Letter to President Obama: Yes We Could, But Are We?

Below the fold is a reposting of an open letter I wrote to newly elected President Obama 20 months ago (posted here as Yes We Can But Will We?). The essay touches on principles of natural capital, debt, and human demand drivers and suggested some ways forward for the then President-elect. In retrospect, I didn't understand the intricacies of our debt crisis at that time (as I now believe debt deflation and or currency reform are clearer and more present threats than resource depletion or environmental damage in upsetting the social applecart), and that large scaling of wind turbines (as I recommend below) may in many ways be counterproductive unless that plan is accompanied by an entirely different economic system and expectations. I don't think Obama, 20 months in, has done much, but I still think he will be able to, even after a mid-term election setback, accomplish more than any likely successors might as far as radical positive steps. Though only a small % of our population understands the details of what has brought us to this place of angst and limited options, many if not most sense there is something unsustainable and undesirable about our current trajectory. The below perspective may never be articulated in response to that angst, but should at least be considered.

I should point out that after the fact, there are errors and things I no longer believe written below and even a few things that 20 months on are embarrassing to see that I wrote. And as a side note, as confident as I was about the below text at year end 2008, I am now equally confident about currency/finance as the weakest link on the horizon, which makes me wonder what I'll be confident about 20 months hence...

The below post/letter is very important to me, as it brings together much of what I have worked on the past few years. We are at a major crossroads in the history of our nation and our world - the juncture where financial capital no longer can function as an effective marker for real capital. The crisis we face is the product of our own success - therefore it is highly unlikely to be fixed with the same policies and thinking that steered us to the present precipice. There are dozens if not hundreds of salient aspects of our supply and demand situation, each with its own cheerleaders, opponents and unaware. Unless one casts a wide boundary net, myopic focus on any particular issue runs the risk of creating more long term harm than good. In this letter, I attempt to highlight our situation's most critical components, not claiming other issues are unimportant, but that the following principles likely trump/supercede the others:

1) It is energy, not money, that powers our economies. Money is only a marker for real capital and the divergence is large and growing at an accelerating pace.

2) All energy is not equal- each energy investment entails different input costs, and has different output quality, often not recognized by the market system, nor by many environmentalists. We are at peak oil globally and are likely approaching the net energy cliff for the USA.

3) We can likely deal with energy decline, but our current economic system of claims and wealth distribution cannot. It is likely that collective policy responses to resource depletion (more debt) will create another form of bottleneck in the form of currency/credit crises.

4)The highest odds for arriving at a better energy future lie in exploration of, understanding of, and ultimate jettisoning of our cultural addiction/habituation to conspicuous consumption. Ends and then means.

Dear President Obama,

Let me start by explaining where I am coming from. Until a few years ago, I worked as a Wall Street trader and hedge fund manager. I am now finishing a PhD. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont with a specialization in Ecological Economics. I am neither capitalist nor communist nor Republican nor Democrat, but just a concerned citizen of this country and this planet. I have recently come to see that there is a great deal hidden from view both about our energy resources and our energy consumption. In this letter, I would like to explain what some of these things are. In addition to this overview, there are over 3,000 essays and analyses in theoildrum.com archives, written by a staff of extremely bright civically minded volunteers, outlining the myriad energy challenges and opportunities we face.


Imagine two scenarios - 1)in the first 2 years of your Presidency, the US Treasury 'prints' $100 trillion** of new 'capital' to be spent on infrastructure, reviving the economy, etc. - far in excess of the $1.2 trillion budget deficit you expect to incur in 2009 (and even in excess of the $24 trillion the IEA has suggested needs to be spent to assure future oil flows) - and 2)instead of issuing this new debt, all the world's billionaires and nations in monetary surplus donate this $100 trillion to the US Treasury – effectively for you/Congress to spend and allocate.

In the second scenario, we are not only out of hock but rich again! All problems solved right? DJIA 30,000? Not so fast - there is another important fact connected to this thought experiment. The energy surplus (gross energy less energy costs) we derive from world fossil fuels is declining, possibly approaching energy break-even for new fields in the US. It requires about 245 kilojoules to lift 5kg of oil 5 km out of the ground - a physical (minimum) fact that will not vary whether the number of digits in the worlds banks increases or shrinks. As such, the above two scenarios would both be equally ineffective at reviving the economy for any period of time- even with plenty of 'money' - the first would likely just add an extra digit or two to the nominal lack of goods affordability.

Energy and natural resources are what we have to spend - in the long run a transfer of money from rich to poor (or vice versa) is just a transfer of one abstraction to another abstraction - those altruistic billionaires will feel poorer and the government dole recipients will feel successfully bailed out, but the real assets constraining future trajectories didn't change. In the (very) short run however, whoever holds the money, does control the energy. Due to our belief in fiat, short run changes to monetary system (rules, leverage, margin, debt, derivatives, etc), CAN increase the energy spigot. But at a steep price.

Oil Supply Costs Based on CERA Analysis - From
Horizon Energy November Investor Presentation
-Click to Enlarge


Our society survives as any living organism does, on top of harnessing daily solar ecosystem services we convert carbon from a low state of entropy to a higher state of entropy and live off the heat produced by the reaction. The easy carbon (fossil fuel) pickings have largely been picked. Though costs have been coming down in past few months, the above graph gives a flavor of the problem that until recently the IEA/CERA/Bodmans of the world would not voice - the horizon of overall affordability for social democracies is receding, and though the manifestation may be in currencies and debt, the origins are in energy / natural resources. The average replacement cost of oil is far in excess of the current commodity price, especially in non-OPEC countries.

To increase reserves and maintain flow rates, we must drill in the oceans, off continental shelves, use expensive horizontal laterals, drill deeper and in more environmentally sensitive areas and define more things as oil. Technology is always in a race with depletion, and in the late innings loses at an accelerated rate (due to complexity). Because of this, costs have risen much faster than revenues.

The fact that US oil and gas stocks have plummeted while oil is still 400% higher than a decade ago, is suggestive we are far closer to energy break-even than the DOE or API might admit, and $ break-even will occur before energy break-even. The heavy economic lifting so long undertaken by the energy sector will soon need help from the rest of 'productive' society, or from exporting countries which face similar problems.

With new investments being unaffordable and/or unfinanceable, the global oil production rate will increasingly align with its natural decline rate - approaching 7-8% and rising as small/offshore fields replace giant/onshore ones. This suggests even with current deflationary forces due to credit unwind, we likely have a few short years before depletion again overtakes even reduced demand, and this time, there will be no new peak in supply when prices rise. If the economic system remains intact, we will have a series of high amplitude price swings in oil and natural gas, getting sharper and shorter as depletion/high costs dominate. Indeed, it is probably the slope of the net energy cliff which will shape our future more than anything else (assuming social stability is maintained through paper currency reform).

Essentially Mr. President, though there is undoubtedly a great deal of oil and gas remaining, a lower aggregate energy surplus means it may cost more to procure than society has the ability to pay, at least in the currencies that matter: energy and other limited natural resources. (An example of a hypothetical society encountering lower energy surplus can be read here). Debt and cheap energy have allowed positional goods consumption to increase for the majority of Americans who are not in the top tiers of society -without cheap energy or available (fiat) credit, the camouflaged social barriers within our country are likely to fade away.

High quality, low cost energy has enabled our economic engine, and kept our social democracy intact. There is a high correlation between energy consumption per person and GDP over the past 50 years. If energy costs continue to increase in energy terms, even with trillions of new credit injected via your government entities, it will eventually require more in energy inputs to procure a new barrel of oil from domestic territory than the amount of joules contained in that barrel.

Of course, most energy 'analysts', trained in economic concepts will say 'all we need is $30,40,50 trillion and we will have enough energy for decades'. Don't fall for it Mr. President. At some point between $1.2 trillion and the $100 trillion thought experiment, even Rush Limbaugh and Larry Kudlow will recognize that ‘money’ can't procure ‘resources’. Marginal costs of growth now likely exceed marginal benefits, so that real physical growth makes us poorer, not richer.

Bite the bullet now and admit that growth was great while it was possible but now each additional trillion you create from thin air to feed the current constituency, makes their childrens future so much worse. Without increases in energy we cannot grow (unless we conserve or become more efficient), without growth we cannot repay debt, without debt we won't finance future energy development. And every additional debt dollar is already adding less and less to GDP. The sooner we educate policymakers about this constraint the better choices we will make - Energy and scarce resources are what we have to spend – money is just who has the energy (for now).

-Click to Enlarge

The fundamental principles of net energy are ignored by most in Washington (and the energy industry) where costs in terms of dollars and market signal via current price have been the lone decision criteria that have brought us to this energy precipice. The energy return on the energy we are spending is declining, possibly rapidly (we can only estimate these figures because data is no longer kept in non-$ terms).

As we replace 'old, high energy surplus' sources with 'new, lower energy surplus' alternatives, our energy cash flow decreases. At some minimum aggregate threshold (red line in graph), the entire surplus is spent on maintenance, repair, etc. and there can no longer be growth - I believe we are past this point. (We do know we've gone from over 100:1 in the 1930s to 30:1 in the 1970s to a range of 10-17:1 in 2000 (primer) and something anecdotally much less today (note: this is total energy return, which is fixed plus marginal - marginal costs for oil are very low -basic lifting and some labor-, raising the possibility we are in the midst of a stealth energy cliff -since most energy infrastructure was built and paid for when oil/natural gas prices were low, we are still 'spending' the cheap marginal flow rates from earlier days, even though we can't afford their replacements!)

It is logical that financial analysts, or even Presidents, don't start to notice our decline in physical return until the lack of continued energy surplus eats into the economy, forcing the 'profit' to be made up different ways (no-doc loans, leverage for banks, easy credit, etc.) - essentially in abstract ways not tethered to anything physical. Lead into gold but in reverse. The situation is even more dire on the natural gas treadmill, as it is largely a domestic market, overall decline is approximately 40% per year, and the commodity price is far below both average and marginal cost. Drilling and exploration will crash befor your Presidency ends, and production with it.

In a sentence, we have lots of energy, but not enough cheap energy to continue a social democracy 300 million strong pursuing growth and possessing the claims and aspirations they believe are theirs.

(*Note In the Journal - Energies, there is an upcoming paper by Hall, Murphy et al. titled "What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?" that looks at the above concepts in greater detail.


Modern society has been built and developed not only on a large annual energy surplus, but also become dependent on specific energy properties. Light sweet crude oil is incredibly energy dense, transportable at room temperature, and can be procured from a very small land footprint -drilling under the earths surface. Energy quality, such as differences in power density, gravimetric and volumetric density, conversion efficiencies, intermittency, storability, environmental externalities, spatial distribution, transportability, etc. is not equal - even (and especially) because an energy alternative is labeled as 'green'. A successful energy transition will match up the energy asset/liability balance sheet of our built infrastructure. The new post-fossil fuel era will require huge changes, as the mismatch currently is so large as to be virtually impossible once depletion catches up with the fall in demand (barring a war-time scaling of nuclear/(thorium?) plants).

Finally, Energy Return on Energy Invested(EROI or ERoEI) times scale added up over energy types gives us a rough idea of our energy budget, but we can (and should) calculate similar ratios for other limiting resources – Energy Return on Water Invested, Energy Return on Land invested, etc.

As net energy declines, it stands to reason that the Energy return on NON-ENERGY inputs will decline faster. (examples are going from concentrated light sweet oil fields to tar sands, needing both more land, and water inputs – ditto with biofuels.) Once we approach and sink into a single digit average EROEI era, a higher % of energy AND non-energy resources (water, labor, land, etc.) will have to be devoted to energy production. This is the as yet unseen tragedy of biofuels and similar low energy gain technologies. On the surface, they seem better (renewable), but a) the inputs allocated to their procurement previously generated far more energy - (returns that are no longer available yet continue to be spent being the key point), b )they require more land, water, NPK, and generate negative externalities (large scale windpower a notable exception).

Each attempt to buttress the energy supply side of our situation should be measured in a multi-criteria framework.


Debt serves as a spatial and temporal re-allocator of goods and services from the future and periphery to the present and center. In every single year I've been alive our country has increased its debt more than we grew our output. The amount of debt, depending on assumptions is north of $60 trillion, and over $100 trillion if we include unfunded Social Security and Medicare benefits. Austerity measures and new social goals are what are called for, yet the growth treadmill demands constant new debt issuance to service the aggregate of prior claims or the whole house of cards implodes. Remember that money is created by the will of our bankers - a loan and deposit are both simultaneously willed into existence and our 'money as debt' balance sheet increases both ledgers - however the loan is issued with terms 'plus interest' so over time debt at time T requires higher output at time T+1 otherwise a deflationary cycle begins absent new aggregate credit creation.

New debt that is injected into the economy, as long as it is spent somewhere on something (anything), will create GDP that wouldn’t otherwise exist. You will face this Keynesian carrot early on as a seeming answer to our problems. It is not. Keynesianism dies in the face of resource depletion and net energy decline. New (net) debt at the end of a paradigm will feed hungry mouths but at a cost of destroying our currency. I should point out you are not alone in facing this problem. Essentially the whole developed world creates leveraged credit without tether.

Supply side summary ===> Maximize the quality adjusted, non-energy input equalized, 'energy cash flow'. This is your real 'budget'. (A stricter, 'greener' budget would also internalize the externalities.) In order to do this you need to get away from people measuring 'wealth' in digits. As seen below, this will not be easy, but certainly is doable.


