World Energy Consumption Since 1820 in Charts

Figure 1 shows the huge increase in world energy consumption that has taken place in roughly the last 200 years. This rise in energy consumption is primarily from increased fossil fuel use.

Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent

With energy consumption rising as rapidly as shown in Figure 1, it is hard to see what is happening when viewed at the level of the individual. To get a different view, Figure 2 shows average consumption per person, using world population estimates by Angus Maddison.

Figure 2. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption shown in Figure 1 by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

On a per capita basis, there is a huge spurt of growth between World War II and 1970. There is also a small spurt about the time of World War I, and a new spurt in growth recently, as a result of growing coal usage in Asia.

In this post, I provide additional charts showing long-term changes in energy supply, together with some observations regarding implications. One such implication is how economists can be misled by past patterns, if they do not realize that past patterns reflect very different energy growth patterns than we will likely see in the future.

World per Capita Energy Consumption

Let’s look first at Figure 2. Prior to 1900, energy per capita did not rise very much with the addition of coal energy, suggesting that the early use of coal mostly offset other fuel uses, or permitted larger families. There was a small increase in energy consumption per capita during World War I, but a dip during the depression prior to World War II.

Between World War II and 1970, there was a huge ramp-up in energy consumption per capita. There are several reasons why this might happen:

  • During this period, European countries and Japan were rebuilding after World War II.
  • There was a need to find jobs for returning US soldiers, so that the country would not fall back into the recession it was in prior to World War II.
  • The US had a large oil industry that it wanted to develop, in order to provide jobs and tax revenue.
  • Major infrastructure development projects were put into place during this period, including the Eisenhower Interstate System and substantial improvements to the electrical transmission system.
  • To facilitate purchases both by companies and by consumers, the government encouraged the use of debt to pay for the new good. Figure 3, below, from my post, The United States’ 65-Year Debt Bubble, shows that non-governmental debt did indeed rise during this period.

Figure 3. US Non-Governmental Debt, Divided by GDP, based on US Federal Reserve and US Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

World population also expanded greatly during the period from 1820 to 2010:

Figure 4. World Population, based primarily Angus Maddison estimates, interpolated where necessary.

Figure 4 shows that there is a distinct “bend” in the graph about 1950, when population started rising faster, at the same time that energy consumption started rising more quickly.

If we look at 10-year percentage changes in world population and energy use, this is the pattern we see:

Figure 5. Decade percentage increases in energy use compared to population growth, using amounts from Figures 2 and 4.

Figure 5 shows that the first periods a large percentage increases in energy use occurred about the time of World War I. A second spurt in energy use started about the time of World War II. Population increased a bit with the first spurt in energy use, but did not really take off until the second spurt. Part of the population rise after World War II may be related to the invention of antibiotics–Penicillin (1942), Streptomycin (1943), and Tetracycline (1955). Use of energy to upgrade water and sewer services, and to sterilize milk and to refrigerate meat, may have made a difference as well. Life expectancy in the US grew from 49 in 1900 to 70 in 1960, contributing to population growth.

Since 1970, the rate of increase in world population has declined. One reason for this decline may be the use of oral contraceptives. These were first approved for use in the United States in 1960. Other reasons might include more education for women, and more women entering into the paid work force.

A person can see that in the most recent decade (2000 to 2010), per capita energy use is again rising rapidly. Let’s look at some detail, to see better what is happening.

Detail Underlying Growth in World Energy

Figure 2 above shows energy from the various fuels “stacked” on top of each other. It is easier to see what is happening with individual fuels if we look at them separately, as in Figure 6, below. In Figure 6, I also make a change in the biofuel definition. I omit broadly defined biofuels (which would include animal feed and whale oil, among other things) used in Figure 2, and instead show a grouping of modern energy sources from BP statistical data. What I show as “BP-Other” includes ethanol and other modern biofuels, wind, geothermal, and solar.

Figure 6. Per capita consumption of various fuels, separately, rather than stacked, as in Figure 2.

We can see from Figure 6 that per capita consumption of oil peaked in the 1970 to 1980 time period, and has since been declining. The fuel that has primarily risen to take its place is natural gas, and to a lesser extent, nuclear. Substitution was made in several areas including home heating and electricity generation.

Coal consumption per capita stayed pretty much flat (meaning that coal consumption rose about fast as population growth) until the last decade, namely the period after 2000. In the period since 2000, there has been a huge rise in coal consumption in China and in other developing nations, particularly in Asia. This increase in coal consumption seems to be related to the increase in manufacturing in Asia following the liberalization of world trade that began with the formation of the World Trade Organization in 1995, and the addition of China to the organization in 2001.

If we look at per capita energy consumption since 1965 by country based on BP data, we find very different patterns:

Figure 7. Per capita energy consumption for selected countries, based on BP Statistical Data energy consumption and Angus Maddison population estimates. FSU refers to the Former Soviet Union. Europe refers to a list of 12 large countries.

Figure 7 shows that since the 1970s, energy patterns have patterns have varied. US energy consumption per capita has declined, while Europe’s energy consumption per capita has tended to remain relatively flat. China’s energy consumption per capita has greatly increased in recent years. The passage of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 may have contribute to rising Asian coal consumption because it encouraged countries to reduce their own CO2 emissions, but did not discourage countries from importing goods made in countries using coal as their primary fuel for electricity.

Correlations with Employment

If we look at the United States line on Figure 7, we can see that the most recent peak in US per capita consumption of energy was in the year 2000. It is striking that the percentage of the US population with jobs also peaked in 2000 (Figure 8).

Figure 8. US number of people employed divided by population. Two series are shown: One is for non-farm employment from the Bureau of Labor Statistics; the other is from the Social Security administration.

A person would expect energy consumption to be correlated with the number of jobs for a couple of reasons. First, jobs often involve using vehicles or machines that require fuels of some sort, so the jobs themselves require energy. In addition, people with jobs have the income to buy goods that require energy. Thus, the fact that people in the US have jobs raises the demand for goods and services requiring energy.

If we look at US median wages through 2010 from the Social Security administration, we see a flattening since 2000, and an actual decrease in inflation adjusted wages since 2007 (Figure 9):

Figure 9. US Median Wages based on Social Security data.

If changes in international trade caused US wage earners to be more in direct competition with wage earners from other countries, it would not be surprising if a smaller percentage of the US population has jobs, and that median wages dropped in real terms between 2007 and 2010.

Annual per Capita Increases in World Energy Consumption

Figure 10 (below) shows world per capita energy consumption on a year-by-year basis, similar to Figure 7.

Figure 10. Year by year per capita energy consumption, based on BP statistical data, converted to joules.

Figure 10 shows that world per capita energy consumption was increasing until the late 70s, hitting a peak in 1977. There was a fairly long period until about 2000 where per-capita energy consumption was on a plateau. This was a period where consumers were shifting from oil to electricity where possible, a process that was typically more efficient. It was only in the last decade when production goods of many sorts started shifting to Asia and living standards in Asia starting rising that world energy consumption per capita has again begun increasing.

CO2 Emissions per Capita

I wrote a couple of posts earlier about why CO2 emissions seem to be rising as fast as GDP since 2000 (Is it really possible to decouple GDP growth from CO2 emissions growth? and Thoughts on why energy use and CO2 emissions are rising as fast as GDP), and the increase in per capita consumption would seem to be related. One of the graphs from the second post is shown below as Figure 11.

Figure 11. Carbon dioxide emissions by the three major areas described (Southeast Asia, Middle East, Remainder), based on BP Statistical Data

These emissions are not on a per-capita basis, but the graph illustrates what happens when the production of goods and services is increasingly outsourced to Asia, where coal is used as the primary fuel. Emissions tend to rise there, even if they remain flat in other countries.

If we compare the growth of CO2 emissions and the growth of energy use, both on a per capita basis (Figure 12), we see that the CO2 emissions grew more slowly than energy consumption in the 1970 to 1990 period, so the lines increasingly diverged.

Figure 12. Per capita energy consumption and CO2 emissions, based on BP statistical data.

This divergence appears to result from the changing fuel mix (more nuclear and more natural gas, relative to coal) during the period. Since 2000, the two lines are approximately parallel, indicating no further CO2 savings given the greater use of coal again. Wind and solar contributions are not large enough to make an appreciable difference in CO2 levels.

How an Economist Might Be Misled

If an economist views the period between World War II and 1970 as “normal” in terms of what to expect in the future, he/she is likely to be misled. The period of rapid energy growth following World War II is not likely to be repeated. The rapid energy growth allowed much manual work to be performed by machine (for example, using a back hoe instead of digging ditches by hand). Thus, there appeared to be considerable growth in human efficiency, but such growth is not likely to be repeated in the future. Also, the rate of GDP growth was likely higher than could be expected in the future.

Even the period between 1980 and 2000 may be misleading for predicting future patterns because this period occurred before the huge increase in international trade. Once international trade with less developed nations increases, we can expect these nations will want to increase their energy consumption in any way that is possible, including using more coal.

Another false inference might be that per capita oil consumption has declined in the past (Figure 6), so future declines should not be a problem. For one thing, the past drop in oil availability may very well have contributed to the employment issues noted above during the 2000 to 2010 period in the United States. For another, oil issues may very well have contributed to the Iraq war, and even to World War II. Furthermore, there may be Liebig’s Law of the Minimum issues, because most vehicles use gasoline or diesel for fuel and cannot run without it. Figure 2 also illustrates that a transition from one fuel to another takes many, many years–we have not at this point transitioned from away coal, and nuclear is still only a small percentage of world energy consumption.

The small amounts of new renewables to date should be of concern to economists if they are counting on these for the future. For one thing, ramping up new renewables to amounts which can be expected to make a significant contribution is likely to take many years. For another, new renewables require fossil fuels for their creation, so they are very much tied to the current system.

The fact that things haven’t fallen apart so far doesn’t give the assurance that things never will fall apart. Individual countries behave very differently. While some countries may continue to grow using coal, other countries will flounder when hit by high oil and natural gas prices. It is quite possible that some countries will encounter major difficulties in the years ahead, even though they have so far been untouched. The precarious debt situations of a number of countries leave them vulnerable to disruptions.

This post originally appeared on Our Finite World.

It's sobering to project these figures to year 2050 for example. That 80 GJ a year each for 7 billion people includes both subsistence lifestyle peasants and jet setting billionaires. The current energy use distribution is highly inequitable so the bottom layer people should get more, the rich people maybe a tad less but not too much less. Let's say in 2050 we have 9 bn people averaging 100 GJ a year each or 3.2 kw continuous average. That puts world energy consumption around 29 terawatts when Wiki says we are now on 15 TW.

But here's the killer; most of our current energy use comes from burning fossil fuels which are either fast depleting or will be politically restricted. So the doubling in world energy use has to come from more difficult sources. Maybe we should take a happy pill and not think about it too much.

I'm sorry if this is irrelevant or redundant (I did not read the whole post carefully), but shouldn't food—both human and animal—be counted as 'energy' when human and animal power were doing work subsequently replaced by some of the other sources? I assume that some of this is swamped by low populations in these early years, but is it negligible?

I don't think so because food is an entirely different subject. Food is converted to energy by the body but it is somatic energy, or energy consumed inside the body. This article as all about extrasomatic energy, or energy consumed outside the body.

Of course in the final analysis it will largely be about food because fossil energy is converted to food. There are many articles on this subject and at least one book. Eating Fossil Fuels by Dale Allen Pfeiffer

That we need food for survival is elementary, everyone understands that fact. But the decline in oil will mean a decline in food. Not everyone understands that fact. That is the point that need to be talked about, as this article does.

Ron P.


Paul Roberts, the author of the "End of Oil" latest (2008) book is the "End of Food"

" In this carefully researched account, Roberts indentifies the forces that are undermining our capacity to produce food that is safe, nourishing, or adequate to meet the appetites of a rapidly growing population. In The End of Food, readers will see not only how our food systems are breaking down--but how they can be put back on a sustainable course."


According to, 12-15% of the nation's energy budget is spent on food production, delivery, and consumption. I don't know if I would put the food system first when looking for places to optimize. Personal transportation seems like lower hanging fruit to me.

jhm, you are suggesting that human and animal "energy" has not been accounted for? Though after we replace it we then count that energy once it is in a easily measurable form like hydro, oil, and coal.

I think jhm has a valid point.

As incorrect as it was, slaves were energy as much as any fossil fueled tractor.

My other thought was how much of the energy used during this great boom period was used as "necessarily" as the energy that was used 200 years ago. The greatest juxtaposition is power tools and Gym memberships, the imbedded energy and consumption of energy required for both. This is an economic worry more than an energy one, especially for work-out gyms.

Direct energy from food at 2000 kcal/day works out to about 3 GJ/yr. This doesn't count delivery costs, or the fact that meat is much more energy intensive, but those are already in the total energy consumption charts in the article.

2000 kcal/day is a stravation diet. 4000 kcal is a more realistic figure for an active adult, a manual labourer would be 5-6000 kcal. Thst is to maintain healthy weight, to reach the obesity levels seen in the US a higher figure would be needed.

According to the US department of Health and Human Services, a moderately active female 19-30 years old requires 2,000 - 2,200 kcal/day, and a moderately active male 19-30 years old requires 2,600 - 2,800 kcal/day. The amount varies depending on sex, age, and level of physical activity.

If you eat 500 kcal/day less than that, you will lose about 1 pound per week, if you eat 500 kcal/day more you will gain about 1 pound per week. Most Americans eat too much and as a result gain weight.

