of prose:

"A great culture is measured by the variety it achieves with the unity it retains."

I don't want to engage in hyperbole or literary pretentiousness, but I will say with sincerity that when I read that line the first time, I could feel a rush through my spine right into my brain. The sentence has never left my thinking, it is my yardstick for every culture I read about, study or see on TV or have to live with everyday (especially our own). I could write whole chapters on that one sentence, showing how it applied to the great dead cultures we see in the textbooks, and how it applies to the living culture of the modern age. When I think about future cultures, Auden's sentence is the absolute first test it must pass. So now you have it, take it or leave it, your choice, but if you choose to dismiss it, try to come up with something better.


I can promise you the last thing to go will be microprocessor design + production. Even with $1,000 oil multibillion-transistor processors will cost marginally more as the material and manufacturing inputs are negligible. I say that from experience. That was not a good example to finish this superdoomer article with LOL.

Allow me to comment further.

As an engineer working in ASIC design, the manufacturing of the chip itself costs under 2% of the final retail price of the chip. More recent Intel Atom processors cost a penny per unit to produce after IP, material input, and labour have been accounted for. We have come insanely far in terms of understanding MOSFETs that super high speed processors can be made with the push of a button using existing machines, which can easily run on mere hundreds of watts. There is such a glut in ASIC foundry tech that companies like Taiwan Semi are finding it hard to fill 180 nm design demand. Not to mention that they are going to soon be powering their own plants using their home-made solar panels...

I wish you would be right with your optimism. Unfortunatelly I work in "downstream" on a supply chain for your industry - materials, testing ... I can see a diffrent story.
Not sure how long it can hold together.
Let see where we will be with 6N 7N indum a few years from now.
It is indeed very (over)complex.

We don't need to make it to that point. Silicon can hold together as around 2011 we will start seeing improvements coming from algorithmic efficiency, not the hardware. It's thanks to new innovations in parallelization. I don't believe in the brick wall. GaAs won't be necessary as far as I'm concerned as we still have stacking and power-gating to improve on. I don't work in display devices so I can't really comment on indium but I know it's not a bottleneck for ASICs that decide our current society's high affluence.

From a user's POV, other than design engineers and heavy numbers crunchers, most of us never needed much more than the earliest spread sheets and word processors. The rest of the bells and whistles were confusing, unnecessary, and created unneeded expenses.

Most of us hate Bill Gates because of what Microsoft has done; we don't feel much better about Intel and the rest.

So, we ordinary users, businessmen, and professionals, have supported the gamers, the engineers and the nerds in their quest for faster computers. All of that created a constantly expanding GDP, and all, but I don't see where it made our lives any better.


Hi-Def TV?

So what? 500 channels and nothing on.

From a user's POV, other than design engineers and heavy numbers crunchers, most of us never needed much more than the earliest spread sheets and word processors. The rest of the bells and whistles were confusing, unnecessary, and created unneeded expenses.

As someone who taught himself BASIC on a Commodore Vic 20 with a 16K memory memory expansion card, and a tape cassette as external storage back in the late 70s and over the years got into high end computer graphics and was a part of the desktop publishing revolution and early webdesign and had a computer graphics consulting business. I later worked with software used in modeling and visualization for scientific research institutions and also in server farms for digital satellite TV, I'm going to disagree ;-)

While I'll be one of the first to join the chorus of Windows bashers when talking about superfluous bells and whistles included in the myriad OS and word processor upgrades that most of us have learned to hate, I think I can safely say that one can never have enough number crunching or processor power. Even if your average computer user doesn't model quantum fluctuations or the global climate they still want and use high bandwidth streaming video and very high quality animated games for entertainment and they want to blog and twitter and search Google for the latest gossip. To do that you need way more than MS-DOS based Edlin to process your text.

I worry that one of the consequences of a collapse of civilization is that very few people are looking at the real physical consequences of withdrawal from the sudden loss of all our digitally enhanced brain prostheses. Like a blind man who has used a walking stick for most of his life and loses it he now suffers in a way much like a seeing person would when losing his or her sight.

There is some fascinating new work by Lambros Malafouris at Cambridge University in England


The mainstream approach to cognition holds that it happens in the mind and that material culture is nothing more than an outgrowth of our mental capacities. Archaeologist Lambros Malafouris is challenging this deep-seated idea with a radical new notion: the hypothesis of extended mind, which posits that material culture is not a reflection of the human mind but an actual part of it. Take, for instance, a blind man's stick. "Where does the blind man end and the rest of the world begin?" he says. "You might see the stick as something external, but it plays a very important role in the perceptual system of this person. It extends the boundaries of this human—the stick becomes an integral part of the cognitive architecture."

I for one suspect that there will be serious physical and emotional consequences if we are suddenly cut off from, for example, access to the knowledge base that is the world wide web.

I think many of us underestimate how deeply integrated into our own cognitive architectures this extension of our minds has become. I also suspect that is only the tip of the iceberg with regards all the other things in our culture that we have now learned to take so much for granted that we won't know until we start losing them how deep our withdrawal and sense of loss will be.

Interesting times we live in.


Most of the utility of google and friends could be had with sorted databases. We could live well with 1990:s technology and a million librarians.

We could live well with 1990:s technology and a million librarians.

Oh,boy, flash back here... to a time when I was young and in my prime and working as the dive master on a dive boat down in the Keys and a group of seven female librarians from somewhere in the Midwest came out on our boat for a few days of vacation one winter.

We had a rule about not mixing business with pleasure but they tried pretty hard to make us break it. I don't think I could have fought off a million of them, I think I would have done my part to help push civilization over the cliff! ;^)

I for one suspect that there will be serious physical and emotional consequences if we are suddenly cut off from, for example, access to the knowledge base that is the world wide web.

I would certainly miss TOD, at least.

Creating a haven for knowledge, storing knowledge on disk, and in print of course, is one of my projects. I am preparing several redundancies of computers, stored and protected, and also backup PV panels. My Mrs. wants to find a property with a stream, with sufficient drop to power a few alternators for additional power sources. She is not really keen on wind power, the maintenance seeming more difficult that she wants to entertain in her dotage. Me too.