Our species in general and Americans in particular have the wiring and drive to be consumptive machines. No matter how many goods we acquire over time, our pecuniary desires seem to increase faster than our acquisitions. Combine this with our mirror neurons(video), between-and-within-nation aspiration gaps (based on biologic underpinnings of relative fitness), an evolutionary penchant for waste, a built in drive to outcompete, a culture that fosters keeping up with the Joneses with a high % of Veblen goods, and the result is a frenetic feedback loop that has a vast plurality of Americans now Jonesing, many nearly broke, obese, and a fair number realizing, without knowing the details, that something is amiss. Alternative measures of 'keeping score' other than GDP concur that we are losing ground. Fortunately, subjective well being studies show we are equally happy as the average Phillipino, yet use 39 times the primary energy. This I view (as should you) as a great opportunity. In the end, humans are 'adaptation-executors', not utility maximizers. (This is really an ace in the hole - because it strongly suggests we do not need the economic 'utility' machine to make us happy).

Facing our bigger problems requires that we individually and collectively become better able to consider and more heavily weight the future vis-a-vis the present. However, recent research suggests that addicts, and many other social groups (including men), have steeper discount rates - less able to access longer term thinking and action. Furthermore, there are numerous cognitive biases, ideological immunity (the Planck Problem), and belief systems that stand in the way of change.

Demand Side Summary===> We are hard-wired to compete, and our brains are easily hijacked and confused by modern stimuli. Both these aspects lead to incredible wastes of energy and resources. It is the most politically difficult area, but also the one with lots of low hanging fruit.


We are trained to believe that "money" is to the economy what "energy" is to the physical world. Your current advisers extrapolate what is "economically" possible to be "physically" possible too - but this is patently untrue. If energy is what we have to spend, we are even running more of a deficit that commonly known. We import 70% of our oil and pay for it with dollars. Someday soon someone will recognize this trick. "Replacing" this quantity and quality of energy is not possible, nor affordable by a long shot. Admit this, devote resources to accurately determining what our energy and natural resource principal and cash flows are and then make difficult choices on how to allocate these. A great many marginal industries are going to have to be stopped. Greener substitutions will require multi-criteria analysis: e.g. a move from ICE to electric cars would still need to consider the metals used and the significant water requirements vis-a-vis what they replace.

A birds-eye view will see our system as little more than satisfying short term cravings, turning resources rapidly into garbage, and concentrating wealth claims in fewer and larger hands. Repeat every day. Wealth itself is not bad, but a social democracy will stretch only so far in its GINI coefficient before snapping - (look to some European peers for (more) successful models). From a prescriptive standpoint, looking beyond putting out the Presidential short term fires du jour, the long term strategy should be some sort of Ecological Keynesianism, that is, spending of financial capital to best maximize future real capital. If we can’t get enough current flow rate from surplus energy we will borrow from poor countries, from environments, and increasingly, from the future.

The demand side is where the real opportunities lie: the main points are that we need to understand why humans behave the way they do, otherwise we are not going anywhere. Missing on your staff are neuroscientists, behavioral economists, and evolutionary psychologists – three disciplines that will eventually, given time and energy, converge on a unified theme of human nature. One driver that is already clear is that we cannot change our neural drive to want ‘more’ – but we can, via cultural transmission, via example and via strong visionary leadership, change how we ‘define’ more.

Here is a sampling of some ideas that may help. As radical as some may seem, these are the types of steps needed to turn in the right direction. Almost by definition they are all politically untenable, but that is the point we have reached:

1)Put a floor on energy prices. The marginal barrel is killing future production. However, wait 6 months or so in doing this. Then the market will show you how many of these 'alternative energies' are actually viable, given that we don't have accurate energy input output data. However, if oil (and particularly natural gas) prices remain below average cost for long, depletion is going to accelerate beyond what we can judiciously manage.

2) Scale wind turbines everywhere that they can be scaled, particularly those places with offsetting hydro-electric backup. On a long term basis they are a far better investment than new money towards oil or natural gas, provided that updating the grid receives commensurate attention. But that means moving away from liquid fuels in a timely fashion and eventually moving away from 24/7 365 electricity on demand. (Wind has added benefit of not increasing water requirements for electric vehicles)

3a) Focusing energy policy and social change on anthropogenic global warming is at best a half-measure and at worst could have negative repercussions, for two reasons: First, if there is a cold winter or three for whatever reason, and in a period of severe economic hardships high quality energy is being used to mitigate GHGs that might be spent on other needs then the populace may quickly lose their buy-in to carbon taxes etc. and behavioral changes that were enacted DUE to global warming. But more importantly: it removes focus and responsibility from the larger problems we face: as long as we compete for conspicuous consumption, the non-GHG externalities from more consumption will increase to offset GHG reduction policies (kind of like quitting drinking and taking up sugar – 'serotonin deficiency' is root cause not alcoholism).

In sum, we should definitely be concerned about our impact on planetary ecosystems (our nest) and what toxins we emit, but this should be part of a larger science based roadmap not the entire roadmap. This will have the positive externality of mitigating climate change as well! In a sentence, we can't fight AGW by compromising our energy predicament, but can fight both by reducing consumption.

3b) On the spectrum of carbon taxes, cap and trade ,etc. consider gradually introducing a consumption tax instead. Subsidize basic needs and severely tax Veblen goods.

4)Gradually move to 100% reserve requirements in the banking system and once a new social goal other than GDP is set, eliminate the Basel II haircut advantages for sovereign, AAA debt etc. Creating money (and debt) only partially out of thin air is preferable to completely out of thin air. .

5)Our behaviour and ability to plan for the future is impacted by the poor nutrition most accessible in our current food system. We need healthier choices in our schools, convenience stores and supermarkets, perhaps even a subsidy for growing home gardens. In addition to having an obesity epidemic that is accelerating, sugar has now been shown to be a gateway drug (Hoebel, Princeton) and chronic use results in lowered serotonin levels which in turn increases discount rates which has been shown to increase our focus of thinking about what they want/need today at a cost to the future. Exactly the opposite of what we need to impact longer term sustainability. (So a meaningful chunk of both basic needs procurement and behavioural change can be accomplished by moving away from industrial agriculture/ processed food and towards more locally intensive, whole food production).

If we can't grow the food locally and provide appropriate nutrition, I would consider taxing or eliminating altogether refined sugar products, and refined carbohydrate foods in our grocery stores and convenience stores. Instituting national exercise programs (like in Naperville IL), would also pay neural dividends. America has lost our ability to wait for the second marshmallow, and our diets are at least partially to blame.

6)In the same vein, biophysical facts are going to require economic triage - some businesses and sectors are going to have to go. Consider directing this inevitability by taxing or eliminating any industry promoting products that lead to addiction, making us culturally less able to act for the long term; e.g. the gambling industry, indian casinos, Vegas, online poker rooms etc. The easy access millions of young people worldwide have to online poker contributes (as do many things) to hijacking our neural dopamine highways, which we then habituate to and consume more in other areas. People will continue to gamble regardless of actions taken, but at least the revenues will filter locally. Most neuroscientists and evolutionary biologists would agree we are not 'intelligent' enough to overcome the smorgasbord of impulses offered. I recommend reading "American Mania" by Dr Peter Whybrow at UCLA or contacting him directly. In a sentence, in addition to positive examples, we're going to need negative reinforcements as well. Sticks and carrots, directed away from waste and towards primary needs. It has been done before.

7 Eliminate leverage on Wall Street. Yes this will remove 'income' opportunities, but it will deter future volatility, and inherently transfer human talent into more productive sectors Derivatives are creative ways up squeezing more social amplitude out of nothing, by creating nothing and the vast majority aren't helping manage future risks but enlarging them.

8. I expect you will soon advocate a large fiscal stimulus program. Instead of $500 stimulus checks that will be spent on short term stuff, please consider something out of the box, like gifting a quality bicycle to each American instead. Bicycles are the most energy efficient invention known to man, better than walking, far better than driving, and slightly better than a full double decker bus. They represent a long term investment in energy infrastructure, improved health, and a statement of change. Those too young, old or infirm to use the bicycles can trade them for other necessities, but the bikes will be out there, as part of future energy savings. If this is too radical perhaps start by giving corporate tax incentives for those who bike to work.

Please take seriously the task of matching our real assets with our real liabilities as soon as possible. You are a very smart man and well understand the implications of acting later as opposed to sooner on these tough choices, when our liabilities have increased and our assets have shrunk. Just ahead of us is a waterfall that few can clearly see. Even our scientists are focused on measuring the water speed, distance to the waterfall, building bigger canoes and larger life preservers, etc. But one path that hasn't been duly considered, is just paddling towards shore, and walking the rest of the way. You're the President, so if anyone in politics can resist the pressure to conform, you can.

Yes we can, but we need to use lateral thinking, be realistic, and be bold.


Nate Hagens
Gund Institute for Ecological Economics
Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources
Editor - www.theoildrum.com

p.s. If ever in doubt, Herman Daly is just a cab ride away.

** I chose $100 Trillion arbitrarily - but it happens to be the figure that Matthew Simmons, energy advisor to your predecessor, suggests we need to replace the rusted iron ore and steel in global energy delivery infrastructure -if correct, this is 4 times the current global stock market capitalization - E N E R G Y and Other limiting Resources Are What We Have To Spend (and the cheap stuff is gone). . .

"So I have just one wish for you -- the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom." -- Richard Feynman

as I now believe debt deflation and or currency reform are clearer and more present threats than resource depletion or environmental damage in upsetting the social applecart

Kudos to your willingness and openness to publicly re-evaluate your previous advice with the passing of time - most people (myself included) might be tempted to sweep their's under the rug.

Is upsetting the social applecart entirely undesirable? Some who opposed the stimulus say "let another depression happen - it would be a natural free market correction." Wouldn't the Big Kahuna (demand) be forced to reset to more reasonable levels? How closely are the 'social applecart' and BAU lifestyles intertwined?

What would your updated advice look like now, if you were to write another open letter? You've mentioned changing your #2 recommendation; which others would change, and in what way? What other ones would you add?

And if you could borrow a crystal ball from someone, how might the updated advice be reviewed by you in another 20 months?

The greater part of your recommendations I would still support (including distributing bicycles if a massive production surge could be addressed satisfactorily), so I look forward to the update.

Nate, yes please give us a brief update on your latest core beliefs and predictions. You have an uncommonly wide perspective and I value your opinion.

My core belief is there is little to no upside of sharing my core beliefs publicly anymore, at least about financial reform. Education around the fringes yes - but predictions a)serve ego and b)can end up being self-fulfilling. So I'd rather not elaborate right now. Over a beer yes, here, no.

My core belief is there is little to no upside of sharing my core beliefs publicly anymore.

Beyond the seeming paradox of this statement, needless to say I believe many hundreds/thousands of us are somewhat at a loss because of this policy (though respect your right to embrace it). If you are looking for beer opportunities, though, this is certainly one way to receive a large number of beverage-centered invitations. If you are anywhere near the DC area anytime in the next few months, I'll have the 'fridge stocked...

Sorry Will for being flip. I meant my beliefs on whats ahead in the financial system and the implications therein.

I'm not so worried about writing/saying things on TOD as its a mighty self-selected crowd that hangs out here. As you know I haven't been writing much lately. I'm happy to do analyses on both the supply changes and demand changes ahead of us and the various possibilities for positive change. I am most worried that the financial wealth we've come to think we have (all of us) is going away in the next 5 years. Whether that is due to general defaults or government appropriation is still an open question. How we react to that as a society is more important than any renewable energy strategy or tax or what have you. My original hope was that readers of TOD would become educated and influence decisionmakers in their own communities and regions. I now think the value of TOD is to discuss what works with energy -its limitations, and opportunities, because that will be very important after the financial reset. But discussing financial specifics here probably doesnt help much.

I would add that I remain optimistic that the worst will be avoided and by a long shot. But thats 'my worst'. My best case might be someone elses worst, which is why reducing expectations is probably not a bad strategy...;-)

Nate, I think the major thing you got wrong and still haven't corrected is the belief that the symbolic head of a failing system (ie. the President) is of any use at all and can be part of the cure. There's no point sending the teleprompter's public persona an open letter.

"But discussing financial specifics here probably doesnt help much."

You're probably right, the tangle of reactionary government meddling and systemic financial failure is becoming impossible to read other than its ultimate end as a smouldering heap. Planning, so as to ride the financial wave down, is now impossible due to the confused signals being sent out by a failing financial system constantly pulled in opposite directions by either collapsing fundamentals or government intervention. The only way to ameliorate financial collapse into a deflationary depression is to try and get out of its way.

But as you say, the financial depression is more important because it is here with us now, today. My own outlook since circa 2004 and unaltered after years of reading on TOD and other places is that there will be three major components to collapse; Financial, Climate Change and resource depletion occurring in that order. All three components will of course be evident throughout, but their individual roles in the collapse will reach a zenith at different times creating three distinct phases.

Finance is our command and control system, with its failure our response to the other two approaching calamities will be both limited and chaotic (we can forget about government, except as an additional threat). Climate Change will hit our survival systems, especially food, which will prompt even more reactionary measures from governments. Finally we will hit the gas to solve our myriad and worsening problems and attempt an even greater resource drawdown to resolve them, which will bring us to the final phase of collapse, resource depletion.

I just came across this interesting article which may be of interest; "Early Warning Signs Could Show When Extinction Is Coming".

In a study published Sept. 9 in Nature, Drake and University of South Carolina biologist Blaine Griffen tracked population changes in 60 laboratory colonies of water fleas. Half were given a steady food supply, while the others received one-quarter less food every month. Lacking the nutrients needed to reproduce more frequently than they died, the latter colonies inevitably went extinct, long before the food ran out...

...But when Drake and Griffen looked closely at the data from declining groups, they found that populations took much longer to return to equilibrium. That’s a telltale sign of critical slowing down. Under too much stress, a system loses its balance easily, and takes longer to recover that balance. It was evident up to eight generations before extinction.

“Critical slowing down refers to the resilience that a system has, its ability to recover from perturbations,” said Drake. “A tipping point is a condition when that ability to recover goes all the way to zero. As you’re getting closer, it takes longer and longer for each perturbation to die down.”

With the DOW index still around 10k I think we are probably ten years past the tipping point and well within the "critical slowing" mentioned above.