You would only need 5-6,000 kcal/day if you were man-hauling a sled across Antarctica to the South Pole or climbing a 26,000-foot peak in the Himalayas. I'm speaking as someone who knows people who do those kinds of things. Usually they lose a lot of weight because it's nearly impossible to metabolize that much food.

On the contrary, during the growing season Amish farmers need 5-6000 kcal/day, as did lumberjacks in the 1800s. Heavy manual labor does require a significant amount of food energy.

I think it is important to count this. The US DoHHS definition of "moderately active" is very much dependent on modern American lifestyles. As oil dwindles and we rely more on muscle power, we will need more food energy. If we design systems that assume 2-3000 kcal/day/person, we could easily end up with serious starvation.

Work adjusts to fit the calories available. A well fed labourer can do more work but pre-fossil fuel societies were generally at the low calories and low work end of the scale.

From personal experience: When dieting to get into Ironman shape a few years ago I logged my daily food energy intake; it varied a bit from day to day of course, but averaged ~3000 kcal. At the time I was training "moderately" - 5-10 times a week, total 5-20 hrs a week, mostly low intensity (long slow bike and long slow run made up most of the hours). I lost 3 kg/month.

Now I am not a small man, 183 cm and heavily built, and don't ever get much below 90 kg, even when in training and focussing on weight, so my energy needs are definitely above average. But I figure that if I were to work as a lumberjack the old-fashioned way, on foot in the snow using a manual saw (or just an axe - according to a local historian, saws only came into use here in the 1800's iirc), often/usually sleeping out in the woods, my energy needs would be far higher. I can only guess at the exact values, but would not be surprised to see values of 8 or 10 Mcal/day (I seem to remember such values having been computed for the early polar explorers).

And yes, I can eat that much 8-)

(According to triathlon lore, the body's ability to absorb food starts to shut down above about 70% of max heart rate. Consequently, the key to a successful Ironman for a non-elite athlete is seen as staying at or below this level througout. I would guess that what happens to RMG's mountaineering friends is that the altitude makes even the slightest effort push the HR above this level. For a lumberjack in the lowlands however this shouldn't pose a problem. Also, the body can be trained to accept food during exercise, though most modern/western training programs do the opposite).

Right: (.doc, in Norwegian, sadly):

Sønneland and Bae estimated their energy use crossing the Antarctic at 8000 kcal/day, avg intake 6500 kcal/d

Actually, while doing high mountains you can't metabolize much food due to the lack of oxygen. I have met a number of people who failed to make the top of Everest because they spent too long at elevation and simply burned up all their body fat, and then started burning up their muscle mass. They had to turn back (one withing 100 metres of the top) simply because they didn't have enough muscle left to do it. They all came back skin and bones.

I talked to a couple of people who did Denali (Mt. McKinley) twice in a couple of weeks (the first time they took two sets of skis to the top and skied down, the second they climbed by a new route and picked up their second set of skis at the top). They said they budgeted 5000 calories a day, but couldn't metabolize more than 1000 at altitude. The first time up they met a group of Koreans who wanted them to rescue them (Hahahah, are you nuts?!!), so they gave them their spare radio to call the Rescue people and all their spare food because they realized they couldn't eat it themselves, and continued to the top. (Good luck, enjoy your meal, and have a nice helicopter ride out).

But realistically, not very many modern Americans are likely to get into the 5,000-6,000 calorie range. Numbers from the page I cited earlier.
- active female 19-30 years old - 2,400 kcal/day
- active male 19-30 years old - 3,000

Most Americans now fall into the "sedentary" category.
- sedentary female 19-30 years old - 2,000 kcal/day
- sedentary male 19-30 years old - 2,400

If they eat more than that (which is not very much food) they will gain weight, which is why so many Americans are so fat. They eat as if they are going to spend 12 hours plowing the back 40 behind a mule, and then they waddle over to their SUV and drive 2 hours to their desk job and the shopping mall.

Yes, at extreme mountaineering altitudes you can't metabolize enough food due to lack of oxygen. On 8000m peaks (which Denali obviously isn't), once you reach the death zone, you're dying anyway and it doesn't really matter if you eat or not. Most people try to shove down a few energy gels, but trying to eat a hearty meal is almost impossible. You don't even feel hungry at all, and if you try to force down any sort of substantial meal you just puke it back up anyway.

That said, nobody will ever be doing any sort of physical labor (outside of walking) at those sorts of altitudes and they don't really have any bearing on anything related to real world food requirements.

Right. The reason I replied was that I have seen those ranges of numbers lots of places - physiology books, exercise theory books, cookbooks - and they do not at all agree with my personal experience. My numbers are not published in a peer reviewed journal, but I have much more confidence in them than numbers I find on a webpage or in a book, no matter what authority published it, because I did the measurements & I did the math.

By my own reckoning I need ~4000 kcal/d to maintain body weight, on an exercise regime that would be a low level of activity for a preindustrial human. Now I have reason to expect to end up near the upper end of the range, but 4000 is so much greater than the 2800 that you quoted (and is commonly thrown around) as the upper end of the range, that I can't help but call that number out as highly suspect. Most likely that number is for a man weighing 60-70 kgs and jogging 30 mins 3/week: "Moderate" activity in the sense of "average" for a modern westerner perhaps; by a person conforming to a judgement of what constitutes ideal/normal weight that is more esthetical or moral than scientific.

It is also clear to me that I would have to eat considerably more than 4 Mcal/d to maintain body weight if I trained like a professional athlete or worked as a lumberjack.

Consequently, jdwheeler's statement that

On the contrary, during the growing season Amish farmers need 5-6000 kcal/day, as did lumberjacks in the 1800s. Heavy manual labor does require a significant amount of food energy.

seems entirely reasonable to me. When your observations do not match the orthodoxy... double check your numbers, then if they hold, disregard the orthodoxy.

And, I reiterate, Norwegian Antarctica-crossers Sønneland and Bae ate 6500 kcal/d, and lost 30 kgs each during the trip. Total daily energy expenditure 8000 kcal/d. That's extreme, but it shows that it can be done, though their max altitude was only 3500 m.

On a different note --

Actually, while doing high mountains you can't metabolize much food due to the lack of oxygen. I have met a number of people who failed to make the top of Everest because they spent too long at elevation and simply burned up all their body fat, and then started burning up their muscle mass. They had to turn back (one withing 100 metres of the top) simply because they didn't have enough muscle left to do it. They all came back skin and bones.

This does not make sense. If there was insufficient oxygen to metabolize, how the ???? did they burn up all their body fat? I do not doubt they came back all skin and bones, but I highly doubt it was because metabolism was oxygen-constrained. It is more likely that altitude stress enormously elevated their (base) metabolic rate, perhaps while simultaneously limiting their ability to digest and absorb food -- on top of the heavy energy expenditure necessary to actually climb the mountain.

Burning 1000 kcal/day??? I doubt you could maintain body temperature or even consciousness at room temperature and sea level. The only way this makes sense is if they were referring to energy uptake.

EDIT to add:

I do not doubt that hypoxia is the main cause of altitude sickness, and yes, hypoxia logically implies oxygen availability constrains metabolism. What I am saying is that this cannot be the main culprit for the rapid mass loss. That must stem from a heightened, not lowered, metabolic rate.

EDIT again to add:

...and that suggests this definition of the Point of No Return above which you will eventually die:

The point at which the hypoxia-constrained upper bound on metabolic rate drops below the height-stress-elevated minimum metabolic rate to stay alive.

On a mountain like Everest or Denali to a lesser extent, you can easily burn 8,000-10,000kcal in a day. It's very difficult to eat that much even at sea level and basically impossible at altitude. Just boiling water almost becomes an insurmountable task. That's why nowadays it's basically an overnight assault from the death zone to the summit.

On the other end of the spectrum...when training for a bbing competition, I would regularly eat 5,000-6,000kcal/day including 500g carbs and 550g protein. But even that included a lot of of kcal from shakes, eating that much real food day after day is too much. At that rate it was pretty easy to gain 1 lb per day. 40mg Dianabol per day also helps :)

High-Altitude Nutritional Hints

Studies show that our bodies can process fats and carbohydrates normally up to 5000 meters, so any loss below that elevation can be attributed to less than adequate intake. Above 5000 meters, however, weight loss seems to be unavoidable, due to several factors: 1) loss of appetite and increased nausea from the effects of altitude sickness; 2) change in overall metabolism; and 3) the body's inability to digest food.

The average-sized male climber can expect to burn upwards of 500-800 calories per hour at higher altitudes (the higher numbers are for difficult carry days) so plan on consuming substantially more than you eat back home.

See also Nutrition at High Altitude

Burning 1000 kcal/day??? I doubt you could maintain body temperature or even consciousness at room temperature and sea level.

That's not what they were burning, that was what they were eating. They just lost weight every day for two weeks. I personally have trekked over a 5,000 metre (16,400 ft) pass after being sick as a dog and not having eaten anything for three days (good old Montezuma's revenge), and I was one of the liveliest people up there - when average people come from sea level and try to trek at 5,000 metres, it turns into the march of the living dead. I just relied on my body fat, and fortunately I had lots of that available. It's your liver not your stomach that metabolizes body fat, and it seems to stand up better to altitude than your stomach.

As for altitude sickness - that is not really hypoxia, it's cerebral and pulmonary edema. Fluid starts to leak into your brain and/or lungs, and when that starts to happen you need to get to a lower altitude quickly or you are going to die. It comes on very quickly and unexpectedly. I never take chances and always acclimatize slowly and carefully when going to high elevations.

Generally there is the science of human physiology and then there is the 'fitness' industry pseudoscience.

I also claim to know 'something' about the subject having trained extensively with bodybuilders as well as trained myself methodically for marathon running - all with the supervision of the national institute for physical fitness.

In order to determine your caloric consumption at rest your whole body needs to be scanned - not with those silly scales - but with an actual x-ray (full body scan). This will reveal your body composition and give 'an exact' (to within 10%) estimate of your consumption at rest - for me this was 1900kcal/day.

Now in order to determine the scale of how much your body COULD potentially use up energy - you are put on a treadmill - with full set of cardio sensors around your torso - and all your breathing input and output going through a volumetric oxygen/carbon-dioxide sensor - and you are slowly tortured to death! An additional fun is when they stop the threadmill every few minutes for a few seconds to prick you with a needle to measure your blood. Then after a week of analysis they tell you exactly how much your maximum heart rate, oxygen-consumption and potential metabolism can be. This correlates very well with your actual endurance.

This information is then used to calibrate a special 'sports-watch' for you - that measures both your hearth-rate, breathing, as well as detail of hearth-beats and exhalations to estimate what your body is doing. This you can then take with you on an exercise run - or marathon - and have some confidence in how much energy your body is actually using.

I don't know how you are calculating your consumptions - but my actual measured energy consumption - for running 42km under 5 hours was only 3600 kcal - and I weight almost 90kg.

Now as I understand it, the original issue with this thread was estimating how much energy one uses during manual labor (especially farming).

I've actually worked on a farm digging down plants and up weeds, watering, doing compost - all with manual tools, or hands and feet - 12-14 hour days - all the while eating relatively light meals - and this was no-where as strenuous as running a marathon! - so I don't see how relevant a discussion about high altitude mountaneering or arctic trekking is in this context?

Unless someone can point to actual scientifically measured sources on energy consumption of farmers or some equivalent laborers - I hold that none of us NEED much more than 3000kcal/day per day to grow our food (as totally off the top of my hat estimate) ;)

PS: generally when it comes to how people estimate their caloric intake / use, they are horribly horribly biased. I see it every day at the gym where 'fitness instructors' try to convince people coming there for 'weight loss' to do ACTUAL exercise. For example whereas you and me can easily burn well in excess of 1000kcal/hour on during a regular higher intensity aerobic exercise (running, rowing etc.), these people are all out after just a few minutes - their bodies, and especially, their psyches aren't able to handle that sorts of burns. Consequently they never reach the actual level of burn that would actually begin to burn the fat off their flabby bodies. As I said you see them everyday: they think that when they have some sweat on the collar of their shirt that they are finished - and consequently can go on their high calorie binge of 'recovery' drinks or a massive meal afterwards - as they have seen bodybuilders do at the gym. Where as the bodybuilders have actually spent 2-3 hours doing 80-100% max exercise regimes, burnt thousands of calories in the process, drenched in sweat, actually need those calories in order for their muscles to recover. The other people "don't have" muscles to recover - or use up energy.

For those wannabes my simple weight loss formula: do exercise - get muscles - do even more exercise - burn up calories (more than you can stomach to even eat) - you WILL lose weight :P Anyway - the secret is - body composition is more important then 'weight' (I've seen 110kg bodybuilder finish a marathon under 4:20 - now there's a challenge!)

I presume this post was aimed at me more than RMG?

To take your points in reverse order: I have run marathons at 3:50 weighing 100 kgs and 3:30 weighing 90 kgs 8-)

My energy expenditure calculations were based on daily weighings at a fixed point in my daily schedule (in the morning after having been to the toilet) combined with logging food intake. Weight varied a lot from day to day, I regularly (most weeks) recorded values 2% of body weight above and/or below weekly average, and infrequently (once a month or so) 3%. I put this down to glycogen levels, glycogen stores' associated water, electrolyte levels and the water needed to achieve correct concentrations, and water displaced to the interstitium by exercise (the excursions above average were almost always the day after a hard bout).

This method gives me absolutely no idea how much energy I spent on any one activity, but an excellent idea of my average energy expenditure over a timeframe of several months. It would be interesting to know if you have done something similar and compared the results with those of your specially calibrated HR monitor.

