Entropy, peak oil, and Stoic philosophy

I had plenty of time for my talk at the conference “Peak Oil: fact or fiction?” held in Barbastro (Spain) on May 4-7 2011. So, I could ramble a little on various subjects, from the entropy of complex systems to the stoic philosophy of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (above). Perhaps too many things, but in any case, here is a version written from memory in which I tried to maintain the tone and the content of my talk.

1. Simple physics and complex systems

So, ladies and gentleman, first of all let me show you this apple.
(photo by Daniel Gomez)

Don't worry; it doesn't mean that this will be a very long talk! I brought this apple with me just because I wanted to tell you about Newton's universal law of gravity. As we know, it seems to be true that he got the idea because he saw an apple falling from a tree (although it may not have fallen straight on his head!).

The fact that apples fall from trees - and that everything else that can fall, does - is an effect of the existence of relatively simple laws in the universe. Many things that we see around us are extremely complicated - or "complex". Think of the solar system, for instance. There are many bodies of different sizes, moving in different trajectories. But there is a certain logic in it and the logic comes from a very simple law - Newton's law - which can be expressed as follows:

Before Newton, for a long time scientists could only grumble something about “angels pushing” when asked about what caused planets to move. But if you know the law, you can describe not only the movement of the planets in the solar system, but all sorts of bodies, including entire galaxies.

It is not rare to find an underlying simple law that generates complex systems. Think of fractals; Mandelbrot's set, for instance. Fractals are not just mathematical entities, they are common in nature as well. Or think of models such a Feigenbaum's bifurcations – they are the result of an extremely simple equation. These are examples of a class of systems that are relatively common in physics. Complex systems resulting from very simple laws. It is one of the beauties of physics that these systems exist.

Now, when we discuss complex systems, of course what comes to our minds is the subject we are discussing today – the economy and what makes it move. This is surely a very complex system and one of the problems economists have is that most of their models just don't seem to be working very well. Sometimes, economists seem to be still thinking of the "invisible hand" and that looks very much like the angels pushing planets of long ago. But astronomers are not thinking or angels any longer whereas economists... well, let me not engage in economist-bashing.

2. Newton's apple in economics

So, let's see if we can inject some physics into modelling the economy. Can we find something equivalent to Newton's apple in economics? I think it is possible and let me reveal the observation that can give us the key that we need to understand how our economy works - considering that it is strongly based on non-renewable resources; crude oil in particular. So, here is this “apple” for crude oil, as Marion King Hubbert published it in 1956.

Note that Hubbert had only data until 1956; the rest is extrapolation. What this graph says is that he expected oil production in the US 48 lower states to behave in a certain way. Did it? Yes, as you can see in this image.

The agreement is impressive, considering that the curve spans several decades. But the main point, I think, is that oil production did follow a certain trajectory. There is a regularity, here. There is some kind of underlying law. And it is not angels – angels don't extract crude oil (for what we know, at least; one wonders what energy source they use in Paradise...). So, let me show the historical production data for Hubbert's case as we have it today. It is in Italian, but I think is easy to understand.

This graph emphasizes the “bell shaped” curve that production follows. Today, this curve is often knowm as “Hubbert's curve” and the maximum in production is the “Hubbert peak”. You have surely heard of it. When referred to world oil production, people say “Peak Oil” and we heard that term mentioned many times at this conference.

Now, I am telling you that this curve can be seen as the “falling apple” that gives us the key to understand the inner mechanisms of the exploitation cycle. Of course, before going on I have to convince you that this is a very general behaviour. All apples fall from trees in the same way and not just apples – also oranges and watermelons; just as do cats and dogs, planes and TV sets and whatever you can think of. Actually, not exactly everything – take a feather and you'll see that it doesn't follow Newton's law. But, of course, you don't jump to the conclusion that Newton's law is wrong, of course. It means that – in order to find the inner laws governing a system – you need to make sure that the system is not perturbed by effects that will cloud the effects you are studying. In the case of gravity, you must ensure that the effect of air doesn't affect too much the fall of an object. In the case of the Hubbert curve, you must make sure that government actions don't affect too much production. In other words, Hubbert's law works best in conditions of free market; when people can decide whether to extract oil or not depending on whether they think they can make money or not from the task.

3. The Hubbert law

This said, let me show you a few examples of Hubbert-like curves.

This one is the production of anthracite coal in Pennsylvania, one of the best examples we have of a Hubbert curve. I think it is from this graph that Hubbert got the inspiration to propose a similar curve for petroleum, although I am not aware that he ever mentioned this curve.

This is another example of a Hubbert curve, this time for a mineral not used for energy production: boric acid. These are data that I found just a few weeks ago. The curve is not a "perfect" Hubbert curve but, clearly, the trend is there.

This is another mineral commodity, phospates (From Dery and Anderson). I am showing this one because phospates are a fundamental fertilizer used in agriculture. We could live without oil, but we cannot live without phospates. Here; the curve is not complete, but the tendency is rather clear.

And here you can see that the curve is the same also for commodities that are not thought of as "minerals", normally. The Saudis had been extracting "fossil water" from underground aquifers and, for a while, they kept a flourishing agriculture with this water. Then, it was over. Luckily for them, they can import food with the money they make selling oil. But their oil will not be eternal, either.

As a last example, here are the data for something that is not by any means a mineral resource. It is the production of whale oil (and whale bone, used for stiffening ladies' corsets). Even though whales do reproduce, they were hunted so fast that the cycle was the same as that of non renewable resources.

I think you see that there is a pattern; a logic; and this “bell shaped” curve does not appear just for oil, or energy resources. It is a very general pattern of production of non renewable resources (or slowly renewable ones, such as whales).

Before you interrupt me, I hasten to say that there are counter-examples, of course. Go see oil production in Saudi Arabia, for instance, and you will see no bell shaped curve. There are other examples. But the Saudis extract on very different assumptions than those of the commercial oil companies; short term profits are not their only objective. As I mentioned before, even for Newton's idea, there were counter-examples; a feather for instance. Here, the concept is that, when governments or dictators, or the Gosplan (the Soviet planning agency), do not intervene in ordering people what to do, the actions of investors and operators will be based on reasonably objective evaluations of what is convenient to do in economic terms. That evaluation, in turn, must be based on physical factors – so a free market may be expected to be strongly affected by physical reality.

4. Entropy and economy

So, I am asking you to follow me with this idea; that the bell curve is a “natural” behavior of production for non renewable or slowly renewable resources. With “natural” I mean that it is the way the system is expected to behave when there are no strong interferences from political or other kind of perturbations. Then, I said that we should look at the inner mechanisms that make the economy behave in this way. I believe that we don't need to invent a brand new law, as Newton did for gravity. We already have the laws we need – even though so far we failed to apply them to this case. These are the laws of thermodynamics. Here are the three laws in a simplified form:

  1. You can't win
  2. You can't get even
  3. You can't quit the game

That is, of course, very simplified! There are even simpler versions. For instance, for economists it would be just a blank slide (sorry, I said no economist-bashing!). Before going on, let me tell you that this is a new idea that is moving forward nowadays– the idea of applying thermodynamics to the economy. More exactly, to apply “non equilibrium thermodynamics” (NET) to the economic system. It is a work in progress. So, what I'll be telling you is still tentative, but I do believe that we are on the right track.

Now let me show you this image of a waterfall:

And now let me ask you a question: what makes water fall? You'll say it is gravity; and that is correct. But there is a deeper factor here – this movement is eventually generated by the laws of thermodynamics. Nothing escapes thermodynamic laws. It is a question that I ask my students sometimes: how do you explain that water flows down in thermodynamic terms. It is difficult for them to find the answer right away, and yet they have studied thermodynamics. So, let me tell you; water flows down because of the second law – the entropy one.

You may remember from your studies that entropy is related to disorder. In some senses, it is true, but it is a definition that creates a lot of confusion. Think of entropy as heat dissipation. Then, everything that happens in the world is the result of some heat being dissipated – entropy tends to grow. When water falls from a high reservoir, some heat is created. The water at the bottom is slightly hotter than the water at the top – energy must be conserved, so it appears in the form of heat. Slowly, this heat is dissipated to the surroundings and that is what drives the system: entropy increase. The law of entropy is the law of change. Things move because entropy can increase – otherwise everything would stay frozen as it is. An equivalent way of saying that is that things happen because potentials tend to equalize. In the case of a waterfall, we have a gravitational potential difference (or "gradient"). With crude oil we have a chemical potential difference. There are other kinds of potentials, but let's not go into that now.

Now, maybe it is not correct to say that something happens “because entropy must increase.” Probably, it is more correct to say that the universe behaves in a certain way and that it is convenient for us to describe this behavior with concepts such as “gravity”, “entropy” or “potentials.” These concepts are more useful than those involving angels pushing – or similar ones; such as the invisible hand... sorry; no economist-bashing, I said. But in practice, for these concepts to be useful I can't just tell you, “the economy moves because entropy must increase”. It is true, but we need to go much more in detail. In order to do that, we need some kind of formalism where we can change the parameters of the system and see whether we can reproduce historical data, for instance Hubbert's curve. That is what I'll be doing; showing you how Hubbert's idea can be derived from an interpretation that – ultimately – has to do with thermodynamics. But first let me introduce you to the method known as “system dynamics” which can be used to describe this kind of systems.

Let me show how system dynamics (SD) works by showing a description of a waterfall. Here, actually, it is about a bathtub, but the physics is the same.

The model is made out of boxes, arrows and valves. Boxes are termed “stocks” and arrows are termed “flows”. If there are two boxes connected to each other, a stock may flow into another depending on the potential difference. In general, the concepts of potential or gradients are not so often used in SD. This is a shortcoming, I think. Anyway, I said that I wanted to make a model that describes the economy and produces the behavior that we have termed “Hubbert's”. In order to do that, a single waterfall is not enough. We need something just a bit more complex – like this three tiered fountain.

The driving forces in the water movement are the same as before – gravitational potentials. Now, this fountain is not the perfect model for what I am trying to do. Use it just as an illustration of the concept that it is a potential-driven system. For modelling an economy, we need a further step: the concept known as “feedback”. That means we have to assume that the flow from one stock to the other does not depend just on the size of the upper stock, but also on that of the lower stock. The model is now more like a biological model. Think of the lower stock “preying” on the upper stock and growing in proportion. Without feedback, we have no growth and the model does not define a real economic system. So, let's take this further step and describe the model using the convention of system dynamics.

5. A simple model of the economic system

Here, we have a very simple model that has three stocks: resources, the economy, and waste.

Note the arrows that connect stocks to valves. These arrows indicate feedback. But note also that the system is driven by thermodynamic potentials. Essentially, the economy is an engine that transforms resources into waste. Its "fuel" is, mainly, the chemical potential of fossil fuels.

Now, the model is made using a software called “Vensim” which does not just draw arrows and boxes. It “solves” the model, that is it calculates the flows as a function of the initial amounts of stocks and of the parameters of the system (the “ks” here) – those that are basically describing the potentials. Again, let me state that these SD software packages are not thought in terms of thermodynamic potentials. One day, we may have packages specifically defined for that purpose. For the time being, let's jut keep in mind this point. Now, let's go on and see how the system works. With Vensim, you can change the parameters in real time and see how stocks and flows change. Here are some results:

The software allows you to solve the model iteratively; you see what happens as you change the values of the constants using sliders. And, here, you already start seeing “bell shaped” curves. We can plot the results in a better way; here is how the three main stocks (resources, the economy, and waste) vary with time.

This is a very, very general behavior - it works for a variety of systems. It describes chemical reactions, epidemics, and even the explosion of a nuclear bomb. I also found that it can be applied to the collapse of empires. In a way, it is something like applying Newton's law to different systems - you can describe galaxies, planetary systems and spaceship trajectories, all with the same, simple law. Note that here, unlike the case of gravity, we don't have a physical "force" that pulls together the elements of the system; nothing that you could measure with a dynamometer. But there is a powerful entity that moves the system anyway: entropy.

Now, back to the case of an economic system; you see that the “engine” which is the economy, revs up until a certain time, then it slows down and it falters. Eventually, entropy wins. When all the resources have been transformed into waste, then entropy has been maximized. In the case of the world's economy, the transformation is mainly from fossil hydrocarbons (CxHy) to CO2 and, of course, the chemical potential of hydrocarbons is higher than that of CO2. The economy is an enormous, three stage chemical reaction.

We could modify the system taking into account many more effects – recycling waste for instance, but let me not go into that. Let's see, instead, is how the model describes Hubbert's curve which is the flow rate from the resources stock to the economy stock.

Qualitatively, you see that we do generate “bell shaped” curves. Here, the blue one ("production") is the one that should be compared to the historical production data for crude oil or other commodities. That is possible, but not sufficient to say that the model is good. What I think is a fundamental test for this model is whether it can fit at least TWO sets of data; if possible more. This is a hard test, as I found out working on that.

In practice, we often have good data for production, but for “the economy” it is much more difficult. Nevertheless, we'll see that we can find good “proxy” data for that. So, the model can be put  to this hard test and it succeeds. We can test the model on small economic systems that we may assumed to be self-contained. Let me show you an example, whale oil in 19th century. We have already seen the production data earlier on. The question, then, is what could we take as data for "the economy," in this case related to that subsystem of the whole economy that was engaged in whaling at the time. Unfortunately, we don't have these data, but we can find a good "proxy" for the size of the whole industry in the size of the whaling fleet. And we see that it works:

There are other examples. Together with my coworker, Alessandro Lavacchi, we published a paper on this subject that shows how even this very simple model can be used to describe the exploitation of non-renewable resources. Here is just another example: crude oil production in the US 48 lower states - the quintessential "Hubbert curve".

Note that here we have used as “production” not the actual oil production, but the size of oil discoveries. That is because the main effort in oil production is discovery. Once you have found where the oil is, the development process is smooth – almost “automatic” – but it takes several years to go from the first successful find to actually producing something. And, as proxy for the effort of the oil industry, we have the number of wildcats, that is, of exploratory wells. Note how the industry made a big effort to find oil starting from the 1950s, but basically it couldn't find much. It is typical, as I said.

Now, to show you what the model can do, let's use it to extrapolate economic trends to the future. we could take as “production” the total world primary energy production and as “the economy” we use the world's GDP as a proxy. And here is the result. This is a calculation done together with Leigh Yaxley a few years ago.

As you see, the model predicts that the production of primary energy will peak in a few years from now and then will go down irreversibly. The size of the economy (measured in terms of GDP), curiously, will keep growing for a while; then it will peak and decline as well. Of course, you may be perplexed about these results if you see them as predictions. So, I think I'll spend a few moments discussing what exactly we aim to do with these models. One fundamental point is that we cannot make predictions of what will happen in decades from now. Maybe it makes sense to say that the world's primary energy production will peak in four years from now; that is because we have other models that tell us that. But about the world's GDP peaking in 2044, well, of course you have to take that as a guess. That doesn't mean that the model is useless. If you ask the right questions to the model, the model will give you useful answers. Otherwise, there holds the rule of "garbage in - garbage out." For instance, if you are asking, “How can the economy keep growing throughout 21st century” the model cannot tell you that.

So, you can gain important insights from the model in terms of trends. For instance, if you see the world's energy production going down and the GDP going up; then you might be very happy because you'll say that the economy is becoming “more efficient." But the model tells you that you are not being more efficient, you are simply using previously accumulated resources to keep the economy running. And, of course, you can do that only for a while.

But I do understand that this model is really very simplified. For instance, it does not include renewable resources and it is true that our economy is not completely based on non-renewable resources; even though most of it is. So, the question you may ask now is whether we can do something more detailed. How about adding to the model agriculture, recycling, renewable energy, etc.?