My hope is that there will be many such oasis of learning, all shared in their communities, with most communities still connected. I suppose to make that possible, the larger polis will need to store a quantity of fiber optic cable, and build out some factories to keep these things going.

There will be some power, it will be rationed of course. Education, maintaining knowledge base, and communications have my vote as three very important adjuncts to a civilized society. Sharing will become more important, and greed ... well, no one will be saying it is good. At least that is my hope. Of which I have some.



, I think I can safely say that one can never have enough number crunching or processor power.

Yes. One can.

The only reason the 2 processor 933 mhz machine was replaced is because it became unreliable.

And I'm looking for the lowest wattage highest memory 'cheapest' machine to run Asterisk because, well, it doesn't need much.

When I go buy, I look only at the latest to get an idea what I'll be buying in 18 months. I see no need for 'number crunching' or 'processor power' to do what I need done.

In my ideal world I'd still be doing assembly. Still do for motor control/simple projects.

Agreed. Computers are certainly highly complex, but I think it is a tenuous argument that computers are less *efficient* than the old ways for performing similar tasks. It is possible, but I don't think it's at all reasonable to state it as fact without significant backing.

1. DVD Rentals vs. Youtube/Hulu
2. Libraries vs. Wikipedia
3. Physical Journals vs. Online Journals
4. Solidworks vs. Manual Design
5. Optimizing Designs with simulation vs. Building in a safety factor or guessing
6. Email vs. Snail Mail
7. Simulations for drug discovery vs Testing chemicals in the lab manually

and moving outside the realm of computers to embedded systems:
1. Kindle vs. Books
2. Cars controlled by "drive by wire" vs. Manual control
3. CF Light bulbs (controlled by a uC) vs. incandescents
4. Cell phones (no wires) vs. Regular phones
5. GPS vs. manual navigation


In each of these cases, I think it's *possible* that the older technology was more efficient, but I don't think it can be taken as a given in any case. I think in many of these situations, the reason for using the more "complex" solution is that for the implementor it was *less* complex. I know that when I'm solving design problems, the first thing I do is try to take a complex system and make it simpler -- this is a very standard way to decrease costs.

Beyond this uncertainty, it's also difficult to really claim that we *have* to focus on increasing complexity (especially in computers). As many have noted, consumer requirements in devices like computers have really tapered off significantly over the past two years -- very few people seriously feel that they need to upgrade in order to do things. I think that this is the driver between simpler, lower cost, higher efficiency computer components. We've already pushed to the top of the performance curve, and now we're optimizing back down to the bottom of the complexity curve.

Am I crazy? I feel that in a society lacking constant bombardment by advertisements, a rational consumer is going to purchase the simplest device that meets their needs and no more. This means first a rush to be the first company to meet their needs, and then a gradual decrease in price and complexity as engineers cut costs and use better technology.


Out pushing a bunch of cows up to the mountain for summer range with my buddy. He was occupied with something, something in his hand, pushing little buttons, scratching his head, pushing some more little buttons. I rode over and asked "What you got?"
"It's a GPS machine and I'm trying to figure how to work it. How far you figure we are from my place?"
"I guess, about 20 miles as the crow flies".
"Nope, 17.9 miles. What's the elevation right here?"
"About 4,300 feet" was my guess.
"Nope, 4,187. How far you recon we've come this morning?" was his next question.
"I'd guess about 10 miles."
"Wrong again. 11.2."

My bud doesn't use his GPS anymore. In fact he quit messing with it a month or so after he came up with it.

I don't own a cell phone, never have, mostly because they don't work out here, but again, I don't need one. 65 years without one, and I seem to get along fine. My girlfriend up north couldn't live without hers, constantly texting, and talking with whoever. My grandson has one. I told him to throw the GD thing away, he didn't want to be that accessible.

I've been a Ham Radio operator for 50+ years now and I have a new Mac; and so I'm not a complete Luddite, but close.

Best from the Fremont

"There is such a glut in ASIC foundry tech ..."

EP, at this point in the economic cycle, a glut is a very bad sign. Can your industry survive when the market is mere millions, rather than hundred-millions? There may come a time when the masses of people are no longer buying every bauble that has a chip in it. Or any baubles at all, for that matter.

What if there is only a market for a few hundred thousand devices? In the military or security niches, they might be willing to pay a higher price. How high does the price have to be if your market has shrunk to two or three percent of its former size? This is a likely industry-killer for an industry accustomed to very exponential growth.

Thanks for the input, though. It's interesting to hear that the plants are installing solar power.

It seems to me that the price of a finished product is no indication whatsoever of the reliability of the supply chain that supplies the raw materials, energy and personnel for manufacturing the product.

Nor is the reliability of the supply chain that supplies the raw materials, energy and personnel an indication for the price of a finished product. Thus the recent record profits.


First let me admit that I know next to zilch about your industry (darn, I hate admitting that about anything!), so anything I say is in the form of a question.

-Does what you say about the microprocessor chip business hold, in your opinion, as in indicator of the resilient and reliable possible construction of a future PV industry, given that there are some similiarities?

-How problematic is the issue of brain power, in other words, how dependent are these industries on the educational system to provide a constant influx of trained talent?

-Market conditions-Is there a bottom demand number that can support the microchip industry, i.e., if demand were to slide below a certain number of units, would the industry be able to survive and as a percent how low is that number compared to current demand (70%, 50%, 20%?) I am not talking about the loss of a few firms, but what is the lowest demand before the infrastructure of the industry itself began to unravel?

Thanks for any information. I am fascinated by what on the surface would seem to be a rather fragile industry, but on deeper inspection may not be....


These are good questions. Also note for full disclosure I've only been in the industry as an intern for a year but I've seen a lot and spoken to many people.

The PV industry used to piggyback on semiconductor manufacturing and in the last couple years we have seen a huge change, with entire integrated supply chains popping up that are specializing in solely PV. We are going to see something like Moore's Law for photovoltaics but it won't be to the same multiple (e.g. we will not see PV getting halved in price every 18 months). I think we still need more efficiency from cells to compensate for the thermodynamic losses we get when we try to store the energy using salt. Electronics ramped up like crazy in four decades' time, and some people I trust believe the same will happen in the PV industry. I look at the recent price/watt from time to time and I think we're already there and it's just political.