You list base metabolic rate at 1900 and a computed additional (i assume) use of 3600 kcal for completing a marathon. That's a total daily expenditure of 5500 kcal, right there. As someone who has completed several marathons, including in an Ironman-distance triathlon, I do not consider a marathon to be long distance, and the strenousness of it, if you are trained for long-distance, comes mostly from overtaxing your legs' ability to absorb shock. Running at the highest speed you can sustain throughout will make even highly trained runners' legs stiff for days afterward; slacking off slightly on speed will make this effect go away almost entirely. Also, slacking off slightly on speed will make the RPE (rating of percieved effort) drop dramatically. Your energy expenditure, however, will only drop slightly!

My point is that if you were putting in 10-hour days doing heavy manual labour like logging, by hand, during a nordic winter, you could easily sustain half the increased burn rate/hr without feeling overtaxed. I spent the best days of my youth tenting in the snow, felling dry (full-grown) firs for firewood with hand tools. We seldom attempted to do any actual work while out in the woods, but still I would bet our daily additional energy requirements were not less than that required for a marathon.

You say,

I've actually worked on a farm digging down plants and up weeds, watering, doing compost - all with manual tools, or hands and feet - 12-14 hour days - all the while eating relatively light meals - and this was no-where as strenuous as running a marathon!

Two comments to this.

The last first: not as strenuous as a marathon, no, but two or three or even four times the duration, and as I have tried to give examples of, low-intensity full-body exercise can have relatively high energy requirements while having a low RPE, while the (later parts of) a marathon has a very high RPE but not actually that high energy requirements. I would not be surprised to learn that your additional energy needs for that farm work was higher than for your marathon (but I don't, of course, know).

Second. You ate relatively light meals, you say. Did you do this for weeks (preferrably months) on end, while monitoring your enery intake and weight? Strenuous exercise often reduces appetite, and if you have adequate long-term energy stores (primarily fat, secondarily muscle) your energy expenditure can exceed your intake by a quite large margin literally for months, without any feelings of discomfort or hunger. Did you gain or lose weigth? Did your clothes fit tighter or looser?

To sum up, and address your question of the relevance of the current discussion to the topic at hand.

My basic observation is this: I have a stereotypical (northern) lumberjack's physique. I am a natural choice for that job in a hypothetical tractor-and-chainsaw-less world; I even have some "job experience". And I know, from actual measurements, that 4000 kcal/day wouldn't let me sustain body weight doing that job. This doesn't mean I couldn't live on 4 Mcal/d doing it; it means that if I was fed 4 Mcal/d, I would adjust by a combination of weighing less (which entails less capacity do do heavy lifting) and working less.

I think this demonstrates that "official" energy requirements of 2200-2800 kcal/day for a young adult male should be taken with a bucket of salt.

I also think it demonstrates that food energy consumed to perform physical work should be taken into account when computing world energy usage/needs, which, IIRC, was the topic at hand. Whether it is practical to do so is another matter entirely.

Now I am an outlier. Extrapolating from my experience to a world level is clearly wrong. I am not suited to physical work in hot or humid conditions (too big means too low surface-to-mass ratio which means inadequate radiative heat loss, european with lots of sweat glands hopeless in 100% RH conditions). And most people live in hot and humid conditions.

Yes, I don't think you're directing your comments at me. I didn't actually disagree with much of what you said.

I hold that none of us NEED much more than 3000kcal/day per day to grow our food (as totally off the top of my hat estimate) ;)

Well, yes, that was the crux of the original discussion - how many calories do you need to eat to grow your food. I think that 3000 kcal/day would be more than the average medieval peasant farmer got. Now, if someone actually fed him more calories than that, he would probably use it, but he had to make do with what he got. Many people or most people would be trying to get by on 2,000 kcal/day or less, with varying degrees of success. The people who couldn't do it died.

In the spirit of St Patrick's day, I was watching a special on the Irish Potato Famine. The thing that impressed me was how little energy it took the Irish to grow potatoes. Potatoes were a game-changer for the Irish. The climate and soils were perfect for potatoes. They hilled up the potato fields in the spring, put in the seed potatoes, and then ignored them. They went back in the fall and dug the new potatoes up. In between they consumed almost no energy on farming, other than pulling a few weeds. They could feed a large family on a one-acre plot with almost no energy consumption. They could easily get by on 2,000 kcal/day. Most of their extra energy went toward breeding more children. The population of Ireland started doubling every 20 years.

Of course, when the potato blight hit, that was the end of it for them because nothing else they could grow produced that much food with so little effort on so little land. The population crashed from 8 million to 4 million in a few years, and today is still only 5 million.

The estimates of 5,000 to 6,000 kcal/day are extreme cases. If you're running 50 miles per day chasing big game, that's what you might burn. It presumes that you actually can get that many calories in a day. In some cases - e.g. the paleolithic mammoth hunters - people did get that much food and did that much work, but I think that for most of prehistory people were lucky to get half that much, and just had to live with less.

Thank you, your first quote says more or less what I was trying to say. Sadly the linked article it is taken from doesn't say what "2) change in overall metabolism" entails; also I am sceptical that "3) the body's inability to digest food" is a separate issue and not just a consequence of 1) and 2).

Your second link is very good.

The strenuous activities associated with work or recreation at altitude, plus an initial increase in resting metabolic rate and the lack of adequate food intakes almost invariably result in an initially negative energy balance.

(my emphasis)

You quoted your friends as saying

they budgeted 5000 calories a day, but couldn't metabolize more than 1000 at altitude.


Metabolism (from Greek: μεταβολή "metabolē", "change" or Greek: μεταβολισμός metabolismos, "outthrow") is the set of chemical reactions that happen in the cells of living organisms to sustain life. These processes allow organisms to grow and reproduce, maintain their structures, and respond to their environments. The word metabolism can also refer to all chemical reactions that occur in living organisms, including digestion and the transport of substances into and between different cells,

I tend to use the word in the "all reactions" sense, and assumed that your friends also were (there was no way the statement could make sense if they didn't). Since there is a very close relation between the sum of the chemical reactions in a body and its energy usage, using "metabolize" as a synonym for "burn up" is defensible IMO; using it as a synonym for "digest" or "take up" isn't, since those are at best subsets of the functions "metabolism" encompass.

Now no doubt you will dig up a dictionary entry proving that "digest" and even "eat" are possible meanings of the word "metabolize", but as far as I am concerned, to metabolize something is to churn it through the metabolism, from one end to the other.

RMG said:

That's not what they were burning, that was what they were eating.

Thanks for the clarification.


RMG said:

As for altitude sickness - that is not really hypoxia, it's cerebral and pulmonary edema.

Wikipedia says:

Generalized hypoxia occurs in healthy people when they ascend to high altitude, where it causes altitude sickness leading to potentially fatal complications: high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE).[2]

You are confusing cause and consequences. Also, CE and PE are "just" the worst-case outcomes, per your second link:

Altitude illness is a combination of symptoms, including headaches, anorexia, nausea, vomiting, and malaise. The combined effect of these symptoms is usually a profound depression of appetite and reduction of food intake

(FTR I think that Wiki article is too bombastic in stating "it [hypoxia] causes altitude sickness"; dehydration is certainly another factor. I would also suspect low pressure in itself may impact the nervous system. So AFAIAC altitude sickness is a syndrome which is likely mostly caused by low partial pressure of oxygen at altitude; it is not synonymous with hypoxia).

The Wikipedia article on hypoxia is rather simplistic, because hypoxia doesn't necessarily lead to altitude sickness. Hypoxia is normal at high altitudes, and some people do just fine without enough oxygen. They just slow down to a slower pace and carry on with life. You adapt to high altitude by exposing your body to the effects of insufficient oxygen, and it responds by increasing your respiratory capacity and the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood.

I think of altitude sickness, a.k.a. acute mountain sickness (AMS), as an actual sickness - you feel really sick, as distinct from just tired and exhausted, which is normal if you're working very hard. I've never had AMS, although I've been above 5,000 metres (16,500 feet) a number of times, and shortage of oxygen is always a problem up there. Other people I know have had AMS as low as 3,000 metres (10,000 ft) and had to be evacuated by helicopter or mule depending on country.

As the article says, it can turn into high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), which are potentially fatal. The only cure is to retreat ASAP to a lower elevation. OTOH, if you are just short of oxygen, after a bit of rest your body adapts and you continue on to a higher elevation. Inability to eat enough food is routine, too, and isn't really a pathological symptom - you just can't digest enough food at high altitude, and the higher you go the less food you can digest.

I haven't seen any convincing explanations of what causes HAPE and HACE and I'm not sure anybody has figured it out yet. Obviously, it is caused by high altitude, but some people never get it no matter how high they go, including the top of Everest, and others get it at the elevation of some ski resorts in the Rocky Mountains. There is a large element of randomness in when and how it occurs.

One fellow I know, a photographer who reached the top of Everest in a classic climb (he got great pictures), participated in a 20-year anniversary of the climb, which was being filmed for a TV special. He got AMS hiking to base camp and had to go back to a lower elevation. And then, somewhat later in the filming, he hiked back to base camp because his AMS had gone away and he felt great again. However, he decided that base camp was as high as he was going to go this time.

Reportedly, some people were born and grew up in high-altitude towns, but after they left they could never live there again, because every time they go back home they get AMS.

I have quite a bit of experience at altitude. In 1988 on July 29th I stood on top of the Matterhorn for the fifth time - among many other notable climbs. That day, I reached the summit alone after climbing non-stop all day - the third day of straight climbing.

I've also set a few records, but only on account of the experienced people with me for those climbs.

More than anything you notice dehydration on climbs at altitudes higher than 20,000 feet, sometimes beginning at 18,000 feet when windy or in heavy snow. You can take a sip of water and before you get the cap back on, you are already thirsty. Seems odd, but it is true. Particularly in heavy slogging and in the very dry wind at altitude. You get very ill if you drink as much as you like. (Projectile vomiting ill)

The guides with me would not allow me to drink all I wanted, because although I would have made it to the top, I would have died on the way down, due to exposure caused by dehydration.

There are many arguments on mountainsides on this point. But, it is a matter of life and death. So, I mimicked whatever they did - hence I lived.

It is all about "pacing" yourself - not charging up the mountain.

We do carry oxygen bottles to get up. However, each person is only capable of carrying so much weight and bulk. We carefully discard the bottles on the way up (marking them with poles/flags) so as to be able to retrieve them on the way down. We never use more than 85% of the air in the bottle, in case someone takes ill near the summit - oxygen is always handy to have on the way down from the summit.

Other climbers coming up an hour or two behind us, may also need some oxygen capacity if they are stressed. It is rude behavior to use marked bottles unless it is an actual emergency.

Forget eating above 20,000 ft. Your body uses a surprising amount of energy to digest and metabolize food. This puts you in a negative position for a time. It also takes much longer to digest and to metabolize at altitude - I've forgotten over the years, why that is exactly. But I've woken up the next morning and vomited my food, completely and exactly in the same condition I swallowed it in. Not digested at all.

Again, "pacing" in extremes. Eating tiny bits of sugary/salty food, easily digestible food every 20 - 30 minutes. My favorite is chocolate chips, in a baggie (with a teaspoon of salt loose in the baggie) even though the chips are rock hard, completely frozen, they thaw in your mouth. Don't miss even one 30-minute mini-meal. You will regret it!

You can actually feel your progress/heartrate/energy level slowly going down as that food hits your stomach and begins to be digested and metabolized. Then, in 30 minutes, you receive the tiny (but seems large) boost of energy! Just when you were going to turn back!

For meals, hot tea is first up, with lots of sugar, and some salt, and oranges and chocolate. Weird fact, even lemons taste sweet at 20,000 ft! People are always trying new things. Powerbars, etc... are too nutrient-dense to digest and metabolize, but they are great at lower altitudes.

Oranges and large chunks of chocolate need to be thawed in hot water over a sterno. It is the first thing you attend to when making camp. THEN once you get the flame going, you go and set up your tent, etc... so that after expending all that energy to set up, you can sit in an almost trance-like state and "eat" very slowly at first until you get the first sugar/tea/salt boost.

It is customary to save a partial bottle of oxygen for the summit, so that you can gulp it and get some relief from your massive headache, have clearer vision (instead of some level of tunnel vision, really!) and enjoy your 20 minutes at the top.

Then, while still feeling the effects of bottle oxygen, and a gulp of hot thermos tea, then it is time to bolt down the mountain, with the express aim of getting to the discarded and marked oxygen bottles, before sunset (or you will never find them in the dark). This allows the body to recover from the final ascent, the time at the top and the rush down to camp.

I realize that I have gone on for a while here, I hope that this information is of some interest to you.

Years ago a friend who was a cook in Arctic camps told me that while he locked up his kitchen at night he always left out lots of sweets, bread and peanut butter and jam, and any stable leftovers. He said that if one didn't leave food out the men would break into the kitchen, because they were always hungry. They worked outside in the cold all day and had to eat at least 4500 kcal per day. That's why he always served beans at breakfast, along with all the protein foods like bacon, eggs and sausage. He just filled them as full as he could because they needed so much. He himself, working inside, had to eat so much less it was amusing.

There is also the issue of a lot of spoilage and a lot of loss of crops to insects and animals if modern methods are not available.

When I go bicycle touring (riding 50-100 km a day almost every day) I just can't eat enough food. I become an eating machine. On my last long kayak trip I was eating raw brown sugar by the spoonful. Afterwards it took a few weeks for my appetite to die down.

I actually did a caloric analysis for the world, by country, using FAO data.