Sure. It can be done and – in fact – it has already been done long ago. The first time it was in 1971 in a work titled "World Dynamics" by Jay Forrester who, by the way, is the inventor of system dynamics. But let's examine the more detailed study that was published one year later, in 1972. It was inspired by Forrester's work and I am sure you have heard of it. It is the “report to the Club of Rome” titled “The Limits to Growth” of 1972.

6. The Limits to Growth

Now, you may have heard that “The Limits to Growth” (let's call it "LTG") is an outdated work; that it was all a mistake, that they made wrong predictions and the like. Those are just urban legends. People tend to disbelieve what they don't like and that is why LTG was so widely rejected and even demonized. I wrote an entire book on the story of "LTG," it will be published next month, but let me not go into too many details. Let me just say that The Limits to Growth was a very advanced study for its times; it was not a mistake and its predictions were not wrong. In any case, these models are there to show you trends; not to give you exact dates for what will happen.

So, let's go into some details. Let me show you the structure of the first LTG model, called "World3". This is a scheme taken from the Italian 1972 edition:

Of course, you can't understand anything here - and not just because the boxes are labelled in Italian. The reason why I am showing this image is to give you some idea of the structure of a complete SD world model. It looks like one of those puzzles that you find in the Sunday edition of your newspaper. This is a problem that I think we have with system dynamics. Most SD models look the same; at first sight you have no idea of what is being modeled: it could be a fish market, a nuclear plant or a hospital; it is still boxes all the way. There are SD software packages that allow you more graphic freedom; but let me not go into that. The point that I wanted to make is that this model - the "world3" model of "The Limits to Growth" it is not so different, in the end, from the simple model that I had been showing you before. All these models have something in common – the fluxes that go from one boxes to another are governed by thermodynamics. So we might think of a model like this one – the LTG one – as a big, multi-tiered fountain, more or less like this:

This is the Trevi fountain in Rome. It is complicated, as you see, but, in the end, there is a common force that runs the fountain: it is the gravitational potential that moves water down. So, the whole makes sense: there is a physical law that governs the flow of water. So, we could see the LTG model as an especially complicated fountain. We could go into details, but of course we don't want to do that now. Let's try instead to simplify the model and see if we can understand what it is about. Here is a graphic representation of the World3 model made by Magne Myrtveit a few years ago:

This is a simplified model; it doesn't reproduce all the features of the original. But it has the advantage of being "mind sized" - it is something that we can grasp and the use of images helps a lot; it is much better than boxes with some label on them. So, as you see, the model can be reduced to a small number of stocks. Here we see them: we have five main stocks; in alphabetic order we have agriculture, industrial capital, non renewable resources, population, and pollution.

Note that, again, this representation of the model does not show the thermodynamics behind. With the stocks arranged as they are in the figure, the potentials that move the system are not evident. Yet, they must be there. Nothing can move without a potential difference that pushes it. So, one thing that we'll have to do someday is to make these potentials visible in the representations of these models. But, as I said, I am telling you about a work in progress – there is plenty of work in this field that someone will have to do in the future.

Now, let's examine the model a little more closely. You recognize that there are three stocks which are just the same as those of the simpler model that I showed to you before. Here the stocks are given different names: mineral resources (the stock that was called "resources"), industrial capital ("the economy") and pollution ("waste"). Then, there are two more stocks; one is agriculture – intended as renewable resources and then there is population. These two new stocks are needed for more detail in the model and, of course, there are many more connections: now the model can describe such things as recycling and the effects of pollutions on the industrial capital. Note also that “renewable” resources may not be absolutely so. Soil is not renewable if it is overexploited – it is called erosion.

At this point, we may go to the results. I am showing to you the data from the first edition of LTG, back in 1972, the main results haven't changed much in simulations performed 30 years later with updated historical data. So, this is the output of the model for the best data available at the time; that was called the “standard run” (the graph is, again, from the Italian edition; the text is from the 2004 edition)

The labels in the plot are a little too small to be readable, but let me describe these results to you. First, the scale spans two centuries, starting in 1900 and arriving to 2100. We are about at the middle of the graph. Now, look at the “resources” curve (red). It has exactly the same shape as the one that we obtained with the simpler model, before. And the curves for industrial and agricultural production (green and brown), yes, they look very much like Hubbert curves, even though here they are not symmetric. This is due in part to the effect of pollution which adds to the effect of depletion. But it is not a very big change.

And then, of course, you see the pollution curve (dark green) – here a basic supposition is that pollution is not permanent - it is gradually re-absorbed by the ecosystem. So, the pollution curve goes up and then down, following with a time lag the behavior of industrial and agricultural production. Finally, there is population. It keeps growing even though agricultural production goes down; this is because people can still reproduce as long as there is at least some food. Actually, there is no direct proportionality in term of food availability and reproduction rate but, in any case, in the long run the lack of food takes its toll. Population starts going down too. What the graph shows is the total collapse of civilization – our civilization. It is thermodynamics doing its job; it is the way everything in the universe works.

You see that, according to this scenario, the start of the collapse of the industrial civilization might start, well, just about now. That might explain a few things about what is going on now in the world. But let me tell you that these simulations are not supposed to provide you with dates for specific events to occur – except in a very, very approximate way. As I said, these simulations tell you about trends, not about events. So, the model tells you that a collapse of the world's economy could start at some moment during the first few decades of the 21st century - maybe later, but in any case not in a remote future.

But there is more; much more. Here we go into something very interesting: it is that trends may change according to your assumptions. So, the “standard run” scenario tells you that civilization collapses mainly because of resource depletion. But we can change the initial assumptions and arrive to very different results. If you assume that we have more resources or - which is about the same - that pollution is more damaging than expected, then what brings civilization down is not resource depletion but the effect of pollution. This is, again, from the 1972 edition of "The Limits to Growth" - the results have not changed in more recent calculations.

Look at the pollution curve shooting up rapidly – it is a different path to arrive to the same result: collapse. In the end, thermodynamics must win. Of course, today we tend to see this “pollution” as something very specific: global warming caused by emissions of greenhouse gases.

So, you see, we are walking on a knife edge. We may be destroyed by climate change or by resource depletion (and possibly by both at the same time). From the most recent LTG simulations performed around 2004 it still seems that it is more likely that we will be destroyed by resource depletion – but we cannot really say. The data are too uncertain and in recent times we have seen a worrisome tendency for people to go for more and more “dirty” fuels (coal, tar sands and the like) and that increases pollution while it gives to you the illusion of having more resources. But the final result will be the same.

7. Facing collapse (a view based on Stoic philosophy)

So, here we are. You see, seeing these results in thermodynamic terms gives them a certain weight; a certain value of ancient prophecy – something that Cassandra herself might have uttered. She was not believed of course; just as today the authors of LTG have not been believed. But there are thermodynamic constraints to the system that we cannot dismiss - even though these limits may not appear in economics textbooks. The final result is collapse in a form or another. We cannot avoid it.

Not that we couldn't do something to soften the blow. What is collapse, after all? It is just rapid change; but things are changing all the time. A collapse is just a period in which things are changing faster than usual. It is like crashing a car into a wall: maybe you can't avoid it, but if you wear seat belts and you have an airbag you'll be much better off. Even more important is to see the wall as soon as possible and start braking. So, detecting the collapse in advance would permit us to go into mitigation strategies. It means managing collapse in such a way to transform into a "soft collapse"; even though not everyone might be happy about it. You are not happy when you car crashes into a wall, but if you come out of the wreck unscathed, well, it is a good thing.

This is the idea that we see very often discussed in meetings such as this one, today. We discuss what we should do in order to avoid, or at least mitigate, the dark and dire things that depletion and climate change are bringing to us. We discuss plans, technological improvements, “sustainable development”, and many more ideas. The problem is that, outside this conference, nothing is being done and nobody seem to care about what the future has in store for us. It is worse than that; there are plenty of people out there who spend their time actively disparaging what science is telling us about the risks we are facing; global warming in particular. Unfortunately, if we deny thermodynamics we are destined to experience it applied to ourselves.

So, I am afraid that all the planning and all the “solutions” we have been discussing so earnestly in this conference will be leading to very little change. So, what are we to do? Just keep quiet and brood? Well, that depends on you, but one thing I can tell you and it is that we might learn something more from history. See, collapses have already occurred for past civilizations – this much we know very well. And the question is, what did they think, what did they do, when they saw their world collapsing around them? This is a fascinating question and we may try to answer it by looking at the civilization that is perhaps the most similar to ours and for which we have the most data. It is the Roman Empire.

I have already written something about the fall of the Roman Empire; I titled it “Peak Civilization”. I saw that it was a huge success in terms of readers. Indeed, you may have noticed that the Roman Empire is very popular nowadays. It is because it is not so difficult to understand that there are so many similarities between us and the Romans. Not everything, but a lot of things. In “Peak Civilization” I tried to apply system dynamics to the Roman Empire – that could not be made quantitative, of course, but in qualitative terms, yes, it works. The Romans were brought down by a combination of resource depletion and pollution, the same problems we are facing today.

So, what did the Romans do? Well, one thing that is clear is that they could do very little. They could never manage change; they were almost always overcome by change. Not that they didn't try; but it was difficult: the empire was too big and human efforts too puny in comparison. Even Emperors couldn't reverse the collapsing trend – no matter how hard they tried. Not even an emperor can beat thermodynamics. So, what did the Romans think about the situation? Did they get depressed? Hopeful? Resigned? Well, we can have some idea on what they were thinking from what they left to us in writing. And one thing that we may identify as their response to the situation was the philosophy that we call “Stoicism.”

Of course, this is not a presentation about philosophy, but I think I could conclude with a note about this ancient philosophy because it might become useful to us, too. Stoicism was developed in Greece in a period when the Greek civilization was collapsing. Then the Romans picked it up and adapted it to their culture. Stoicism is a philosophy that permeates the Roman way of thinking; it also deeply influenced the Christian philosophy and we can still feel its influence in our world today. The basic idea, as far as I can understand, is that you live in bad times, yes, but you maintain what we would call a "moral stance". We could say that Stoics thought that "virtue is its own reward" although, of course, there is much more than that in Stoicism.

So, when I was coming to Spain from Italy, I took with me a book written by Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor who lived and ruled in mid-2nd century AD. It is titled “Meditations.” Perhaps it is not a great book, but surely it is an interesting one; mainly because it is a sort of manual on how to apply Stoicism to everyday life. Marcus had a very hard time during his reign. He had to fight almost all the time and he never had the time to write a treatise on philosophy. He just jotted down notes as he had a moment free from the battlefield. That is what the “Meditations” is; a book of snippets. From it, you can get a good idea of the personality of the Emperor. He was a good person - I'd say - who had seen much and experienced much. He had always tried to do his best, but he understood how puny human efforts are.

From Marcus' “Meditations” and from what I read about stoicism, I think I can summarize the basic idea as:

You cannot win against entropy, but you must behave as if you could

Of course, Marcus didn't know about entropy, but he had very clear idea how the universe is in continuous flow. Things change and this is the only unchangeable truth. I think this is our destiny and what we have to do. Likely, we won't be able to save the world we know. Probably, we won't be able to avoid immense human suffering for the years to come. Yet, we must do our best to try and – who knows – what we'll be able to do might make a difference. I think this is the lesson that Marcus is telling us, even from a gulf of time that spans almost two millennia. So, I leave you with some words from the book "Meditations" which maybe you can take as relevant for us today.

Be a master of yourself and view life as a man, as a human being, as a citizen and as a mortal. Among the truths you will do well to contemplate most frequently are these two: first, that things can never touch the soul, but stand inert outside it, so that disquiet can arise only from fancies within; and secondly, that all visible objects change in a moment, and will be no more. Think of the countless changes in which you yourself have had a part. The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it."

(translation by Maxwell Staniforth, 1962)

I would like to thank all of you for your attention and also the organizers of this conference, David Lafarga and Pilar Carrero, for all the work they did. I would also like to thank Daniel Gomez for driving me to Barbastro from Barcelona and for the photo of me at the conference, with the apple. Finally, thanks to Aglaia Gomez for her assistance in many things during and before the conference.

Congrats on getting your stoicism article published by TOD.

Rather than repeating my PoV, here is a link to the same as posted on your site.

ditto; but I repeat my opening sentence from my comment on your blog site
"I find this the most chilling account yet of industrial civilisation's inevitable and short-lived trajectory."
For me, it is the experienced scientist in you that does the trick.
I made a technical comment over there about maintaining currently large inorganic fertilizer inputs over many more decades, possibly 'indefinitely' in theory. However, I see, as others also have commented, the immediate prospect of increasing competitive trends driving poorer small farmers, and the poor generally 'out of the market'.

Great article Ugo. Really enjoyed it, as the historic parallels between the past and the present are certainly something we can learn a lot from, though, as you stated, not anything's the same. Btw do you, or anybody else here, have data on how the population of the Roman Empire was affected by its decline (Lifespans, population, nutrition etc)?

You might enjoy this article... basically it says the data points are a bit weak (50 year spans), but it is a very good discussion. You mathey types will love it.



Thanks, zaphod. The question of the population of the Roman Empire is, indeed, very difficult. No reliable data, unfortunately. Maybe we'll never have a good model, but I think that archeological evidence eventually will tell us something solid.

What a fine, thoughtful piece, Ugo Bardi. Thank you. Surely you are correct that a stoic inner calm is the ‘first best” rational response for any individual who understands what is happening, perhaps the beginning of a “Manifesto for the Tribe.”

A thought: in the last graph it would appear that even as resources rapidly decrease while pollution increases, the first noticeable major impact on the system is the sharp decrease in per capita food. This precedes the beginning of the decline in industrial output per capita and the subsequent beginning of the decline in population. Is “Peak Food” actually beginning? (It is no coincidence that food and energy are excluded from “core inflation; but no economist bashing….) Does less bread mean more circus?

Indeed, may I also offer my congratulations on a wonderful article. Actually just what I needed to read this morning while munching my cornflakes!

Surely you are correct that a stoic inner calm is the ‘first best” rational response for any individual who understands what is happening

Agreed. On more than one occasion I have nearly lost the plot, knowing what I do. Keeping one's 'stoic inner calm' in tact is essential to be able to operate in the 'Matrix' after being unplugged from it. (The Matrix is how I describe the lunacy of the world which believes that the future will just be the same as the recent (1900s ++) past. Being unplugged from the Matrix is analogous to educating oneself in these issues presented in the article.

(The Matrix is how I describe the lunacy of the world which believes that the future will just be the same as the recent (1900s++) past. Being unplugged from the Matrix is analogous to educating oneself in these issues presented in the article.

Well said.

Australia's national green party declared earlier in the week a "100% renewable target", which is also analogous with The Matrix; wind turbines and solar panels can be "grown" (in the movie, human body heat is harvested for energy). Tens of thousands of carbon-free turbines will "spring up" like daisies and the wind will blow on queue.

Cool movie, but like the Green's proposal, pure science "fiction". EROI and scale aren't in the green dictionary.


EROI for wind can be quite good. Turbines are getting bigger (and increasing EROI) all the time.

However, green solutions need to be local. Australia is not short of land and sunshine. Solar PV and Solar Thermal are probably a better investment, but diversity of supply is also important.

Australia has vastly more renewable energy flows (mostly solar) than it currently consumes vie fossil and nuclear. There is no reason that these technologies will not scale - but they have high upfront capital (and energy) costs, so they need to be ramped up from a small base, before we become so short of fossil fuels that we do not have the energy to build out of collapse.

Of course they are not carbon free - all that concrete generates a lot of CO2 during manufacture. However, over the lifetime of the installation, they are at least as good as nuclear, and better than any fossil fuel.