"But discussing financial specifics here probably doesnt help much."

They are being discussed on iTulip and many other places. However no matter what, we do not have the "levers of power" to change how the financial game is played. Plenty of books at Half-Price books store history section can give a cheap lesson in this reality if one is open minded enough to read deep enough. It is there IMHO.


Over a beer you say.

How much do you charge to attend peak oil junkie cookouts? ;)

Not as much as Paris Hilton charges to show up at a night club, I bet!

I can see only three logical bases for this statement:
(a) You believe that the public is incapable of understanding your core beliefs. or
(b) You don't believe in your core beliefs. or
(c) You believe that the world has already gone to hell and therefore your beliefs have no relevance to directing its future.

I certainly can sympathize with any of these concerns, but we need people like you to continue to try to describe the world as it exists, especially if they are capable of re-examining their beliefs when the evidence doesn't support them.

Personally I don't believe that 40 acres and a mule are a path to a sustainable future, even for one family.

It seems that the Oil Drum (editors) operate from an unstated underlying assumption that technology is static, resulting in future scenarios that completely discount the possibility of game changing innovation. Actually basic science has not been totally inactive since oil production peaked in Texas in 1970--it has unraveled the genetic code, learned how to build materials on an atom by atom basis, and exponentially changed how information is collected, stored and transmitted. Just to take one example in the energy field, what if Bill Gates pet traveling wave nuclear reactor is in widespread operation by 2040, finally bringing about a era of electric power that really is almost too cheap to meter? Kind of changes the shape of the energy cliff---.

there is a 4th option - that if written well the public is very capable of understanding my beliefs and accelerates their coming true due to their actions. Which means time is lost that might otherwise have been spent building a bridge from leveraged finance to whats next. I have plenty to say on the topic but don't want to slap something up here when I'm out the door (which is why I put up this old post - Gail asked for something old of mine for Friday)

Again, I think we have plenty of energy, just not for this system of claims and expectations - if social stability is maintained through some sort of debt deflation or currency reform by government, all sorts of (good) things are possible.

And I acknowledge that a game changing innovation (with low energy and non-energy inputs) is possible, but I try to follow that and don't see anything on near horizon of the scale necessary.

Personally I don't believe that 40 acres and a mule are a path to a sustainable future, even for one family.

I completely agree.

There are some incredibly well-written and incisive thoughts here on the subject of where energy policies are going.

"Actually basic science has not been totally inactive since oil production peaked in Texas in 1970--it has unraveled the genetic code, learned how to build materials on an atom by atom basis, and exponentially changed how information is collected, stored and transmitted."

This statement alludes to the core belief that oil supply limitations and availability for the future can and will be overcome through advanced "exponential" technology. One can postulate that if sudden alternative energy technological breakthroughs emerged, new markets, i.e., green energy such as wind, solar, thermal, would augment and even overtake fossil fuel requirements as a main source of affordable energy delivery. The key word here is affordable.

As our labor workforce becomes more technology-oriented America cannot afford to presume that we can beat out all competition on the scale that we did following the Second World War. China recently surpassed Japan as the second leading economy in the world.

China is gaining in ways that we will not emulate, namely, massive government intervention in practically all manufacturing, military development, transportation and an aggressive pursuit of trade agreements with other countries such as South America, Australia, Africa and even Iran where shared nuclear technology is posing direct threats to Western security interests.

Our obeisance to the "free market" principle often eclipses the reality of other emerging economies who are more willing and more accepting of central government investments which can adapt more quickly to ensure that future generations will not be saddled with crumbling infrastructures.

Without government infusion of seed money for these rosy breakthroughs, however, the renaissance of "me first, profits above all" mind-set will leave America far in the lurch.

Unfortunately, we are about to witness another resurgence of those all too-eager to sell the canard that the free market will get our economy moving out of the ditch. In truth, it is only a ruse for getting the free money which is so readily available for the tax-avoiding corporate predators to exploit. This reminds me of a Yogi Berra quote: "It's déjà vu all over again."

This is an interesting and informative post. I was especially interested in recommendation #5. The link below seems to be broken.

Bicycles are the most energy efficient invention known to man, better than walking, far better than driving, and slightly better than a full double decker bus. They represent a long term investment in energy infrastructure, improved health, and a statement of change.

Har har. What a devilish choice. Let's say you're a billionaire, multi-national corp, or western economy.

Do you:

  1. Voluntarily reduce your energy use and adopt triage strategies, thus reducing your ability to counter outside threats, and simply hope your neighbors/enemies/etc.(who didn't reduce resource use) don't simply knock the door down when the resource depletion curve hits the takeoff point?

  2. Double down on innovation research, hoping you can find the magic bullet?

  3. Pretend to double down, and hope your neighbors find the research answer which you can then adopt without losing any opportunity cost?

  4. Attempt to outgrow the constrains of the system into a larger system (in spaaaaaaaaace.....?)

Nate, I would take more comfort from your paper if we had some existing historical or biological models where stuff lives within it's own energy footprint. Not many out there.

In that same vein, I was reading this today: http://journals.democraticunderground.com/CrisisPapers/252

"Place a few fruit flies in a bottle with a layer of honey at the bottom, and they will quickly multiply to an enormous number, and then, just as quickly, die off to the very last, poisoned by their wastes. Similarly, add a few yeast cells to grape juice, seal the bottle, and the cells will consume the sugar and turn it into alcohol. When the alcohol rises to 12.5% it will kill off all the yeast, and the wine will be ready for the table."

Nate, you say you now believe that currency reform is the weakest link on the horizon. With a huge amount of debt overhang, how can we create a new system, and resolve all of the property issues associated with unwinding the current system?

Also, how do we finance investments going forward, if our new system has to be profoundly different? In reality, the only resources we can use are the net flows that are available to us each day, and these will be getting to be less and less over time. If we are to build new wind turbines, or improved electrical transmission, the resources will need to come from the net flows available at that time. This will increasingly require real sacrifice, since resources needed to maintain fossil fuel components of the infrastructure will be growing as well (like backup generation).

as I now believe debt deflation and or currency reform are clearer and more present threats than resource depletion or environmental damage in upsetting the social applecart


just butting in to ask for a clarification

what do you mean by currency reform being a threat?

the lack of or an attempt to?

The way I would state the currency situation is the current form of currency is threatened by a leveling or decline of world oil production, because with less oil, it will be very difficult to maintain economic growth. Without economic growth, a much higher percentage of borrows will default on their loans, because borrowing from the future "works" much better when the future represents an improvement in economic condition. The problem is that our current financial system loans money into existence, and it will not be able to pay back those loans (and loans already made) to nearly the extent they have been in the past.

For this reason, we need a new currency system that does not depend on money being loaned into existence. So it is really the failure of our current financial system that is the threat--also, the lack of availability a new financial system that will operate better in a "de-growth" situation to replace our current system.

so lack of adequate reform is the threat.

thank you

Gail wrote;

This will increasingly require real sacrifice

I agree some change in lifestyle is called for, though the term 'real sacrifice' will mean different things to different people. For example, turning off unneeded lights, watching less than 2 hours of TV a day, commuting by carpooling, vanpooling, bus, bike, or rail, setting the thermostat to 67F in the winter and 77F in the summer may all seem like incredible sacrifices to some, though this would have been considered an unbelievable paradise by those who lived in the first half of the 20th century and before. To me, it represents a higher energy consumption lifestyle than I currently live out.

Since obesity is such a problem, eating less meat and highly processed foods would be another area where changes would be beneficial in more than one area (i.e., energy, water, health, etc).

Hence, my personal opinion would be that living responsibly should be considered a norm and a virtue, instead of it being a collection of 'real sacrifices'.

I would agree. How do we get this to happen?

I thought Nate would tell us :-)

I personally would start with campaign finance reform and go clear through to a frank discussion from the highest levels about the consequences of overconsumptive, low discount rate lifestyles...

I'm with Will on this one -- campaign finance reform. Nothing meaningful will get done until the money is shaken out of the system. Or, in other words, if every citizen (myself included) gave up their pet agenda(s) and focused on this one issue, we could force a positive change very quickly here. Proper leadership and legislation would follow.

You get it to happen by preaching the virtues of living responsibly. (Practicing what you preach helps.)

I thought about this one...

1. Reform the currency to some sort of energy unit, ie. kilo-calorie, joule, etc.

2. Impose an "origin tax" on items. ie. Price = cost + (distance from origin to purchase)*average global transport cost per kilogram.

Hm #1 is interesting/ I haven't heard that floated out before.
Re: #2: Doesn't the WTO prevent such an "origin tax"? Isn't that qualify as "protectionist tariffs" in their mind?

Fantastic analysis, though being a hard-core futilitarian I'm not so sure about the usefulness of some of the proposals. Just think of the possible undesirable side-effects of the last one:

Please consider something out of the box, like gifting a quality bicycle to each American instead. Bicycles .. represent a long term investment in energy infrastructure, improved health, and a statement of change. Those too young, old or infirm to use the bicycles can trade them for other necessities, but the bikes will be out there, as part of future energy savings.

I fear that in the real existing world all that means is that 90% of those bicycles will end up in a scrapyard. Pretty bad EROIE if I'm right.

The reason for this is that most people don't like cycling except for fun, and they will only cycle for non-fun purposes (e.g. commuting, shopping) if they can't afford any other means of transport. I'm a fanatic leisure cyclist myself, but virtually nothing other than a 1000% rise in the price of petrol would persuade me to cycle to work. Look at the downside of functional cycling:

- it's too hilly
- it's too hot
- it's too wet
- it's too cold
- it's too dangerous
- it's uncool and turns the girls off because it means that you can't afford to drive and that you're some kind of tightwad omega male

The problem is that cycling sucks when you have to do it no matter how enjoyable it may be when you don't. It sucks presumably because from an evolutionary perspective nature selects for primates who waste as little of their own energy reserves as possible when getting from A to B. The bicycle won't be resurrected on a mass scale until the only alternative to cycling is to walk.

No we cannot...at least not yet, because there is an urgent need to examine the science of human population dynamics but many too many experts willfully refuse to accept their responsibilites to science and their duties to humanity by doing so. The topic of human population dynamics has not been and is not now being openly discussed.

Let us imagine for a moment that the growth of the human population today is the “mother” of human-driven global challenges looming before humankind and knowledgeable people willfully refuse to speak about it. How can that behavior be construed as correct? On what authority is silence in response to science condoned? Who has the right to deny the existence of knowledge of something that threatens all of us? Is there no one who has determined that experts have a “duty to warn” humanity in such dire circumstances as exist when the very future of children everywhere could be put at risk soon?

Before I started the AWAREness Campaign, I fully anticipated that the publication of peer-reviewed scientific evidence regarding human population dynamics and human overpopulation of the Earth would be rigorously scrutinized, carefully examined and objectively reported by appropriately trained and educated experts. To my astonishment that did not occur. The experts remained mute. The evidence was neither sensibly refuted nor affirmed. There was only a deafening silence. After some months passed, I concluded that experts must not believe the evidence regarding the human population but could not rebutt it either. So the AWAREness Campaign began. Even now, years later, I believe the silence of so many indicates that the research is virtually irrefutable on the one hand and unbelievable on the other. It appears that we are in need of a transformed scientific imagination by means of which scientists with appropriate expertise are freed from inadequate thought and time-honored theory…freed to carefully examine and skillfully report new, unforeseen and unfortunately unwelcome scientific research regarding the human population.

So here we are in 2010. With the rare exception of a pre-eminent scientist like Professor Emeritus Gary Peters who is willing to speak truth-as-he-sees-it to the powerful, elective mutism is effectively vanquishing science with regard to extant evidence of human population numbers.

If the research to which I have unsuccessfully tried to draw attention for so long is fatally flawed and completely wrong, then the Oil Drum community is invited to expose me for the fool that I surely am. On the other hand, if the scientific evidence is somehow on the correct track, then there is plenty of work for everyone in the human community to begin doing in earnest. It appears to me that there is just enough space-time for us to transform human consciousness, adopt sustainable lifestyles and right-size business enterprises, but we need to get started now.

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001
Chapel Hill, NC

Carolus wrote;

virtually nothing other than a 1000% rise in the price of petrol would persuade me to cycle to work. Look at the downside of functional cycling:

- it's too hilly
- it's too hot
- it's too wet
- it's too cold
- it's too dangerous
- it's uncool and turns the girls off because it means that you can't afford to drive and that you're some kind of tightwad omega male

Such may be the typical US attitude in a 2007 BAU environment. We are no longer there, and the amounts of available energy and disposable income will continue to drop. Whining attitudes like the ones above will undoubtedly surface for a time, though for a significant percentage will drop precipitously as the scope and impact of PO becomes apparent. For the rest, well, there will always be whiners...

The bicycle won't be resurrected on a mass scale until the only alternative to cycling is to walk.

Tell that to the Dutch...

"The bicycle won't be resurrected on a mass scale until the only alternative to cycling is to walk."

Tell that to the Dutch...

You don't have to; they already know. I recall visiting with a couple, an engineer and a teacher, i.e. both held professional jobs, and yet they had just one car that they were a bit reluctant to use. So did they use bicycles for the sheer joy of it?

Silly, addled American idealists, egged on in some cases by university professors who live in alternate universes, might of course think so. Especially since Dutch terrain is insanely flat (except around Maastricht) with the highest "hills" being motorway flyovers. Plus, Dutch weather is insanely benevolent compared to nearly anywhere in the USA. Nice warm winters, nice cool summers (with decades or even centuries elapsing between episodes of truly hazardous heat, unlike the mere hours in, say, Atlanta), no hurricanes, virtually no violent thunderstorms.

So was it for the sheer joy? Naah. They couldn't afford two cars as they could have in the USA or Canada. Why not? Vast, bloated government inflicting insanely gargantuan punitive taxes. Massive overpopulation inflicting insanely inflated housing costs. Or, as a former expat I know put it, the government seizes all of your income and gives you back a [child's] allowance.