It was an interesting analysis and I still want to dig a little deeper. In the poorest nations they only eat about 2000 Calories a day or less. But in the richest countries they only eat about 3500 Calories a day. How come so close? Because the poor African countries eat much less meat, which of course is one step up the food chain from plants, and therefore much more intensive to produce on an oil-per-Calorie basis. The extreme meat eaters are Icelanders with 40% of their Calories coming from meat. The US surprisingly didn't have extremely high meat intake, despite its very high caloric intake, and I attribute this to the large amount of high fructose corn syrup in processed / fast food. Meat is expensive so the Calories are instead filled with sugar.

Since westerners eat way too much food than they need anyways (that's why they're all fat), I think we could go a long way with increasing the amount of physical labour we could achieve before we started to genuinely need more Calories in our diet.

Many thanks for this.
One problem with long term energy/population analysis is the lack of hard figures for traditional biomass (fortunately included in Figure 1).
BP stats don't mention it so it often gets left out of 'economic' analyses - another way that economists might be misled.
In 1980 Chinese traditional biomass consumption was probably at a level of about half of their coal consumption, so leaving it out of Figure 7 creates a false impression of Chinese per capita rushing up from almost zero.
Also current world traditional biomass consumption is of a similar total magnitude to that of 'new' renewables. This has been included in Figure 1 but not in Figure 6 (again potentially confusing passing economists).
It is difficult to find historical figures but recent IEA reports have made an effort to include credible figures for traditional biomass in a way that they wouldn't have done 20 years ago.
Given that it is usually used with appallingly bad efficiency means that the current traditional biomass quantities could go a lot further in supplying energy services with better technology.
If anyone out there has got decent country by country historical traditional biomass figures, I'd be interested.

Vaclav Smil provides an estimate of traditional biomass for the world in total, but not for individual countries. I didn't try to research the issue further.

I know efficiency for home heating and business heating was terrible in the past, but if we are again building without fossil fuels, I wonder how much better we will do on insulation. We have the benefit of modern insulation, and of techniques that allow buildings to be very "tight". We can also test for tightness. Without fossil fuels, we would lose these advances, and likely have to use more traditional insulating materials (bales of hay?) and try our best to make buildings tight.

One thing that strikes me as I look at historical population figures around the world is the extent to which population was concentrated in what I would consider warm areas. These areas of the world neither heated or cooled their homes. When I visited China last year, I discovered that people along the Yangtze River did not really need to heat their homes. The early population of China and India and the Middle East and Africa was all in warm areas. If we lose fossil fuels, it seems to me that population will again be concentrated in warm areas. We simply do not have the capacity to keep buildings for as many homes warm in very cold areas, if we are only using biomass, and need to use biomass for other purposes as well (like feeding draft animals).

"We simply do not have the capacity to keep buildings for as many homes warm in very cold areas..."

If building codes were set to German Passive Haus standards a lot of nega-joules could be gained, but codes won't be modified to this standard, costs will be prohibitive, and developed countries are far too invested in far less efficient structures. Perhaps global warming will offset some of these energy expenditures :-/ Then again those in more temperate zones will see increasing cooling degree days in summer. While our home's fuel usage this winter was the lowest since we built it, I fear this summer will be swealteringly hot. Folks will adapt to greater extremes (or not) as their energy enablers become more limited; nothing our species hasn't dealt with before. Too many people; not enough caves...

Passiv Hauses work until the windows in them break and cannot be replaced, or until a family has to move elsewhere, because there is inadequate food in the area.

I really doubt that we can build Passiv Hauses without fossil fuels.

And how exactly is this different from other types of houses?

Windows are always made of glass and have to be repaired when they break (but how often do windows break, really? that's a once-in-a-lifetime event).

Families will always be compelled to move if there is inadequate food in an area, no matter which type of house they live in. Do you think you can eat a conventional house?

There are very simple homes that people lived in years ago that didn't have glass windows. Maybe they had shutters. Or maybe they were teepees or sod huts.

Windows do break, especially if there are a lot of people trying to break into homes to get basic food items.

And in what way is the fact that people lived in sod huts 3000 years ago an argument against low-energy and passive house standards?

Glass windows were already common 2000 years ago in Rome, and double-pane glass windows were standard already in the 1800s. Until recently I lived in a house built in 1864 which still has its original double-pane windows (Kastenfenster) from that year, with the original wood frames and slightly uneven glass panes. These windows have endured countless storms and two world wars with periods of severe famine. And industrialization had barely started in 1864 in the city where I live.

By the way, traditional building styles like Fachwerkhaus are very well insulated too. Combine that with a tile stove and you can heat your living room with very little wood (there's really no need to heat any other room).

We have factories which make glass now. They will not continue to operate, if we run into major problems (particularly financial and with obtaining imported materials and spare parts), The question in my mind is whether we will be able to put together less high-tech factories that will also by able to make glass with local materials. At this point, we do not have all of the supply chains in place that we did 150 years ago.

Well, unless there is a sudden, synchronized, world-wide collapse, production patterns will adapt over time. Certainly glass would become more expensive over time, so new or renovated buildings will have smaller windows just like older, unrenovated buildings have today.

Still, none of the points you brought up have anything to do with building low-energy and passive houses today, when we have the means to do so. By doing so we're essentially just building well-insulated houses with industrial means, as we did in the previous centuries with non-industrial means. A well-built house is an investment for centuries, after all. I should know – part of my family lives in a Fachwerkhaus from the 15th century which has been owned by the family for generations.

I expect that there will be an evolution in housing; those that are livable will be maintained and passed down, as the house you mention, and others will be abandoned/salvaged due to their modern energy requirements. That nobody will be able to afford the cost of ownership, what seems like a contemporary problem, will leave many homes as parts depots.

I've been stockpiling glass patio doors that I replaced for folks with more efficient units, saving the older ones to build a greenhouse and cold frames. I have about 25 panels in my shed. I'll design and build the greenhouse to the glass rather than ordering the glass to fit the greenhouse. This type of adaptation will always be possible, IMO. Inappropriately built structure could be disassembled and rebuilt to more livable standards. Some of the McMansions around here could provide enough materials to build smaller passive solar cottages with spare materials left over for repairs, etc. One can only hope :-/

Also, one important thing to keep in mind is that in previous decades and centuries, floor space per person was considerably less than it is today. The Fachwerk house I mentioned has around 125 square meters (~100 before the attic was partially converted to living space in the 80s). It was inhabited by five persons until my wife moved out, so ~25 sqm per person. However, the same house (then with 100 sqm living space) was inhabited by up to ten persons in the decades and centuries before.

Another example: When I was a child in the 80s, it was common for families with 2-3 children to have three major rooms in their house or apartment: A living room/kitchen, a bedroom for the parents and a "children's room" where the kids play and sleep (note that there's seemingly no English equivalent to the German term "Kinderzimmer", which is a single room where all children of a family live together until they move out). Nowadays, most families think it's necessary that each child has his or her own private room, something which would have been considered a luxury in the 80s unless you were an only child or your parents were wealthy.

To conclude, I think it's likely that when badly-built houses (such as prefab ones, which seem to be particularly popular in the United States) get abandoned in the next decades, the well-built ones will simply house more people than today, just as they did in previous decades and centuries. More people also means there's more manpower and money available for maintenance and adaption.

EDIT: Out of interest, I just compared the average floor space of houses and apartments in the US and Germany (the latter is probably quite representative for Western and Central Europe). In 2006, this was 229.38 sqm for the US and 90.2 sqm for Germany (sources: US Census Bureau and Statistisches Bundesamt, respectively). Average floor space per person was 90.1 sqm in the US and 42.9 sqm for Germany. Interesting data.

In the UK it would be illegal for children of different sexes, over a certain age, to share a bedroom. How did that play out with the kinderzimmer?


Well, if that's really illegal in the UK, then it's just crazy.

Hmmmm, that was what I understood but I've done some googling and it is not so clear. There seem to be different rules and the social services may also stick their noses in. There seems to be a difference in the ages between 10 and 12 with some as low as 7. If anyone can clear this up it would be interesting but sharing does seem to be a problem with older children.


I would say it's more of a cultural issue. Standards vary from country to country. The problem that the British have with it is that they're British. If they were German they would just throw all the kids into one room and not give it another thought.

As an aside in 1917 Lenin promised 10 square meters of housing for each person in Soviet Union within the next ten years. ”Common places: mythologies of everyday life in Russia”
In 1985 the Soviet Government was still making that promise.

A sod hut is going to be tighter than one would think. It will be a very efficient place to dwell.

Earthships are about as close to a sod hut as you can get.

Someone commented on a post on Our Finite World that igloos made out of snow blocks stay quite warm (40 degrees F, I believe), just from the body heat of people staying there. That is probably true of sod homes as well. I think building very small houses, relative to the number of participants, is the secret of making this work. Also, having low standards for what is "warm enough". Cooking of food may have to take place outside.

I expect that summer kitchens and sleeping porches will see a resurgence at some point, as will passive cooling schemes. I helped a neighbor build a summer kitchen this winter for evening meals and canning, and we doubled her attic insulation. Their heating and cooling costs had almost doubled in 8 years, as their retirement income dropped, health costs increased, and forced lifestyle changes couldn't be bargained away; likely a typical scenario for many baby-boomers in the near future. Once they got through the anger/fear stage, I helped them identify ways they can mitigate their inevitable future realities, like installing window screens and fans (how innovative).

Our home is designed to 'get smaller' in winter. We close off sections and remove the awnings on the deck/porch to allow passive solar gain. Screens come off and get stored, again, to improve solar gain, fans get reversed and slowed to circulate warm air; no 'pushbutton seasonal adaptation' here. There's an intangible something in adapting to seasonal changes beyond programming a thermostat and writing a check.

"A sod hut is going to be tighter than one would think. It will be a very efficient place to dwell."

Sod houses are particularly destructive to your farmland, or even pasture land. Energy efficiency is not the only thing that matters.

You have never seen an old road grader driven by real horse power. Ditches were not dug by hand.

Fresno Scraper:

Here's a picture of an old grader I took a few years ago up at Priest Lake, Idaho. I've included a link to a bigger picture so you can look at it closely.

Bigger Size

I've got a picture hanging in my house from about 1920 with the McCall scoop hooked to 8 horses that my grandfather owned also pictured great grandfather and my three uncles and my grandfathers hired hands.My mother turns 98 St.Patricks day and as a todler she went from Kansas to Colorado and lived in a tent house for three yrs with her 5 other siblings. While my Grandfather built roads and dams with the teams and slips.They went to Colorado and back in a covered wagon with modern rubber tires.

As these elders die, we lose a lot of history of what life was like back then. It is good if we can get them to write some of these things down. There are people who will help people write their memoirs. I know a retired school teacher helped my parents put together a little book of their memories of the early days. (She interviewed them, then wrote it up, and had them help correct it.) I learned a number of things from it. My mother said their house first had electricity about 1929.

Laura Ingalls Wilder did a great job of packing practical living information in her books. It seems to me she guessed the information would be forgotten, and tried to preserve it.

The Foxfire books are a wonderful series documenting a whole range of old country crafts.

A few years ago I visited a restored pioneer village called Upper Canada Village on the shore of the St. Lawrence River. What struck me was that it was much more than just a tourist attraction - it was a living library of skills and knowledge from the pre-oil days. Such places may become valuable resources in the decades to come.

On the same trip I stayed in a hotel south of Ottawa that was a stagecoach stop just over a hundred years ago, and had been preserved in something like its original condition. I was reminded of just how fast knowledge can leave us in times of cultural transformation. In two generations it's 95% gone, in three or four all we have left is written records. At this point preserving what remains of our pre-industrial knowledge base seems crucial.

Gail,the hardest thing to put to pen is mental toughness, mothers side of the family came to the US as a Irish conscript to the English to fight the Americans in the Revolution.But I'm sure after securing safe passage to the US on the best ships of the day and after careful thought on his past and future he changed sides.

Hope you don't mind popping in here...I have read a document from 1850's under "despot". It looks into the death and danger people were under constantly but how they looked at life and dying. Crossing the Atlantic to the new land with little money and not knowing how they would make a living in America then contracting a sickness and dying or having a wife or husband die seemed to be taken differently than it is today. The body was disposed of immediately, a small service given, and God's will was done.

Not being very religious but understanding its importance we may begin to look closer at our own destiny and find some comfort in believing there is a better place.

The jump in world population starting after 1945 was due to a combination of factors but one that is overlooked is the diffusion of the Haber-Bosch (H-B) process outside of Germany. The H-B process was developed before the First World War but it wasn't commercialized outside of Germany significantly until after the end of the Second World War.

Coal's rise as a fuel was dependent on the extension of railroads in any particular region. Without railroads, you couldn't transport coal in large quantities (unless you had access to water transport). This is why it took until the late 19th Century for Coal to become significant as a fuel.

For those who are confused, the Haber-Bosch process is the process used to make ammonia for nitrogen fertilizer. This helped farm productivity to increase.

I am sure that improved farm equipment and more equipment pulled by tractors rather than horses also helped. Irrigation also helped.

This may be an oversimplification, but the crux of the problem as I see it is that energy at this stage is too cheap and too plentiful to worry about (at least in this country) and when viewed in the context of everything else of trivial concern. We certainly have the capacity to use energy much more efficiently if we put our mind to it, but right now it occupies precious little mindspace.