Renewables work, as long as you work with them, and don't expect them to be a plug in replacement for oil.

Hi Ralph,

Apologies for sounding cynical, though cynical I guess I am. Still live in MS where growth, growth, growth remains the mantra. And no-one in my neck of the woods really gives a toss about the long term.

I've been trying to find some hard numbers on renewables; for example, how many tonnes of CO2 are released/barrels of oil consumed/tonnes of coal burnt establishing, say, a 100MW wind farm? (Any figures should begin at the mining/processing stage, go through to power-up).

Surely such numbers must exist by now.

I'm unclear how much a 100MW solar-site (with batteries?) might cost, however this site here - http://www.windustry.org/how-much-do-wind-turbines-cost - tells me a 2MW turbine costs $3.5million to install (I presume one gets a bit of cabling for that). In my state, the four major coal plants' capacity is 6000MW, so does this mean renewables need to be twice that?. I doubt our local government has a lazy $20B lying around.

Are there dollars for 100% renewables on a global scale? 50%?

Yes I understand, it's not about the dollars, it's about saving the planet (well, our way of life). But how many renewable structures are needed to go "100% green", or even 50%? Is there even enough stuff in the ground to go green on a global scale?

Until someone can show me some simple numbers (essays and reports usually lose me), I guess I'll have to remain cynical - unfortunately. Until a Green Senator can prove 100% is doable, I'll remain a skeptic. I mean, what's the plan long term anyway? Continue BAU and growth? I just can't see how renewables (which have a shelf life) will cut it long term.

To wit, I fear the cliff.

Regards, Matt
S T I L L a concerned dad

well here is what the DOE says are the relative costs of electicity generation (link from wikipedia).. I think you're right to be cynical of solar, at these prices it's still a bit of a joke. Don't forget the Victoria state government canned a large Solar plant project last year, costs are just too prohibitive.

Levelized energy cost chart 1, 2011 DOE report.gif

That table pretty much sums it up why so many new power plants are natural gas..

Keep in mind this is only looking at what the price needed to recover capital and o&m costs, it is not talking about the value of the electricity produced.
NG plants can load follow (and even coal, to some extent) , to produce more of their product during high price periods, and thus improve the average selling price they receive. Wind, on the other hand, has to just take whatever it can get, and often misses out on the very high price periods during still, hot summer days.

So while the price needed for a viable operation is similar for coal and wind, the coal plant is likely to achieve a higher average selling price than a wind farm on the same grid.

The higher transmission investment for solar, wind and conventional turbines (peaking plants) reflects the fact that you have to build the transmission capacity, but only use it according to the capacity factor of the generator. Thus the transmission cost is inversely proportional to the capacity factor.

I'm a bit surprised by the numbers for solar PV vs thermal. Thermal is often assumed around here to be some sort of magic bullet, and yet it doesn't seem to do well. (Is the requirement for focusing - hence hypersensitivity to haze etc. - what kills it?)

I suspect the EIA numbers are out of date - concentrated solar thermal is changing pretty quickly.

Well, we'll have to let the solar thermal guys prove that their numbers are actually any better. We do have a very large sample size for cost on PV and wind, and everything else, but not so for solar thermal. There is really no standardisation, mot economy of scale, in that area yet.

Also, most of them use steam turbines, which, at the smaller scales (1-'s of MW instead of 100's) are less efficient (so need more steam, and more collectors per MW) and cost more per MW. The use of Organic Rankine Cycle (ORC) systems offers an alternative, but there is a ceiling on their efficiency, and size. (though smaller systems is not necessarily a bad thing)

Also, where many solar thermal plants are being built is in dry, sunny places - where you don't have abundant cooling water. If you have to go to closed loop and dry air cooling, your costs have further increased. And the hot, dry air in those places presents the worst conditions for dry air cooling.

I think, that other than cellulosic biofuels, solar thermal has had the most hype and delivered the least to date. I see that as a good thing - there is not point deploying lots of plants when they are clearly still developing, though I think we are close to the point where they are ready to deploy.

I do particularly like the Australian approach I linked to above, of co-locating with a coal plant, and using their existing steam system and turbines - saves money and guarantees that you are displacing coal, and not NG or hydro. The coal plants in Arizona / New Mexico / Utah / Texas would be prime candidates for this sort of thing.

Full stand alone can come later, but if making use of a coal plant is what makes it economic, then that's a great place to start.

As with any other energy tech, the proof is in the profit.

If they can produce and sell electricity at a profit using their tech, then it has arrived in full commercial glory, if they can't then it either needs more work or it's just not practical.

Of course, this means a lot of useful tech is going to be subsidized one way or another until fossil fuels get more expensive, but that's the price we pay for having an economy.

Thanks for that, but "price" isn't what I'm after. I already know renewables are too expensive. Indeed, without supplementary tax-dollars, most projects would never get off the ground.

What I'd REALLY like to know, for example, is how many tonnes of CO2 are released for the COMPLETE installation of, say, a 2MW wind turbine? This figure must factor in EVERYTHING; everything that's pulled out of the ground - iron ore, whatever - everything that needs to be refined and processed, everything that needs to be constructed - footings, transmission lines and all the rest - all the fossil fuel that's consumed along the way, etc, etc. That is, everything that needs to be physically done before the first "wind-watt" is even produced.

Surely someone must have a figure by now. Surely.

Secondly, is there solid information as to a turbine's lifespan? They have been around for a while now, after all. Turbine/blades/tower? 30 years? 50?

Sorry I'm pushing the point, it just seems most of my fellow Joes and Janes - as well at the entire Australian green party - believe renewables grow on trees (so to speak!). And anything's that's built is gonna last a thousand years!!

Cheers, Frustrated Matt :(

Matt, The problem with trying to answer your question is hwere do you draw the boundaries? It takes X tons of coal to make a ton of steel, but then do we count the coal fired electricity used by the steel workers in their homes? And that used by the teachers/doctors/cooks/janitors etc in the town that supports the steelworks, and the cars they drive? And on it goes.

An attempt at quantifying this is made by David McKay in his excellent book Sustainable Energy - Without The Hot Air

Suffice to say, for any durable good, like a house, the energy used to make it is usually less than a tenth of what it consumes over its lifetime. For a wind turbine, it is the reverse, the energy produced will be more than 10X what was used to make it, though the energy used to make it is in different forms.

My suggestion, with the exception of PV panels, is to ignore the energy used to build energy producers, or assume 1/10 of lifetime production, and go from there.

Design life for wind turbines, and most coal plants, is about 30yrs. At that point they all need a major overhaul.

The Australian greens have their heads in the clouds, thinking that Aust can go to 100% renewables anytime soon. All that wind and solar needs backup, and with relatively small amounts of hydro available, the backup is going to be NG.
Even worse, they are trying to solve the wrong problem. Australia's real problem is not electricity, it is oil - Oz is just as dependent on imported oil as the US, but without the capacity to "secure" foreign supplies.

But this speaks to the Greens real objective, they don;t want to solve the issue of oil imports, they want to de-industrialise the country. Given that it is actually one of the most urbanised countries in the world, this is not very realistic.

Thanks for that, Paul.

"energy produced will be more than 10X what was used to make it"...

I can live with that! However, I'm still not convinced there's enough stuff in the ground to go global. Oh, and there's that "peak oil" argument I keep hearing about. ;)

Personally, I don't mind the idea of a simpler, greenish way of life. But it's obvious my fellow Joes and Janes will never voluntarily get onboard.

Cheers, Matt
Closet Doomer

I am all for a simpler and less consumptive lifestyle, and, that can be achieved, possibly best so, within cities - just not the cities we have today - we need the traditional city. Done right, cities are very resource efficient - that is why ants and bees have been building cities for tens of millions of years. The eco-fantasy of everyone living on a little plot of land and growing their own food is what won't work, unless society is literally reduced to where that is the only thing people can do, and i think we can do much better than that.

I first came across the concept of embodied energy for buildings over a decade ago - and the conclusion then was the lifetime energy use was 10x the embodied energy. For a car the lifetime oil use is probably 100x the embodied oil energy.

As for stuff in the ground - depends what stuff you are talking about. Iron ore, bauxite (aluminium ore) is in huge quantities, as is coal of course. I think the trick is to get alternatives done while they are still cheap enough to get done. Building urban rail, for example, seems to get expensive much faster than anything else (except new roads) , though I can;t see why it should be so.

For a car the lifetime oil use is probably 100x the embodied oil energy.

A site calling itself something like the Institute for Lifecycle Energy Assessment (long since defunct, now available only via archive.org AFAIK) found that the lifetime energy consumption of a Ford Taurus was only about 90% in the fuel, not 99%.

Vehicles which front-load the manufacturing energy to achieve economies in use (Prius, Volt) will shift this toward parity.

the lifetime energy consumption of a Ford Taurus was only about 90% in the fuel, not 99%.

Probably very roughly 10% of the Taurus's embodied energy is in oil, so that's actually consistent with Paul's comment.

The Prius probably takes a little less energy, and the Volt probably takes a little more (but not really significantly more) than the average light vehicle.

If we can get the cost to GEO down to $100/kg at 5 kg/kW, the parts and labor cost no more than $900 and the rectenna $200/kW then the levelized capital cost would be from 15.3 to 27.8 depending on the discount rate with the lower being at 5% and the higher being at 15%

It's hard to see why O&M should be as high as 1 percent of investment per year, but using that, $2 a MWh. No charge for fuel and same as coal for transmission gives a levelized cost of space based solar power of $18 to $31 per MWh. Or 1.8 cents per kWh to 3.1 cents per kWh.

At worst, that's less than 1/3rd of the cost of power from coal and under half the of the least expensive power from gas.

Aren't numbers fun?

Nah, the real fun is wholly speculative mixtures of numbers with if's: "If we can get the cost to GEO down to $100/kg at 5 kg/kW...".

And if we had ham, and if we had eggs, we could have ham-and-eggs.

Oh, and: Given all the hyped-up fear over cell phones, is anybody, politically, going to allow microwave transmission at an intensity high enough to be useful? Really? Will a legally allowable rectenna farm take up many times the acreage of equivalent ground-based panels (even given the panels' poor availability factor)? Will the scheme be accepted given that a skilled military hacker could redirect the beam without warning in minutes or seconds? Oh, and at GEO distance it's going to take a humongous and precisely shaped/controlled antenna to concentrate the beam adequately (1.22λ/d and all that) to transmit 36000km/22000mi. How many decades before "we" have enough experience to construct gargantuan high-precision structures in space that stay precise under the wild fluctuations in solar heating? When, if ever, could the scheme become any better than mounting the panels on or near the ground?

If we can't get the transport cost down far enough then it makes no sense to build power satellites at all.

I don't expect them to be built in the US which should mitigate the political factor. (In the US, coal, nuclear and gas will keep the lights on for a long time.)

The original power sat designs used a 1 km antenna and a 10 km rectenna and low level of microwaves, about 1/4 of noontime sunlight. They are hard to hack because they depend on a pilot beam up from the center of the rectenna to get the antenna phase right, which also corrects for any thermal distortions in the transmitting antenna. If someone did divert the beam into a city, an aluminum foil hat would be enough to defeat them.

The increased sunlight isn't the major advantage of power satellites. It's that they can be made really light because they are in zero g and not subjected to wind.

"The original power sat designs used a 1 km antenna and a 10 km rectenna and low level of microwaves, about 1/4 of noontime sunlight."

Then here's the puzzle: it's a hugely complicated system with multiple energy conversions. And it's got a component in outer space, that's exceedingly difficult and expensive to maintain. And it takes up almost as much land for the rectenna array as would a solar panel array delivering the same average power. What's the point, except maybe for the gee-whizziness of using outer space? Why bother?



"What's the point, except maybe for the gee-whizziness of using outer space? Why bother?"

I wish more people got this!!!

There are several reasons:

30% of solar power gets absorbed by the atmosphere, and 80% gets blocked by the planet at any one spot, so you get about 6x as much power in space;

The power is constant;

you don't need strong support structures: you can paint the PV on balloon like structures if you want.

That said, getting the materials into orbit and the power back to earth is a headache - I suspect we'll have to wait for an orbital elevator to solve both problems, and that will take a while.

We don't need space power - wind and conventional PV and CSP will do just fine.

Well, yah, I know about that factor of six-ish, but really, if we have to wait for a space elevator, there's nothing more to discuss. That's a cute science-fictiony concept, but the practical realities would be daunting to say the least. I doubt anyone reading this will live to see it. Plus there'd be no effective way to protect it from space junk, and with the materials stressed to theoretical limits, it would probably be absurdly easy to sabotage. And how do you maintain or replace it? You can't reel it in, and it would probably be a bad idea to let go of it.

I'd also be at least a little skeptical about "painting the PV on balloon like structures" and other such handwaving. It's a very hostile environment both thermally and with respect to ionizing radiation. The paint might be peeling in no time flat. Also, I'm mystified by how a space elevator could help get the power back to earth. Ship it physically, as hydrogen? Naaaah.

I'm disappointed that you guys are sitting around this Memorial Day just poking fun at your assumed one, and only one, way of getting energy from outer space to down here on Earth.

Who ever said it has to be done by converting light energy into electricity and pumping that down via the long support cable of a "space elevator"?

Why can't the light stay as light?
Why can't we concentrate the light and shine it to a spot on Earth where it can do good (as opposed to Dr. Evil kind of evil)?

I was thinking more in the line of starting on the Moon and using its resources to build an in-situ concentrating mirror there.

It's not something that an individual can do.

But it is something that a nation (or united group of nations) with a JFK kind of vision can say, yes we can, to it.

Who ever said it has to be done by converting light energy into electricity and pumping that down via the long support cable of a "space elevator"? Why can't the light stay as light?

That's my guess. I suspect a skyhook will be the only economic way to push things out of the Earth's gravity well, and once we have it, why not use it to bring power back conveniently?

A rectenna strikes me as enormously expensive.

An enormous concentrating mirror is an obvious weapon, and an extraordinary example of creating an active system that has to work perfectly in order to not fail catastrophically.

A mirror on the moon doesn't give us the advantage of a geo-stationary satellite: no shadows, constant power and a fixed spot in the sky.

Finally, focused light would be blocked by clouds.

A skyhook using a moving cable is the gold standard for efficiency, takes 15 kWh to lift a kg to GEO.

For a 5 kg/kW power sat, the energy payback is a couple of days.

The theoretical energy efficiency of rockets is 50%, half in the rocket and half in the exhaust.

Practical energy efficiency is 6% and might go to ten. At 6% the payback time in under two months.

I have worked out the cost of a rectenna and they are enormously expensive, a 5 GW rectenna would cost about a billion dollars.

But that's only $200/kW, one part in 8 of the total cost.

The mirror in space is not a weapon, it can't focus light from the solar disk to a dangerous (or even useful) concentration from that distance.

The microwave power beam is not a weapon, it just isn't concentrated enough.

The laser transport system *is* a weapon, no doubt about it. Further it junks all the military investment to date.

I have worked out the cost of a rectenna and they are enormously expensive, a 5 GW rectenna would cost about a billion dollars. But that's only $200/kW, one part in 8 of the total cost.

Yes, $.20/W is mighty cheap. Do you have support for that cost, including the site, support structure, power electronics, etc?

"Do you have support for that cost, including the site, support structure, power electronics, etc?"

The site I assume we can get for no out of pocket cost. The rectenna should provide significant advantages for the farmers, including keeping birds out. (Though there may be a problem with birds roosting on the rectenna to keep warm.) We can offer them free power, which should be a significant incentive.

$50 per kW is wholesale for PC power supplies, which have the same parts count/cost per kW as inverters.