Given your description of how the Dutch are treated by leaders they themselves elect, one would think they would have emptied the country long ago. Since that is clearly not the case, there is something fundamentally wrong with your basic premises. Even the World Map of Happiness from the University of Leicester ranks the Netherlands 15th and the USA 23rd...

I'm simultaneously amused and saddened when an American assumes that everyone should have a car but then can't figure out why oilman Bush said "America is addicted to oil".

Perhaps you should let the Dutch speak on this matter here for themselves, instead of putting words into their mouths...

I don't waste time trying to figure out what either Bush Sr. or Bush Jr. meant by any single catchphrase-pronunciamento, because such things mean nothing at all. Both had that weird familial linguistic block that made so many of their brief utterances unintelligible. One often needed considerable context before you could understand what they were attempting to communicate. (And besides, I figure that the "oil addiction" meme is almost as stupid and futile as a "breathing addiction" meme would be. There's no basis whatever for the pejorative moralizing label except possibly that a wannabe dictator, to borrow a phrase from today's Drumbeat, wishes to assert from a high horse that all human activity beyond mere impoverished bestial survival is somehow immoral. That kind of thinking seems to me to be a valueless legacy from a rather vile puritanical streak that is unfortunately an important historical thread in American culture.)

With respect to the Dutch couple, I simply report what they told me. Two professional jobs and still they couldn't afford what many Americans, including many in much lower-paying occupations, were accustomed to at the time. No mystery at all, pretty simple, really. Likewise with the returned expat's comment - as close to word for word as I can render it after the passage of time. He treated it like New York - a nice place to visit but one wouldn't want to live there.

The swingeing taxes and sky-high housing costs were indeed my own comment, and it seemed blindingly obvious and unexceptional, having been repeatedly borne out in conversations with returned expats. Naturally, when one converses with returned tourists who spent hundreds of dollars a day on their brief trips without ever getting any clue about living in Europe on an ordinary budget, one may hear another story. Sometimes it's even a glowing "every country and century but my own" tale of Utopia, especially when it's told by some addled leftish professors who lives in the alternate deconstructionist nihilist universe of the humanities department.

And no, I wouldn't expect the country to empty out - far, far worse happens in many countries and they don't empty out either. There are such things as family ties and language barriers, and with a language like Dutch, spoken by relatively few people, the language barrier will be steep indeed. But on another hand, let's not forget that the permanent-immigration traffic between the USA and Europe is still, even now, all but unidirectional.

Oh, and I was forgetting, let's not delve too far into arrant nonsense about "leaders they themselves elect", lest we put ourselves in need of a decontamination shower. We ought to know better from modern American experience, and European (and Canadian) experience is not all that different in principle. Both Parliaments and Congresses have many agendas that all but supersede public-spirited idealism. As Churchill pointed out long ago, the democracies enjoy, on the whole, merely the least-worst governance. (Though there is a significant superficial transatlantic difference in that the absolute temporary dictatorship enjoyed by a European parliament seems to encourage great political instability. We often see transient slim majorities yoyoing incessantly between radically different and contradictory policy choices; or tail-wagging-the-dog scenarios in which flaky parties with a few seats get to run the whole show when the major parties are nearly at a tie in seat count.)

because such things mean nothing at all...(And besides, I figure that the "oil addiction" meme is almost as stupid and futile as a "breathing addiction" meme would be.

These are the words of one who lives in a separate reality, where words are twisted to fit a prevailing ideology. It made no sense to read beyond the above sentences.

And no, I wouldn't expect the country to empty out - far, far worse happens in many countries and they don't empty out either. There are such things as family ties and language barriers, and with a language like Dutch, spoken by relatively few people, the language barrier will be steep indeed.

The Dutch all speak English! Very well and enthusiastically!

Talk about the tail wagging the dog...let's not forget that national laws in the US are often compromises built around the dictates of a small number (as low as 1) of House Reps or Senators who are needed for their crucial vote; or that committee chairpersons decide which bills even make it out to the floor for a vote.

I hear what you say about living in Europe vs. visiting. I loved visiting, when I could afford it, but I don't know if I could have lived there on such a meager material lifestyle. I suppose I could had I made the move after college, when my material possessions and living standards were low and living in only 300 sq ft/person was normal.

That said, I still believe that many Europeans have a fundamentally 'better' lifestyle than here in the US and even though they can't afford all the goodies that we can, they don't need them either. Of course, if the US hadn't been leading the all-you-can-eat-consumer buffet for 30-40 years (i.e. living like Europeans) many of the products the nice Dutch couple desired wouldn't have even been on the market.

"than here in the US and even though they can't afford all the goodies that we can,"
Problem with this was/is that it was mostly ON CREDIT !!! That is not a way to live.

A better gift than the bicycle itself would be the infrastructure to make bicycles more practical for more than recreational use. Most areas (even the ones with a relatively large biking population) do not have adequate biking infrastructure separate from the auto infrastructure. This makes bicycling dangerous and much less enjoyable than riding on bike paths.

Most of us can buy ourselves a bike, but we can't buy ourselves infrastructure.

As for snow and ice, with a proper bicycling infrastructure we can mitigate these quite a bit, just as we do for autos. The times we cannot we can either telecommute or use public transit instead. Employers will have to get used to more flexibility in work schedules under such conditions. The fact is that the average private US employer is an over-controlling freak. This has to change, along with their short-term mindsets. Soon the realities of an energy crisis will force this change, as it becomes apparent that our past successes had more to do with abundant energy than with "work-ethic".

Things like hills can be addressed by electric-assist bikes. These are still highly energy-efficient when compared to larger vehicles. Though personally I have a single-speed in a hilly region and I love the fact that riding makes my calves rock-solid, so I don't need no stinking electric! (The girls like this too...)

If your commute is still too long or difficult for biking then you will soon have to do something about that anyway, either telecommute or public transit or move or find another job.

I work with the Dutch quite a bit, and while they are certainly more easy-going about things like schedules and personal responsibility decisions they still get the job done quite well.


You are right on target, Dan, concerning the infrastructure. The crowning event of the first transcontinental railroad was the driving of the last spike in the trackage, not the driving of the last rivet in the locomotive that would first traverse that trackage.

It is also noteworthy that "Build it and they will come" does not apply to such infrastructure. We who bicycle (I have been a bicycle nut for over half a century) have all seen beautiful bike paths that go from where nobody is to where nobody wants to go. And I much doubt you are talking about just pretty bike routes through the forest preserves!

And "infrastructure" consists of more than just bike paths and safe places to coexist with ICE-powered traffic. Bike theft is a problem. At one job I locked my bike to a fence right by the always-manned guard shack (with regular gifts of empanadillas, quesadillas etc from my wife to security personnel). While my family ran an art gallery, I parked my bike in the storage area, amidst paintings whose value was too scary to think about; of course, the security there was great. But such amenities are not available to everybody!

Then there is the "soft" infrastructure. Traffic law enforcement. I like to pick routes not popular with local kamikazi cyclists, when possible & practical. Plus, collaring and punishing thieves; honesty is largely fear of punishment. A young couple, neighbors of ours when we lived in Mexico City in the late 1990's, had their bikes stolen from under them at 11:00 on a Saturday morning in Chapultepec Park! (Fortunately, their injuries were minor.) One such experience can sour anybody (other than a nut like me) on cycling.

Then there are cultural matters, too. Yeah, you can't go buy yourself a culture, either.

"- it's too hilly
- it's too hot
- it's too wet
- it's too cold
- it's too dangerous"

I.e. you're a wuss. That's OK, you have lots of company.

"- it's uncool and turns the girls off because it means that you can't afford to drive and that you're some kind of tightwad omega male"

Now *that's* a real reason. You should consider looking for non-wuss women, though. My wife; who also bikes to work, incidentally; runs, does triathlons, and looks pretty much as hot as when I married her, 16 years ago. She is *not* a wuss.

But that's OK, you can sell me your bike. If you're right, I can buy it for a song. At some point, if Nate's right about the EROEI cliff, I'll sell it back to you for hours of labor on my farm. If he's wrong, I'll at least have a new cheap, good quality bike to bike to work on, to go along with my current commuter bikes.

kjmclark writes:

I.e. you're a wuss. That's OK, you have lots of company.

Precisely -- most of the human race consists of wusses who don't like to waste their own energy resources except for recreational purposes or (in the case of males) unless they want to display their prowess on the sexual selection front. In the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation, wusses were the ones who survived and stored fat and had a sweet tooth and didn't cycle to work when they could get a lift on a rhinoceros instead. We are all descended from wusses.

Nature selected for coach potatoes, so to speak.

So don't blame me -- I'm only the messenger.

Who says bikes are uncool? Last week I locked my bike up at Maastricht market square. When I came back i couldn't get the lock open because it was old and rusted up so I walked home. When I came back with some oil to get the lock off I found a little note attached to the bike with a red ribbon which said they wanted to get to know me and a phone number!

Even at 40 a bike will make you look sexy.

Plus, people forget snow and ice. IIRC, earlier this year, certain TOD commenters had already willfully forgotten snow and ice by March.

But actually, the bicycle-gifting idea is a little foolish - except maybe as a Gedankenexperiment - for some even simpler reasons. (1) There are already a bazillion bicycles hanging unused in garages and the like. True, the rubber bits have often petrified, but they're easy to replace. (2) A bike used for functional trips will often have a short half-life, for lack of any safe places to park it. In such circumstances, a "quality" bike (the term in the post, not my invention) is a ludicrous waste.

I recall that in Amsterdam, and the Randstadt generally, quality-of-life issues raised by rampant, unfettered petty crime seemed to be studiously ignored. (The stereotype of cops stuffing their multiple chins with donuts while cooping idly in their cars comes to mind; I wonder what the Dutch equivalent would be.) So people were obliged to ride $20 junkers and drag along massive chains and locks worth more than the bikes. A "quality" bike was for recreational purposes, when there would be no need to let it out of one's sight; or possibly for the rare functional trip where it could be secured indoors at the destination.

The only quality bike I've ever seen in Holland is the one I ride myself whenever I visit the country. And I never let it out of sight.

Lock it or lose it: A Holland native who doesn’t have a stolen bike story would be, well, un-Dutch. Amsterdam is the bike theft capital of the world. In the back alleys of most Dutch cities, shifty-eyed junkies sell stolen bikes for around 20 euros while discreetly intoning, “Fiets kopen? Fiets kopen?” (“Buy a bike?”). It’s tempting, but supporting these guys just perpetuates two vicious cycles - drug abuse and bike theft. Nearly all Dutch bikes come with a built-in lock on the back wheel. But the bare minimum to combat thieves is a U-Lock to attach the frame to something solid. Most train stations offer bike storage complete with a security guard for a few euros a day. Some locals paint their bikes as garishly as possible - a nice pink and purple polka dot design, the thinking goes, might send a would-be thief elsewhere.

All true. Bike theft is common here. Most of the students in the city ride bikes that are barely functional.

I recently had to take my car in because parts of the suspension and brakes were getting really bad. The mechanic asked me if I drove this car much apart from commuting short distances. I said "no, I don't even use it for commuting since I bike". He then said that I should consider driving the car more often.

At that point I bit my lip, but I wanted to tell him how counterproductive that sounded. I know because I have been dealing with this for years, having to replace the whole exhaust system at times on a yearly basis (no, not just the muffler). I gave way an old car with 20,000 miles after 12 years with the whole exhaust system missing and the gas tank only able to hold half a load of fuel.

Even if we had no jobs and nothing to do, we would still have to take our cars out for a daily spin, just to keep them warm and prevent them from rusting out. And we couldn't just go for a short spin, as this makes it worse. We would have to instead drive for 10 to 20 miles to sufficiently heat everything up to keep the moisture away.

For crying out loud, that is the way gOD intended it, fossil fuel as a rust preventer.

Bye-bye $1200.

Yup, if you don't drive it a reasonable amount, and for a reasonable distance, you don't warm it up enough to dry it out, and rust takes over. I don't know how much is enough, but I'm not shocked that 1700 miles/year isn't enough - it's maybe ten or fifteen percent of the annual vehicle-mile average depending on who's reporting the numbers, so far off the charts it doesn't even count.

In a way this all seems silly, but then again it reflects how chemistry works in this universe. Iron is a perfectly lousy structural material from the point of view of longevity and corrosion, but it seems to be the most readily available metallic sludge left to us from stellar processes, at the top of the binding-energy curve. So it goes - no use getting mad at it...

So it goes - no use getting mad at it...

You sound just as condescending as the mechanic.

I suppose you must live in salt and rain/snow country;there is not much you can do about the rest of a car rusting away, but you can buy exhaust system components that are gauranteed for the life of the car, labor included, where I live.

Expensive up front but worth it;a newer car with a cat and an aluminized exhaust system shouldn't need so many new exhaust parts.

No more than you drive, maybe you ought to just use cabs.

Or go south on vacation and buy an older Georgia or Texas used car such as Ford Crown Vic-cheap, dependable,roomy, comfortable and safe-hard on gas of course, but you will only be filling up at rather long intervals.

Such a car should last you four or five years even in the worst of salt country.You can get an older one with low mileage for peanuts from some guy headed to a nursing home.

If there is one in your area, the solution to your problem is a car sharing service. Reportedly, the average monthly savings for people that switch from car ownership to (hourly rental) car sharing services is about $600 per month.

it's uncool and turns the girls off because it means that you can't afford to drive and that you're some kind of tightwad omega male

Where I live it's the hip cyclists who get the girls. Maybe you just need a change of scenery.

Burning Man just ended, but it'll be there again next year.

A tribute to my sister...a cool girl:


Your post, while honest and obviously sincere, is exactly how NOT to go about encouraging behavior change such as taking up commuting by bicycle. Also, I generally disagree with your perspective regarding cycling as a mode of commuting, even though my spouse and I live at the bottom of a sizable hill from our place of work (makes the return awesome though!), at several thousand feet above sea level and where winters can be quite severe.