Forgive me for constantly relying on commercial lighting to illustrate this point, but consider the office space shown below:

This building was constructed in the early 80's and the original lay-ins were 4-lamp T12 metrics consuming 184-watts each. Fixture spacing is approximately every 3 m2 or 32 sq. ft., which puts this load at 5.75-watts per ft2. A year or so ago, they were replaced on a one for one basis with 3-lamp 32-watt T8 troffers driven by a standard electronic ballast. This cut their lighting load to 2.7 W/ft2 or a little more than half. No doubt everyone smiled, patted themselves on the back and called it a day. By the time I arrived on the scene, all I could do was re-lamp with 28-watt energy savers; even at that, light levels top 1500 lux or 140 foot candles -- three times the recommended amount for this type of space !

Had it been my call and assuming we wanted to retain existing spacing, I would have specified a 1-lamp 28-watt 1x4 driven by a low-output ballast which would have dropped us to 23-watts or 0.7 W/ft2. In combination with the existing task lighting, we would have met current IES standards and cut the original lighting load by almost 90 per cent. It wouldn't have cost any more than what they had already spent, but now they're saddled with a grossly oversized system that, whilst technically energy-efficient, uses three times more energy than what is needed to do the job.


Hi Paul, what do you use to fill in the other three feet in the ceiling panel?

You are a one person negawatt generator, very impressive.


The ceiling grid is 2 x 2, so a 1 x 4 lay-in would span two tile spaces as is the case now, but with tile inserts filling the gap along the sides. This is the fixture I had in mind:

Alternatively, to simplify matters, we could go with a 2x2 lay-in such as this:

I'm waiting on the drawings for a car dealership that is currently under construction, but once again the engineers involved in the project have specified products that are ill-suited to the task at hand and that are far from the most energy-efficient available. Here's an example which I'll quote directly from my correspondence with the client:


You mentioned that [redacted] has specified 250-watt pulse start metal halide fixtures for your new showroom. I would caution that the noise generated by these HID fixtures can be rather annoying (and increasingly so as their ballasts age), especially in an acoustically hard environment such as this.

For this type of application, your best option is a Philips 210-watt MasterColour Elite ceramic metal halide lamp driven by a high efficiency electronic ballast. These MasterColour Elite lamps provide the same sparkle and jewel-like appearance that you desire, but their control gear is completely silent. In addition, you would benefit from much longer lamp life (24,000 hours versus 10,000 hours), effectively extending your lamp replacement cycles by two to three years; considerably higher light output (20,800 mean lumens versus 16,500); museum-grade quality light (90 CRI versus 62); significant energy savings (225 system watts versus 285), and a lower total cost of ownership. The outward appearance of the fixtures would remain unchanged.

Although the elimination of ballast noise is first and foremost, the improvement in light quality alone makes this a worthwhile upgrade as evidenced below:

[Link to image:]


It's discouraging to think how little thought and effort goes into the process and to see the same mistakes repeated time and again.

One thing I should have noted above... the space is considerably brighter than it appears here; as when you point a digital camera toward the sun, the auto-balancing circuitry automatically adjusts the brightness, but in this case it appears to have overshot the mark somewhat.


I grew up making fun of engineers (due to their silly designs), now I am one. In your situation, would I be correct in assuming that most commercial design happens in the province? If so, it seems like the electrical engineering community might be small enough to make an appreciable difference in what you are seeing with some informal training via coffee klatch or other boondoggle. Vendors or supply houses or utilities might be willing to sponsor some of this. Hope springs eternal, anyway.

P.S. I liked the letter. Very ... polite.

I haven't received the plans as yet, but when I visited the client I noticed that the drawings had the automotive manufacturer's logo printed at the top of each page so I suspect they came directly from the manufacturer or an engineering firm under contract with them. I also know that the local dealer is obliged [contractually obligated?] to follow them to the T, so the best I can do is choose the most energy-efficient fixture that meets these requirements.

We still see new tilt-up construction being built with 400-watt metal halide steelers that use twice as much energy as a comparable high bay fluorescent. The steelers are perhaps $20 or $30 cheaper and, as we both know, first cost typically carries the day. Unless energy codes are tightened and engineers are forced to spec more efficient products, I don't see much hope for improvement.


Are you sure the spacing isn't (3m)squared, or 97 square feet? That would make your energy density a little better.
The worst lighting situation in my house is a chandelier with five 60 watt candle incandescents in a room of about 100 square feet. My wife hates CFL's. There are a couple of other fixtures where I have put in 20 watt GE ecosmart bulbs and she hasn't noticed, but I'm not sure how the 7 watt CFL candle bulbs would work.

I hope my maths are correct. In terms of width, the space between the opposing walls in the foreground is approximately sixteen feet, which if you divide by three is 5.33 ft. per fixture. Fixture length is 4 ft. and there's a 2 ft. gap that separates each adjoining fixture in its row. If you multiple 5.33 by 6, the result is 32; that should translate to 2.97 m2. When you consider the size of this facility, and that what you see here is only a tiny fraction of the space, the overall numbers are staggering.

What bothers me the most is that it could have been done correctly from the start, and now it's too late to do anything about it.


I have been following your light changeouts and am putting some of it into use. I am putting lights in my garage as I need to use it as a work area. Plan A, years ago, was to put 3 8' T12s in there, left, right & centre. Plan B is now 3 twin 4' T5s, sorry Magg not Philips as I didn't fancy a 30k bike ride with 3 fittings tied to my back on the return leg. While working out the details I hung one up to test and an old twin 4' T12 instant start I use for a portable work light. Checked the power use, T12s 75W, T5s 55W. The T5s noticeably brighter and I finally managed to trick my camera into proving they actually were a lot brighter. Ok, light isn't the full length that an 8' would give (decided longer T5 singles weren't an option) but I still have the main work area well lit and I don't really need to light up my shelves that much. Now, to get the conduit up and wiring in. Thanks Paul.


FWIW, Philips offers a 49-watt T5HO Energy Advantage Lamp that provides the same amount of light as a standard 54-watt T5HO but uses 10 per cent less energy (it has a rated service life of 35,000 hours at 3 hours per start as opposed to 25,000, so that's an added bonus too). For a 10 per cent reduction in light output, there's a 44-watt version as well.

We recently replaced 400-watt metal halide steelers at a facility with 6-lamp T5HO fixtures fitted with these 44-watt Energy Advantage lamps. Light levels, post retrofit, more than doubled and we shaved-off another 8.4 kW in demand by simply specifying this lower wattage lamp.




Wow, some difference! Part of my choice was availability and availability of replacement tubes/ballasts. Yep, I can get Phillips but the availability is not good and longer tubes are available but 2' and 4' can be found all over the place. I guess the best options vary a lot by location.



My personal opinion, having dealt with light level reductions for energy conservation for many years, is that the minimum light levels are generally too low.

Many of those levels were specified many years ago, and were specified based on the light required to see one's work materials. Those light levels are far below what humans evolved to live with outside, and IMO are depressing to live with.

I personally consider reducing most light levels a sacrifice, and not an efficiency.

What do you think?

There's plenty of room for debate no doubt, but the current IES standard for open offices is 35 FC and in this case we came in at literally four times that.

Back in the 60s and 70s when we were working with paper and Selectrics, 70 to 80 FC might have been appropriate, but today it's LCD monitors and laptops and our workstations are fitted with task lights, so there's really no need to carpet bomb all four corners with high levels of light.

For general room illumination, I highly recommend Lithonia's ES8P line of products which I consider to be best in class (see: In my experience, you can comfortably reduce ambient light levels provided you keep vertical surfaces well served, i.e., you want to avoid the dreaded "cave effect", and these fixtures excel at this. Add some visual interest to the room or strive for a more up-scale look as opposed to your basic prismatic troffer and you can probably push the envelope a little further.

There are some basic design guides that you may find helpful at:

BTW, I'm typing this under fading daylight with all lights off. My light meter is reading 160 lux/15 FC and I'm more than comfortable with this amount of light even with my ageing eyes (then again, I'm not a fan of overhead lighting).



I'm sorry to disagree, but I really have to. I know you work very hard at this. I'm part of a group of consulting engineers that has been discussing this question for a long time! It's not easy when you've been approaching light levels in the traditional energy conservation framework for a long time.

Light levels have a subtle impact on our psyche, but it's very important. One can feel superficially comfortable with low light levels, and yet be affected in ways one doesn't realize - it subtly reduces energy levels and productivity.

Consider how bright sunlight is: "Full, unobstructed sunlight has an intensity of approximately 10,000 fc. An overcast day will produce an intensity of around 1,000 fc. The intensity of light near a window can range from 100 to 5,000 fc, depending on the orientation of the window, time of year and latitude."

Humans really aren't meant to work during the day in 75 fc, let alone 35. I suspect they're designed to start going to sleep at such levels. Maybe that has something to do with the volumes of caffeine office workers consume.

I'm sure you're familiar with Seasonal Affect Disorder, in which people get depressed during the winter due to inadequate sunlight?

The NRC in Canada has done a fair amount of study in the area of office lighting and as I recall occupants given the ability to adjust light levels at their workstations via personal dimming controls generally prefer levels below current IES recommendations (see: I haven't looked at this literature recently, but I believe most test participants were clustered around 300 lux.

I naturally gravitate to areas with good daylighting but have a strong aversion to overhead fluorescent lighting. If a room has windows and I have any say in the matter, I can assure you the overhead lights will never be turned on. Where supplemental lighting is required, it's a combination of table and desk lamps fitted with either halogen or LED lamps.


There is a hill south of San Diego where one can see both Tijuana and San Diego. At night - at least the last time I observed - San Diego was bright and Tijuana was dim. An amazing contrast. How soon will San Diego as dim or dimmer?

I'd often fly into San Diego at night on my treks to Carlsbad, so I have a pretty good sense of what you speak.


I think there are two things going on here.

First, fluorescent is generally terrible quality light, so people prefer to minimize it.

2nd, people's intuitions about what light levels will make them feel good (in the long term) aren't accurate. The same thing is true of food: people don't have accurate bodily feedback that tells them that things like very simple carbs and alcohol will make them feel terrible just a few hours in the future.

Of course, if overhead office lighting is all fluorescent, #1 may be the whole problem!

It's possible, but the NRC studies used 800 series lamps driven by electronic ballasts, which is about as good as it gets with respect to fluorescent technology, i.e., flicker-free and high CRI. They also used a combination of direct and indirect fixtures in these experiments.

In practical terms, fluorescent lighting is pretty much it when it comes to illuminating office spaces, so should we be forcing people to work under high levels of fluorescent light in the believe that it is good for them when their general preference is to be subject to less? Secondly, in the context of global climate change, should we be driving up power densities in our commercial buildings and in process consuming even more fossil fuels, or should we be pursuing efficiency improvements and operating practices that may in fact enhance personal comfort and employee satisfaction? Bear in mind that today's LEED-certified buildings which have extraordinarily low lighting power densities typically score highest in this regard.


In practical terms, fluorescent lighting is pretty much it when it comes to illuminating office spaces

I personally switch out standard fluorescents for full spectrum, and use full spectrum task lighting where necessary/possible.

should we be forcing people to work under high levels of fluorescent light in the believe that it is good for them when their general preference is to be subject to less?

Very few people are exposed to an alternative view of it, so I think people should have a choice after they've been educated on the alternatives. Unfortunately (from my point of view), that does tend to be a hard sell - my colleagues and clients tend to agree with your POV - it's very hard to swim upstream here.

should we be driving up power densities in our commercial buildings and in process consuming even more fossil fuels

I personally think that only a serious global public policy change will make a substantive difference for accelerating the switch from fossil fuels. I therefore believe that personal changes (while valuable for personal satisfaction, savings, and setting a good example) are governed by Pareto's Principle: the 80% reduction in energy consumption that comes from true efficiency is worth doing, and if the remaining 20% involves a real sacrifice of comfort and convenience then it is not.

It seems to me that if we as a society were really serious about reducing FF consumption we'd replace coal with wind power ASAP - that's far easier and cheaper overall than draconian personal sacrifice, in which category I place conventional fluorescent lighting and low light levels.

I don't want to be flippant, but what do you mean by "full spectrum"? The reason I ask is that there's no official definition of "full spectrum" that I'm aware of, and it's a marketing term often used by unscrupulous vendors of lamps sold at outrageous prices that are technically similar to the ones supplied by the Big Three, e.g., the Philips 850 lamps that we use in our work have a CCT of 5000K and a CRI of 86. [In September, 1986, the US FDA issued a Health Fraud Notice against Duro-Test Corporation for "grossly deceptive health claims" related to its Vita-Lite full spectrum fluorescent lamps.]

Also, can you provide us with specific examples of where today's IES standards have negatively impacted occupant comfort and convenience?


Excellent questions - I'll see what I can find.

I don't have things handy at the moment, so all I can ask is - you'd agree that SAD is real, right?

That would be helpful, Nick, and much appreciated. I have no medical training nor have I done any research in this area to speak of, so I'm not well qualified to discuss such matters. Having said that, I'm sure there are individuals who suffer from SAD and who respond favourably to light therapy. So, for the purposes of our discussion, the key question for me is whether lower ambient light levels in commercial spaces are likely to result in a higher incidence of SAD among the general population. And if someone in an office is diagnosed with SAD, would it not make more sense to accommodate the medical needs of this individual than to bombard an entire office with a therapeutic level of light, whatever that might be? [Light therapy boxes generate in the order of 10,000+ Lux of do they not?] So, for example, this person's desk could be moved closer to a window, a light box installed at their workstation, or a home therapy unit provided to them through their medical coverage.

Lastly, I fear we're straying way off topic and I want to be respectful to Gail and the TOD community. In fairness to all, I'm not sure this is the right place to be engaging in this type of debate.


Well, I'll try to be brief (I'd take it to a Drumbeat, but we may be winding up).