At $200/kw-$50/kw for the inverters, that's $750 M we can spend on hardware for a 5 GW rectenna. Ten by ten km is 100 square km at a million square meters per square km. At 100 million square meters, you can spend $7.50/square meter.

Poultry netting is about $2/square meter http://www.academyfence.com/vinylcoatedhexnetting.html, diodes less than a dollar per square meter, support poles on a 10-20 meter grid perhaps $2. So if you can plow in the high voltage collector grid and get the labor down to $2.50 per square meter you stay under the $1 B you can afford to spend on a rectenna.

$50 per kW is wholesale for PC power supplies

With a maximum designed life of 18 months.


If that's what you get. I have had a few fail, but the average life must be pushing 7 years.

Longer life isn't expensive if it is designed in.

But the point is well taken that the design should allow for real time status reporting of the inverters and quick replacement.

The basic consumer PC PSU is designed to last only 18 months as is the rest of the PC. Field life depends on a lot of conditions such as % of use, % of load, climate, dust etc but, yes, many do last longer. In one environment I have known here, replacing every 2 years, fail or no seemed like a good policy to plan down time rather than have reactive maintenance that would annoy the client. Better quality ones with better cooling I would expect to have a longer life. If you are talking bulk power with many, many units you need the field MTBF to be as low as possible which will push price up. There will be a balance between unit cost and work cost. Also expect a higher replacement rate at the front of the bathtub then a honeymoon period followed by an increasing rate as units installed together, fail together. Eventually it will settle to a steady failure rate.


Well, yeah - that's pretty much what I said - it would be hard to do, and take a while. We shouldn't be holding our breath.

There's no real reason to assume all those objections couldn't be addressed: there's no reason redundancy couldn't be built in, which would protect against random, deliberate or age related problems.

We have PV in space right now, working pretty well.

A space elevator would have a superconducting cable.

But...it's like fusion - it's likely to happen eventually but not any time soon, and why worry about it? We have other perfectly good options.

Australia is not short of land and sunshine. Solar PV and Solar Thermal are probably a better investment,

Actually, in general they aren't. Solar is "not as bad" as elsewhere, because it is very sunny in most parts, but wind is still the better bet. If you look at the wind map of Australia you see some good wind resources in the SW and SE. One area is just 200km from Sydney. Lots of offshore wind too, but too expensive.

There are, of course, many outback stations etc that do make good use of solar, but they are a drop in the bucket of national electricity consumption.

If there is a significant breakthrough in solar thermal, then Australia would likely adopt it very quickly, and just keep on exporting coal!

The most promising solar thermal technology is combining it with coal plants, to use their existing steam turbines.

At the moment, the best thing to do with the sunshine is use it to sell holidays to sun starved Brits!

they are not carbon free - all that concrete generates a lot of CO2 during manufacture. However, over the lifetime of the installation, they are at least as good as nuclear

If you look at the relative materials requirements for even wind vs. nuclear, wind requires many times the concrete and will have many times the emissions for construction.  Fast-spectrum reactors can use the existing inventory of depleted uranium (primarily U-238) for fuel and will have no emissions due to mining or enrichment for many decades even at a substantial rate of total energy growth.

I think the successful demonization of nuclear energy is probably the best propaganda coup of the fossil-fuel industry.

the best propaganda coup of the fossil-fuel industry.

Before I start haranguing people about this I need evidence...


Excellent article. I particularly enjoyed the concept that human endeavors (that is, "production") fit the peak-shaped model of a transient species in a dynamic process. It's just so perfectly fitting, and a more natural representation (to my mind) than stacking up a bunch of normal distributions.

I'm not sure what entropy has to do with your analysis, other to represent where the driving force comes from, and note that it's irreversible. (But as you hint, our global ecology does have a constant feed of energy, which is why it managed to go on autopilot for so long before we started extracting other resources, and while the sun's production is likely to peak too, we should still be pretty good for a few billion years on that score.) The analysis is more in the realm of dynamics, and maybe it's my chemical engineering bias, but we were always encouraged to keep the kinetics (driving forces, resistances and gradients--how we get there) and the thermodynamics (equilibria--where it's going) in different planes, at least at the undergraduate level. If we're going to go full nonequilibrium thermo to bring those ideas together, isn't there usually an assumption that some principles govern the rate of entropy production (usually saying that it's maximized)? Not only are we dissipating those potential gradients, you could say that human civilization has evolved as a way to dissipate them as quickly as possible! Stoicism seems the appropriate response.

Of course, if you wish to accept our autonomy and try anyway, then presumably we can adjust the rate on those various valves, and occupy any number of relatively stable steady states. Maybe some of them aren't so bad. Whether that counts as optimism or stoic resignation on my part, usually depends on how much I've had to drink.

Keifus (de-lurking for the first time)

P.S. I love looking at dynamics/control systems models of resource economics, and haven't seen it outside of the occasional TOD artcle. It seems so much better than the usual discoursing on the nature of angels. Anyone doing this kind of work in the US?

Other than the chap up at SUNY (Syracuse University New York) who's name eludes me at the moment, no. Most publishing economists are too busy trying to simple thoughts into complex mathematical formulas so that they can justify their positions in academia.

Charles Hall

Welcome to the fray, Keifus.

One term worth searching under is "De-growth" or its French, Spanish, Italian...counterparts.


Perhaps Sailorman Don could chime in with other suggestions?

I think most on this board agree that most of the field of economics is lost in a haze of eternal growth. The best I have seen in my personal conversations were some who re-defined growth in such a way that they claimed it would not necessarily need to encroach on the viability of the rest of life on the planet (which begs the question--why keep the term 'growth' then?).

I think that, even if they have a sense that something is off, few economists are willing to undergo the rigor and ridicule involved in rethinking their discipline from the ground up.

There was something of a revolution among grad students at the Sorbonne a few years back--the slogan was something like Post-Autistic Economics, iirc. I don't know how important de-growth or the kind of systems thinking you were talking about was to the movement or where it's gone from there. I heard they changed the name so as not to offend those with autism by being compared with economists.

Today, economics is dominated by the belief that growth is the answer, never mind the question: Got a budget deficit problem? Grow your way out. Got an unemployment problem? Grow your way out; economic growth is seen as the unique solution to high unemployment.

When I wrote my economics textbook (ECONOMICS: MAKING GOOD CHOICES, 1996) I knew that I would have to write in praise of growth to have a shot at publication. My final chapter, on energy and environmental economics, was deleted by the editor because, "None of the bestseller texts have a chapter like this."

I do recommend the book, ECONOMIC GROWTH: THE SOLUTION BECOMES THE PROBLEM by Barkley and Secker. Another book I recommend highly is MAN, ENERGY, SOCIETY by Earl Cook. Much of the best writing on growth, energy, and environmental limits goes back to the seventies. Indeed, during the mid to late seventies principles of economics textbooks, such as the one by Paul Samuelson, all had a chapter on energy constraints. Then, when the price of oil plunged in 1986, those chapters vanished, and the course I created on Environmental Economics was deleted from the curriculum at the college where I taught. The books published during the past ten years have not, in my opinion, been as good as the books on energy and the environment and economic growth published during the seventies.

Maybe time to e-publish an "author's cut" version of your book?

I'll buy one, if you sign it.

If I can get the copyright back from the publisher, I may write a revised and expanded edition and post it online, free to whoever wants to read it. The only way I can get in a chapter on economic growth's threats to the environment and the problem of Peak Oil and Peak Fossil Fuels is to self-publish. Existing publishing houses, one and all, look at the best-selling textbooks in a field and then demand that your book be pretty darn similar to the top three.

Existing publishing houses, one and all, look at the best-selling textbooks in a field and then demand that your book be pretty darn similar to the top three.

That's both amazing and disappointing. Sounds a bit like the record companies, actually. And that being the case, I hope the internet and the ability to self publish takes down the publishing houses like it is the record companies.

This comment follows one of the best threads, from one of the best items I have seen in quite some time. Maybe ever.

Thanks to all and especially to Ugo.


Thanks to all for the recommendations. I've been looking for things along these lines.

IMO Marcus Aurelius wasn't gloomy over resource depletion, after all the empire was doing fine coming off of the greatest period of peace and prosperity in Roman history, the reign of the Five Good Emperors(Nerva, Trajan,Hadrian,Antonius Pius and Marcus).
The Antonine Plague(smallpox) was killing thousands per day and may have killed Marcus. It terrified everyone and people believed they were witnessing the end of the world.

The Aztec Empire was similarly demoralized by the gruesome smallpox plague introduced by Cortez in 1520. In fact it killed the Aztec leader Cuitahuac in about a month.

The Romans had adopted Stoicism(life is about self-control) but also adopted Epicurianism(individual pleasure is the greatest good) also from about 300BC. Both philosophies advocated personal lifestyle over the good of the community which was appropriate for a stratified society ruled by a god.

Daly on Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, author of The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971)


Yes, exactly what I was going to say.
I recommend this book to all TOD readers.

Great book.... if a little long winded in the beginning. It's sitting on the bookshelf behind me :)

Young Civilizations full of vigour and vitality believe in Dionysian philosophy. Old men and tired civilizations, who have neither the strength nor the means to resist, believe in stoic philosophy.

Old as China is, their current civilization is young and full of vigor.

Which is why I think they are more likely to implement a long term energy solution than the US.

One would think!! But they're not going to feed, clothe and service 1.3 Billion people with wind, solar or anything else. All that one sees now is temporary. The source of their vitality is a temporary spate of industrial wealth. No prognostications must be made based on the temporary state of a nation's health, as with an individual's health. At one of the yearly ASPO conferences, I think it was Randy Udall who likened the U.S. to Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated while descending to land, while China is like Challenger, which exploded just after lift-off. It is an apt comparison.

Even if they do find access to unlimited energy, in a versatile storage medium such as oil, and all of their material shortages are alleviated by, say, the discovery of an ore-rich asteroid, I can tell you something from an extremely depressing experience: The population would simply explode and life amidst such incredibly high density would lead to psychological disintegration. In the giant mass of humanity, individuals become listless, sinking into a slave-like apathy which is more or less the equivalent of spiritual death. And there is no one to rebel against, no single tyrant oppressing the human spirit. It is instead a Tyranny of the Majority.

China is a paper tiger.All it has US paper"dollars and treasuries",and is at the mercy of the USA.No way it is going to be able to feed,clothe and provided health care to 1.3 billion people.This is a fact, I know having had several years of field experience in the second largest populated country, India.The volumes,diversity,distances,problems are not only astounding but overwhelming.In the end you just give up and the system collapses.

Both India and China have seen large decreases in their rate of growth over the last decade. For China, the aging of their population without a correspondingly large group coming in to support them is something of a problem. But nothing like the problem they would have had if they had not curbed their population growth.

China is having problems with energy production, pollution, desertification in the west, and now droughts in the north last fall and in the central regions now. These are all likely to become much worse. There won't be much more population growth in China (relative to its current total population) just from the demographics.


Both India and China have seen large decreases in their rate of growth over the last decade.

India's growth rate is about 1.4% per year, down from about 2% in 1960. That's not exactly a "large" decrease, although admittedly, small percentages translate into huge numbers with a population this size. However, the decrease in percentage growth is exactly cancelled out by the larger population of which it is a percentage, so that India's population has been increasing approximately linearly at a rate of MORE THAN 15 MILLION PEOPLE PER YEAR FOR THE LAST 30 YEARS!!!!!!!!! Just imagine how cheap human life is in this wretched country. They will work for next to nothing. Rich Arab states flock there to recruit slave labour for all their construction projects in the Middle East. All the world flocks there to exploit the "cheap labour," which should really be rephrased as "slave labour."

With both China and India, I believe that nothing that happens in these parts of the world matters at all if their environments have been completely depleted and destroyed. All the trees cut, the greenery desertified, the rivers turned into stagnant sewage, all animals extinct. Life no longer matters if this pass has been reached, just like life no longer matters on Easter Island. There will be no Nature to stimulate curiosity and expand knowledge. There will be no mystery, no richness of sensation, no new day to wake up to. It just does not matter what happens to the people.

Civilizations are not defined by the masses of people. Civilizations are defined by the political, military, business, artistic, intellectual, etc. elites that form their leading classes.

With respect to India, it is unlikely that the highest castes would permit the lower castes to completely ruin the country. Instead, you may expect the death rate among those castes to rise markedly.

In China, the leading sectors of society have limited population growth by limiting the number of children allowed to families. On the whole, this is somewhat more humane than the inevitable solution in India. There is now some discussion of allowing two children per family to help smooth out the demographic distortions.

With respect to India, it is unlikely that the highest castes would permit the lower castes to completely ruin the country. Instead, you may expect the death rate among those castes to rise markedly.

I respectfully disagree. I am an Indian born to the high caste of Brahmins, with not a drop of the lower castes in my lineage. I am currently living in India, and am quite acquainted with its history. Indeed, I have always been immersed in history. I can tell you without a shred of doubt that the passage of power from the higher castes to the lowest castes is complete. Modern trends towards greater industrialization and commercialization have given the formerly slave-workers and business castes a great boost. All throughout this nation, there is a kind of inversion of the social order being consciously undertaken. Every few years, the quota is raised for the number of low-castes in education, employment and other opportunities. Their fertility rate is so high that all the once high castes have been swamped and will become extinct in the next 2 decades. The formerly ruling castes' presence is so thin that they play a negligible part in the affairs of this wretched world. A great many of them send their kids to school overseas because of the discrimination experienced here. A census was recently undertaken which confirmed their dwindling numbers. The Parsi's, for example, who are descended from a fine ancient Persian stock and are noted for their leadership and accomplishments have declined at a rate of 9% per decade and will soon disappear. It may as well be official that this nation is a slave-state, taking orders from outside, imitating others, while its ruling class and all of its superior instincts are being decimated. After decades of uncontrolled breeding from the bottom up, there has undoubtedly been an irreparable deterioration in the genetic raw material of this race. Furthermore, this nation has no spiritual life of its own. There has been a great leveling DOWN to the lowest common "shudra," a descent into unintelligent sub-humanity. The competition for all opportunities of life is so intense, and the price of failure so severe, that education takes the form of hyper-rote-learning and brain drill, with no nurturance of originality in thought and curiosity beyond the bounds of business and engineering.

The future is bleak indeed. If this nation decreases its population at a rate of 20 MILLION people a year for the next 40 years, it will still be overpopulated. It is frightening to contemplate how all this will end. There is absolutely NO reason for hope. Even if the death rate among the lower castes increases, by then they will have swallowed up all the other castes and ruined them.

As for China, one must truly commend them for having taken severe measures so early in their history and remained firm until now in their policies. Nevertheless, they didn't do enough, and their population is too high and their environment badly damaged. It's doubtful that they can survive in their present numbers. But, as you hinted, their descent will be a lot more bearable than that of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Greetings Shox,

I can tell you without a shred of doubt that the passage of power from the higher castes to the lowest castes is complete. Modern trends towards greater industrialization and commercialization have given the formerly slave-workers and business castes a great boost. All throughout this nation, there is a kind of inversion of the social order being consciously undertaken.

And how much of that liberation of slave workers was the consequence of access to cheap energy dense fossil fuels?
What happens to that newly inverted social order when that cheap energy is no longer available.

BTW, I do not think that this particular phenomena is in any way unique to India, I think there are multiple parallels to this situation throughout the industrialized world, Including the USA.

In that case, the alternative scenario for India is that one of the new boys becomes Emperor by promising salvatioon to the lower classes. This is followed by the eradication of the old upper classes. Once eradicated, they are replaced by a new authoritarian structure, which then proceeds to suppress the lower classes.

In any case, the egalitarian phase passes quite rapidly, and the ruling classes protect the country from complete spoilation by the masses.