It takes 4 years of education and a couple years practicing before someone is quite useful in some aspect of ASIC design (e.g. RTL / DFT / Physical). On a more efficient learning plan that involves proper text references, someone can be home-trained in 2 years IMO. The process tech (the foundry) is done. We are pushing as far as we can go with silicon. We got there. The way forward is not to make smaller devices (transistors), but instead to design better chips. Thus, we already have saturated the foundry side. The educational part is by no means resource-intensive. When we have unemployment, it will be easier to justify being a student in this field.

There won't be a drop in demand for IT infrastructure. There's too much stuff to be done now. Drug discovery is a major one. Complex systems modeling is another. Server-side processors were for the most part untouched by the dip. That should be evidence. When our Ponzi Scheme economy of everyone trying to sell crap to everyone else starts to collapse because of material limitations, I think people will focus more on real stuff like microprocessors to create new industries, like the biotech or nanotech booms that we are still waiting on. When you are on the verge of conquering cancer for good, a poor economy doesn't stop the flow of money into processors. I think most people aren't able to comprehend just how much computation really needs to be done.

People on this site also tend to forget that we are by no means facing a crisis in electrical energy supply, but rather a liquid fuels supply. Look at it this way. If we were forced to double what we were spending on electricity for these server farms, we'd be able to cushion it and the exponential growth would continue. But as soon as we do this, we might as well be powering our data centers with wind or PV. In fact, some companies are building hydroelectric dams to power their centers. The cars, the plastic toys, the huge mansions, etc are not nearly as important as our processing power. Thus in the long term, computers are here to stay.


Thank you for the very interesting and informative reply. We are already seeing some high tech firms going to renewable energy, as you point out, because the tecnology sectore seems to be able to produce exponential rates of increase in efficiency and productive capacity without exponential increases in energy consumption, i.e.,they deliver a total sum of gains exceeding their growth in consumption. This has radical implications for the future.

On your other point, education, you say, "The educational part is by no means resource-intensive. When we have unemployment, it will be easier to justify being a student in this field."

On this point I am still concerned...because the education while not resource intensive is most probably very youth intensive. It is doubtful that many of the older unemployed could get on the learning curve to be a part of this industry in the latter part of their career (essentially past 30 years old, maybe 35) so we would have to be grooming the young minds in the mathematical and engineering literacy...I wonder if we are doing this?

I hold in my hand an I-phone and am amazed to realize that it essentially has enough computing power to control the functions of a modern digital home or automoble if it can be interfaced into them...astounding, and it is primitive compared to what is already on the drawing boards for 5 year from now. The gains in computing power has been astounding to this point, it seems that the problem is, to quote Winston Churchill when the Americans joined WWII, "Now it is just a question of proper application of overwhelming force." Once more I am saddened that I am not among the young, who will see hopefully see the fuller fruition of the work done to this date. Thanks again, now to attempt to mentally digest some small part of what we have discussed!


I am saddened that I am not among the young, who will hopefully see the fuller fruition of the [high tech] work done to this date.

I believe most of our young are saddened that they may never see a job

entire integrated supply chains popping up that are specializing in solely PV.

We are going to see something like Moore's Law for photovoltaics

If EROI for PV is less than unity (<1) then the whole thing is going to topple over no matter how high we climb up the "high tech" tree.

Moore's law requires area shrinkage.
How are you going to shrink your way above 1.3kW per meter squared?

I can promise you that this is like claiming the brain will be the last organ to shut down during death. Much of the time the brain is the last to shut off. Sometimes, not.

Hi All,

Its been good to get your comments.

The body is partially an analogy, and partially an example of something which has many structural and thermodynamic correlates with civilisation. We can see transient parts of systems such as the operation of the global economy, it is (to me) much harder to get a tangible grasp on 'the whole'. How do we intuit 'a level of interdependence', or 'tightness', in something so complex and with so much internal diversity? So in that sense the body is there to aid communication. However, I think the analogies to damage in the body are accurate 'enough' to be a point of departure for deeper analysis. Though the state 'death' should be taken with some caution-death's analogy for the globalised economy is it's collapse-which will drive much transformation-but plenty of stuff will still go on!

Engineer-Physicist, I think the issue is not just the material inputs and cost, but the levels of coordination and integrated economies of scale that allow our supply-chains to adapt and respond seamlessly at prices we can afford. We don't notice what an amazing level of coordination is involved (because it works). I saw somewhere that the base metals and inputs that go into a mobile phone come from at least 17 countries-which require the inputs of all the technologies of mining, processing, and markets just to get those materials into the next level of development towards what will become eventually a mobile phone. As Gail has emphasized many times, it all hangs together on money and credit, which stands on an act of faith.

JMG, I don't think i ever said that 'collapse' would be complete (we may have to wait until the end of the universe for that). Indeed, I left it pretty unspecified apart from saying there would be a jump to a much lower level of complexity and forced localisation. The argument is mainly about collapse of globalised systems, which I do argue could be pretty fast. What is collapsed 'to', will I suspect be much more variable and locally distinctive-we will no longer be primarily part of a globalised system, but lots of diverse more localised ones. The US will still have plenty of indigenous fossil fuel reserves, where I live (Ireland) will still have none; in Kyrgyzstan where I first 'got' many of these concerns- many people will have far less difficulty in adapting.

Finally, apologies for my appalling spelling and grammar-a very kind person in the US (thank you Katherine C, wherever you are) is re-editing the paper so it will be much more reader friendly (and less embarrassing for me).


Just reading this comment...I posted some graphs above that I think indicate that you, Gail and JMG are all thinking roughly the same thing. The difference comes down to how big that big step down is.

David, fair enough. I think your paper (along with most discussions of this topic, to be fair) could be improved by clarifying what you mean by collapse, and perhaps by giving some idea of what that collapse might mean in practice. Generally, though, as I think I mentioned earlier, that's more a quibble than anything else; the basic case you make -- that we're rapidly approaching an inflection point at which things will get very challenging, very fast -- seems very difficult to refute.