Here is my alternative list of why cars suck for commuting and why walking/biking/transit rock:
1) It takes more time to warm up my car in the winter than to warm myself up by walking or biking.
1a) Biking is hands down the fastest way to get to work door-to-door, even uphill en route. On the return, its takes a third the time, easy.
2) If it take transit, I inevitably see friends and colleagues and have excellent social interactions en route; in my car, I'm all alone.
2a) My transit pass is a work benefit and I pay nothing for it annually, beyond the non-refundable minimal annual fee. I can put my bike on the bus/train, solving the hill problem.
3) Parking is limited at work (a very positive thing!), and permits are spendy - I'd rather put my money into other things.
4) If I walk or bike to work I notice things in the neighborhood that need fixing - graffiti, a damaged part of the sidewalk, a broken streetlight - and I actively report them to help improve my 'hood.
5) My old car seats are really uncomfortable and we can't afford a new car, so I'd rather not drive. My former hour commute each way led to significant health problems that ended up requiring surgery to correct. Talk about painful and expensive . . .
5a) Regarding not being able to afford a new car, the less we drive the old one, the longer we can keep it running for the times we really do need one (can't quite go carless yet . . .).
6) If our car is in the driveway, people think we are home and thus it deters theft, etc.
7) We hardly buy any fuel compared to when I commuted 100 miles round trip daily, and we put the money into other things we like more, such as local, organic food - and bicycling gear.
8) When I walk or bike to work, I get in the office feeling energized and having had a bit of mental transition that is far better than what I would get from driving. As a corollary, I am now in better health and more fit.
9) Our one-car household and my desire to get rid of the 100-mile commute led to us buying a little house near my spouse's workplace in a very ped- and transit-friendly part of town. Now I have changed jobs and we both work for the same large employer. We love our neighborhood and are blissfully free of car-dependency - an excellent state of mind!
10) When we shop by bicycle or on foot, we are much more careful about our purchases, buy less stuff, and waste less food.
11) The times my car has broken down have been epics, extremely time consuming and fairly expensive (tows, repairs etc.). On the bike, I'm rarely a mile or two from home, and the consequences are fairly minor.
12) We deliberately choose walking, biking, and transit EVEN THOUGH WE OWN A CAR and plan to keep one. We just like the first 3 options a lot better most of the time.

You get the picture.

We have to STOP telling stories about the barriers to lower-carbon, more sustainable lifestyles and start talking about the downsides and negatives of the industrial-model consumerist status quo - such are car dependency. Living more "green" to me means better health, better communities, less stress, more savings, and yes - sometimes choosing to skip something that I can't get to without a car. Often, its a great excuse :) to stay home or get out of a social obligation I really didn't much want to do anyway.

If you are experiencing significant barriers, ask yourself why - is your town zoning and building for cars and suburbs, rather than ped-friendly compact neighborhoods? Does your employer give free parking but not free transit? Are there bike showers at work? Are your roads unsafe? Why do you live so far from work? Get engaged and advocate for public investment in the kind of infrastructure that promotes positive change. For example, many studies now show that by building bike-friendly lanes and paths, cycling rates often double and triple.

In Europe, mode split on commuting is often a third each transit, bike, and car. In the US, its about 95% car. Its a shame we invested trillions of dollars in such a limited system. Our transit agency has estimated that fully 65% of the local population cannot drive due to age, disability, or not having a car.

I highly recommend the book "Better Off" (a nice double entendre) by Eric Brende as well as the film/blog "No Impact Man." Both seemed a bit 'gimmicky' when I heard about them, but are engaging and surprisingly deep explorations of the benefits of more extreme versions of lower-impact lifestyles, and how "normal" people can make smaller changes with big benefits.

Regarding how to frame the changes needed, check out Robert Cialdini's book "Influence." A brief summary is here: http://www.fripp.com/art.of_influence.html (I do not mean to endorse the source of the link, but its a pretty good summary). Also check out www.cbsm.com .

In Italy the city of bicycles is Ferrara, with 2.7 bikes per family.
An interesting document of how the city administration got to this point, using specific policies in the '90s is "Ferrara by bike":

The problem is that cycling sucks when you have to do it no matter how enjoyable it may be when you don't. It sucks presumably because from an evolutionary perspective nature selects for primates who waste as little of their own energy reserves as possible when getting from A to B.


I took this picture at the train station in Karlsruhe Germany last week. The sign says: Reserved for Climate Heroes.

Climate heroes

I think we are going to need a population of heroic Americans to step up to the plate here in the US as well... We have met the enemy and he is us. We need to start fighting him. Get off your butts folks!

Agreed. Functional cycling is tough to pull off in the South. It's hot and humid and wet much of the time. Safety - vehicular and personal - is a big issue that's tough to address.

I see cycling and other options augmenting the automobile. There's a vast network of roads that have been built and most middle-class people will not move out of a good school district just to save on gas. Cars will get smaller and older and more crowded while bus rapid transit will be used instead of light rail with walking, electric scoots, biking, or park-n-rides to cover the first and last miles (which is more likely to be 1-5 miles given our suburban layout).

Until we as a nation are prepared to face, discuss and change the largest elephant in the room no meaningful change will be possible. I of course mean military spending. Between wars, occupation troops, military procurement and “Homeland Security” this country spends in excess of 800 billion dollars a year. Currently for every dollar the government collects in taxes, fees or assessments a dollar must be borrowed to maintain government operations. This year interest payments will be 360 billion dollars. Taken together these facts mean that there is no way for this country to innovate, rebuild infrastructure or prepare for a future of lower energy supply. Quite simply the military industrial complex if not reduced by large percentages will lead to the complete destruction of our economy. People like to say entitlements are destroying this country but spending on military is about equal to spending on all entitlement programs. If you want change, if you want a future for your descendents forget bicycles and concentrate on tanks, submarines and aircraft carriers.

Military spending is dwarfed by entitlements. Medicare is a time bomb on it's own.

Don't forget we also need to support a growing percentage of retired people, repair an aging infrastructure, provide relief to climate victims, and invest in expensive alternate energies all with wealth derived from fossil energy that is declining in gross and net terms.

Not gonna happen.

And somehow the rest of the world is able to provide medical care to all their residents including prescription meds for just slightly more than we pay to cover the elderly and destitute (Medicare + Medicaid).

Not that I don't believe the whole world is about to reset their expectations of advanced medical care, but Entitlements is just the military industrial complex's codeword for Gimme, Gimme, Gimme!

They're unable to, why do you think Greece is the way it is?

Actually, all the First World, with the exception of the US, supplies its citizens with health care, does it for half the price, lives longer, and has a lower infant mortality rate.
This saves money and resources, both human and financial.
Check Mate

Military spending is dwarfed by entitlements

There's not much on the planet that could dwarf our military spending. Homeland security, the pentagon, dept of energy (under which much of the nuclear arsenal costs are budgeted) together cost about 1 trillion a year. Total tax revenue is about 2 trillion a year. No fancy calculations needed to see half of your taxes go to war.

The largest elephant in the room is actually population. The military will help with that elephant.


Will someone please start a discussion of human population dynamics?

Willful blindness, hysterical deafness and elective mutism are poor substitutes for a thorough review of available scientific evidence of what actually threatens the future of life on Earth? How will we ever address and overcome the human-driven global challenges looming before us if we keep ignoring what ails us.

The human community has an unacknowledged biological problem that appears to be induced by the population dynamics of the human species.

There was one just two days ago, assuming I correctly interpret what you mean by "human population dynamics".



Dear Doomer Dan,

Thanks for your response. The article to which you referred me speaks about food supply and population growth, that 's for sure, but it completely misses the point of what I mean by "human population dynamics". I appreciate your sincerity. You do not yet perceive the problem to which I am pitifully trying to draw your attention.

Because my communication skills are so woefully inadequate and also I am unprepared for the task at hand, perhaps there are discussants now here who would kindly take a moment to help me communicate more adequately to you and to this community regarding what the unchallenged scientific evidence from Hopfenberg and Pimentel is indicating: that the human family is now presented with a non-recursive biological problem, one that is independent from social, economic, political, religious and cultural considerations.

Let me try something. Say oil was discovered 200 years ago but somehow, magically for sure, human beings were prohibited from using any of the oil as a fuel for food production, green revolutions and genetically modified organisms. Oil could be used for any other purpose. What do you think would have happened to the skyrocketing growth of absolute global human population numbers? Would we be approaching 9+ billion a mere four decades from now? Of course not.

The relationship I am asking you focus upon is not how oil fuels the colossal increase in world food harvests for human consumption. Oil is effectively being turned into food in this process. I am focusing on the relationship between the global supply of available food for human consumption as an independent variable and the recent skyrocketing growth of human numbers worldwide as the dependent variable.

If anyone is this community can assist me, please do so. Gail Tverberg, Fred Magyar, memmel, Jason Bradford, Leanan, Rembrandt, Paul Ehrlich, I need a helping hand.



I don't see that you are presenting anything which has not already been discussed, both on TOD and elsewhere, for decades. The book Limits to Growth presented the reality of population overshoot and crash and many others have as well. Lester Brown who founded The World Watch Institute has repeatedly harped on the basic problem, pointing out that food is the ultimate limit to growth. The link between petroleum and food is direct, as most of the nitrogen fertilizer we use is derived from chemical processing of natural gas. The other major nutrients, especially phosphates, are mined from a few locations and are also going to be in short supply as time goes on.

After a quick look at your site, I wonder what you have to offer to the discussion which is different. I think Thomas Malthus was right and overshoot and crash is the likely result of Peak Oil (and natural gas)...

E. Swanson

Yeah, reading Limits to Growth: The Thirty Year Update (plus supporting material on this site and elsewhere) was why I became Doomer Dan. :-(


Dear E Swanson,

Thomas Malthus helped us begin thinking about the relationship between food supply and human population numbers. But let us be clear about one thing. Malthus did not tell the whole story of human population dynamics correctly. Although it appears The Reverend was on the right track, we have learned a lot since his time. Hopfenberg and Pimentel are saying something vital that is different from what Malthus presented. Think of the Hopfenberg/Pimentel research as an extension of the work of Malthus, Darwin, the late Garrett Hardin and many others as well as a contradiction of certain ideas Malthus put forward. Please note that I am not an expert in population dynamics. There are professionals among us with appropriate expertise who can present this apparently unexpected contradiction much better than I, and so it is my hope that one of them will kindly do so.

Of course, if need be, I do as well as I am able.



Rather than put forward my inexpert thoughts on this vital topic, let me now refer you to an interview with Dr. Russell Hopfenberg about this thesis {population numbers of the human species is a function of food availability}. The interview and comments can be found at http://growthmadness.org/2007/05/03/special-guest-dr-russell-hopfenberg-....

Special guest: Dr. Russell Hopfenberg on food supply, carrying capacity, and population
May 3, 2007 ·
It’s my pleasure to welcome Dr. Russ Hopfenberg to GIM. During the preceding weeks we’ve summarized and had the chance to discuss his work on the links between food supply, carrying capacity, and population growth, and to comment and ask questions. In this post, Russ generously responds to our questions and comments. Feel free to post additional comments and questions below, and Russ will return later in the month (update: make that next month) for one more round of follow-up comments. Thanks so much, Russ!

– John


By Russell Hopfenberg:

I’d like to extend my thanks to John Feeney and Steve Salmony for inviting me to participate in this forum. I’d also like to express my appreciation to them for hand-holding me through the blogging process.

Question 1. The observation that individual countries’ food supplies don’t seem to correlate with their fertility rates as described by your hypothesis: I’ve read that one criticism of your work involves the observation that the countries with the lowest fertility rates tend to be the developed countries, and those with the highest tend to be those more deprived of food. (which would seem to contradict your hypothesis that more food means more population growth).

Response 1 - This is a very important question. It speaks to the complexity of understanding our global population difficulties. It seems that, in order to fully address the food-population issue, your question requires a thorough answer.

First, there is a biological fantasy imbedded in this question. The end of the question states “those with the highest (fertility rates) tend to be those more deprived of food.” I don’t think that this is biologically or physically possible as people are made from nothing but food. This kind of statement reveals the deeply held cultural position that humans are not subject to the same biological laws as the rest of the living community. I don’t think the questioner would ever make such a statement about another species’ population. If news came out that armadillos at the zoo had an elevated birth rate and now thousands were starving, I think the questioner would understand without hesitation that food supplies had first been elevated and then cut off. If the armadillo fertility rate continued to remain high, the questioner would understand that more food was being supplied.

Regarding humans, how is it possible that more people can be produced with less food? In reality, we have all seen the images of the UN workers handing out food. We have all seen the Sally Struthers commercials. When the crisis is over, i.e., the famine or political turmoil at least temporarily abates, there is more food available to the population in these areas. This increase in food availability precipitates an (unsustainable) increase in the population. The cycle then begins anew - another crisis, and more food is shipped in.

Second, it is true that more developed areas / countries show a lower birth rate.

This has to do with a phenomenon known as the demographic transition (DT). As you would find in a basic ecology book, it proceeds as follows: There are four stages in the classic DT model. In Stage 1, both birth rates and death rates are equivalent and high. In Stage 2, Death rates dramatically decline, but birth rates remain high. In Stage 3, birth rates begin to decline. And in Stage 4, both birth and death rates are equivalent and low. In other words, the declining birth rate occurs in countries that have traversed the DT.

But the DT model, as it is generally understood, is limited in historical and geographical scope. First, to even be in Stage 1, food production must already be at such a high level that birth rate and population size are greatly elevated. With this large population, environmental, medical and sanitation problems increase the death rate, so that it now matches the birth rate. Once health care and sanitation improve, the population enters Stage 2. In Stage 2, the birth rate remains elevated and the death rate decreases so the population naturally increases. As average resource consumption per individual increases, the population enters Stage 3. In Stage three of the demographic transition model, the birth rate declines. As this trend continues, the population theoretically moves to Stage 4. In Stage 4, birth and death rates are low but population and resource consumption are highly elevated.