As best I can tell, light in general and sunlight in particular is a basic human need - people who suffer without it aren't ill, they're just deprived of a basic human requirement.

For instance, due to inadequate sun exposure most people in northern climes are Vitamin D deficient, especially in winter. This causes serious illness, to the point that several major categories of illness may be reasonably classified as deficiency diseases: e.g., controlled studies find that several major forms of cancer (colon, breast, perhaps others) decline by 70% when Vitamin D3 levels are increased. Unfortunately, D deficiency is an "orphan illness": Vitamin D3 is a natural compound and can't be patented, so there's little profit incentive for major drug companies to pursue it.

SAD appears to be widespread (ever visited gloomy Finland?). It's badly underdiagnosed, in part because human beings appear to not have a built-in "light deficiency detector". Depression responds to light therapy better than to standard prescription anti-depressants. But, again, this treatment isn't patentable by mainstream drug/medical device companies, so it isn't pursued the way drugs are.

What do you think of active light management (occupancy sensors, etc,) and sunlighting efforts?

We haven't established whether there's a link between ambient light levels in the workplace and the incidence SAD, and until we can make that connection it's a bit premature to be discussing prescriptive measures.

It's a fascinating topic and I'm genuinely pleased that we could explore it together, but I fear we may be trying Gail's patience.


You could share e-mails if you post them in your profile.


Gail, this is a great article with some well drawn conclusions. I was wondering if you give any credence to the olduvai theory? Specifically, do you agree witht the conclusion that per capita energy consumption peaked at or near 1977? How closely is per capita energy consumption tied into our standard of living? Is it possible that we could be back at the 1930 living standard by 2030? It seems to me that exponential growth rate in energy has peaked out. Do you have any vision of energy growth turning sharply negative in the near future?

I'm not an actuary or risk assessor, but these seem like plausible predictions to me given an understanding of peak oil. What are some of your best hopes that humanity can mitigate this kind of energy decline short of winning another energy lottery? Perhaps efficiency could allow something resembling our standard of living to continue in the face of energy growth decline? Thanks.

One factor that contributed to the per capita peak was the slow progress that automobile engineers made adjusting to the progressive removal of Ethyl (tetra-ethyl lead) from gasoline used in the US. Then there was downsizing, gasoline lines, and general conservation including a temporary 55mph speed limit.

My graphs show that the 1977 peak in energy consumption has recently been exceeded. I don't think that Richard Duncan of oldouvai theory thought about the possibility that coal production could rise as much as it did.

It seems to me that at least some of olduvai theory is probably right, although my views tend to be more aligned with Limits to Growth or Overshoot and Collapse. The oldouvai model seems to be based on geological depletion; it seems to me that financial issues (caused by geological depletion and resulting high prices) are more important, and will feed back in many ways, especially political.

I think the level of energy consumption definitely makes a difference in our standard of living. There are other things too, though, since it would be hard to say that the US standard of living was quite a bit higher in the mid-1970s than it is now.

My guess is that 2030 will be quite different from 1930, and probably worse than 1930 in many ways. Getting to the 1930 level took a lot of work on many people's part. It may look not so good now, but it required getting systems to work together well, with more limited resources.

I have talked about the possibility that we may be reaching Limits to Growth, in the not too distant future (perhaps even later this year). It doesn't look to me as though we have a lot of time for mitigation. Our big problem is too many people, and that problem is not very fixable.

What I see is that except China's quick rise, the world is on a plateau in energy consumption. This is the point. The day they stop (and their GDP is increasing at a scaring slower rate, year after year), we will found ourselves in the way down to a new deindustrialized era. In the middle of that we will find the burst of big China bubble (and a third world war as a gift? 2018 to 2021?).

We may see WW III sooner than that; some big war will likely happen soon after the monetary system collapses. The bond market is a gigantic ponzi scheme completely predicated on future economic growth to provide value to debt (money). That is why the MSM constantly harps on growth as a goal, and why the government manipulates statistics to make it seem like the world is growing. That's the only way ponzi schemes can continue to exist -- by continually growing.

Already we are seeing WTO charges against China for restricting the supply of rare earths. And it seems China is in a big bubble itself and will soon burst. Bubble bursts can be averted by burying them beneath economic growth. With a plateau in oil extraction rates (and likely overall FF use as well), to be soon followed by a decline, then those bubbles can no longer be buried -- they will pop.

The disorder and political dysfunction on the back side of the initial collapse will make the organization needed to develop alternative energy systems more difficult and less likely to happen.

Most of the problems we now see are a result of the current reality of Peak Oil. Oil prices will probably become increasingly more volatile, bouncing between, in the case of market crashes due to monetary dysfunction, the hard floor of the minimum extraction costs of the more difficult oil we are now extracting, and on the higher side, soft ceilings as speculators jump in to gun oil prices higher on any economic "recovery" which is then squelched by increasing oil prices.... But overall, the trend of both the peaks and the troughs will be an increasing price (in inflation adjusted "dollars" or whatever new currency comes out of the final monetary system collapse).

Null - a grim scenario. My guess - we'll see increasing amounts of the polluting CTL and GTL that will add to the liquid fuel supply and enable the show to go on a little longer. Oil prices will be capped at some price - maybe $150 to $200 - by these technologies until peak coal and peak ng take hold or climate change becomes too severe. Eventually we'll make the journey to alternative energy as the fossil fuels finally become too expensive to produce.

Yeah the thing about GTL and CTL is they will take time to develop. I wonder if it will happen quickly enough. And then we will hit peaks in those much sooner. And the thing about alternatives is that you need oil or something similar to make solar panels. And are we really going to be able to pull off new nuclear reactors when everything starts falling apart? That leaves us with solar panels and solar thermal as our future.

Shell has constructed the largest Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) facility in Qatar at a cost of $18 billion. It produces 140 kboe per day of liquid fuel. I don't think GTL will help meaningfully.

This comes back to the real problem. The world consumes too much oil -- 27 billion barrels a year.

Why not? The $18B for Pearl in Qatar amortized over the bbls produced over, say, 15 years is $23/bbl added to the price of a gas equivalent bbl which is currently, what, 4X cheaper than actual crude.

Apparently there will soon be some several smaller GTL plants appearing in the US.

...Last year Royal Dutch Shell and the government of Qatar opened the giant $20 billion "Pearl" GTL facility to convert gas from the North Qatar Field in the Persian Gulf. We will soon begin to see a number of smaller-scale GTL plants open across our country and perhaps part of Mr. Pickens's dream will begin to come true.

Clyde H. Pittman Jr.
CEO, Brazos GTL Technologies, Inc.

Talk is cheap. Exxon cancelled plans to build its own GTL plant in the Persian Gulf. Apparently, it felt $18 billion was better spent elsewhere.

Which brings the question: Why did Shell feel the need to build a GTL plant in the first place? Doesn't make sense since you say there is no Peak Oil.

I believe that Shell was making particular products that it felt there was a need for, according to a post by Robert Rapier a while back.


It wasn't my intention to appear to be rude, but when you've been investing as long as I have, it's hard not to be a little bit cynical.

I don't mean to be condescending, but to state the obvious, Oil Companies are for-profit entities, not charities. Therefore, a little skepticism regarding their claims is justified.

falstaff - Along those lines just last week I heard some scuttlebutt about the S African company Sasol planning to build a $12 billion GTL in SW La. In the same area where Chevron is using the most powerful land rig in the western hemisphere to drill a deep and expensive ($100 million) NG well. Shell Oil is also drilling deep NG in the same area. The same area is well connected to the major NG pipeline system in the south. This area is about 100 miles east of the Chenier facility which just cut a deal to ship a huge volume of LNG to the UK.

The Sasol plant makes sense to me, but why would Shell be putting big money into such a deep well, now, with $2.5/MMBtu gas? Seems to me one would drill such a well *after* some GTL plants come online?

F - They may not have had much choice. This is probably a conceptual play. They may have been working on the idea for several years before they even decided to pursue it. And then several years acquiring and analyzing seismic data (for $millions). And then a couple of years (and $milliona) putting the mineral leases together as well as other potential drill sites. And mineral leases expire...usually in 5 years from when they are taken. This poject could have easily gotten the green light more than 5 or 6 years ago.

And what if it doesn't find the sweet spot on the first try? They are drilling in a trend with very few wells drilled this deep. And if they do find the mother load? McMoRan drilled what appears to be a major deep NG in SE La. After about 18 months they are finally ready to try to complete and produce the well. The reservoir is so hot and highly pressured they had to develop new technology to produce the well. And there's still the possibility the completion may fail and they have to spend another 2 or 3 years redrilling the well and trying for another completion.

And if the Shell is successfull they could spend 4 or 5 more years drilling development wells and building out the production infrastructure. And this is La. It can take 12 months just to get a wetlands drilling permit.

Bottom line with this type of play: From Day 1 (after years of developing the idea) when they get approval to acquire the prospect to Day X when the field is fully developed and flowing at max rate can be 10 years or a good but longer. And then the field may produce for 10 to 15 years. So Shell had to accurately estimate what NG prices would be from 10 to 20 years in advance to calculate the economics of this project. Wanna guess how freaking impossible it is to do that with much confidence? LOL. Again, my experience with Devon and their E Texas shale gas play. In the spring of '08 with NG prices reaching $10/mcf they had contracted 18 drill rigs. After NG prices collapsed at the end of the year they cancelled 14 of those rigs and paid a total of $40 million in penalties for doing so.

And that's why God created Big Oil: to drill wells that no investor in their right mind would.

Grim scenario #2:

AGW/Climate change will become impossible to ignore this summer; the tipping point has been reached. Severe drought in the northern hemisphere's grain growing regions combined with a global heat wave results in the deaths of millions going into 2013; third world and developing nations devolve into chaos as international food trade and subsidies fail. The tremendous heat reveals the truly fragile state of power systems world wide; cascading failures ensue. Economic ponzi schemes, until now propped up by injections of mass capital, follow. Liquidity, already lacking, ceases entirely as debts, sovereign and private, are defaulted on almost universally. Currencies collapse. Shipments of critical goods cease.

After declaring martial law, world leaders see two choices: perpetual global war for remaining resources and survivable territories, or an unprecedented level of inter-global cooperation eventually leading to the dreaded one-world government and currency. Top level talks ensue...

The first agreement is that industrial, national and world leaders who have been in denial/defiance of climate change should be held criminally liable under martial law. Those found guilty face public capital punishment. The masses are rewarded with their pounds of flesh... :-0

Hey Ghung,

Further to your point on Martial Law, I have found myself wondering upon watching Hillary pontificate upon the atrocities in Syria, (which they are), and ask myself how benevolent the US would be if their own constructs started to unravel over the course of one year? Would tptb simply throw up their hands and say, "Oh me, oh my, democracy means protest and change", or would the drones be unleashed with the green clad National Guard detachments?

A civil and regulated society takes money and energy, all of which are in dwindling supply. Add to the wavering moral compass of our leadership prospects, I think it would behoove individuals to start really getting serious about their community connections and personal plans. A hot hot summer, political uncertainty, declining opportunities and the realization that a few screwed the out! Probably the only thing that might keep the ball in the air is another Apple product for the masses; something to link the screen to 'Huxley' feelies, more illicit drugs, and dumber tv. Can you get dumber than reality tv? Hoarders? Weight lost? Idol crap? Not possible.

We'll see another Katrina-like wake up and few riots and know it is time to get serious. Of course the msm will call all the individual incidents other names, but it might be a Greer/Orlov Hybrid, or who knows which way it will descend and what to call it?

How fast can something change? You take a damaged stressed out master sargeant and realize that 16 murders/deaths just turned the course of a war into a giant nightmare of how do we get out of here and how long will it take? Just like William Calley did so many years ago, this one incident might change the course of imperialistic warfare, forever. A natural disaster and economic lurch could derail the whole damn thing within a few months.

Just a thought.


"and ask myself how benevolent the US would be if their own constructs started to unravel over the course of one year?"

No need to wonder, look at the history book. 1860 to 1865. Including Sherman's march to the sea, and Phil Sheridan's fine work in the Shenandoah valley.
The US has no grounds to complain about Syrian treatment of rebels in a civil war.

Gail: these are great charts- thanks (I will use them in my presentations if you don’t mind)

All of these charts show an impressive growth rate- and this is what we tend to focus on. The human brain is wired to notice movement so we follow the slopes up with our eyes. But what I have been noticing more and more these days is the static height of the right sides of these charts. Every day we are extracting the right side of the chart. It is hard for the mind to get itself around the enormous volume this represents. The amount of oil drilling, gas fracking and coal mining happening at this very moment is simply beyond my brain to really visualize.

As much as I can I like to bike. To get to my little park I have go on a freeway overpass. There I look down from my bike and see miles of cars all speeding at 60+ MPH carrying (usually) one person. Stopping, I watch for a minute. In that sixty seconds I become aware of how many cars are constantly streaming somewhere, anywhere. It never seems to stop- vans, trucks, sports cars etc. That is the right side of these graphs. The ridiculous level of energy we are sucking out of the earth every minute. This titanic extraction rate is moving us ever faster towards the end.

The Dr. Seuss book, “The Lorax”, describes how bigger and bigger machines cut more and more trees until they are all but eliminated. What is interesting is that the biggest machines appear towards the end- when it is closest to the time when the last tree will be cut. As I watch the cars flying under me I wonder how close we are to that final giant machine- and whether the energy decline to come will be the down side of a hill or a cliff.

I have read “the Lorax” to kids and they “get it” right away. It is amazing to me that a concept so simple that it can be made into a children’s’ book can be so completely ignored by adults. How can a child see and an adult close their eyes?