Complexity is only useful if it solves an evolutionary problem and if it is a complexity designed by nature and not by human thought.

Errm, "Human Thought" is an emergent property of a complex biologically produced organ called the brain. Are you saying that an Airbus, designed by this brain, is too complex to be useful in solving the problem of flying because it wasn't modeled on a bumblebee or because they didn't use genetic algorithms to evolve its wings?! Never mind...

Flying is not a human necessity, it is a human luxury. If you clip every bees wings the species will die. Take away our plans and we will probably be better off. There was never an evolutionary problem that needed to be solved to cause the invention of human flight. Again, it was never a problem that humans could not fly.

And we use more energy to fly than is sustainable, so while the brain solved how to put humans in flight it also ends up causing more problems.

Human thought, or consciousness, is not something I consider a positive evolutionary development. And no one has any proof at this point that it will lead to our long term survival as a species.

Evolution has neither positive or negative value, one way or another, it just is.

Still, you have completely missed my point. Your statement, that complexity is only useful if it solves an evolutionary problem is illogical.

Whether flying is a luxury or not is irrelevant to the fact that a complex machine can be the solution to the physical problem of lifting itself off the ground. How it fits into a complex civilization and whether or not such a machine can be a part of a sustainable transportation system for said civilization is a separate issue altogether.

Human thought, or consciousness, is not something I consider a positive evolutionary development. And no one has any proof at this point that it will lead to our long term survival as a species.

As I mentioned, evolution by definition, is completely indifferent to whether or not any of us as individuals or even as a species manages to survive in the long term.

Having said that, as one individual who is conscious, I have found my personal emergent property of consciousness to have been useful, at least to me, since it has allowed me to think logically ;-)

There is a difference between micro and macro evolution that I think you are failing to understand.

Evolution has neither positive or negative value, one way or another, it just is.

I am not saying negative or positive in a judgmental way.

If there is an trait that appears at random that has the effect of reducing the mating and survival of the species then that trait is a negative trait and the environment will kill off that trait.


Though deleterious alleles may sometimes become established, selection may act "negatively" as well as "positively." Negative selection decreases the prevalence of traits that diminish individuals' capacity to succeed reproductively (i.e. their fitness), while positive selection increases the prevalence of adaptive traits.

Besides, I did not say evolution was positive or negative. But I will say that genetic variation is judged positive or negative by the environment it finds itself in.

Whether flying is a luxury or not is irrelevant to the fact that a complex machine can be the solution to the physical problem of lifting itself off the ground. How it fits into a complex civilization and whether or not such a machine can be a part of a sustainable transportation system for said civilization is a separate issue altogether.

You made the issue separate but it is not a separate issue. That has been the problem with all the issues we face today. The silly compartmentalization of things that lead people to do what ever they want without seeing the consequences. In the tiny realm we have created flight and solved a problem WE INVENTED. In the big picture we created more problems.

And how you think has no impact on passing on your genes so it is evolutionarily irrelevant. Stupid, illogical people mate just as frequently, if not more. In fact, knowing that population is causing most of our issues should leave you reproducing less. And our science has enabled some genetic variants, like infertility, to be overcome, and thus turning a negative trait positive! Or at least, neutral.

So I see complex thought and the dependence on intelligence as a gene trait that will be washed out of our gene pool if it does not poison humanity jet fuel first.

This may seem a bit OT but this live link I think is the epitome of the complexity of our civilization and to me at least much like man's first steps on the moon! WOW!!


The nature of collapse will probably not be a devolution of complexity and loss of needed manufacturing inputs. This is just opinion, obviously, but the idea of rolling blackouts and lack of opportunities for too many people will assuredly create a violent backlash. Sure, chips could still be produced, but it takes a buyer, many buyers, to keep the hoop rolling. The needs for such incredible technologies must eventually pander to a big enough market to make it all workable. The common denominator called consumer.

Blame, anger, political activism, and finger pointing towards the causes of economic decline will not bring out the best in people. Are we that far away from a Crystal Night? Any high school teacher will tell you that as our society has become more complex and the toys more engaging, the levels of intelligence and civility are declining. I envision thug students, pants down around their crack, effing this and effing that, spitting, picking up their cell phone (that does everything but birth control), texting to arrange a meet to play the latest blood thirsty video game while folks are at work. All kids are not this, but there are an awful lot of them. How many of you have gone to the store checkout and watched the scanning checker not able to calculate basic change when you hand them a quarter to pay the extra 23 cents on a cash transaction?

I used to work in an incredible high tech type high school/college facility. I cannot count the number of times I heard some kid exclaim, "this school is 'welfare'", because the canteen was closed or the food machine was out of chips. I could not believe how many times I had to take cards away from kids to break up poker games when they should have been in class. Poker is now on tv, therefore migrates to school and becomes part of the attitude and culture.

Do you know those parties where the house gets trashed? 35 years ago my best friend went to one. They were doing the usual beer swigging in the basement when someone accidentally dropped a beer bottle on the concrete floor. Beer and glass went everywhere. Somebody looked at the mess and dropped theirs. Soon, people were throwing them at the walls. My buddy picked up the tv, and was going to toss it. There was sudden silence. Rapt, quiet attention. He set it down and left, not believing what he had been part of? That is how fast it happens. In ten minutes the house was trashed.

Will this be all places in a decline/collapse? Of course not, no more so than all cities experienced the riots of the 60s. The potential will always be there, though. Drugs, booze, tv, and toys are barely keeping it all together. I don't think these are the forces destroying society, rather, are keeping many busy and out of the way much like bread and circus of times past.

To continue the analogy of the human body, and add to what Gail mentioned about a loved one who died, it is not often that one's decline and eventual death is simply a progressive and benign shutting down. It is often painful, full of emotion and sorrow, with dignity the first casualty. I don't believe it will be engineers designing an interface with PV manufacturing that will decide our course. It will be a personality, or movement. Hopefully, it will be a Ghandi and not a........