Let me take a moment to summarize Abernethy and Moses & Brown’s position on the demographic transition: In stage 1 & 2, perceptions of increasing resource availability encourage and permit high fertility rates (Abernethy, 1997). This is followed, in stages 3 & 4, by a trend of declining fertility as societal expectations for high per capita resource consumption become established and tradeoffs between the number of children and resource allocation per person, are accepted (Moses & Brown, 2003).

I think the above paragraph needs a little more explanation. First, it is the worldwide perception that resource availability will be increasing. We have national and international farming programs, farms, agricultural departments, bureaus, and institutions that have a mission to increase food production and distribution. So, the perception is that resource availability will be increasing. Therefore, fertility increases. As the population grows, and resources are further increased, with the perception that they will be increasing further, fertility begins to decline but resource use per person increases. At the end of the road, with a greatly increased carrying capacity, large population size, low fertility rates and excessive resource use, the Brundtland Report, commissioned by the United Nations, estimated that it would take more than ten planet earths to supply the required resources for the now larger, more resource-consuming population. In other words, imagine if the entire planet’s population was similar to the US in resource use and fertility.

Question 2. The question of correlation versus causation (and why no correlation coefficient?).

Response 2 - My studies are certainly correlational studies. Imagine what an ethics board would say to a proposed human food-population experiment. Much that we know about humans comes from correlational studies. Think about the cigarette smoking and lung cancer link. Until recently, the tobacco industry’s defense was that all of the scientific evidence was from lab animal, human tissue, and human correlational studies. There was (and is) no human experimental evidence that links cigarette smoking to cancer. I offer the same type of evidence – animal experimental evidence and human correlational data. Regarding the correlation coefficient, I felt that the graph was sufficient. Also, the correlation coefficient might confuse matters as the correlation would be between the actual population data set and a theoretically derived population data set.

Question 3. If population growth is a function solely of food supply, one might realistically have to expect to see a future development of a further eroding of the ecosystems of this planet. ‑ Rampant overfishing, industrial farming, deforestation, etc., all because of a growing population’s rising demand for food.

Response 3 - Your assessment is true. If we continue on as we have been, then we will destroy the earth’s capacity to sustain us. However, the “biological fantasy,” imbedded in this question, rears its head once again. Our growing population’s “rising demand for food” is due to a misconception. Remember, population is a function of food supply, not the other way around. Food supply is an ecological magnet that draws population numbers to it.

Question 4. That seems an incredible leap. Family planning, education, free contraceptives, and empowering women are methods that has been shown to be effective.

Response 4 - I would like to ask the questioner - “Where have these things been shown to be effective?” They may help some individuals, in some places and for a little while, but I think the global population is still growing at a near exponential rate. To quote Daniel Quinn, “Birth control always works in fantasy. Where it doesn’t work, unfortunately, is in reality. For individuals, it works wonderfully well for limiting family size. What it won’t do is end our population explosion.”

Birth control has been around since at least 1960. Since then the global population has more than doubled. Also, for every person that chooses to have one child, resources are then available for someone else to choose to have more children. In theory, it could work that individuals choose to have fewer children even though there is an abundance of food available, it just isn’t very likely. And history bears out that, as a global population, given increasing agricultural production, we choose to increase our numbers. Also, we must understand that it is evolutionarily unstable for a population to diminish in a time of abundance.

Question 5. Would stopping the increase in food production cause more people to starve?

Response 5 - First, what we know is that as food production numbers have risen, the number of starving people has also risen, almost lock-step.

Second, if 3 billion tons of food (arbitrary number) was enough to feed the current world population last month, I can’t see why any more people would be starving if there were 3 billion tons available this month. … or next month.

Question 6. If we put a cap on global food production, how soon would world population growth stop?

Response 6 - I haven’t done the math on this, but I think we currently produce enough food worldwide to support a population of about 20 billion. Of course, it’s unclear as to how long the biological community can support the current human population. Let’s remember, right now there are over 200 species per day becoming extinct as a direct result of human activity. If we don’t understand the issues and act responsibly, at some point one of those 200 species will be our own. I think that the first order of business is to understand the cause and effect relationship between food availability and human population growth. Only then can thoughtful and effective action be taken.

Question 7. But how would stopping the growth of food production interact with the social and economic issues known/thought to influence fertility rates?

Response 7 - To quote Mark Meritt (2001),

Basic population ecology models will show that population growth is simply an epiphenomenon of a particular kind of economic growth, the increase of our food supply. Ecologically speaking, population growth is thus not a sustainability problem in and of itself but only inasmuch as it is caused by, and exacerbates, increasing resource use. Theories of organization and state formation, however, show that a growing population generates hierarchy within a social structure. Population growth can therefore systematically generate inequality by increasing the complexity of social structure, perpetuating poverty, material and otherwise, even in conditions of abundance. Further, the complication process itself is systematically unsustainable in its own way…. In the end, economic growth is, in more than a metaphoric sense, the largest pyramid scheme possible.

In other words, underlying our social and economic, as well as our population issues, is food supply. Social and economic issues influence the ways that the population grows (see the response to question 1) but the ultimate causative variable is food supply.

Question 8. Over some period of history, it seems we’ve tried to “keep up” with population growth by producing more and more food. I believe your contention is that we can’t “keep up” with population growth that way. The result is just more people, and ultimately more starving people. This leads to this question: Historically, did this attempt to “keep up” with population in our food production begin around the time of industrialized agriculture?

Response 8 - The food race certainly began long before the industrial revolution. Many ancient military campaigns were driven by the quest for more resources, especially food, for the growing population. I think we’ve made the idea of the “food race” more explicit in relatively recent times. But civilizations’ answer to starvation and famine has always been to attempt to increase food production. Of course, intensive agricultural production actually precipitates famine.

In closing, I think it’s important to remember that there will never be an answer to end all questions or an argument to end all arguments. I hope that, if nothing else, I have facilitated some thought and advanced the paradigm that human population dynamics are subject to the same laws as the population dynamics of all other species. With this perspective, you will be in a better position to answer your own as well as others’ questions.

Thank you for taking the time to entertain my responses. I hope that my answers addressed the issues sufficiently.

Posted on December 6, 2007
by John Feeney| 19 Comments
Administrator’s note: Several months ago GIM was lucky enough to be able to arrange for Dr. Russell Hopfenberg to respond to readers’ comments and questions concerning his important work on the links between food supply, carrying capacity, and population growth. My own summary of that work and its background, along with initial reader comments, is here. Additionally, since I wrote that post, Russ has developed an informative slideshow featuring his ideas. Russ’s responses to those initial comments, and readers’ subsequent questions and comments, are here. If you’re not familiar with the ideas involved and the prior discussion here, those links will help you get up to speed.

Now I’m pleased to post Russ’s follow-up responses to that second batch of reader comments linked to above. To my knowledge, GIM is the only website to have had the chance to present a dialog on this work between Russ and interested readers. The content which has emerged has helped readers better understand these underappreciated ideas. My thanks to Russ for his generosity in participating in this illuminating process! — JF

By Russell Hopfenberg:
I’d like, once again, to extend my thanks to John Feeney and Steve Salmony for their help with this discussion. Also, thanks to those who participated in this process by either asking questions, responding to my answers, or reading and integrating this information.

Trinifar: For decades the world population growth rate has been declining — see for example here. As Russ says, “… the declining birth rate occurs in countries that have traversed the DT.” It would be interesting to know how much of that decline is due to DT traversal and how much (if at all) to food supply limits.

RH: Regarding the growth rate, this is absolutely true. Now, let’s take a moment to analyze this reality. A growth rate of 3% per year with a population of 2 billion makes the population 2.06 billion the following year — an additional 60 million people. A growth rate of 2% per year, a 1/3 reduction in the growth rate, with a population of 6 billion makes the population 6.12 billion – an additional 120 million people. That’s twice as many additional people as with the higher growth rate!! At some point, our population size will hit the tipping point of ecological disaster and the growth rate won’t matter. As for the DT itself, the DT is a dependent variable. This means that it is a function of something else. That something else is, among other things, food availability. Also, according to the Brundtland Report, it would take more than ten planet earths to usher a population of 6 billion people through to stage 4 of the DT.

Trinifar: Yet it occurs in DT stages 3 and 4 (as Russ notes above) and that includes the US, Canada, Europe, and Japan — a good portion of the world. Is Russ only talking about the parts of the world in DT stages 1 & 2?

RH: The populations of the US, Canada, Europe and Japan are still growing. They are really not in stage 4. Even in theory, Stage 3 of the DT includes population growth. See Pan Earth for a narrated slide show that includes a discussion of the DT.

Comments pasted here to provide background for RH’s next response:

Trinifar: It would be easy to read Russ and take away the message that we should not send food aid to these countries as it only encourages more growth. I’m not sure that’s the message he intends to send.

Steve said, “The decline in the rate of human reproduction numbers in some countries need not blind us to the well-established fact that the growth of human numbers worldwide are increasing drastically.”

That’s true and Nigeria is the poster child. The question is what to do? Emphasizing this piece of Russ’s research can lead to what I think is a misguided notion that we have but one lever which which to address the problem: limiting food supply. To me that is not a humane response. Neither is it humane to “help” developing countries by getting them to do agriculture in an unsustainable way or by ignoring our own unsustainable, fossil fuel, pesticide and fertilizer driven agriculture.

Steven Earl Salmony: It seems to me that Hopfenberg’s science is suggesting several things to us:

1. Free, immediate and universal access to contraception is required;

2. Open access to family and health planning education is made available to everyone;

3. The time for the economic and social empowerment of women is now.

4. As a means of accelerating the present downward movement in birth rates in some countries, a VOLUNTARY policy of one child per family would be initiated worldwide.

5. The many human beings who are suffering the unhealthy effects of obesity will share their over-abundant resources with many too many people who are starving.

6. Every effort to conserve energy and scarce material resources will be implemented, beginning now.

7. Substanitial economic incentives are necessary for the development of energy resources as alternatives to fossil fuels.

8. Overhaul national tax systems so that conspicuous per human over- consumption of limited resources is meaningfully put at a disadvantage.

9. Humanity needs a new economic system, one that is subordinated to democratic principles and more adequately meets the basic needs of a majority of humanity who could choose to live better lives with lesser amounts of energy and natural resources.

9. Overall, what is to be accomplished is a fair, more equitable and evolutionarily sustainable distribution of the world’s tangible (e.g., food) and intangible (e.g., education) resources, as soon as possible.

Trinifar: I appreciate your point of view, Steve, and I’m on board with your proposals. That’s a good list.

Russ, however, says things like this: ‘To quote Daniel Quinn, “Birth control always works in fantasy. Where it doesn’t work, unfortunately, is in reality. For individuals, it works wonderfully well for limiting family size. What it won’t do is end our population explosion.”’

So I’d like to know if Russ is on board with your proposals too.

RH: All of these proposals seem quite admirable. I’m sure there are many, many more that are equally admirable. However, these do not address the direct bio-behavioral reality that the population size of any species is a function of its food supply. This includes the human. Therefore, each proposal (numbered above) has its own set of problems. For proposal #: (1) Who will pay for universal contraception? Will the Pope approve of this? Also, we’re much more likely to see commercials for Viagra than for Trojans. The culture is simply not on board with the idea of limits. (2) Same points as proposal #1. (3) Civilization is a worldwide patriarchal culture. This proposal seems to be a way that men can abdicate responsibility and women can be held accountable. Also, think about the “empowerment of women” in a fundamentalist Muslim (or Christian or Jewish or Hindu) society. How would that work? Will they tell their husbands – “it’s not good for the planet to have more children”? This is near absurdity. (4) The world already has a voluntary policy of 0 children per family. (5) Which ones? I bet that if you ask obese people, they would all say that they would rather not be obese. The bio-behavioral reality is that all creatures turn excess food availability into themselves or their progeny. Also, who will pay for this distribution? (6) In word, we are making every effort to conserve. (7) Who will supply these economic incentives? (8) Our economy is based on growth and consumption. We seem to have a worldwide goal of “use it all up until it’s all gone.” (9) This is quite possibly true, but the culture’s response to shortages is to look for / make more (food production, oil drilling, coal mining, etc.) (10) Again, who will pay?

These proposals are worthy of further discussion and each contains valuable elements. However, the proposals above are what my wife calls “the house.” And, in order to build a solid house, we need a firm foundation. The foundation that needs to underlie any course of action is the understanding of the relationship between human food production and population size. Only then can we proceed toward solutions. For more on this, see the slide show at Pan Earth.

Magne Karlsen: Now: here’s where I’m arriving at my most basic point. Among the most probable consequences of global warming, lies our future food supply. If the ocean water keep warming, and if the soils keep eroding due to floods, draught and stupid farming techniques, chances are you won’t have to plan for a future of less food production, as it is going to happen anyway.

Mother Nature has a way of teaching us things. But are we ready to respond to the knowledge?

RH: Good point!

Magne Karlsen: Now: I’d also like to hear Russ’ views on the “peak oil and agriculture” dilemma, as posed to us here by Paul C. – — a very compelling analysis, to say the least.

Thank you.

RH: I think it is very likely that the peak oil issues will extremely negatively affect agricultural production. Just as the steep increase in food production, i.e., carrying capacity, has precipitated a steep increase in population growth, a sudden sharp decrease in food production will precipitate a sharp decrease in the population (funny, nobody seems to have a problem understanding this side of the equation). Some predict, using compelling evidence, that we are already at the beginning stages of a die-off. I hope they’re wrong.