I think adults are too focused on themselves getting a bigger machine. The whole issue is too scary to think about.

Normally the predator at the top of a food pyramid has only a very small population. Humans are the top predator of our food chain, and we have a very large population. Does this sound like we are conforming to the laws of nature? People are convinced that we are so smart, we don't need to follow the laws of nature any more. Also, they don't realize that we need the "services" of the natural world.

We are also technically in a symbiotic relationship with our machines at the top of that pyramid, who i can't help noticing are starting to take our food in the form of biofuels.

Irony, as delicious as the food you can no longer afford.

How can a child see and an adult close their eyes?

Adults become anxious when they contemplate the implications of depletion. The thought of changing is overwhelming. When I talk to people about the possibilities of oil depletion/agw, etc., they say "yes, yes" and then their eyes glaze over.

How can a child see and an adult close their eyes?

I would posit that many adults living today did read The Lorax as children, and ultimately ignored its primary lesson once both the cultural and genetic codes kicked in during adolescence which told them, subconsciously or not, that the drive for status, resources, and mating opportunities takes priority over everything else. Including the stewardship of our world.

I imagine the exact same thing will happen to kids today who read The Lorax. Or read any of the classic literature that attempt to pass down universal, perennial lessons that ultimately get ignored until the reader makes the same mistakes themselves.

Unfortunately, to quote Ronald Wright, the world has grown too small to forgive us for any big mistakes.

How can a child see and an adult close their eyes?

To my mind this is simple. It's because of fear - specifically the fear of loss.

An adult has an experience of "normal", built up through their lives. At the same time they have built their "Story of Self" - the narrative of who they are in the world. Any thought that the world itself might change into something new and unrecognizable threatens both what they have and who they (believe they) are - because both are rooted in the world they have experienced in the past. The result is a fear of losing both the world and their Self - both of which they have become attached to (in both the colloquial and Buddhist senses of the word). The fear drives their denial and disinterest.

On the other hand, a child lives in an unformed world of change and potential. They have much less to lose in material terms, and they have not written much of their own personal narrative yet. They know that the future is unknown, and because they have little experience of a past they have not yet developed strong expectations for what the future "should" be like. The result is that they have less fear of change, and a natural desire to find out what might be possible so they can learn how to deal with life as it unfolds.

an economist views the period between World War II and 1970 as “normal” in terms of what to expect in the future, he/she is likely to be misled.

I think this is a very simple and pertinent point to make... has an air of wisdom about it. Sets out the whole scenario from an expectation POV which in hindsight seems rather an obvious thing to do.

What is striking to me is the upticks in per capita energy and CO2 that seem to occur post 2008. If this data is indeed correct, it suggests that we've attempted a massive reflation for the past 3-4 years, a reflation that is doomed to failure.

We will only have so many periods like this before people throw in the towel, en masse. That will be interesting to see, from a sociological perspective, whether we can take it without killing one another.

Half the stuff out there is meaningless waste. You know it, I know it. Las Vegas and NASCAR could disappear forever, and nobody would miss a beat but the people employed therein.

Can anyone tell me about the Eagleford shale deposit? I was trying to explain that the wells in Texas are in decline and it is not a good place buy a house at the peak. I figure that the decline will be in about five years there....I am looking for evidence to back this up.

This thread is really not the place to discuss this. My understanding, though, is that this is an area that drilling rigs are now moving to. So low-cost for housing, it probably is not. It is not clear how long Eagle Ford will be "hot." I need to do some research to find out the details.

sparky - Just a quick answer with no details. IMHO activity in the Eagle Ford should have no bearing on any decision to move to Texas. If I catch you on another thread I'll go into detail.

BP data only includes commercial renewables. Solar DHW and fuelwood are ignored. About 10% of world energy consumption is subsistence fuels.

Renewable electricity contributions are undercounted in joules, since they replace about 3x the direct fossil equivalent.

Sulfa drugs were widely available beginning in 1935.

... for certain values of "widely". Antibiotics are oversold anyway.

The main cause of population growth post WWII was DDT. That caused malaria to plummet and controlled crop pests - no more plagues of locusts causing famine.

After DDT, artificial fertilizers and vaccination were the next biggest factors.

Next in importance and timing after them, a slow improvement in crop breeding and irrigation together with increased mechanisation and expansion of cropland allowed population to grow. Then came the Green Revolution when high-fertilizer-response rice and wheat crops were adopted in many places around the world, and many places also switched to two crops per year.

I specifically looked that the undercount in joules issue and fixed it, where it was present, so that is not an issue in these graphs.

With respect to antibiotics, there is a long-term upward trend in availability and in drugs that really work. Sulfa is good for some things, but not others. Everyone in my family is allergic to it, so I would expect that allergies to it, in general, are a problem. (My husband and I are both allergic, even though we are not related, and our three adult children are also.)

Thanks for this post, Gail. Very useful charts.

I can't help feeling disappointed at how badly we (the people of the world) have used our legacy of fossil fuels.

Five out of seven people still lack access to enough water and electricity to run a washing machine (let alone continuous access, as for hot showers and running a refrigerator). I feel we should have been able to do better than that, with the enormous wealth that was stored up for us to use. But it seems increasingly unlikely that we'll ever get to a point where all women are free of the drudgery of washing by hand.

To take a cold view of this, the legacy of fossil fuels did allow us to rise above the previous inequalities of historical settled civilizations, which were grossly more unequal. We should have done a lot better, but it was still a vast improvement. For two temporary centuries anyway, as I think we will revert back to the historical setup soon enough once the fossil fuel jackpot is spent.

Our current civilisation is far more iniquitous than any in history. You do not see it on the streets of modern democracies because these are the preserve of the middle classes, but even the lower middle classes live far more materialistic and comfortable lifestyles than emperors in previous ages, whilst a billion people struggle to find enough food day to day. The richest of the rich - the 1% of of the top billion who have this fabulous lifestyle, control power and wealth which is beyond the stories of the Greek or Norse gods.

I fear the downslope will see the bottom billion grow to 3 billion or more, whilst the 1% retain much of their power and influence.

Thanks for this, Gail.

We are accustomed to seeing graphs of the exponential growth of the human population, but I wonder if it is possible to have exponential decline of human populations? Here in North America, for example, we have a complete population changeover about every 80 years, so if not everyone "changes-over" there will be a decline in head count.

Mr Orlov talks about a reduced life expectancy in post-USSR Russia, suggesting that many people died of natural causes at a younger age than previously, i.e., in late middle age and early old age. I gather that the population of Russia continues to decline.

Actuarially speaking, what would happen to population levels if the life expectancy in North America dropped from its current level of about 80 years to 70 years or so? Could we not have an orderly population decline rather than a crash?

I know Dmitry talks about looking at his school year book, and being surprised at how many have died. Most of these deaths seemed "normal".

There is a range of life expectancies. People who drink to excess (common in Russia), or take risks while driving, or smoke cigarettes, or experiment with drugs are likely to have shorter life expectancies. Depression can also affect life expectancies. So even without more disease, life expectancies could decrease.

My guess is that if we run into severe problems, there will be things that happen that increase disease. We will stop spraying for mosquitos and other insects. There may be problems with treating fresh water, or even the availability of fresh water, or there could be problems with sewage treatment. Medical care will be less available.

Regarding what would happen if life expectancy dropped from about 80 years to 70 years, it would take time for this change to work into the system. How much the effect would be would depend on whether the change came mostly from more deaths of infants, or if it affected all ages. Eventually, I would expect that the population would drop to 7/8 as many people, if birth rates didn't change, since people would be living 70/80 = 7/8 ths as long. (I am not really a life insurance actuary. I have dealt more with medical malpractice insurance and various other kinds of non-life insurance.)

I suppose an orderly population decrease could happen. The big question is whether some basic services could continue, that are necessary to keep population up:

1. Clean water
2. Method of recycling or disposing of waste
3. Food production and distribution
4. Adequate care and hygiene at childbirth
5. Ways of handling communicable diseases (antibiotics, etc.)
6. Adequate dentistry

"Our estimate is that the Bakken has produced about 111 million barrels so far in North Dakota and Montana."

That would be over a 60 year period of time.

That number on the North Dakota side is now 330,796,145 barrels of oil. An increase of more than 200 million barrels in just three years. A 2 percent rate with a 500 billion barrel of in place oil means 10 billion barrels of oil. The Bakken will be producing oil for the next 20 years, maybe more, maybe less. Guaranteed.

The Bakken has just begun.

It is better to light a candle than it is to curse the darkness. Every day is a grim scenario of impending doom as it all is now. Who really cares?

An early heads up for those who may be interested-

The Age of Limits: Conversations on the Collapse of The Global Industrial Model, Friday May 25th thru Monday May 28th, 2012 Memorial Day Weekend at Four Quarters, Artemus, PA.

Featured presenters: Gail Tverberg, John Michael Greer, Carolyn Baker, Dmitry Orlov, and Tom Whipple.


This conference will be interesting. The plan is to make it very inexpensive for attendees. The early registration fee is $75 (later is $85) for three days. There are facilities for campers.

Wish that I could afford plane fees and that I understood spoken English much better than I do know. But hey anyway, I have to maintain my low carbon footprint of unemployed youngster. Are casts of any sort already planned ?

My guess is that there is not any type of recording planned. First, this is a fairly low budget conference, to keep fees low for attendees. Second, there will be a lot of audience questions and other interaction, and this may be harder to record. But I am not directly involved with these kinds of things, and could be surprised.

Great article.
My concern is that at some point, quite early on the down slope, oil will cease to be a tradeable commodity, as countries with military power ensure that they get the oil that they need, leaving other countries almost completely without oil.

Janine Turner, the actress and Texas talk show host was on O'Reilly tonight. If interested listen to or tape a repeat - and be amazed.

"We have 24 billion barrels of oil just recently discovered in North Dakota which could exceed almost 500 billion barrels of oil and we are sitting on 1.44 trillion barrels of oil and 2.7 quadrillion cubic feet of natural gas that could bring in 18 trillion dollars of royalties to the US government which could pay off our debt"

Google "24 billion barrels" to see these numbers mentioned elsewhere. I believe that the 500 billion barrels may refer to an estimate of oil in place

The 24 billion bbl is Continental's recoverable oil estimate in the Bakken. If I recall correctly, 500 billion bbl is the in-place, high side estimate from Price, the first geologist to draw attention to the Bakken as a very large resource.

have you given any consideration to the wind energy used, prior too and gradually phased out between,1860 till the 1920 and even beyond in moving cargo across the oceans?
Additionally have you looked at the type of fuel and how long it took to make the fuel source? Coal and Oil need millions of years while solar and wind are almost immeidate, when available.

Very interesting history. Thank you.

I am just looking at other people's estimates. I doubt that wind energy was included in the very old numbers. You are right--that would indeed be part of the total. Presumably we can go back to sail boats at some time, if we choose to.

You are right that wind and solar are immediate. There are also fairly simple applications for solar and wind--solar hot water, sail boats, windmills made out of local materials. We can go back to using these, but it would be hard to keep up our current way of doing things--international businesses supervising workers in far off countries, for example.

it would be hard to keep up our current way of doing things--international businesses supervising workers in far off countries, for example.

No, it really wouldn't. Water shipping is highly energy efficient, and it won't be difficult to maintain even without fossil fuels. Wind, solar, batteries and synthetic fuels will work just fine.

There are two corrections I think need to be made to Gail's essay here:

The passage of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 may have contribute to rising Asian coal consumption because it encouraged countries to reduce their own CO2 emissions, but did not discourage countries from importing goods made in countries using coal as their primary fuel for electricity.

The Kyoto Protocol didn't contribute to rising Asian coal consumption. The only significant countries which I am aware actually reduced their emissions after the Kyoto Protocol were Russia and the countries of the EU (which were treated collectively). In both cases, greenhouse emissions were going to go down anyway. In Russia, emissions went down because of the closure of much Russian industry after the collapse of so-called "communism". In Europe, they went down because of the closure of coal mines, especially brown coal mines, in the new eastern members - once again the product of the collapse of so-called "communism".

Most other industrialised countries (i.e. those with emissions caps in the Kyoto Treaty) either didn't sign (e.g. the USA), or ignored their obligations (e.g. Canada). Australia met its limits because of a program to stop land clearing. The program had been adopted for other (sound) reasons, so its effect on greenhouse emissions was fortuitous. Further, Australia had negotiated a special deal at Kyoto so that it was able have rising emissions - its cap was 8% higher than the base year, rather than 5% lower.

The Kyoto Treaty, therefore, has had little impact in limiting emissions, since no countries have taken measures that would give a serious incentive to send manufacturing offshore. The rising Asian coal consumption has been caused by development in the Third World based on labour cost differentials, not fuel or power issues.

The small amounts of new renewables to date should be of concern to economists if they are counting on these for the future. For one thing, ramping up new renewables to amounts which can be expected to make a significant contribution is likely to take many years. For another, new renewables require fossil fuels for their creation, so they are very much tied to the current system.

There is nothing special about renewable energy that requires fossil fuels to create them. It is just that the materials used in the creation of renewable energy infrastructure necessarily come through the existing energy infrastructure. As the proportion of renewable energy in the overall energy system increases, so will the reliance of renewable energy infrastruture on fossil fuels decrease.

One thing that can be done is to look at the capital expenditure patterns of the current unsustainable energy infrastructure. Redirecting that into renewables is a no-brainer. You would get immediate sustainability benefits without costing society a penny more than it was going to spend anyway. It is only investment over and above the existing rate of capital expenditure that would cut into existing consumption levels.