The ability to manufacture IC:s and electronics wont be given up easily, it is a key to wealth and military power as important as steel were in 1910 or 1930. And it also provides manny opportunities for using other resources more efficiently.

'To continue the analogy of the human body'

There was an excellent interview (or was it a post) somewhere (sorry, can't find it now) by a doctor who said the dying human body goes through a steady decline for a while, then there is usually a moment of cascading organ failures bringing on a rapid demise.

I think this is, in fact, a very good analogy for what we are going through. We cannot know exactly when "cascading organ failure" will fully kick in, but it is going to happen at some point.


I couldn't get your link to work, but I have been to the CERN site many times, it is an astounding bit of work, and if it lives up to it's promise the things we may learn are stunning...and also a bit frightening in their implications.

I felt somewhat similiar in being staggered by the level of advancement when I saw the technical presentation in this video:

I am a former auto mechanic and have been involved in machine shops and fabrication, and was stunned (and a bit embarressed) that I did not realize we were nearly this far up the road on hybrid design, and I am the one telling folks here that most people do not realize just how very fast this technology is advancing! Little did I realize that I was falling so far behind the learning curve myself...change is coming folks, and it is going to be BIG.


I did not realize we were nearly this far up the road on hybrid design, and I am the one telling folks here that most people do not realize just how very fast this technology is advancing!

Roger, you must be joking! How many of these cars are there on the road? What is the price tag? How many people can afford one? How long before they have replaced the current automobile fleet? And how about the truck fleet, how long before all 18 wheelers use this technology?

When we start down the backside of peak oil what percentage of the car and truck fleet will use this technology? Actually that is an easy question to answer right now. We are right now at the peak of world oil production and just about to slide down the backside of peak oil. What percentage of all vehicles on the road use this technology right now?

My point Roger, this is not going to make one whit of difference. Hardly anyone has one because only a very wealthy man can afford one. They will never be here soon enough or cheap enough to make a difference. And as for trucks... forget it.

Ron P.

And as for trucks... forget it.

They allready getting started.

A few Google results:

Electric Cars, Green Vehicle :: Phoenix Motorcars, Inc.It is an early leader in the mass production of full function, green electric trucks and SUVs ... News & Events; Why Choose Phoenix? Company; Merchandise

www.phoenixmotorcars.com · Cached pageYouTube - Heavy Duty Electric Truck
In 2007, the Port of Los Angeles and South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) partnered to fund the prototype of the world's most powerful short-range heavy-duty ...

User rating: 5/5 · 58725 views · Added 5/15/2008
www.youtube.com/watch?v=0f1AlrG8gVU · Cached pageElectric Trucks on ThomasNet.comThis industrial directory contains a broad range of Electric Trucks companies serving all industries. This premier and trusted vertical directory contains manufacturers ...

www.zapworld.com/electric-vehicles/electric-cars/xebra-truck · Cached pageBoshart Electric Vehicle - BEV Electric Truck - Boshart ...Boshart Engineering, Our parent company provides testing services ... electric utility truck, utility truck, alt-fuel-vehicle, alternative fuel, electric truck, electric car ...

fleetowner.com/video/why-electric-trucks-smith-0730 · Cached pageRelated Searches
Electric Pickup Truck
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Phoenix Electric Cars
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Phoenix filed for bankruptcy protection. Others will likely fill its place but the point remains that bringing new products to market is perilous business.


most people will never see that technology, in my view, for a variety of reasons that I outline here:

You've Bought Your Last Car

In answer to Ron P and aangel,

Once more, please note what I actually said, I spoke of being "that far up the road in design". I was careful not to speak of production, number of units on the road, etc. My point is that the design of even one vehicle at the level of sophisticated technology they are testing is more than enough to have caught me off guard. I simply would have had doubts that even one could have been built and tested on a track with any real degree of success, and would have doubted any major firm would be making the cash outlay and use of materials and technicians (all who must be paid) on such an exotic project...

Now to other debates, frankly, I will not undertake to challenge the whole "it can't be done" argument. It's just boring after awhile. We will just have to wait and see. I have heard it all my life, about every technical device ever created and put into the marketplace. With some study of history, I now realize that it existed long before I was born...the steamship, the steam train, the airplane, the radio, the television, the original automobile, space travel, on and on and on, were all projects that were a waste of time...what Ron said could have been said, and in fact was said about every single technical breakthrough in history "You must be kidding!"

And aangel, the "You've bought your last car" argument doesn't scare me...you see, I was convinced that was the case in about 1978. I was wrong then, so I have been driving on borrowed time ever since! I will never forget my longing at about the age of 18...the Europeans had these big Mercedes with airbags, and anti lock brakes, and they were not even legal in the U.S., we just could NOT get them...big pretty things, comfy and safe and fast...and I was sure that the auto age was pretty much over in the U.S. Some 20 years later I bought a 14 year old Mercedes 300SDL, 6 cylinder turbocharged Diesel engine, big pretty thing with anti-lock brakes and airbag, comfortable and fast 30 mile per gallon luxury car...it had over 170,000 miles on it by the time I got it, but to me it was still advanced technology of the highest order!

So it goes...only time will tell, but as to the Porsche hybrid I referred to, I think of the great line in the movie "Tucker" when he was dismissed because he never got to mass produce his car..."the number of them doesn't matter, it's the IDEA."

There is only one Mona Lisa.


I couldn't get your link to work

It now goes to a page that says the live webcast is over but the live broadcast was spectacular! To me, even as a layman, it was much more exciting than watching man land on the moon.

As for the Porsche I like the one at the beginning of the video more. Simple design, all electric capable of 50 Km per hour. I'd just apply some composite materials make it a bit more aerodynamic add some new battery technology and a solar charging station and market it at under 5K. If you can do that I'd be impressed. The other one is just a rich man's toy.


I went to Youtube and found some updated stuff on the CERN super collider. I have been there many times and it is always fascinating.

On the Porsche, as I was discussing with some folks before, the cars shown in the video is not what interests me per se, it is the ideas:

Think of it this way: They are showing cars with roughly 600 horsepower (combined gasoline and electric).