Shox, thanks for the great post. In America we are not allowed to say thoughts like this. We are ruined by the owning class that just wants more cheap labor. So we have endless illegal immigration. We will add 33% more people in the next 25-30 years. We are already beyond the carrying capacity of the land but owners with money rule us and they can retreat to Switzerland or a nice island.

Wow, that's a lot of racist drivel blaming the poor for having so many children, with a smattering of the sensible, but obvious discussion of overpopulation.

Why is the fertility rate so high? Because having children (sons?, considering the amount of sexism I've heard coming out of Indians I know) is the only chance that parents may survive into their old age?

The poor DO have too many children. Having children means more than having people to look after you in old age. It means leaving behind a living legacy. Would you want to leave a legacy of poverty, deprivation and cultural degeneracy? Would you want your sons to sell themselves into slavery because you did not have the good sense to spare them the curse of being born? Simple good sense does not cost money. If the now ruined country of India still had strong instincts of mastery and leadership (these instincts have been destroyed after several hundred years of subjugation) then this nation would have the collective consciousness that in order to have a nation of STRONG men, it has to have a nation of FEW men.

Sexism is only natural in overpopulated countries. China has a record number of female abortions and infanticide. When competition becomes more ruthless, parents want sons instead of daughters. Not that those sons will have jobs with which to provide for their parents.

Eventually, I believe there is definitely going to be a kind of institutionalized discrimination and/or racism, just like in Huxley's Brave New World. Huxley repeatedly warned that overpopulation and the inevitable depletion of resources will drive mankind to stratify people into classes and make each class happy with its lot. There simply will not be enough resources to afford the luxury of total material and intellectual freedom for everyone. All this has nothing to do with innate prejudice or perversity. It is a mere impersonal flow of events.

he poor DO have too many children. Having children means more than having people to look after you in old age. It means leaving behind a living legacy. Would you want to leave a legacy of poverty, deprivation and cultural degeneracy?

Actually, it is the rich whose children the planet (and the poor) cannot afford.

Would you want to leave behind a legacy of over-consumption, hoarding, waste and pollution?

Well said. I should have included this as well in what I said. The poor are ignorant and apathetic because hunger precedes all higher ideals. The rich are apathetic because they are comfortable. Neither legacy (ignorance and apathy) must be allowed to perpetuate.

Sure, which is why it is the lower caste's fault, and not the higher caste Indians like you. This is a bunch of "it's not my fault or people like meeee!" hockey. People seem to be to ready to forgive themselves for their own mistakes instead of others for theirs.

Also, India is arguably worse with the infanticide of girls, and the "natrualness" of sexism in overpopulated societies has yet to be demonstrated to me. Better correlations are found with the levels of education for women and richer countries in general being less sexist (with notable exceptions like KSA!), or how would you explain Russia, with their 2 people/square km and shit where rape cases can be dismissed because "the woman wore tight jeans".

The better answer is that you shouldn't blame people for doing what they think is best with limited resources and knowledge, but rather do your absolute best to help and educate others, even if they are "lower caste". And if it requires the combating overpopulation, then the blindingly obvious solution is to work on women's education. In the words of a good friend of mine "Do work son."

Hi shox,

I feel the need to tread lightly here as your comment is both shocking and intriguing. It is quite shocking for a US person to hear such an unvarnished comment about classes of humans and genetic differences: irreparable deterioration in the genetic raw material of this race.

Intriguing because you are describing a very radical cultural change from that which existed for a very long time - or, at a minimum, changed very slowly in the past. Such a radical cultural change in such a short period of time would seem to portend massive and largely unpredictable repercussions.

I worked in Bangalore in the mid-90s - relatively short stays each time. I claim no expertise regarding India - I just have some questions:

- I recall each Indian state (I think about 28) has different native language and customs. Are your comments germane to all of India or are there different trends in different states?

- I understood that the caste systems was outlawed after independence. I realize the passing a law does not automatically result in change. What is the practical implications of caste today? Do people really honor this system in what is described as the world's largest democracy?

- When I was there, the "backward" people were allocated a number of seats in the universities but the common knowledge was that wealthy people bribed there kids into these seats. Is this still true?

- I was appalled by the level of air pollution in the cites - much of it from motor vehicles. I felt that lack of environmental regulations would cause serious health issues over time. Is this still the case?

- For all the problems I saw in India, I was greatly impressed with the spirit of the average person (the very poor aside). Family life seemed very rich and satisfying - frequent festivals seemed to be greatly enjoyed by all. You mention "no spiritual life" - has this really changed that much from the mid 90s?

I guess I could ask many more questions, but there is a part of your comment that seems at odds with my general perception of the people. And yet, I also feared that the growth of population and lack of environmental concern would not bode well for India.

It is just plain old racsim. I have one side of my family to be German Jew (lol bankers! greedy long nosed people!) and the other side First Nation, (Native Americans for the U.S. folk) and I'll be, my "genetic heritage" gets trashed on quite a few occasions, and by folk who haven't done much. Ignore the cast crap, it is just rich folk talking about poor folk being "genetic inferiors" in a huge Just World fallacy.

The UN estimates for future Chinese population

2020: 1,387,792,000
2030: 1,393,076,000
2040: 1,360,906,000
2050: 1,295,604,000
2060: 1,211,538,000
2070: 1,125,903,000
2080: 1,048,132,000
2090: 984,547,000
2100: 941,042,000

The essential limiting factor is food. Can China grow or import enough food to avoid famine ? Although Chinese social order has demonstrated, again and again, that it can survive famine (although perhaps not a multi-decade long famine).

None-the-less, the current nutrition of the Chinese could be degraded substantially without famine. Food imports from Brazil, Africa and Russia/Ukraine as well as USA/Canada/Australia seem likely.

China has and is building massive hydroelectric plants (300 GW). Add some solar, wind and nuclear with efficiency and an industrial economy is possible in 2100.

China will undoubtedly be stressed and either famine or epidemic (AIDS among unmarried men ?) will likely take dozens of millions, but not hundreds of millions, of Chinese this century.

Add Russia will be emptying out, especially Siberia. A total Russian population of less than 100 million seems likely, but the rate of decline could very widely.


Will a future aging and shrinking Russia accept some population (perhaps just unmarried men, of which China will have a surplus) to exploit parts of Siberia ?

And I would not be surprised to see substantial Chinese immigration to Africa in future decades.

I see China using connections to the rest of the world to reduce the various stresses at home.


You are, of course, assuming that exports will be available for the Chinese for every year. This is not a guarantee. Just ask Egypt.

In the giant mass of humanity, individuals become listless, sinking into a slave-like apathy which is more or less the equivalent of spiritual death.

On the other hand, what is the difference between being one in a million and one in a billion.

Let's extend your logic further. What's the difference between one in a billion and one in a trillion or one in a quadrillion? The difference is that the individual is belittled. A million people belittles him somewhat. A billion belittles him tremendously more. A trillion people would mean he would have to physically shrink in size to make space for the others. Or rather, he gets to eat less and pursue fewer ambitions. He is now belittled both figuratively and literally.

Would you want to live in any place where you are conditioned to be insignificant, where you are taught that you don't matter, where it is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE to uphold the dignity of the free individual, where freedom itself is impossible? But alas, this is exactly the case in India!! One in a few million, adequately spread out over the land, is the most that the individual should be made to tolerate.

If someone came back in time from 2100 and told you the world was using oil at 3 times the current rate, you would look at them in disbelief and say "there just isn't that much oil!" They would say, "It's almost all synthetic, we make it out of the CO2 you put in the air." Then you would look at them in total disbelief and say "there isn't enough energy to make synthetic oil, you are talking about tens of TW!" They would then look at you smugly and ask "how many TW of sunlight stream by the Earth in geosynchronous orbit."

It's there for the taking.

The only thing that has kept space based solar power from being developed is the high cost of getting the parts to GEO.



in combination with a relatively small amount of laser propulsion will get the cost down low enough to make synthetic oil at no more than $50/bbl, possibly $30/bbl.

Unlike ground based solar and wind with energy payback times of years, the energy payback time seems to be down in the 1-2 months range.

And given enough cheap energy, the waste stream becomes resource.

Dr. Peter Vajk looked into this modification of the Limits to Growth model in a 1978 book _Doomsday has been Cancelled_

"Yet, we must do our best to try and – who knows – what we'll be able to do might make a difference."

Now that's a *great* quote.

Keith Henson

From the article:

It is the spaceplane's "single-stage-to-orbit" operation and its re-usability that makes Skylon such an enticing prospect and one that could substantially reduce the cost of space activity, say its proponents.

Sounds suspiciously like the Shuttle Program for the U.S., which is not exactly inspiring. I'd put more money on something like a launch loop or the like.

Whole system reusability is a different beast entirely than the US space shuttle, and is apparently the goal of the Skylon and several other ongoing projects.

Whether or not they actually attain the goals of complete reusability and a decent payload to orbit at a decent price is something that we'll just have to wait and see.

SpaceX corporation that has launched several rockets to orbit. Will shortly provide $1000/lb to orbit service. I think the time for solar power satellites is coming.

England has had a paper single stage to orbit plane for 30 years. I am glad to see there is now some hardware being tested. Best wishes.

"Yet, we must do our best to try and – who knows – what we'll be able to do might make a difference."

and if that does not work?

The friendly AIs eat our brains.

Google "The Clinic Seed" to see how.

I remember having met Peter Vajk, I think it was in Pasadena back in 1981. At that time, the idea seemed reasonable - just as the ideas of Gerard O'Neill on space colonization. Go to space and collect the bounty of energy coming from the sun. Yes, plenty of energy up there. Unfortunately, the barrier to reach space turned out to be too high - we didn't manage to overcome it and ignite the reaction. Now, it is most probably too late. We squandered our resources in useless wars and wild consumption - not enough left for developing space power. Now it would take a concerted effort in order to concentrate all of our remaining resources to restart - then we could really make oil out of CO2. Yes, but just turn on the TV for five minutes and you'll see that it is impossible. Well, maybe that's too strong but let's say, very, very unlikely

We squandered our resources in useless wars and wild consumption - not enough left for developing space power.


I would respectfully suggest that the Southern Pole of the Moon is still a viable spot for launching off-Earth colonization and energy production.

A key factor in generating any energy is to have a density difference, for example, an extremely hot spot and an extremely cold, energy sinking spot near to it. Then as we know, heat energy flows rapidly from the hot spot to the cold spot and some of the flow (not all of it) can be tapped for doing useful work.

Because the Southern Pole of the Moon has a permanently in the shade part (the "dark side of the moon"), it provides a cold spot near to where the sun shines. The differential can be exploited.

Fine, step back, I am a great fan of space colonization. I used to be a member of the L5 society and for many years I believed that I would have a chance, someday, to travel to space. Unfortunately, I have been sorely disappointed seeing the space program winding down to zero - its manned part, at least. Then, who knows? Maybe there is a chance to restart. Sending robots to space is much cheaper than sending humans and we might be able to have robots building space power satellites. But even the unmanned space program is in great trouble. No money, as with every advanced research program. So, I do think we missed this chance. Our descendants will surely do better - but they won't be like us.

China might manage it, if they stave off collapse long enough. The West won't, we pissed our wealth away on welfare programs and soon we won't even be able to afford those.

I agree.

Nuclear aircraft carriers, fleets of doomsday scenario submarines, missles, drones, skunkworks projects, satellite surveillence systems...

lots of welfare.

Maybe he means the prisons :) Soooo many prisons.

Welfare and other unproductive pursuits. Including the military, indeed.

Hah! As if the PTB haven't been dismantling the welfare state as fast as possible, for decades.

If I couldn't make a decent living and wasn't protected by a social safety net, I would definitely consider a life of what we call "crime" (I might even be good at it).

You'd then have the choice of simply writing off the losses I caused or spending some of your wealth to protect the rest against my depredations, or, if you could catch me (a significant expense), imprisoning (more expense) or executing (could be cheap, if you don't bother with too many niceties) me.

I suggest that it might be wiser to look at "welfare" as an investment, perhaps an insurance policy, for those who prefer to maintain stability in a world of wide disparities of wealth.

I understand that my views are out of sync with the mainstream, as usual. However, I expect that, if we continue on our present course, the cost of not providing that safety net will become ever more apparent.

I do think we missed [our] chance.


That is ultimate doomerism.

Because eventually our Sun runs out of its nonrenewable fuel or a killer asteroid strikes our planet,
and if "we" (the human race) had not by then figured out how to
exploit all that solar river of energy that is cascading past us,
unused and wasted into outer space, ...

Well in that case we are no wiser than the Greenland Vikings of Jared Diamond's "Collapse" book (all that fish out there in the ocean just a boat's reach away and yet they starved to death)

I'd liken it to the following:

If you bet on the sun burning out tomorrow and it does.... do you really win?

I don't see much proof of wisdom from the human species; so far. But one may certainly hope for a better show in the future.

In any case, while it is true that there is plenty of energy in space, don't forget that there are no mineral ores on the moon or on asteroids (Mars may have some). So, if you want to exploit space resources, yes, you'll have energy but in terms of minerals you'll have to do with just a few (aluminum, silicon, iron, nickel and a few more). In principle, yes, you can build an industrial civilization on just these minerals, but if you need - say - copper, you'll have to go back to earth - otherwise the energy cost would be -actually - out of this world.

Ugo, thank you for your informed reply
So far I haven't found much re in-situ resource development save for this:

Considering you aren't worrying about oxygen, you could use calcium as a substitute for copper pretty easily on the moon. People forget that Oxygen really screws with our materials choices on Earth. Probably much in the same way as how our attitudes about moving around in gravity are quite different of the realities of moving around in microgravity.

don't forget that there are no mineral ores on the moon or on asteroids

Some of the richest ore bodies on earth are from meteors. There are definitely rich ore concentrations in at least some asteroids. None of those minerals were created on earth, after all.

Not my area of expertise, but IIRC, all heavier elements are produced by burnt-out older stars

Recently astronomers found rogue planets wandering the cosmos without a companion sun. Maybe these are the remnants of a burnt out star that did not go super nova?

The biggest problem with building anything in space is that it is too expensive to lift it up there. You are much better off going to a spot that has resources (ie the Moon) and exploiting the resources found there.

Yeah, everything above element 26 (iron) is actually energy negative from fusion.

Simkin, ores are mostly the result of hydrotermal processes. You need liquid water for these processes to occur and the only planet of the solar system where there is liquid water is earth. Meteors or asteroids are rich in iron, nickel, silicon, carbon and little else. All the rest is present only in traces.

Huh, interesting.

Well in that case we are no wiser than the Greenland Vikings of Jared Diamond's "Collapse" book (all that fish out there in the ocean just a boat's reach away and yet they starved to death)

Ironic then, that we have since figured out how to over fish those stocks leading to a complete collapse of most major fisheries, thereby sealing the fate of future generations, who will also starve.

Brilliant, aren't we?!

I read Vajk's book in 1981 and was motivated by it to study more sustainable energy resources. His book includes a wonderful humanistic perspective. Regarding what is very, very unlikely, we are all evidence that, given enough time the most unlikely can happen anyway if it is energetically favorable. But evolution is also unpredictable, and the first animals to systematically access fossil energy stores might just as well have been mollusks.

Ugo, I knew Dr. Peter Vajk from the mid 70s. We almost got thrown out of a Limits to Growth conference in Houston. They didn't want to hear anything about solutions.

However, the wait might not have hurt our chances. In the meantime beamed energy propulsion has become possible due to huge solid state diodes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laser_diodes#Applications_of_laser_diodes

They are upwards of 60% efficient probably headed for 85%. They are not coherent, but the lose when pumping fibers is only around 10%.