John Feeney: The data Russ uses (from the FAO) show annual food production enough to feed over 20 billion people. If I understand correctly, every year that we increase food production, we do feed more people, and at the same time the number of people starving goes up. But what of the gap between the people fed and the amount of food produced? Clearly, there’s a serious distribution problem. But what is it about that problem that allows us to feed more people each year, but keeps the percentage of starving people the same (I assume)? It’s like the obstacles to distribution are working on a percentage basis or something, allowing x% of food produced each year to get through to people. Something about that seems strange. I guess I’m just uninformed on how food distribution works. It’s as if someone were knowingly keeping the lid on what’s distributed at a very precisely controlled level.

RH: First, by some estimates, the percentage of starving and malnourished actually continues to go up. Others have reported that the percentage is hovering or slightly declining. In either case, the number of starving and malnourished seems to make little sense in light of the huge annual increases in global food production, leading to the next point… Second, there is only one simple barrier to equitable distribution. Ladies and gentlemen, the barrier is (drum roll please) … MONEY!! Who wants to pay for equitable distribution? The agricultural businesses are in it FOR THE $$. Governments are in it FOR THE $$. Why would they pay for distribution to poor, starving people? Who’s going to foot the bill? The food goes to consumers who then turn the food into themselves or their progeny.

John Feeney: Beyond that, one thing is clear — that according to Russ’s findings we should stop the worldwide increase in food production as that is causing the increase in population. Is there any implied suggestion beyond that? I’m thinking about Trinifar’s question concerning withholding food aid. But now the more I think about it, the more I think it is instead just a matter of capping overall food production. Is that right?

RH: In fact, there is no reasonable action that can be taken until the people of the world in general understand that continually expanding food production is ultimately going to lead, not to a well-fed human race but to an extinct human race. Why “people of the world in general?” It’s for the same reason that people of the world in general had to understand that the Earth is not the center of the solar system and all heavenly bodies do not orbit it in order to have a successful space program. Capping increases in food production might be a good start, but it’s not possible unless people in general understand the relationship between food production and population growth. The action that we need to take, and can take right now, is to educate people. That’s why this blog and other endeavors are so important!! We have to build a strong foundation (understanding) before we start on our house (solutions).

John Feeney: Related to my first comment above, a simple, albeit tangential question: What happens to that huge amount of food every year that doesn’t reach people? If we’re producing enough food for 20 billion, then over 2/3 of all food produced is not reaching people, right? What happens to it. (Or does that account for people or countries which receive excessive food, such as the US with its high levels of obesity? If so, then maybe a much smaller amount is actually not reaching people.)

RH: Thrown out (for example, check out the fast food industry’s food practices). Obesity too, as you mentioned. Here’s another way to think about it. If we had 500 chickens and produced enough chicken feed for 40 million chickens, we wouldn’t see 40 million chickens in the next year, or even the year after that. What would happen to the excess feed each year until we reached 40 million chickens? Here’s a figure similar to ones presented at Pan Earth:

This figure, from FAO data (artificially) sets world (and region) food production equal to 100 for the year 1961. Food production is presented as carrying capacity, or, the number of people that the amount of available food can support. You can see that, relative to the population, food production has increased even since 1961.

Again, notice that the data for the year 1961 are set to equal an index of 100. Based on the trajectory, if this were really the case, there would have been a vast famine in the year 1950, and all the years before that!! The amount of food produced in the world, relative to the population, was certainly much higher in the year 1961 than indicated here. Therefore, the amount of food produced in the world in 1999, relative to the population was far greater than indicated here.

John Feeney: If, as Steve S. has mentioned here, most scientists are unwilling to discuss Russ’s (and Pimentel’s…) work, I’m wondering why that is.

RH: The idea of a “cultural defense mechanism” comes to mind. Notice how we in this discussion group are struggling with this relatively simple concept. It’s like an abused person who can’t say “no.” It seems simple enough, but not for someone with a personal history of abuse. We have a history of being taught that humans don’t follow the same bio-behavioral rules as other creatures. We’re special. Scientists are not immune from cultural influences....

Nature has a plan for overpopulation.

The more I lurk here the more it occurs to me that perhaps the truly largest elephant in the room is our inability to accept that natures plan is better than our plan. Isn't that what's brought us to this point in history?

Agreed, you can't just blame humanity of this. All life forms have evolved to exploit available resources when they are available. We have evidence of many species going through boom and bust lifecycles. Exponential growths and declines are the rule not the exception of most ecosystems.

Dear Grautr,

The point is not to blame anybody (except perhaps the self-proclaimed masters of the universe among us) but to help human beings with feet of clay understand not only that we cannot keep doing the unsustainable activities we are doing now but also that there is much work to do if the promise of a good enough future for children anywhere and everywhere is to be fulfilled. The work to which I would like to direct attention is raising awareness of the human-driven global predicament looming before humanity, transforming human consciousness, embracing sustainable lifestyles and right-sizing business enterprises.



Dear subzero,

Yes, nature has a plan. As other have noted, according to the rules of the planetary home we inhabit, whatever will be will be. Que sera and all that.
If human beings did not possess extraordinary gifts such as self-consciousness and protean collective intelligence, I would readily agree with you.

For all the essential similarities of the population dynamics of the species of Earth, there are critical differences between the human and non-human species. The differences that set human beings apart from the non-human creatures evolving alongside us make a difference that makes a difference, I believe. That is to say, human beings can emerge out "the bottleneck" we are approaching, but only if we choose reason, common sense and scientific imagination in the adequate deployment of our God-given gifts.



Here is a view of the future from the past:


(I gotta dig out a pair of my old plaid Baalzebottoms and let out the waste.)

Jim Puplava's interview with Joseph Tainter this week on the collapse of complex societies is very good:


I love it.

Thank you Kye Bay for posting the link.

Starting at 24:10 minutes into the interview.

I'd like to say that we need in this country, and in the industrialized world as a whole, to have an adult conversation about the issue of future energy and what our society is going to look like in the future.

And the way our politicians are behaving, we are not having an adult conversation.

We are having self-serving statements that simply distract people from the issues so that politicians gain a short-term advantage while ignoring the long-term welfare of our society.

The problem is that our idea of "adult" conversation is talking to each other about the "price" signal and economic "realities".

Example: Renewable energy will not be viable until its "price" per KwHr comes down to match that of clean coal.

My view:

1. Nationalise the banks, forthwith. They will no longer be “for profit” institutions. Since they don’t need fancy investment instrument designs, they don’t need hotdog CEOs etc. Therefore: they keep their jobs with a top salary of $300k p.a. They can’t make a living on that? Fine. Leave. In this model, they’re little more than managers anyway. We don’t need geniuses running banks, we just need people who are honest, ethical, and competent enough to fill out the paperwork.

2. By nationalising the banks the USgov vapourises the debt. Life continues on, the Chinese still own huge amounts of American Paper, and they will get paid. Over Time. Like everyone else. Because this is money eating debt, it has no velocity in the economy and will not result in inflation. Allowing for low interest rates to boot.

3. And the money? Next step: disband the Federal Reserve. The USgov will be responsible for its money supply. My, just like an adult would do.

4. Nationalise USA Health Care. Face facts: This whole nonsense about “your health care decisions should be between you and your doctor” is total freaking bullcrap. You know who makes your health care decisions? The insurance company. I would absorb the health care industry directly (on the one end) and I would get really pretty damn stiff with Americans on the other end. But a lot of that will fall out naturally.

5. Gas will be USD$X+3 gallon. the extra money goes to fund alternative energy systems.

6. The USA will abandon Empire. The Pentagon will cut its budget by 50% a year until it is the size of the Chinese rate of spending. American Troops will be brought home, decommissioned, and retrained for the powerdown.

#6 is actually #1, but the banks need attention.

7. Crash Infrastructure improvements geared around livable homes and communities worth caring about. LOTS of insulation. Lots of geothermal. Lots of all that joy. Not so much in the massive giant office box development.

The above should result in a vastly improved economy.

We need a Studebaker revival.


Before you throw all the problems to a central planning agency of the US Government, you need to figure out how to get some smart people to run the the Government. There is not one example I can see where the central planning approach actually made things better.

I realize what you are saying, that left to itself we will never solve this thing. But I say giving any more authority to the government is just going to result in more entitlements, more complex regulations, and less benefit to the people and more money being siphoned by the Government agency that you are envisioning will solve the problem.

Now, if you could become the ruler, and enforce your own plan that would be different but the Government is not willingly going to let you have the reigns.


There is not one example I can see where the central planning approach actually made things better.

The postal service runs pretty good (in spite of being the butt of many jokes), especially if you consider the phenomenal volume of mail over the decades and the infinitesimal percentage of loss/error. The interstate highway system is one vast project that is likely better built and designed than anything the private sector could ever be expected to accomplish. The space program has been the center of some amazingly large and successful projects, particularly the Apollo moon missions and the long-term record of the space shuttles. The US military is about the largest organized human effort on the planet, and despite some inefficiencies of scale and in spite of its inherent global overshoot it has been enormously successful and effective at its job (if you consider its job to be waging war rather than establishing governments). The US public education system isn't perfect, but has for decades set a world standard...

Now having listed all those things as accomplishments of central government planning, I have to admit that the majority of credit goes to prior generations and every one of them - the postal service, the highway system, the space program, the military, and public education - is in decline of one sort or other currently. Nevertheless it does not follow that government is incapable of excellence and competence, here or anywhere else.

"...postal service, the highway system, the space program, the military, and public education..."

One issue is that not one of those delivers much of anything on time. The postal service delivers, but when they feel like it; even the expensive priority "service" has no deadline. Not only has the highway system become an endless morass of "construction" delays, with none of the construction ever truly getting done, the stuff falling apart almost before they cart the barrels away; but the new stuff isn't built on time either, there's no attempt any more to keep up with population growth. The space program has always been one endless series of random and sometimes years-long delays. The military, well, the famous motto is "hurry up and wait". Public education, let's not even go there - even at its peak you had to attend community college for a year or so to (roughly) match the equivalent of high school in other advanced countries.

One area where that's a potentially fatal issue is medical care. A lot of the really important medical care is useless unless it's delivered on time. Unfortunately, the government's performance record at doing anything whatsoever on time is abysmal beyond words, suggesting that the nationalized health care advocated in the original post would be essentially useless.

So: if and when government demonstrates that it can figure out something as absolutely, utterly, moronically trivial as getting the 3:35 bus underway on time, then let's get back together and contemplate whether there's any conceivable way it could be taught to deliver something as complex as medical care on time. In the meantime, fuhgeddaboudit, the horrid medical system we've got now may well be our least-worst option.

I'm not much of a cheerleader for our government, but it is pretty tiresome to hear about how hopeless and miserable we are at all things that the governments of other developed countries seem to do well and efficiently. Fine, the US is utterly incompetent at governing itself. I am starting to believe that the progressive creeping willful ignorance of the population is infectious and chronic...but yet, a generation back competence was a part of the national character, and once this country was admired.

When work needs doing, good advice to the whining and complaining faction is "pick up a shovel or get out of the way".

Bravo for your comment: When work needs doing, good advice to the whining and complaining faction is "pick up a shovel or get out of the way".

I believe that the government has misused public funds for as long as the government has been in charge of spending “other peoples’ money”. I believe the answer to your comments that prior generations have done remarkable work is obvious when looking at the (don’t want to go there – public education). As one who received a very good public education prior to 1963, and having been recently a public school teacher, I can say with confidence that the lack of a solid educational foundation is behind the public service sector (including politicians and bureaucrats) failure to deliver public services on time, and be responsive to the needs of a complex society.

As a second issue, the public service unions have pension benefits that represent unfunded liabilities for as long as their retirees live. The UC system routinely provides full professors with a pension equal to their salary for life, could this be the reason that tuition must continue to rise? With this commitment to waste being enshrined in our national system it is clear to me that government central planning should not be the way we develop our necessary infrastructure. It could only be worse if the government were backing every energy exploration and alternative energy program. (Oh wait, the government wants to get into the business of telling us where and when we can drill, what renewable energy program to support and how to reduce our CO2 levels.)

There are perfectly acceptable ways for private enterprise to do the same things, and even ways that the government can get involved to encourage those approaches that show the most promise. But don’t say private industry does not run toll roads better than the US Highway system, and don’t say that the government can run GM and produce an electric car that will reduce our use of fossil fuels better than a private company, because the evidence is already in that private industry does this better.

And before I act like a complete shill for private industry, I believe that there are problems when private industry gets too large and begins to operate with the same inefficiencies as the government. In these cases the public has the responsibility to step in and make changes.

government has misused

In truth, there is no such thing as "the government".

There is just people; abusive people.

Enron was not "government". It was private enterprise.
Ditto for Bernie Madeoff (with your money).

Need we expand the list to prove the point?

We the people are often fooled by our own abstractions.
We need to strip off the "governmental" and corporate costumes. Look in the mirror. And see that is just us naked apes. Not "government". Not "corporate". Not "them" that oppose our ideologies and don't like us none too much either. Just us. Just the we.

You have hit the nail on the head !!!! Bravo :-)


Sometimes, unintended consequences arise from mere babbling into the ethernet wind.

Now I'm re-examining the deeper implications of the one liner:

Fooled by our own abstractions.

It is sort of an expansion on Taleb Nassim's idea of being "Fooled by the Randomness".

How are we fooled by our ideas of what "government" is?
What "money" is?
What "price" is?
Right and wrong?
Good and evil?

The best way to be fooled is to do what the guy in you picture is doing. Looking from that one POINT OF VIEW !!!!

I was lucky enough to travel the world as part of work and had the chance to change mine frequently. As a result, lots of things that Nate is alluding to (I know I am trying to read his mind) came to my mind many many years ago in the form of "Why is it this way at home when it can be different and work better as it does here". It dawned on me after many such moments that it is the "Point of View" that is the cause.

Being born, raised and educated in a given place gives you this "Point of View" and it is damned hard to change it. You need to get away as far as possible from that place for some time to have a chance to do see that it could be different and reflect on the one you had. There are "free radicals" who can do this despite local "pressure" but they are called "crazies" so that the rest can nicely put them in an orderly category in-order to go on the way they did before.