The original Volkswagen Beetle had 37 horsepower. The Americans were astounded by that, but in Europe it was very common (Citroen 2CV, Lancia Aprilla, Fiat 500, etc.). So we can safely say that a workable car can easily do on 60 horsepower, in fact that would have been considered an abundance of power in postwar Europe (the Mini Coopers, Alfa's, Porsche's and hotter Fiat 1200's were in fact sold as performance cars with about that much horsepower), or, get this, 10% the amount of horsepower of the Porsche hybrid supercar.

Please think about that...10% of the power of a very workable all wheel drive super hybrid would be enough to power a small road car into infinity at the levels of efficiency being developed in this experimental project. It would have plenty of range with a propane cartridge bottle the size of a fire extinguisher! you could almost put the batteries in a couple of detachable suitcases! The leaps forward in this technology are stunning IF folks really think through the math...you could power half the auto and truck fleet on cow dung and sewer gas alone...

I keep asking people here why firms like Toyota, Porsche, Daimler Benz and BMW are continuing to develop this technology if they believe that (a) there will not be fuel to propel the vehicles or (b) the technology is not a leap forward, then why spend the money? Are we to assume these firms are stupid or suicidal? It seems that most of the firms that have proven suicidal have been the ones who resisted advanced technology, not the ones who embraced it.

Of course the peanut gallery still screams at the top of their lungs, "it can't be done, it can't be done, it can't be done." If history has taught us anything, you would think it would have taught us to bet with the doers, not with the doubters, but there is only one way to silence the doubters who say "it can't be done."

Do it.


I keep asking people here why firms like Toyota, Porsche, Daimler Benz and BMW are continuing to develop this technology if they believe that (a) there will not be fuel to propel the vehicles or (b) the technology is not a leap forward, then why spend the money? Are we to assume these firms are stupid or suicidal? It seems that most of the firms that have proven suicidal have been the ones who resisted advanced technology, not the ones who embraced it

For the same reason people deeply in debt go to mob lone sharks - the belief that somehow they are going to pull this one out, even in the face of all evidence that they most likely won't.

Of course the peanut gallery still screams at the top of their lungs, "it can't be done, it can't be done, it can't be done." If history has taught us anything, you would think it would have taught us to bet with the doers, not with the doubters, but there is only one way to silence the doubters who say "it can't be done."

And how long is that history RC? A few thousand years of humanity, with a hundred or so of the advanced technological era? Less than an eye blink in time. It amazes me the arrogance of humans in thinking that they are so special a species when they have not existed for very long. Nature plays no favorites, nor respects our so called accomplishments.

It amazes me the arrogance of humans in thinking that they are so special a species

Wellll, you must admit that if you were an alien from a distant star arriving on earth for the first time, what species would you be most interested in? Why?


Your comment makes me thing of the old "Are humans smarter than yeast?" question often raised by those who see our future as pre-ordained by evolution and physics....to which I reply "When yeast can invent the birth control pill, then we'll talk." :-)

Of course doesn't that beg the question as to why humans have to have birth control in the first place? Of course any form of birth control is only effective if used, and ignorance, religion and superstition (is that redundant?) limits it's effectiveness; nope, we can't have that, I got to be able to breed at will! Seeing that we are already in overshoot, likely too little too late (notice the use of the word likely - doomers should stick to the terms of probability - even if they are convinced they are right). Of course other advanced species on earth don't need birth control since we doing such a great job at controlling their numbers.

The whole anthropocentric view reminds me of a scene from "My Cousin Vinny":

Vinny Gambini: What about these pants I got on? You think they're okay?

Mona Lisa Vito: Imagine you're a deer. You're prancing along. You get thirsty. You spot a little brook. You put your little deer lips down to the cool, clear water - BAM. A f*ckin' bullet rips off part of your head. Your brains are lying on the ground in little bloody pieces. Now I ask ya, would you give a f*ck what kind of pants the son-of-a-b*tch who shot you was wearing?

Do you think nature gives a damn what kind of pants we are wearing?

lengould, but if your asking me to bet my money (another very recent invention by the way) would I bet it AGAINST the last "few thousand years"? :-)


hmmm. maybe sperm whales; largest and most complex brains.

the odds of an alien from a distant star arriving in the stroboscopically brief period of human fossil-fueled overshoot are probably low enough to dismiss. For most of human history we have only been the most interesting species by the same standard rabbits think rabbits are the most interesting species.

I was actually thinking an alien might find humans the most "interesting" species in the same way campers in Canada find bears "interesting".

I arrived on earth nearly 50 years ago and during my first few decades I found life and climate very interesting. For the last two decades I’ve found human behavior, technology, energy and systems very interesting. Now I’m mostly working on finding refuge from what I’ve found.

Aliens would only find humans and their technology interesting if we managed to survive for several tens of thousands of years, having avoided self-destruction. But I think that upon cursory examination they would understand us, know the outcome of our current trajectory and perhaps harvest the most useful parts of the planet. Even aliens are created within the thermodynamic crucible and have needs.

If the aliens have six legs and exoskeleton they may find cockroaches most interesting, or perhaps ants because of their social organizations and long histories.

Wellll, you must admit that if you were an alien from a distant star arriving on earth for the first time, what species would you be most interested in? Why?

The Cuttlefish! Because...


It is said that when Nikita Khruschev first went to the USA, before anything he asked to be taken to an American Supermarket, those emporiums of abundance, and see with his own eyes if what he had been told was the truth, or just capitalist propaganda.
He was so astounded that when he spoke to the President of the USA the first thing he told him was,
-You have to introduce me to the man who's in charge of providing this city with bread. The man is a genius! So much bread, so many varities! Where's him, , how does he do it, who's him?
The President didn't even understand what he was talking about.
-Who's in charge of getting bread to the stores in New York? No one!

It may be true that the Invisible Hand of the Market will get somewhat palsied if there's no petrol.

The provision of bread in the USSR was about making sure people were fed (and therefore reducing the risk of unrest in the masses),while in OECD countries its about making money. This, combined with a transport fuel crisis, has some horrible potential.