Heating hydrogen with laser light can get you an exhaust velocity of nearly 10 km/sec. Plug that in the rocket equation to see what it does to payload.

I agree with you about the US not being able to do it, mainly because so many people think it is impossible for things to get better.

But the US is not the only game going, not by a long shot.

Interesting story, Keith. I know also that Peter Vajk, eventually, said that his work on modelling human expansion in space using the LTG equations was to be taken as a "provocation". Apparently, he too fell victim of the legend of the "wrong predictions" of LTG.

But it is true that his work was very creative and he had plenty of interesting ideas (I figure he still has good ideas; although he doesn't seem to be active in publishing them). In any case, expansion to space is a gigantic task - it would take a concerted effort at the global scale and people agreeing on the fact that it needs to be done. I think it is impossible - the problem is not with physics or with resources. It is with people's brains. Our brains are just not geared for that kind of large scale collaboration - we work best in small tribes; but that's not enough. Just for a brief moment we had such a large surplus of resources that we could seriously think of using them to expand in space. A brief moment....

What do the 'future people' do when there is a Coronal Mass Ejection event?


Put some magnets at the center of their colony, and pass those particles to a telescope?

Solaren of California is on schedule to deliver 200MW of power to PG&E in 2016 to there substation in Fresno. It will come from a space based solar power satellite. The cost for this first proof of concept is high at "several" billion dollars. That is as much detail as they will give. But with SpaceX and sunk development cost their next project should have a much lower cost. If they get to $3000 per KW and 20 year lifetime they will change the world. Would love to know who the investors are. Humankind owes them a great big thank you.

The military seem to be very interested in these systems. One wonders what would happen if the down beam was focused more tightly than for power applications, say concentrated over a few square meters instead of a few thousand? I wonder why they are interested?

I cannot see these systems becoming cost effective or having a positive EROEI, we fret enough about terrestrial systems.

My other concern is that it means bringing more energy into the ecosystem. Energy that would have missed Earth would now be directed onto the planet. Do we really need a few TW extra heating?


Of course, the first few fossil fuel burning power plants put a measly amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, no biggie. Then we built hundreds, then thousands of them.

I can't see the long term wisdom in increasing the cross sectional intersect area for insolation without increasing the cross sectional area of exsolation(word?). Of course the first few sq. Km will be no biggie. If it works out(sufficiently high EROEI) we will build hundreds, then thousands of them.

This will end well...

In order to focus tightly you need a very large sending transmitter. Current SPS use the smallest transmitter possible to limit cost. It is impossible to tightly focus them. Would it be possible for the military to spend its money to build large transmitters that can tightly focus? Yes.

To the question of heat balance. We currently burn oil adding to the heating of the world, I do not mean indirectly by greenhouse effect but directly. If need be we can place shades to lower the amount of sunlight equal to the amount of electric energy we add. PV panels on Earth absorb more sunlight and reflect less back to space than the ground they replace. They too change the heat balance of the planet.

Man, that is frightening. One quick way to trash terrestrial solar. We have made a big enough mess of nature without messing around with trying to put up a space sombrero, I suspect side effects will be horrendous. But why send up solar generators to add heat then put up shades to subtract heat? 2 firkin complicated.

I don't believe they plan to use a single transmitter but use an array. Arrays can easily be directed and focused.


Keith, you old son of a gun, you've been lurking all this time and just now decided to comment? Hit my blog and drop me an e-mail.

in combination with a relatively small amount of laser propulsion will get the cost down low enough to make synthetic oil at no more than $50/bbl, possibly $30/bbl.

Eh... I'll dispute that.  Even if energy were free, the other hardware required would cost well over $30/bbl (we know this because "stranded gas" is effectively free and is currently being flared all over the world because it's not even worth liquefying).

On the other hand, if you've got extremely cheap beamed power, you don't really need liquid fuels for much so you don't particularly care what it costs to make them.  Even aircraft can run on beamed power.

aircraft can run on beamed power.


Microwaves to provide electricity to drive propellers.  At the extreme, lasers to heat receivers inside open-cycle gas turbines.  And if you don't have to carry the power source, speed is not limited by fuel-economy considerations.

Microwaves to provide electricity to drive propellers.

Do you have any more info? Costs? Has anyone tried anything like this?

I did a Scroogle search for "microwave-powered airplane" and came up with dozens of hits.  This was #1 but #2 was a Time article from 1964.  Yes, nineteen sixty-four.  This is not new.

Any thoughts from the hip on feasibility, competitiveness with long term alternatives for aviation like synthetic liquid hydrocarbons/LNG/liquid hydrogen, etc?

If liquid fuels are being made from beamed power, they will cost several times as much per GJ as the raw energy needed to make them.  If that power can be used directly, there's no way the liquids can compete.  This goes double if the energy collector system is much lighter than a load of fuel; not only does the aircraft use cheaper energy, it has more useful load.

If liquid fuels are being made from beamed power, they will cost several times as much per GJ as the raw energy needed to make them. If that power can be used directly, there's no way the liquids can compete.

Yes. Liquid fuels have been sufficiently cheap that higher efficiency wasn't important.

This goes double if the energy collector system is much lighter than a load of fuel; not only does the aircraft use cheaper energy, it has more useful load.

Do we know the energy collector system will be much lighter than a load of fuel? I would expect aerodynamics problems as well.

"Eh... I'll dispute that."

Sasol has a $1 B plant in Qatar that makes 34,000 bbl per day of synthetic diesel fuel out of natural gas, call it 10 M bbl per year. Written off in ten years, the capital charge is $100 M. So the capital charge per bbl is around $10. A gallon of gasoline has about 38 kWh in it, a 42 gallon barrel around 1,600 kWh. With energy loses, it takes around 2000 kWh to make a bbl of synthetic oil.

At a penny a kWh, that's $20 per bbl. At 2 cents, $40/bbl.

I think they mostly flare gas because there isn't enough of it to be worth putting in a plant to make NGL out of it.

Where is your blog? My email is hkeithhenson@gmail.com

Click through my user name for details, including the blog URL.

Sasol has a $1 B plant in Qatar that makes 34,000 bbl per day of synthetic diesel fuel out of natural gas, call it 10 M bbl per year.

Qatar also has several LNG trains which were aiming at 77 million tonnes/yr of output.  At 1 tonne LNG = 8.9 bbl crude, this is the equivalent of ~690 million bbl/yr of oil (and it needs no refining).

A $8/mmBTU (well above current prices), LNG costs the equivalent of about $50/bbl oil.  Diesel fuel at even $2/gallon costs about $85/bbl.  Why is Qatar selling gas when it could be selling F-T diesel?  Because it costs way too much.  The 34 mbbl/d plant is probably for security of domestic motor fuel supplies; strategic, not economic.

A gallon of gasoline has about 38 kWh in it, a 42 gallon barrel around 1,600 kWh. With energy loses, it takes around 2000 kWh to make a bbl of synthetic oil.

The efficiency of GTL is closer to 45% than 80%.  At even $40/bbl equivalent gas the feedstock costs almost $90/bbl, and the process equipment isn't cheap either.  That's why Indonesia is the world's #1 LNG exporter, and their GTL plant makes specialty chemicals instead of bulk fuels.  (Qatar is making its money off natural-gas liquids, which go for a lot more per bbl than LNG.)

At a penny a kWh, that's $20 per bbl. At 2 cents, $40/bbl.

What's the amortization and O&M costs for the equipment to collect the CO2 and produce the hydrogen?

At the dawn of the age of automobiles, electrics were the favorites.  Cheap naptha as a waste product of kerosene refining gave the advantage to internal combustion engines.  But electricity is again a lot cheaper at the output shaft than petroleum fuels, batteries are catching up, and there are a lot of ways to avoid batteries altogether if we're willing to invest in infrastructure.  Then there are the issues of pollution and noise.  Sooner or later, ground transport is going to be primarily electric again; my bet is on sooner.

Hello there prof. Bardi and thank you for your new post on TOD ; I hope you do not mind if I tell you that I have saved it in JPEG fomat trough a screen capture application...

Sticking to the core of your diagrams,economic collapse seems to follow short of resource collapse...It sounds familiar to present state of socio-economic litmus-papers showing up aroud the globe...

...Secondly : is not a resource-depletion collapse highly preferable to a poullution induced one ?...So " don't worry, be happy ! "
( A popular Bobby McFerrin' song, back in the 80's )

It comes as third : stoic philosophy was not complementary to epicureism as different tracks leading to similar internal balance
and to a state of aimed total imperturbability in an increased period of social increasing challenges ?...I think that fossil fuels have been used not only to produce some odder capricous merchandise and establish as granted light oil demanding welfare, but, may be, to collect some pearls of pure beauty and knowledge...
Anyhow, if you feel in a more contemplative ad may be non positive state, rather than stoicism I would suggest a "waldgang" of some sort, and may be reading of Der Waldgang by Ernst Junger could enrich beauty in everyone's life ....If you rather feel in a more positive a productive way may be technical and economical elites should try and bond together and give a try and re-exeminate the " Technocracy project " by Howard Scott and King Hubbert back in the 30'...

Francesco Ganzetti

I think I disagree with your statement on stoicism vs. epicureanism.
They both came out of the world that saw the first Western would- be god-king/megalomaniac, Alexander the Great 356-323BC (with plots against his life by unbelieving comrades).
Greece was ruled by Antipater and his family and later Antigonus and his family. Revolts in Thebes and Sparta and later the Hellenic war against Alexander were crushed by Antipater.
Demosthenes, Athen's greatest orator committed suicide rather than be turned over to Antipater.


After Alexander died, his empire was divided up by his generals/kings and the idea of Greek democracy was totally dead.

In a world ruled by gods and their armies, the individual can't change anything but his own attitude.

". . , the individual can't change anything but his own attitude."

But he CAN change his attitude; this is a key premise of stoicism. Back when I was teaching Ethics and Introduction to Philosophy classes I would always introduce my discussion of Marcus Aurelius with the following quotation, the first paragraph of Book Two of THE MEDITATIONS, translated by G.M.A. Grube:

"Say to yourself in the morning: I shall meet people who are interfering, ungracious, insolent, full of guile, deceitful and antisocial; they have all become like that because they have no understanding of good and evil. But I who have contemplated the essential beauty of good and the essential ugliness of evil, who know that the nature of the wrongdoer is of one kin with mine--not indeed of the same blood or seed but sharing the same mind, the same portion of the divine--I cannot be harmed by any one of them, and no one can involve me in shame. I cannot feel anger against him who is of my kin, nor hate him. We were born to labor together, like the feet, the hands, the eyes, and the rows of upper and lower teeth. To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature, and to be angry against a man or turn one's back on him is to work against him." (Bobbs-Merril Educational Publishing, 1963, page 11.)

Note that most of Marcus's adult life was devoted to killing Germans, who threatened Rome's borders along the Danube. He wanted to be a philosopher, not an emperor, but the stoic always does his duty, and it was Marcus Aurelius's role to be emperor. The stoic Epictetus (a freed slave) noted that it was also a stoic's duty to be cheerful--no grumbling about fate or declining net exports of oil.

But that's what's wrong with stoicism--it's just a phony show and does'nt improve the world.
The two worst Emperors Rome ever produced were Nero, whose tutor was the famous stoic philosopher Seneca and Marcus Aurelius's son, Commodus.
Seneca who posed as a modest and restrained thinker amassed a fortune providing access to his pupil and wrote a letter to the Senate justifying Nero's murder of his own mother, Agrippinilla.
Later he killed himself on orders from Nero.

Commodus was best known for fighting with gladiators as the 'Roman Hercules'in the Colosseum.

Commodus raised the ire of many military officials in Rome for his Hercules persona in the arena. Often, wounded soldiers and amputees would be placed in the arena for Commodus to slay with a sword. Commodus' eccentric behaviour would not stop there. Citizens of Rome missing their feet through accident or illness were taken to the arena, where they were tethered together for Commodus to club to death while pretending they were giants.

So much for the 'stoic message'.
The grave deportment of the Stoics became a kind of public joke.

Commodus was almost certainly not the genetic son of Marcus Aurelius. Marcus's wife fooled around--a lot--with gladiators, and the probability of one of them fathering Commodus is very high. Marcus knew that his wife was unfaithful but never complained about it.

You cannot escape the fact that Marcus Aurelius was a good emperor and the additional fact that his stoic philosophy was integral to his goodness.

Blaming Seneca for the doings of Nero is exactly like blaming Socrates for the crimes of Alcibiades. Seneca was a good influence on Nero, but absolute power absolutely corrupted Nero, just as Lord Acton said it would.

Note that stoicism was the first cosmopolitan philosophy--said it did not matter if you were Greek or barbarian, a slave or an emperor, but what mattered was being good and doing your duty. Christianity lifted cosmopolitanism directly from stoicism and from no place else.

And if you do not like stoicism, what superior philosophy do you have to offer?

And Marcus Aurelius was not the son of his 'father', Antoninus Pius.
One of reasons for the success of the Five Good Emperors was that none of the successors were genetic offspring.
However, the statues of Commodus look very much like Marcus.

I'm no fan of Socrates.
He was a smart ass and a corrupter of youth as was alleged. A good contemporary view of him and his Thinkery comes down to us from Aristophanes' lampoon,'The Clouds'.


Socrates' reputation was actually created by his adoring student, Plato another would-be tutor to philosopher-kings. He later was recruited to advise Dionysis of Syracuse in Sicily where he became the court joke.

Nero corrupted by power? Hmm. I'd say no.
The Emperor Claudius was betrayed by his wife Messalina(a gift of his predecessor, Caligula)and he had her killed, leaving their two children Octavia and Britannicus. Claudius pined for a wife and
decided on his niece, Caligula's sister Agrippinilla as a wife.
It was considered quite incestuous but he was a Caesar and who would tell him no?
Agrippinilla's son by a former marriage was Lucius Domitius Aherobarbus who was adopted by Claudius with the new name Nero and he became betrothed to Octavia. He was older than
Britanicus and thru became heir. It is believed Agrippinilla poisoned Claudius to make Nero emperor at 17 years old. Nero under the guidance of
Seneca tried to weaken his mother's hold over him--he was unhappy with Octavia and preferred slave girls, etc. And this lead him to
murder his mother, his wife and his younger brother, Britannicus.
Seneca was there all thru this period, advising him.
A plot(64 AD) to replace Nero with Calpurnius Piso vaguely implicated Seneca and he was told to kill himself.
After this came the Great Fire, the Vindex tax revolt in Gaul, the Galba revolt in Spain, and finally Nero's suicide 4 years after Seneca's suicide in 68AD.

I don't see Nero as particularly power mad but rather the victim of scheming courtiers, mistresses and his mother. Seneca was supposed to guide him(54-64AD) but was repeatedly charged with corruption.

I don't subscribe to any 'personal' philosophy per se and view them skeptically.

I suggest reading Taleb. Perhaps you'll like his philosophy: skepticism.

I'm being serious, btw, not sardonic.

Hi you say you are not a fan of Socrates and that he was a corrupter of the young....In what way do you think he corrupted them?

Aristophanes said Socrates trained young nerds in making Inferior arguments to outwit their creditors(see the Clouds) and he was there.

For crying out loud, Aristophanes was a COMMEDIAN. Socrates in fact fought the sophists, who tried to make the weaker case appear the stronger one through tricky rhetoric. In other words, Socrates opposed the lawyers, lawyers who were encouraging everybody to sue everybody else for everything. Athens has a lot to teach us.