But Mother Earth will not allow itself to be manipulated so easily, hence will force man to CHANGE. MacMansions are not normal. Jr. driving a car to high school 1 mile away is not normal, ....

Nate's comment that he would be willing to say some things over beer I took as sad evidence to how badly things have changed in the US.


Point of view is predetermined at time of birth based on what parents and culture you are born into.

Change comes to only a rare few who not only have a chance to see alternate views, but have the ability to critically evaluate the competing points of view they have been exposed to.

More to the point, a large majority of people have been exposed at one time or another in their lives to the Peak Oil point of view. Yet most have rejected it because it conflicts with their pre-existing points of view and would upset the whole world "order" in so far as their minds have pieced together such a thing to their satisfaction.

Example of rigid point of view (PoV): All activities must be evaluated to determine if they provide a sufficient "profit" in our existing economic framework. If they do not, they must be rejected. Renewable energy does not provide a sufficient "profit" and ergo it must be rejected. The idea of AGW hurts "profit" and ergo it must be rejected. (As a matter of fact, Big Oil is now playing TV ads in California (CA) precisely along this PoV so as to convince Californians to kill a carbon tax in our upcoming November 2010 election (Prop 23).)

Click on image for more info
See this as an example of economic PoV argument to kill CA green bill.

Hi step back,

This thread is pretty long in the tooth now and probably sinking into the dust bin with few readers. But, this POV idea is a critical issue to my way of thinking. I have always referred to it as one's "Worldview".

I grew up in an strong Irish Catholic community within a broader community of Lutherans - no one was a non-believer (at least they did not admit it). Everyone went to church on Sunday. Every "respectable" head-of-a-family was a Rotarian (I was a junior Rotarian). You could be a Democrat or a Republican (own a Ford or a Chevy) but you did not question the existence of an "Almighty God", the superiority of Americans, or the soundness of the US Dollar, and the like. Nearly everyone wanted the biggest family they could breed. This was the 40s and 50s in Northern Minnesota and we were the world's finest people who viewed the rest of the world as our personal reservoir of resources to achieve "better living" for god's chosen people.

For a variety of reasons, I left this community and ventured out into the big world with not much more than the shirt on my back. It was a brutal change. But, in the process, I painfully reexamined all of my indoctrination. I concluded lots of things about the nature of power, religion, economics, government, etc. My worldview changed dramatically. As I worked and traveled in many countries, my convictions grew stronger.

Richard Dawkins does a very good job of explaining how early childhood worldviews are instilled in nearly everyone at the same time a child is absorbing language. Changing one's beliefs about the supernatural world or the nature of money is analogous to changing one's native language - it can be done, but it is not easy. It took me a couple of years of sleepless nights to change my worldview. It is highly unlikely that I would have made this change if I had stayed in my home town.

So, the big question is: how can we expect the great majority of people to change their worldview short of "stepping over dead bodies in the street"?


How many abysmal failures of nerve, will and wisdom by a tiny minority of arrogant and avaricious lost souls, all self-proclaimed masters of the universe in a single foolhardy generation, are required to precipitate the extinction of life as we know it and the ruination of a good enough future for children everywhere?

I painfully reexamined all of my indoctrination

Ditto here.

Was brought up in a strict religious setting and blind dogmatic view of the world.

It took many tiny baby steps to revise my entire world view.

At the end of the day I didn't like what came out of biting into the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Truth does not equate with beauty.

Basically, we are all simple minded herd animals. Some are less simple minded than others. I get a feeling that TOD readers are a rare few who can question the status quo. The rest can't. I'd say 90% of the people I interact with out there, in the real world are mindless robots and talking to them about Peak Oil or other such stuff is totally useless. It's like you took the red pill in the Matrix movie and now reality isn't real anymore. But you can't let the others know about that.

the big question is: how can we expect the great majority of people to change their worldview

That however is a different question.
Basically you are asking how can we get the great herd of grazing buffaloes to change course.

They don't need to know why they are changing course.
The new direction merely needs to become the new "mainstream" thing to do. Once the a leading edge part of the herd starts moving in a new direction, the rest will follow.

Think about the "Tea Party". Do you honestly believe even half of them know what they are protesting about? Of course not. They are merely following a catchy new noise. Something a think tank thunk up.

Have you read Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point?

Hi step back,

Sounds like we have had similar experiences - I also find very few people who are willing to consider the issues we chew on here.

I put The Tipping Point on my Amazon Wish List (read the reviews). Greenish also talks about this approach for the "herd". As much as this makes sense, I've not yet seen any evidence of Connectors and Salesmen that might get the herd to cross the Rubicon. Hopefully, some will arise before the herd goes over the proverbial cliff.

Matt Simmons was one.

The cornucopians have more tippers than we do.

The cornucopians have more [and better] tippers

To that I'd like to add that ever since I first started lurking at TOD,
I was appalled by use of the phrase, "Peak Oil".

If ever there was a sound bite that fails to deliver the intent of its Cassandras, PO is it.

"Peak" implies something good, like hitting the peak of your performance.

Moreover, PO is not a "sticky" sound.

Alas, what's the point in resurrecting that dead stone?

In the land of the tone-deaf, the one-eared man is an odd ball tongue lasher.

A better and stickier sound bite would have been something like, "The Petroleum Plummet Problem"
It gets the message across that, Hello Houston we've got a problem. Something is about to plummet (not a good thing). It involves Petroleum. Moreover, PPP is an alliteration, so it "sticks"

Speaking to my ex wife who was a classic communist economist and whom I am still fond of, we agreed that the Ideal economy was one where national considerations were centrally planned. (railways, infrastructure, population health, scientific inquiry etc)

Tied to this must be the dynamism of small free enterprise.

The motor car companies in America look like large scale, centrally planned enterprises to me. They are not capitalist at all.

Further a sense of moral duty must be indelibly imprinted into young minds.
Morals are not an optional extra.
"It is just not cricket, old boy." is not trite, but the foundation of all successful societies.

In reply to your comment: national considerations were centrally planned

I would like to add that the best method to get national priorities done by the central government is to have this government incentivize the things that it wants done rather than doing it itself.

For example, instead of issuing government bonds and having the government build a power generation plant that runs on (nuclear, solar, or wind) the government could publish the EROI of the various forms and encourage the public to pledge to buy bonds issued by the private companies who want to do the project. When one of the companies has enough pledges, they could show they have the financial backing to do the project. This way, the selection is made by the public, not the “bought and paid for politicians” and a private company ends up being in charge of the design, construction and operation and would not do this unless a profit could be foreseen. Of course this means that the people who make the decision have a financial stake in the decision. This is where the government often fails in that the government is willing to allow politicians to horse trade with one another over this kind of decision and the result is often a compromise that satisfies no one.

If you decide that the government is the only entity that would take on the project, then presumably you expect to lose money – like the US Post Office and their semi-private US Postal Service. I don’t like to believe that money losing operations are in the best public interest but I suppose some argument can be made for this once in a while (Waging war is certainly an example of a money losing activity but sometimes it is necessary.)

woulda coulda shoulda
The problem is, politicians have to play the hand they have, and the hand (options) keeps changing. And shrinking.

Did President Obama read your letter?

President Obama: Damned If He Does, Damned If He Doesn't


Nate, I've lurked a lot here since last Spring and this is the first story that motivated me to log in and respond.

You are to be commended for your post, and fundamentally for your willingness to examine the past and learn from it. Would that another 10% of the population at large posess whatever qualities that enable some to do that.

Energy costs will dog the US economy for the forseeable future. Any upward momentum, be it Wall Street or Main Street, will be accompanied by marginally higher energy costs. It will make it very difficult to continue sustainable growth in the economy, as it were. Every bright spot reported about the economy will be followed (less than a week later) about an upsurge in the cost of energy.

The current economic plight in the US is the result of the most recent boom (not so recent now). Historically, people could afford to pay 3 times their annual wages/salary for a home. That is like one of Newton's laws, if Newton was an economist. Since the year 2000, real wages and salaries for US workers have declined. Yet, home prices have continued to rise. Consumer spending was propped up - artificially - by those rising prices. Homeowners went hand-over-fist for re-financing deals; they could borrow money against the rising value of their homes. A bubble. This funny money fueled our 70% consumer spending economy for almost a decade.

There is one question, and one question only: Where are the jobs - the solid middle class jobs - coming from in this decade or the next?

(I have no axe to grind in a political sense, other than to state that IMO neither of the major parties has a clue, each in their own endearing fasion.)

I'm starting to think that the days of the 70%-consumer-spending US economy might be truly over. We can only wonder what the real implications of that are, at the moment, because I firmly believe that the answer will only be known in hindsight, say, 2 or 3 decades hence.

There is one question, and one question only: Where are the jobs - the solid middle class jobs - coming from in this decade or the next? . . . I'm starting to think that the days of the 70%-consumer-spending US economy might be truly over.

My 2¢ worth (ELP Plan), from early 2007, which can be summarized as "Cut thy spending and get thee to the non-discretionary side of the economy."

ELP Plan, April, 2007

Author Thom Hartmann, in his book, “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight,” described a high tech company that he consulted for that went through several rounds of start up financing, and then collapsed, without ever delivering a real product. At the peak of their activity, they had several employees and lavish office space--until they ran out of capital. His point was that this company was analogous to a large portion of the US economy, which has the appearance of considerable activity and uses vast amounts of energy, but how much of this economic activity delivers essential goods and services?

I have read, and it seems reasonable, that the majority of Americans live off the discretionary income of other Americans. We are therefore facing a wrenching transformation of the US economy--from an economy focused on meeting “wants” to an economy focused on meeting needs--and the jobs of a vast number of Americans are thereby directly threatened in a post-Peak Oil environment. . .

In my opinion, the unfortunate new reality is that we are going to see a growing labor surplus--against the backdrop of deflation in the auto/housing/finance sectors and inflation in food and energy prices. By reducing your expenses now, while you can do it voluntarily, you will at least be better prepared for whatever the future may bring.

As I have endlessly pointed out, Peak Oil is the "good news." Peak Exports represents the real threat to oil importing countries. And then we have the ELM 2.0 thesis, to-wit, that the recent pattern we have observed of developing countries outbidding developed countries for access to declining net oil exports represents a mortal threat to the economies of the developed oil importing countries.

Unfortunately, OECD governments are generally doing precisely the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time, i.e., borrowing against projected future income to encourage current consumption. However, OECD government officials probably think they have no choice, since government revenues are so dependent on taxes generated by consumption spending.

Where are the jobs - the solid middle class jobs - coming from in this decade or the next?

Having two kids in school now, I've thought a lot about that one myself. The short answer is there are no solid middle class jobs like there used to be; the days of getting out of school and landing an entry level job you where you could work your way up are gone. Jobs for unskilled labor paying wages good enough to live on at current standards are gone, a fluke of history during the recently deceased age of energy abundance.

But people are still here...I tell my kids that the best bet is to try to be good at everything they can, try to be the kind of person that others enjoy having around, be trustworthy and reliable, and to focus in school on writing and business as two skills that are always good together in any field.

Reading through these comments I am struck by how many people concentrate on commuting.
This is wrong headed.

What should be central to the conversation is the need of our present civilisation on cheap, transportable energy.
This obsession with bicycles et al strikes me as the bargaining phase.
(If I ride a bicycle, would it be possible to continue as I am?) No.

By the way, a bicycle has been my main means of transport for most of my adult life.
I have the thighs of a stallion, and the head of an ostrich.

I figure transportation is the one big low hanging fruit that is accessible to most; my own income took a dive four years ago and I was able to manage things well by simply parking one car and commuting by bike. The cost savings were enough to offset the lost income, and my health is better than it has been for years as a result. I can look around and see no end of people in financial difficulty who could benefit greatly by taking the same path, but prefer to wait for convoluted tech solutions, unlikely government handouts, magic sky daddies...

I think that Nate Hagens does a good job in coming up with policy recommendations as a move to an economy which does not rely on growth. I have read a fair amount from folks who have begun to discuss the importance of a no growth economy. I think that one thing many leave out is to talk explicitely about employment because as folks hear about cutting out industries and living simpler we need policy options such as sharing what work is still available.Otherwise, folks will understandably say to themselves that these policy recommendations do not take care of their basic need to have a job. Some folks will say that new industries (ie;solar) will replace the old industries and lead to enough employment.I believe that this is wishful thinking. In order for policy recommendations to be something that folks can get behind, one needs to make front and center how to keep full employment in a no growth economy. The author Peter Victor I believe has done some good policy work in this area. Then the further question is how do we create movement to begin to transform the economy in this direction. I dont think it will come from the federal government unless we get into a crisis situation. Any movement needs to always consider how it can get people to buy into it as it meets one's self interest as well as the greater good. At this point, I dont have any great ideas as to how to make it happen. Somehow I think we need to connect a vision for a new kind of society with grassroots activity whose goal is to move toward that vision. I dont have great answers how to make that happen. At this point, most of these groups are either in the policy realm or the grassroots action realm (ie; planting community gardens).

Perhaps the time is coming when it will be permissible for human beings with feet of clay to speak truth to the powerful masters of the universe among us. That moment needs to come sooner rather than later, and may yet come in the nick of time to save a good enough future for children everywhere, but only if human beings in powerful positions choose to communicate openly and stop standing shoulder to shoulder with the rich and powerful in willful silence.

Raising awareness of the human community regarding human-driven aspects of the global predicament looming before humanity appears vital. As things stand now with the masters of the universe in charge, all of us now here in space-time are hurdling recklessly and unsustainably down a road to perdition, I suppose.

If only we could see that there is just enough space-time for us to raise awareness, transform human consciousness, adopt sustainable lifestyles and right-size business enterprises.... but only if we choose to get started now.

when does "now" end ?

Dear jmygann,

You are asking a good question. If only I had an answer......