If it interesets anyone, this article gives a fantastic description of Emile Durkheim's theory of Organic Solidarity. Durkheim,the first sociologist to use statistical analysis in his research and a founder of the structural/functionalist theory of social behavior, theorized that as societies grew in size they had to also grow in complexity.

In doing so, a society moved from "mechanical solidarity", where each individual more or less automatically knows their duties in society (by virtue of their position in society and their personal relationships with other people), to organic solidarity where people may not know or care about how they fit in with society, but are even more dependent upon the actions of those around them.

Interesting article. Thank you for posting this. Without our Petroleum Servants the world will change rapidly. How is this not obvious to everyone?

Shiraz -- If such thoughts interest you might check out chaos theory and the concept of "complex adaptive systems." But I suspect you're aleady familiar.

There is a lot of talk in these kinds of articles on civilizations collapsing, and it appears that the clear favorite example of that is the fall of Rome. Many volumes have been written about this subject.

I take a somewhat contrary view that examples such as the fall of Rome are less an example of a total civilization collapsing and more of an example of ruling power merely changing hands. While there obviously was a very important city called Rome, the idea of a Roman civilization is mainly an abstraction. I would venture, given the limitations of both transportation and long-distance social interactions, that some poor farmer or tradesman in the hinterlands of what is now Italy (and not even the wild outer reaches of the Empire), didn't pay much attention to what was going on in Rome. Same old corruption, same old political intrigue, same old same old. Just pay your excessive taxes to keep the rulers happy and then go on with your own life.

So, when the so-called fall of Rome occurred, I bet there were many 'Romans' in the hinterlands (many of which, by the way, didn't even speak Latin in the classical form we know of today) that simply shrugged their shoulders and said, "Oh yeah ..... well so what?"

The point I am trying to make, in a rather roundabout way, is that one must make a distinction between a superficial change in political structure and a real change in the way real people actually conduct their day-to-day lives. They are not always the same thing.

I strongly agree with this. The "fall of Rome" is rather overstated IMO and is nothing like the systemic collapse predicted by many here. I also disagree with many analogies thrown around by PO authors (for lack of a better term) and commenters on this site. Analogizing complex systems to more basic functions like "cutting off your finger" or what have you seems more like an appeal to emotions than anything else.

OTOH the demise of the Roman system in complexity terms (in Britannia at least) did effectively end the use of plumbing for more than half a millennium.

complex civilisation=plumbing in my book

the definition of societal collapse that i use is the notion the taps(of the day) stop working and you have to sh1t in a hole

OTOOH the roman urban complexity which was mirrored to a lesser extent in posh rural villa culture did lead the disappearance of civic plumbing... however given that the urban population of a Roman Provence such as Britannia may have been as low as 5% then does the end of the Urban good life equate to a significant change in lifestyle... it may represent a increase if the burden of complexity is thrown onto a slave class.

which oddly supports Tainters argument just not in the way he describes.. in this instance the diminishing returns argument still applies to a collapse model that embraces a low impact of systemic failure for a society that never really shared the benefits of this complexity in the first place...

somethings rotten... there was a post about this topic somewhere?

I reckon this inequality issue is somehow related to the complexity one

After the second Saxon rebellion pottery production in what is now northern England stopped completly. When it did recover it was no where near the quality that it had previously been. Even basic services such as pottery production can be severly affected in a collapse.

Now we are becoming like the Bees. Something In my simple mind, I can comprehend and understand. It must be in my genetic programming. Cooperation beats competition. All live together, in harmony. Unlimited growth, or growth for growths sake must be terminated, as it shall be. A balance unto nature, as Native Americans lived (once).An end to slavery to progress and innovation.

Your old, unproductive relative sent to a ice shelf to await their death and re-birth (through freezing or Polar Bear) as a natural part of the re-cycling of life... beautiful indeed. Humanitys growth checked by natural balances, natural balances restored. It may be "cruel" sometime. I do believe it is better than the current future we face proscribed by our "Debt Masters". We now find ourselves debt slaves... and can never escape it. Why don't you ask a Native American what "DEBT" or "OWNERSHIP" or "MONEY" is... they don't have an answer... Where is your mind?

I don't mean to be harsh, however Native Americans cannot answer such questions because not only can they not answer the questions, it is far beyond their "simple understanding"... they find the "SIMLPE WESTERN MAN" concepts of "debt" "ownership" and "money" foreign to them... WHAT A BEAUTIFUL LIFE INDEED!

Debt, Ownership and Money are all illusionary concepts, proscribed by those in charge. Who are those in charge? What are their driving illusions? POWER! CONTROL! SUBSURVIENCE! Believe the illusions the media presents before your eyes, and the pundits carress your ears with! I have no answers, I only acknowledge that we are all riding a train, the same train, heading to the cliff with the bridge out and the abyss fast approcahing... Enjoy the ride down...

Debt, Ownership and Money are all illusionary concepts, proscribed by those in charge. Who are those in charge?heading to the cliff with the bridge out and the abyss fast approcahing... Enjoy the ride down..yes i think it right.laptop battery laptop battery.

Interesting phraseology:

Those in charge of the charge towards the cliff ...

a.k.a. Lemming Leadership

Who is that one with the life preserver? Left click for bigger image

One more cartoon:

Caption: I'd like to question the leadership in charge of this charge
Response: Shut up and stay the course

There are several serious systemic problems with our global economy.

The first is that conventional economic thinking doesnt recognise the economy as a subsystem of the biosphere (see Nates post on this from last year).

Secondly, there is a serious level of suboptimization going on within the economic subsystem. The economy, but especialy the finance sector, is clearly attempting to dominate all other subsystems in our society. This ranges from political control, for example globilization, which gives corporations almost unrestricted access of geopolitical borders, to advertizing and the manipulation of the masses into buy crap they dont need just to secure a profit. This is clear dominance of the social heirachy from top to bottom.

From a systems analyst perspective, this dominance is also a clear sign of system failure and the problems that go with it such as runaway collapses over time.