By the way, you do not trust Plato's account of Socrates--how about Xenophon's? Most historians of philosophy think that Plato accurately represented what Socrates said in the early Platonic dialogues, e.g., Apology, Euthyphro, Crito, Symposium. You're on pretty thin ice claiming that Plato was wrong about Socrates, who was, by the way, well known in Athens as a war hero before he took up philosophy.

The only mud that might stick to Socrates was that he was a friend to some of the relatives of the Thirty Tyrants--guilt by association. By all reliable accounts, Socrates (who became an unemployed stone mason after Athens defeat by Sparta) was a good citizen who helped the young learn to think. If you decide that helping young people to learn to think is corrupting them, I think you have a long row to hoe in defending that position.

Nero was no worse than many others, but the victors write the history. He was rather loved by the common people, but certainly not by the aristocracy. The Christians have damned him for no good reason too and the Book of Revelation may be interpreted as an anti-Nero rant.

Diocletian wrestled with economic failure, population collapse, plague, inflation, currency debasement, and political reorganisation all his life. He can be credited with the introduction of the feudal system (if you like) but the majority of his reorganisations came to nothing and in the end he retired. He was begged to return but preferred tending his garden, rather like Candide. I suspect he was a disillusioned and probably very stoical man. I always think it is amusing that this last great persecutor of Christians should be best remembered for his political divisions, or dioceses, but that's just another of the little anomalies of fate I dare say.

I would suggest that if Honorius had been of different character history might have taken a very different turn, I consider him one of the very worst emperors, and then Constantine was a profoundly superstitious Balkan who murdered practically his whole family, but Christians love him - for obvious reasons. But we can speculate on the sad turns of history for ever.

The Romans capitulated to Christianity; I wonder what we will retreat into as our system increasingly fails?

The Romans capitulated to Christianity; I wonder what we will retreat into as our system increasingly fails?

The internet offers a wide variety of choices.

Personally, I'm still thinking of becoming a monk in the Church of the Holy Capitalist Consumption and Growth religion.

I think there's a pdf function once the comments are closed. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.... I know there used to be as I've used it a few times.

My grandmother, who died at 98, was very stoic, in part, I guess, because two of her three children died at a very young age. The only one left was my father, who died before her. She outlived her husband and all her children and seemed stoic until the last, although I am sure there was some sadness too. I had not thought about her stoicism for awhile but I am glad you reminded me of all that. I agree that stoicism is going to be very useful going forward.

I think the hardest thing for me to accept is the change that has occurred and will occur with global warming. This is difficult for me even though the worst will occur after I am gone. The change is something I need to accept while at the same time not completely abandoning any attempt to cushion the blow. The universe and the planet is in continuos flow and we as a species are speeding up the flow and the entropy. Maybe the thing I have not been able to accept is my own mortality and am projecting that on the planet.

Thank you for the great article, Ugo. I enjoy your presentations and insight, and follow all your TOD posts. The whale oil article is among my favorites. In "Entropy, peak oil and Stoic philosophy," you describe a nice framework for understanding the thermodynamic link to the economy, one that motivates me to dig deeper into these lines of thought.


I believe quite firmly that the future cannot be predicted, cannot be known. The ancients had their cards and sticks and pig entrails, and we have our computer simulations. It's all superstition. Nice, neat, deterministic Newtonian systems can be predicted. Huge, non-linear, messy and chaotic living systems cannot.

It could be that we are facing a power-down. It could be worse than that: a catastrophic die-off in a hell of war and pollution and disease. Or it could be that we've embarked on a scientific and technical program that's going to break escape velocity and deliver a sustainable new state of existence-- not by defeating laws such as the second law of thermodynamics, but by using them.

There's quite a bit of energy in the sun, the wind, the Earth's core, and the world's fissile material resources (especially Thorium, which is more abundant than Uranium)... provided we can figure out better ways of using the latter than the current 50s/60s dinosaur reactors.

But maybe it's not enough. Or maybe it can't be harnessed in time.

Maybe population will stabilize as people become wealthier and more educated and have fewer children, the way it has in many Western countries. Maybe it won't.

This-- industrial civilization-- has never happened before, and the future cannot be known.

Wait and find out.

I am personally rather pessimistic in respect to our solving the fossil fuel and population/overshoot /resourses problem, but it is quite clear to me that these problems can be , in theory at least, and quite possibly in practice, be solved.

But this would require will take a single minded authoritarian govt taking in control all or most of the world economy and redirecting the resources currently being wasted to finding and implementing solutions.

The odds of this happening are slim indeed in my personal opinion.


I believe quite firmly that the future cannot be predicted, cannot be known.

Yes you do know the future to a large extent. You need water, food, probably some kind of shelter and, maybe, some kind of clothing to ward off the elements. As simplistic as this sounds, if you cannot provide for these needs personally, right now, with no outside help for an extended period, then you will die within a week or so. You don't have to have a calender showing when the banks will tank or the government collapses. I don't know why people can't get their minds around a survival mindset. Everything else is blah, blah, blah!


"...if you cannot provide for these needs personally, right now, with no outside help for an extended period, then you will die within a week or so..."

I can't even agree or disagree since the point is not clear. There are millions of people, right now, in hospitals and nursing homes, who for the moment at least, aren't capable of providing their own needs personally. (And you or I or anyone here could conceivably join them involuntarily within the hour.) Are you trying to say they'll all be dead by June 1?


I don't know if that is :^) or not. To see a fictional account of how health and age issues might play out read One Second After by William Forstchen, ISBN-13-978-0-7653-1758-2. Fictionally, it isn't pretty but I believe it reflects reality to a high degree.


I'm not sure about the :^) either - maybe I was confused by the wording, which seemed to suggest an imminent rapid collapse, within a week. OTOH, if nearly everything going into, say, Manhattan got abruptly cut off (at some unspecified date), you'd probably have to evacuate most or all of it within a week, if you could.

if you cannot provide for these needs personally, right now, with no outside help for an extended period

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And when that "extended period" expires, and/or you "need" something you didn't anticipate or are incapable of providing on your own, you will be entirely dependent upon others--upon your community, your municipality, socio-cultural associations of one kind or another.

If you do not have those relationships, with functioning social organizations, you will die.

The he-man survivalist act is really becoming cartoonish.

You really don't get it, do you? A survival mindset is not about running around in camo clothes wearing a side arm or playing at being a he man. Rather, it is about common sense. Specifically, it asks the question, "What actions do I need to take to assure the survival of myself and my family/friends in difficult circumstances?" We will each define these "circumstances" in our own way as best we can. We will each choose the best actions we can given our particular circumstances.

A word about relationships: A relationship per se can not only worthless but harmful. Let's take you and I. We have a relationship. Yet, I hardly think that we would make good partners if things fell apart. On the other hand, I have (and I assume you do to) relationships that are valuable not only because of the friendships but also because we share the same beliefs.

What's important to recognize are the beliefs inherent in the relationships. My reading of you is that your group/relationships would be up a creek if anything upset your "reality". Conversely, my group says that given what we currently know, upset is baked into the cake so let's be ready for it as best we can.

In any case, burying one's head in the sand accomplishes nothing. Which leads to one final point: People who have done nothing are counting on others to pull their bacon out of the fire. However, I know in our own planning that our resources would not permit us to help you/your group. Good luck.


A survival mindset...

As a purely cultural thing, even if that "is not about running around in camo clothes wearing a side arm or playing at being a he man", that's what the word often means to a reader or listener. The first image that that comes to mind is likely to be a group of crackpots in, let's say Idaho or Waco, holding a vastly larger stock of ammo than they could ever hope to live to get off if an invader ever started shooting back. So to avoid confusion, one probably needs to restate the intended sense nearly every time one uses the term "survival mindset" or something like it, tiresome as that will be.

Perhaps a "resiliant mindset" would be more appropriate. A flexibility of mind and action that allows one to survive, and possibly even thrive, even in conditions of adversity.

Sounds like a Taleb fan :)

Regarding your second paragraph: I attended the second Biophysical Economics Conference at SUNY a couple years ago. There was a British student there (I really wish I had gotten his name) who said something rather stunning that went something like this:

The way I see it, perhaps having billions upon billions of people on this earth at this moment in time is the solution. If we're going to survive as a species we're going to have to get off of this rock and if we're going to do that we're going to need energy and engineering at a level at which we haven't seen yet. If you believe that everything is subject to probability, including knowledge, then this clearly unsustainable population might be the best shot we'll ever get.

That's my argument for spending 100% of my money on lottery tickets. The only way I will ever get rich is to cross my fingers and roll those dice.

Then there is everyone's favorite "economist" Julian Simon, lol:


Shouldn't you update chart #3 (showing US lower-48 oil production) with the last few years of growth? It seems to me to illustrate an important assumption in the Hubbert model: substitution. The US could import oil, so prices didn't rise (they rose due to OPEC/Iran of course, but they didn't stay high, and even the temporary price increases in the 1970's were suppressed in the US by price controls). That feedback didn't happen until 2005 when world prices started rising - then US lower 48 production started rising again.

How does the LTG model handle renewable energy, like wind power, outside agriculture?

How does it handle substitution between resources: oil being replaced by renewable electricity; copper replaced by aluminum; etc.

How does it handle recycling (99% of automotive steel is recycled in the US)?

How does it handle technological change?

How does it handle supply-cost functions (increases in economic reserves as price increases)?

To all of your questions: it doesn't (except for maybe recycling which is subject to energy inputs).

To properly address all of your questions in a universal theory you'd need a universal (and constant) value for utility.... which doesn't exist which is why economics has been stuck in neutral for decades if not centuries.

recycling which is subject to energy inputs

One nice thing about recycling: it often dramatically reduces energy inputs. Steel and alumininium in particular need much, much less power for recycling.

you'd need a universal (and constant) value for utility.... which doesn't exist which is why economics has been stuck in neutral for decades if not centuries.

?? Could you expand on that?


Let's take a step back and look at what people actually demand. First, a disclaimer: we always and forever demand some form of energy at a higher potential. I'm all about energy centric economics. This is just a brief diversion into utility.

What do people demand? Do they demand watts or do they demand lumens of light? Do they demand gallons of gasoline or miles of driving? Do they demand MCFs of natural gas or do they demand a temperature in their home? Do they demand watts (again) or do they demand computational power?

The answers are rather obvious.

The problem lies in comparing tradeoffs. How do consumers value lumens of light compared to miles of driving? Yes, there is a way to compare tradeoffs through some rather simple math by using a third (supposedly fixed) entity such as a currency, but this math becomes incredibly complex with scale. When you add more than two goods to the equation and then compare across millions of consumers the math becomes impossible especially when that third entity, currency, has a fluctuating supply (disclaimer: I would never advocate a fixed currency supply).

Consider this: the real cost of food in the last twenty years has risen but the real cost of a cycle of computing power has fallen rather dramatically. How does this affect the consumer? How do you quantify this in an aggregate measure? Are they better or worse off? People may not be able to afford to eat as much or as high a quality of food but entertainment options are more abundant and less expensive than ever in inflation adjusted terms.

Without a clear measure for utility, a numerical value that could universally represent how consumers value things, economics will forever be abstract theory. An example of a universal measure would be a unity that would express the utility gained from lumens of light, cycles of computing power, miles driven, grams of seritonin and melatonin, etc.

To properly address all of your questions in a universal theory you'd need a universal (and constant) value for utility.... which doesn't exist which is why economics has been stuck in neutral for decades if not centuries.

So you feel that economic modeling is impossible, and the LTG model had no value?

Newton's law of gravity really doesn't explain the motion of galaxies very well. We postulate the existance of dark matter and dark energy, matter we so far have not been able to observe, to reconcile the motion within galaxies and of galaxies with Newton's law.

From what I understand, theories of gravitation (i.e. gravitons, gravity waves) are somewhat tenuous compared to other established theories of physics. That's partly why that paper by Verlinde I linked to futher down the thread "On the Origin of Gravity and the Laws of Newton" has gained some interest.

Abstract: Starting from first principles and general assumptions Newton's law of gravitation is shown to arise naturally and unavoidably in a theory in which space is emergent through a holographic scenario. Gravity is explained as an entropic force caused by changes in the information associated with the positions of material bodies. A relativistic generalization of the presented arguments directly leads to the Einstein equations. When space is emergent even Newton's law of inertia needs to be explained. The equivalence principle leads us to conclude that it is actually this law of inertia whose origin is entropic.

Couple this with the fact that entropy itself is somewhat mysterious. The mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota from MIT had this to say just a few years ago:

The maximum entropy principle. which may be gleaned from the preceding examples, states that, in the absence of any further information, the best guess of a random variable satisfying given conditions is the random variable of maximum entropy that satisfies those conditions. Among all mathematical recipes. this is to the best of my knowledge the one that has found the most striking applications in engineering practice. The best techniques of image reconstruction known to date rely on the maximum entropy principle. I have myself been witness to police cases where the correct number plate of an automobile was reconstructed by maximum entropy from a photograph which to the naked eye looked like chaos. Even the solution of overdetermined systems of equations is at present best carried out by maximum entropy computations.
In view of such a variety of lucrative applications, the complete and utter lack of justification of the maximum entropy principle is nothing short of a scandal. On learning that a normally distributed random variable of infinite variance has maximum entropy, it is natural to ask for an intuitive proof of the central limit theorem that relies on maximum entropy; such a proof has never been given, to the best of my knowledge, although several mathematicians attempted it, among them Linnik and Rényi.

This quote was scanned from a document and converted using optical character recognition which likely used maximum entropy techniques such as hidden markov model. Like the prof says, we use it everywhere but don't have the greatest understanding.

Newton's law of gravity is good enough to aim space probes throughout the solar system. Our belief in Newton is so strong we believe there is matter we don't see to reconcile the motion of galaxies to Newton's law. The motion of galaxies is not itself evidence of Newton's law.

I'll leave the nature of gravity to WebHubbleT and Verlinde.

I pointed this out to support my belief that entropy can be used to explain a lot more practical applications than scientists seem to be aware of. They really do tend to get excited about the problems at a more grandiose level than the rather mundane analysis of resource depletion. In other words, cosmology breakthroughs outanks new methods of bean-counting on the Nobel Prize scale.

The criteria for a Nobel Prize was described in Alfred's will and it doesn't include bean counting. Practical applications for most nobel prize winning work has to wait at least a generation.

You missed my point, of course that's the way the NP works. I just suggested that scientists don't get excited about actually explaining or understanding mundane things like resource depletion when they can go for the brass ring.

Witness my pointing out that a scientist is looking at gravity from a different perspective and several commenters crawl out of the woodwork and start arguing about theories of gravity. I would rather have them comment on my bigger point on how disorder plays a part in Peak Oil!

speaking of missing your points, are you saying that Peak Oil will lead to disorder? ;-)

In a way, the disorder is already there and has been from day one.

The premise is actually pretty simple. Lots of people looking for oil, all at various rates around the world (kind of like a wind velocity distribution) leads directly to a logistic Hubbert-shaped model. This can be derived mathematically, and it is exactly a logistic-shaped curve if the dispersion follows a maximum entropy distribution and the overall mean effort increases exponentially. This is completely opposite than the conventional derivation of the Logistic, that, for example, Ugo is advocating in his referenced paper (via the Lotka-Volterra model equation).

Somebody might say that this sounds too technical and arcane. I say bosh, since we have people here arguing over whether the laws of gravity are correct or not. Notice that the theory of gravity is THE hard problem, millions of times more complex than anything I just hypothesized. Yet, people will keep arguing over the gravity problem and not give a rat's ass over analyzing a problem that is perfectly tractable.

Here is an assertion to chew over: Ugo's model is incorrect, whereas mine is correct. As a "mind-sized" argument its a lot more interesting and accessible to argue over than the origin of gravity.

So that is my point, restated once more.

@Ugo Bardi

I appreciate your article. I've often thought along the same lines regarding entropy as the underlying principle driving economics and have even gone so far as to put together a few preliminary papers should I ever get around to publishing. Email me if you want: ccarroll@rollins.edu

An exceptionally fine and thoughtful piece, Ugo. Thank you, and congratulations.

I do want to point out that you, like almost everyone, speak of "markets" and "free markets" and "natural" market forces as if those things had some sort of independent, physical existence. They do not.

You talk about MKH's curve fitting reality best when governments don't "interfere" with "markets," but without governance (by rulers, democratic decision-making, consensus, shared religious or moral belief--whatever) markets do not exist. They are the creations of our rules, expectations and agreements about exchanges. Therefore, they are, entirely, mutable and reconfigurable.

Talking about "the market," or "the economy," as if either were a real, independent entity is exactly like talking about the "invisible hand" -- no more meaningful than angels pushing the planets around.

More on the market. Perhaps the market will have us do without.


The "market" will, assuredly, have very many do without. That's because the rules and agreements that constitute the "market" are, under our present arrangement, dictated by, and for the benefit of, the greediest and most self-centered among us.

Economics is politics. The "market" is a cultural construct. It is whatever we, collectively say it is, or whatever we permit the powerful to tell us it is.

Another reason to be a stoic. Fox Business News is advertising a program at 10PM Eastern on Follow the Money tonight - Titled: The Myth of Peak Oil.

Since I simply don't have the stomach to watch, I'll have to rely on TODsters to report on the illuminating content.

Fox has it wrong I think. "The Myth about Peak oil being called a Myth" should be a better title, and they are the ones supporting this myth. I guess humans do not think or reason. They just hurl insults at each other like "myth" and "model". LOL. I am sure grandpa will enjoy watching the show. He can blame the speculators and Arabs with better confidence. Brought to you by Exxon. LOL.

Oct - here you go if you feel like wasting 10 minutes of your life you'll never get back. http://video.foxbusiness.com/v/960617668001/

The fellow supporting PO said all the right things. Unfortunately the idiot talking heads dominated the presentation. All 'drill, baby, drill" and "Obama bad".

Disclaimer: don't blame me if you waste your time watching the link. And remember this is a review coming from a conservative oil patch hand. You've been warned.

Rockman thanks for the entertainment. As always, you are a glimmer of hope that at least the guys drilling may see a problem. BTW. I enjoyed my red beans and rice here in New Orleans. I remember you saying they were good.

I have to say they steam rolled the poor peaker oiler. Amazing that people think regulations have caused the peak in the Lower 48 production in 1970 at 10 mbpd.

Oct - If you're still hanging around Nawlins you might try a Po'boy at Mothers in the d/t area. My favorites are the roast beef and fried soft shell crab.

You may remember from your studies that entropy is related to disorder. In some senses, it is true, but it is a definition that creates a lot of confusion. Think of entropy as heat dissipation.

I think this is backwards. Thinking about entropy as heat dissipation restricts what you can do with the analysis. It is really all about disorder and the way that processes unwind to fill up the state space. You place a drop a food color into a glass of water and the color will distribute over the entire volume eventually. That is entropy and it is an example of the most uniform variety. This is the favorite of chemists everywhere yet it is nowhere representative of the actual variability that exists in nature.

Even Newton's law of gravity can be recast as an entropic force. Verlinde wrote a controversial paper last year on this topic: http://arxiv.org/abs/1001.0785. (It's actually quite readable)

By the same token, most fractal structures are not necessarily the result of a singular complexity but more likely due to disorder in the environment.

The main point is that nothing of any complexity proceeds in a deterministic fashion. Randomness and disorder governs everything of any significance and the LTG model and the Hubbert logistic model are extremely simplistic ways to model behavior without the consideration of any kind of disorder.

If nothing else, applying entropy models leads to a more straightforward, yet not as sexy, way of understanding the way things will unfold. The gist of it is that as things get more "complex", they actually get simpler to evaluate. This is not actually a very extraordinary statement as it explains all of statistical mechanics and entropy. This simplification also explains things like random matrix theory and network behavior which have been in the news recently. These tend to converge to simpler expressions independent of the complexity of the configuration. Scientists like Verlinde are just applying these ideas to disciplines that haven't been exposed to the ideas or that the people in charge didn't think they would need.

Invocation of chaos theory are actually less successful because those ideas actually don't consider the complexity in the proper context, which involves the state of disorder in the system. Once that goes through the wash you are left with behavior that simply revolves around the mean energy values and a maximum entropy spread in variability.

Much of the entropy analysis is basic probability and statistics, also used in information theory. I think it is almost blindingly obvious and so run-of-the-mill that in fact that many physicists and scientists don't want to admit to it or discuss it further. You see, disorder smears the effects that they want to see. Tough to bear when you are trying to unlock the secrets of the universe, and you realize that it is likely buried under all the disorder that we experience and observe (that is if the secrets of the universe exist at all, see the issue of Newton's law of gravity above). Is that stoicism or what?

You must have entropy on the brain.
Gravity is the result of the curvature of spacetime.


I have this insane ability to look at any data and visualize what causes it. It's a gift or a curse.

(My thanks also for Verlinde link)
This week in Science

Baby Einsteins
Having complete information with which to make predictions is a rarity and is often achieved only in theoretical studies with paper and pencil. Téglás et al. (p. 1054) now find that when 12-month-old infants view complex displays of multiple moving objects, they can form rational probabilistic expectations about future events by integrating dynamic spatiotemporal cues present in a scene, weighting these information sources as predicted by a Bayesian ideal observer model.

Thinking of you :)

My infantile response to a taunt now makes more sense :)

The cult of GR. GR says nothing about the microscopic nature of gravitation which is a profound failure. Anyone talking about gravitons and GR in the same breath is clueless. Field theory is what describes all the other laws of physics so it is quite peculiar why gravity would be a magical exception. And magic is the key word since the curvature of space-time is not mediated by any field in GR, it just "is".

Then you have the voodoo mathematics rampant amongst the practitioners of GR. They think that non-diffeomorphic transformations are physically meaningful. You know, points mapped to lines and and curves to surfaces and assorted other violations of the conservation of information. Some of these gurus need to look up the inverse function theorem. They even redefine the meaning of coordinate singularity when they find that there is no static space-time solution across the event horizon for the point mass problem ("black hole") in spherical coordinates. The horizon is patently a physical discontinuity, e.g. infinite redshift surface in any coordinate system, and not a coordinate singularity. Wanking around with cut and paste transformations such as Kurskal-Szekeres (not diffeomorphic) can't sweep the horizon singularity under the rug.

Thanks for the link to that Verlinde paper, quite a fascinating read.

Stoic Calm.
Serenity now, insanity later.

Things move because entropy can increase – otherwise everything would stay frozen as it is. An equivalent way of saying that is that things happen because potentials tend to equalize.

There is a useful rule of thumb here; but (as you hint in a later paragraph)there are counterexamples that show that this is not very precise. For example, a planet can orbit a star without significant entropy increase. It is clearly not frozen as it is. In classical dynamics, these are called Hamiltonian systems and they occur whenever there is motion that conserves energy. Equilibrium thermodynamics is almost entirely devoted to systems whose microscopic interactions are Hamiltonian. You are trying to qualitatively introduce people to non-equilibrium dynamics of dissipative systems, but your language is drawn from thermodynamics and equilibrium. It is going to be hard to be precise enough to make useful predictions.

For example, a naive extension of your rule of thumb is one argument used by creationists to reject of evolution...natural change requires increasing disorder so it can't lead to more complex species. They are wrong because their rule of thumb is not precise enough to handle the decreasing entropy of the organism which is possible because of the large increase in entropy of its wastes.

At the root of it, nonequilibrium dynamics is a very hard problem that is barely tractable on simple systems (Rayleigh Bernard convection is a classic problem that is still an active research subject even though it only has fluid between a hot and cold plate.) Trying to conceptually extend nonequilibrium dynamics to civilization wide economic dynamics is a hazardous enterprise. Nevertheless, I have to agree with your three laws...particularly the last (you can't quit). So let's keep trying.

i just got back from Penn states Wharton school of buisness attending concepts in investing seminar,i brought up peak oil and its relivance to macro economic forcasting,not even the prof would touch the subject,we are in deep s..t..........r.m.

that should read univ of pennsylvania......r.m.

The late Donella Meadows comments on reactions to The Report to the Club of Rome (Limits to Growth)

Here's a revised version of chart #3 with the last few years of growth:

Here's oil prices:


Again, it seems to me to illustrate an important assumption in the Hubbert model: substitution. The US could import oil, so prices didn't rise.

Of course, it's a little more complicated: world prices rose due to the oil embargo in 1973, but price increases in the US were suppressed by price controls. Then the Iran debacle raised them in 1979, and we started to see a response by 1985, but then prices fell again. Price feedback didn't happen again until 2005 when world prices started rising - then US lower 48 production started rising again (with a several year lag).

There isn’t a gravitational force. If a gravitational force does exist, where is the equal and opposite force? Newton knew that objects didn’t move in a straight line so gravitation was used to get the curvature. The good thing about Newton’s laws is they work.

As much as this is interesting, it is also nothing new.

Economic predictions are like flipping a coin because they always depend on more than is considered.

So then we end up with math/physics hindsight. The extrapolations are interesting, but nothing can be done with them on a global level.

We will see the cost of everything go up. People will get thinner and not have it so easy for years, centuries, or more.. and either a new source of cheap energy is discovered, or an equilibrium reached. What is the equilibrium?? I'll just make it up like anyone else can.. Smaller houses, local battery storage, solar panels, gardens for lower food expense, etc. Hunting and gathering, Global anarchy, who the hell knows.

Does it really matter? We will adapt and continue.. Just like when England ran out of forests, they looked to the colonies for timber. We have an unlimited potential outside of our planet, it will become economically viable to mine it at some point.

I would love to see the entropy graph of that on a timeline.. would the bell be half of infinity????

Worse that that, certain kinds of investment modeling hold little value. Consider that a model did exist that would correctly predict the market in the near future. Because of its strong predictive value, everyone ends up using the model. Unfortunately since everyone uses the model, no one holds an advantage and so no one makes money. Eventually they build faster processing equipment to make the prediction before anyone else can and then get out quick, which leads to small profit margins.

That is just focusing on the market.

This already happens, it is the $1.5 quadrillion derivatives market ponzi scheme. They all try to outdo each other with high frequency trading and all other sorts of predictive computer trades. The whole Credit Default Swap scam is a way of insuring the system against a ponzi like collapse. But that is akin to me, worth say $10,000, insuring you, also worth $10,000, on your $100,000 leveraged investment. How can I cover you when I don't have that much? And then you turn around and insure me for the same. It actually did crash in the May 2010 Flash Crash, but they since fixed it up. It will crash again, completely, when the dollar hyperinflates shortly.

Nice article Ugo, I'll go through t with a fine comb later on. I have been developing my thermodynamic model of the economy and environment over the last year and I have nearly brought it all together (I come from an engineering and ecology background so to tie it all together with economics in a thermodynamic context is very satisfying). It still needs a little work on a few points, but you may find it useful. But warning, I do not hold back on the economist bashing.


Thank you NH. I added your blog to my Google reader

Ugo, I have one correction to make:  the water doesn't fall down because of entropy, it falls down because of the gradient of energy:  F = gradient(E).  The water STAYS down because of entropy; if the water falls through a pipe instead of through free air, it can flow right back up again as in Roman inverted siphons.  Only when the energy is dissipated into heat does the water lose its capacity for flowing back uphill.

EP, entropy is part of the concept of "potential". When you speak of chemical or thermodynamic potentials, these include entropy; even though it is not explicitly named. Actually, however, gravity is a little different - people talk of gravitational potentials without mentioning entropy. So, you may be right, but I do think that entropy plays a role even in gravity - which is what you say, after all. I have to mull this over in my head a little.

It looks like the flow of comments is slowing down, so I think it is time for me to thank everyone for the comments. Most were favorable - I didn't see really unfavorable ones, but some points that have been raised surely deserve further discussion. Many people saw that the answer to collapse is expansion in space - who knows, maybe we'll be able to do that one day.


Perhaps I should be more direct: I think the LTG analysis is highly unrealistic. As far as I can tell, it doesn't account for a number of important things - the most important being renewable power from wind or solar. It doesn't explicitly include energy as a component at all.

Without an explicit analysis of energy, the model is invalid, as we see in a report of an attempt to add energy as a component here; http://europe.theoildrum.com/node/5145 . It says the following: "in a world with unlimited energy, any chemical compounds useful as a raw material but not as an energy source could be easily obtained "

Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) is a key, foundational element to the energy component of this new model: "The available data on EROEI is very spotty, but it’s such a crucial concept to explain what may happen in the future with energy sources that I believe a model would be inaccurate if it didn’t include it in some way."

This new model assumes that renewable EROEI is low:
"Renewables aren’t used until the end of the 21st century, due to their low EROEI: "

The new model predicts serious problems in the medium term, in large part because renewables don't start to grow in a serious way until 2075, due to their low EROEI.

Wind and solar have high EROEI*, therefore, the energy component of the model is incorrect, and so is the overall model.


The Limits to Growth scenarios were designed not to prove that there were limits to growth. Instead, they were designed to show the behavior of a system that contained limits (overshoot). The limits were assumed by the model.

I would agree that the LTG model was useful - it showed what overshoot looked like, and showed that overshoot was possible in a model of limited resources.

It did not demonstrate that it was a model of the real world. As far as I understand, the model was extremely simple. For instance, resources were unitary: they weren't broken down into minerals, energy, food, or anything like that: just "resources". That's a mighty simple model.

This simplicity, and the exclusion of substitution of non-limited resources for limited resource made the model very, very far from anything that might be expected to model the real world. As the authors said repeatedly, these were scenarios, not forecasts. It was treated as such by the economics community, much to the puzzlement of environmentalists who didn't understand just how limited the model was.

I assume we want a model to be considered something more than an academic exercise intended to test a few very narrow hypotheses. I assume we would like it to, like mainstream econometrics models, be able to make credible forecasts about the real world. If so, it has to include substitution effects. Otherwise, it will gain acceptance here, perhaps, but it will be ignored by the wider community of economics, and justifiably so. And, ultimately, it will be unable to make good forecasts, which is the bottom line.

*Oddly, this model also makes the unrealistic assumption that nuclear fuel will be depleted within the 21st century.

Ugo said the following on his blog:

"Nick, all these points are very well explained in the latest version of the LTG study; the 2004 one, published by Chelsea Green. As I say in my post, it is a complex model and most of the factors you mention can be modeled and have been modeled.

About Hubbert, you are right, See my post on TOD on the subject of "The Limits of the Hubbert Model" http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7241"

So....I'll take a look.

LTG has way too many variables and it is a deterministic model, adding up to a couple of strikes against it.

hmmm. Too many variables? I would have thought it had too few, but perhaps they're the wrong ones, or the right ones just have the wrong coefficients.

I agree that the model is too deterministic.

Too many variables in the sense that it makes for a lousy model according to Akaike Information Criteria (AIC) measure. This essentially points out that you can fit any behavior you want with enough parameters.


Yes, that makes sense. It seems pretty clear that the creators of the LTG model weren't interested in testing the hypothesis that there are limits to growth - they assumed it.

They were simply interested in modelling how things might crash, not whether they would crash.

So, they designed a model that crashed...

entropy is part of the concept of "potential". When you speak of chemical or thermodynamic potentials, these include entropy

Gibb's free energy applies in chemistry, certainly, but not gravity... and gravity was your example.  If you wanted to avoid the nitpickers, you should have picked a better one. ;-)