I still stick with my analogy that the economy can be compared to a cancer. Both of which are subsystems of the great whole.When the economy consisted of banks to fascilitate cash flows and corporations for the efficinent distribution of goods it worked fine but now it has exponentialy grown and has tentacles reaching everywhere in our society and biosphere.
In the case of the body, the liver, an essential organ and subsystem also worked fine until it developed cancer. This then grows exponentially until finaly rupturing and killing the host.This is the potential for both the world economy and human population growth.

I didn't see Nates post, but lets see if I can answer your questions: The economy as a subsystem of the biosphere... Obviously both are sick and not doing well.. the cause of the disease: Human Manipulation What would be the cure? Human Extinction! I'm not oppossed and might even become a fan!

Oh yes, the service financial sector, and financial dominance... guess we'll just keep buying and selling illusionary goods and services to each other unto their total and utter declared worth becomes 0. Some kind of law of diminishing returns, you think? Who needs the goddamned farmers... I buy my food at a grocery store! Look man, I've got some GOLD for that fine piece of meat you got there...LOL...

Unbalanced system: GIGO .... FOOK it I will eat my computer! Humans can kill off every other living thing, conquer all the land, populate beyond belief, and still survive! Thats when Soylent Green kicks in.

My note here merely says: "Good Anology"

Time for bed!

Sarcastic as I may be at times, Human Beings, as an intelligent species, always had a choice! Which was to control their breeding! Look, 8 billion is not sustainable! When it was merely 4 billion (70's) we had a choice! But no, we had to breed and reproduce! Have you seen the lesson of Easter Island??? I controlled mine, and yes, I am angry at the Birthers and Breeders because you have brung us here! Much of the Planet starves, and there is no easy solution, except that of death! Jay Hansons site, dieoff.org succiently says it all... we had 100 years to get Industrial society right,, we failed, your surviving children shall live like stone-age cavemen.

I would first note that I am somewhere between a cornucopian and a doomer. Varies. That said, I would posit to the extremist doomers that they are being far too culture-centric. My position is that without regard for what may or may not happen in "western" civilizations, the Chinese and Indians and likely others (Cambodians?, Vietnamese?, Indonesians?, Thai?) are a) too short in time from days of no fossil energy and b) too assured of their cultural integrity; to allow drastic collapse. Points: 1) They now have all the knowledge that weatern societies have. 2) Due to historic cultural experience and tradition, they are not likely to fail dramatically, perhaps simply descend gracefully back into the conditions of the 1500's, still a very highly civilized and well-ordered society.

Given that China with eg. 500 million population, and all scientific, technical and medical knowledge presently available, will exist indefinitely in future, how does that affect your proposed doom scenaria?

Where do you get the figure 500 million Chinese living sustainably from? Concidering their economy has been growing at approximatly 10% for the last 30 years with hardly any environmental protection in place means that they are now suffering from sever degradation, which is still ongoing.

per http://www.scaruffi.com/politics/chinese.html

"1900: China's population is 467 million"

however, I also note that in the same site is

"1801: China's population is 295 million"

So, your position is that China will not be able to support the population it did in 1900, even with the knowledge they've gained since? I presume you're proposing reduced growth capacity of the land which cannot be in any way mitigated.

Got a reference specific to China which might possibly make your position at all credible?

"So, your position is that China will not be able to support the population it did in 1900, even with the knowledge they've gained since? I presume you're proposing reduced growth capacity of the land which cannot be in any way mitigated."

In Jarred Diamonds book Collapse he states that per capita available cropland is now half that of the world average and aproaching the level of those found in Rwanda just before the genocide took place. China is also suffering from the fastest levels of desertification in the world as well as the other environmental problems they face that go hand in hand with an expanding economy.

They could try to make up any agricultural shortfalls with imports but considering the world peak in oil production is on us and China itself is due to peak this decade in coal production, these energy constraints are likely to hamper any efforts to do so.

Also note that a recent study claims that 70% of currently arable land will be desert by 2025.


"1900: China's population is 467 million"

however, I also note that in the same site is

"1801: China's population is 295 million"

Thats quite a rapid rise in population concidering China didnt industrialize during this time. Do you think this was due to an improvement in agricutural practices?

A very naive question - is it possible to model the global economy, as is done with climate/ocean circulation? With a lot of subroutines for the raw materials produced, products shipped, money spent, debt, etc.?

Then one could, say, increase the cost of producing the marginal barrel of oil to a variety of levels, let each one play out many times, and draw some conclusions about whether we should look forward to a gradual decline, total collapse, or something else.

dovey -- Possible but complex, of course. And as I have crudely stated before with regards to my view of many modeling efforts: Modeling is a lot like masterbation: It's OK as long as you remember it's not the real thing.

Well of course it's not the real thing - the goal is to predict the future - once it actually happens, no need for a model.

What is confusing is the variety of projections for what happens as demand for oil outstrips supply and drives the price up - is there an epic collapse, or more of a slow spiral downward? Modeling would would be one way to gain insight on this complex question.


Have to say I'm a little surprised. Even with (for their populations) colossal and massive reserves with most of it exported, oil can even have two well supplied states in the Persian Gulf coming to blows over oil/gas ownership rights! This has dark omens I think for what happens when peak oil creates real shortages and one more powerful state has no oil coming in, while another weaker one exports large amounts to richer and more distant states...

Interesting article. I saw this article a day after talking to a friend who is a Porsche mechanic. He is an old school type actually trained in Germany, an American who speaks fluent German. He stopped working for the dealer and started his own shop because the dealers no longer pay wages for experienced mechanics. They now employ young people who have passed an eight week course with, for example, one week for the electrical system. So something, anything is wrong with the engine then replace it. No one is trained to be a real mechanic that can repair the engine; that must be done at the factory. What would happen if something happened to our ability to access new engines from the factory? Porsche become throwaway cars? My understanding is that it is not just Porsche but every car dealer service shop is like this now. I seriously doubt our ability to maintain our existing automobiles if there were some significant event like a war that cut us off from the overseas supply of major parts assemblies.

I was watching a TV program about Apache attack helicopters. They use a similar replacement rather than repair system, so if they suffer damage they can have a quick turnaround and get them back in the action again. Of course if you dont have the parts to make the replacement your not going to have a turnaround.