Finally, one thing the doomers ignore is that current society is extravagantly wasteful of energy, precisely because it is so cheap. There is vast room to adopt less prodigal energy use patterns without significant detriment to the quality of life in industrialised societies. The issue is that:

(a) It will involve a cultural challenge to some parts of society; and

(b) Due to the sunk cost of existing unsustainable infrastructure, the transition will take time and some infrastructure (e.g parts of suburbia) will have to be written off before it reaches the end of its useful life.

The rising cost of oil in the last decade has had an effect and will continue to have its effect even if it doesn't rise any further. Just a maintainence of current prices will lead to continued pressure, for example, to shift the vehicle fleet to greater fuel economy, while cycling will continue to increase in popularity. Rising oil prices will increase the pressure and establish a serious geographical price gradient in urban real estate.

Capitalism is a terrible system, but you can't argue that people don't eventually respond to price signals.

Those are very good thoughts. I have a few quibbles:

The rising Asian coal consumption has been caused by development in the Third World based on labour cost differentials

It's a mistake to over estimate the impact of outsourcing - the large majority of rising Asian coal consumption is for domestic investment and consumption, not exports.

The issue is that: (a) It will involve a cultural challenge to some parts of society

The issue is more than cultural: a minority of people in fossil fuel related industries will be personally harmed: their financial and professional investments will be worth less, sometimes much less. Those people are fighting change pretty desperately. That's why Fox news is slamming the Chevy Volt.

Rising oil prices will...establish a serious geographical price gradient in urban real estate.

It really shouldn't. It's very cheap to buy a hybrid/PHEV/EREV/EV - far cheaper than moving, or buying something with a shorter commute. I agree that a short commute has very large intangible benefits - I've chosen to live in an urban area with a short commute - but that's different.

Nick has obviously done some serious thinking here, since he's picked up on a couple of points which need clarification (it was 1:00 a.m. in Australia when I posted, so I plead fatigue). Nevertheless, while they need clarification, I stand by the point I was making.

It's a mistake to over estimate the impact of outsourcing - the large majority of rising Asian coal consumption is for domestic investment and consumption, not exports.

Certainly most energy use in China in recent years has been for infrastructure investment rather than for production in the export sector, but it has been the export sector which has created the demand for that infrastructure, as well as the economic wherewithal to finance it. Even India, which has been much more inward-looking and is focused a lot less on exports, discovered the dynamic of rapid development only after a restructuring of its economy away from import replacement into engagement with the global economy. Banking and IT jobs in Bangalore provide domestic demand for the products of a consumer society, as well as the profits which get recirculated into infrastructure investment. If the Indian conglomerates don't do it themselves, their banks do.

It's very cheap to buy a hybrid/PHEV/EREV/EV - far cheaper than moving, or buying something with a shorter commute.

It's certainly cheaper than moving if you're an owner-occupier, but tenants have a far lower investment in their current location. Further, people sell & move regularly anyway. They take a lot of things into consideration and the cost of the commute is one of them. Indeed, living in outer suburbia often means owning more cars as well as driving further. Thirdly, population turnover means that, in the long term, transactional costs don't embed existing unsustainable settlement patterns indefinitely. The increased geographical price gradient is the outcome of people putting a greater importance on reducing their driving.

On the other side of the equation, hybrids & electric vehicles have a much better impact on oil consumption than energy use. At the moment, they are sensible choices, but in the long term we'll have to get a lot more energy efficient in transport than that. Fossil fuels will run out some day, even if they aren't banned for their environmental impact, so sooner or later the world will be living on its renewable energy budget.

Some people say that nuclear power will save the day, providing the source for charging electric cars. The world doesn't have an especially large amount of uranium, though, and once-through reactors are using it up pretty quickly, considering their small contribution to the energy sector at the moment. Beyond a certain ore grade, it will take more energy to mine it that we'd get from burning it. I believe that Australia's Roxby Downs (aka Olympic Dam) mine, though huge, will be close to that when its expansion is implemented. What will make that mine economical is actually the copper. Uranium is a by-product.

Breeder reactors would, in theory, greatly extend the lifetime of the world's uranium endowment - maybe, sensibly utilised, for a millenium. They pose huge technological, environmental and social problems, however, not the least of which is that every Tom, Dick and tin-pot dictator would have nuclear weapons if they wanted them. It's not a path we'd want to go down. Certainly no sane person would put their hand up for Hilary Clinton's job in those circumstances.

Finally, some nuclear power advocates say that thorium reactors are the solution. Certainly, they solve many of the problems of uranium reactors: they run sub-critically, thus making them inherently safer; they produce vastly less nuclear waste, since they can use most of it as further fuel; and, importantly, they do not facilitate the acquisition of nuclear weapons. The only other major safety issue I can see is containment of radioactive materials in the event of an accident, but I suspect that after Fukushima, there will be serious effort on that issue. The real problem with thorium reactors is that we don't even have a real one on the drawing board, let alone on the ground. Even the advocates say the earliest date we could have a thorium reactor finished is 2040, and that's without allowing for economic, technical or political impediments. Regardless of whether thorium reactors are feasible (and it's yet to be proven that it could translate from the lab to operational use), we'll have to do an awful lot of Peak Oil mitigation before then, as well as considerable mitigation for Peak Natural Gas & Peak Coal.

By far the best energy strategy is to go for 100% renewables in the long run, but that entails living on a budget. We therefore have to abandon unsustainable energy use patterns. It will be a cultural challenge for some, since it will mean giving up driving cars. Not yet, but by 2030, I'd say.

Certainly most energy use in China in recent years has been for infrastructure investment rather than for production in the export sector, but it has been the export sector which has created the demand for that infrastructure, as well as the economic wherewithal to finance it.

Boy, I'm not quite following you. Certainly international trade has helped the Chinese economy develop and become more productive, but hasn't their trade surplus become relatively small lately? Most Chinese production these days is for domestic demand, whether it's the 14M cars (very few of which are exported), residential real estate (which is looking pretty bubbly), or the high speed passenger rail.

My point: the Apples of the world could take their contracts away from the Foxconns et al, and it wouldn't reduce Chinese coal consumption much.

It's certainly cheaper than moving if you're an owner-occupier, but tenants have a far lower investment in their current location.

The cost of moving is only a small part of the equation. Urban rentals are much more expensive than inner suburban rentals, and inner suburban rentals are much more expensive than exurban rentals. The existing price differentials are much, much greater than any additional costs from commuting.

Actually, the TCOs of HEV/PHEV/EREV/EVs are already as cheap or cheaper than comparable ICEs.

Fossil fuels will run out some day, even if they aren't banned for their environmental impact, so sooner or later the world will be living on its renewable energy budget....By far the best energy strategy is to go for 100% renewables in the long run, but that entails living on a budget.

Which is more than large enough. Wind power (and even solar, whose cost is falling fast) can power EVs far more cheaply than oil can power ICEs. Wind, solar and nuclear are more than adequate scale-wise.

My point: the Apples of the world could take their contracts away from the Foxconns et al, and it wouldn't reduce Chinese coal consumption much.

Now they could. But it was the Foxconns etc which boosted economic growth to the level that allowed the infrastructure boom to get going.

The existing price differentials are much, much greater than any additional costs from commuting.

Yes, that's right. But you get much better amenity and social infrastructure. Further, it means less driving for shopping and social excursions, too, as well as commuting. My point is that as the cost of petrol increases, the benefits of living close to town increase even over what they are already.

you get much better amenity and social infrastructure.

I agree. Heck, I live in a walkable neighborhood, drive very little, and commute on electric trains. Still, I know that it's not an economic decision: I pay a hefty premium for the privilege.

as the cost of petrol increases, the benefits of living close to town increase

Well...not really. Again, the TCO of HEV/PHEV/EREV/EVs is at or below ICEs even now. Used Priuses and other hybrids are only slightly more expensive than ICEs, so their TCO is sharply better.

How does someone who is not involved with the Oil Industry know when he/she understands Peak Oil? The answer is: When you are surprised by it.

The reason this is the emotion when a Peak Oil epiphany is experienced is because our whole world is built on fossil fuels, much of it Oil. To understand Peak Oil means realizing this whole world is built on nothing more than sand.

To understand Peak Oil means realizing this whole world is built on nothing more than sand.

Actually, sandy soil makes a great foundation, because of good drainage.

I'm not just quibbling with your analogy - PO is really a threat to the oil & gas industry, not society.

I think the statement, ". . . this whole world is built on nothing more than sand" is a good way of putting it. And the idea that renewables can somehow take over for fossil fuels is simply an illusion that is a form of denial of our current predicament.


That's highly unrealistic. We have plenty of electricity, and plenty of time to transition from fossil fuel sources of electricity to renewable sources (not that we shouldn't transition away from FF much more quickly to reduce CO2 emissions...).

Our current operational problem is liquid fuels, and there are plenty of good substitutes for liquid fuels: electric vehicles (and their variants: hybrids, plug-in hybrids, extended range EVs, etc); freight reducing fuel consumption by 2/3 by moving from trucks to diesel trains, and then electric trains; heat pumps; and for the small percentage of energy that's needed for long-distance transportation, synthetic liquid fuels will work just fine.

There is this puzzling assumption that oil can't be replaced, that it is somehow magically necessary for industrial/modern civilization. Oil has been cheap and convenient for the last 100 years, but the industrial revolution started without it, and modern civilization certainly will continue without it.

• 130 years ago, kerosene was needed for illumination, and then electric lighting made it obsolete. The whole oil industry was in trouble for a little while, until someone (Benz) came up the infernal combustion engine-powered horseless carriage. EVs were still better than these noisy, dirty contraptions, which were difficult and dangerous to start. Sadly, someone came up with the first step towards electrifying the ICE vehicle, the electric starter, and that managed to temporarily kill the EV.

Now, of course, oil has become more expensive than it's worth, what with it's various kinds of pollution, and it's enormous security and supply problems.

• 40 years ago oil was 20% of US electrical generation, and now it's less than .8%.

• 40 years ago many homes in the US were heated with heating oil - the number has fallen by 75% since then.

• US vehicles reduced their fuel consumption per mile by 50% from about 1978 to about 1990.

• 50% of oil consumption is for personal transportation - this could be reduced by 60% by moving from the average US vehicle to something Prius-like. It could be reduced by 90% by going to something Volt-like. It could be reduced 100% by going to something Leaf-like. These are all cost effective, scalable, and here right now.

I personally prefer bikes and electric trains. But, hybrids, EREVs and EVs are cost effective, quickly scalable, and usable by almost everyone.

Sensible people won't move to a new home to reduce commuting fuel consumption. That would be far, far more expensive than replacing the car. It makes far more sense to buy an EV and amortize it over 20 years at a cost of about $1,500 per year (about the amount they'd save on fuel), versus moving to a much higher cost environment (either higher rent or higher mortgage).

• As Alan Drake has shown, freight transportation can kick the oil-addiction habit relatively easily.

We don't need oil (or FF), and we should kick our addiction to it ASAP.

The only reason we haven't yet is the desperate resistance from the minority of workers and investors who would lose careers and investments if we made oil and other FFs obsolete.

Some might ask, what about our current debt problems?

Debt is a symbol, a marker - what matters is the underlying productive capability of our economy, which will be just fine. Could we screw up the management of our economy, and go into a depression? Sure. But it's not likely.

Don't these transitions take 50 years?

The transition from kerosen to electricity for illumination took roughly 30 years. The US transition away from oil-fired generation took very roughly 20 years. The transition away from home-heating oil was also faster than 50 years (though uneven).

The fast transition from steam to diesel locomotive engines is illustrative. There were a few diesel locomotives in use in the U.S. during World War II but steam dominated in 1945. However, the steam locomotives had been very heavily used during World War II, and they all wore out at approximately the same time the first few years after 1945. When steam locomotives wore out, they were invariably replaced by diesel in the mid 1940s. By 1949, almost all steam locomotives were gone. There were still some steam locos made in the late 40's, and they were still in service in the 50's but dwindling. The RR's also relegated the steamers to branch line and switcher use - replacing the most used lines with diesel first as you would expect. Cn rail retired its last steam engine in 1959.

Other, very slow transitions are not a good guide to the future. For instance, the transition from coal to oil could be very slow, because there was no pressure - it was a trade up, not a replacement of a scarce resource. Many transitions occurred because something new & better came along - but the older system was still available and worked just fine. Oil may become very expensive very fast and that would provide us an incentive to switch over much more quickly.

On the other hand, we can point to many energy transitions that were sideways or down. The early transition from wood to coal in the UK was a big step down: harder to find and transport, dirtier - a pain in every way. Coal's only virtue was it's abundance. The transition from EVs to ICEs took a while - only when ICEs started to electrify did they become competitive. And, of course, we hid the external costs of oil from consumers: freeways (built by "engine" Charley Wilson after he went from President of GM to Secretary of Defense), pollution, overseas wars, etc. I'd argue that ICEs were never better than EVs - they just appeared that way.

On the other hand, EVs are better right now. They have better driving performance (better acceleration, better handling), and lower total lifecycle costs.

Unfortunately, we have more than 50 years worth of things we can burn for electricity. Fortunately, it doesn't look like we will. For instance, coal consumption in the US dropped 9% last year, about half of that due to loss of market share.

The transition from heating with wood to heating with coal took a lot more than fifty years. Electrification of the U.S. from small beginnings in the late nineteenth century to finishing rural electrification during the Great Depression took at least forty years.

Sure. These involved an enormous amount of infrastructure. On the other hand, EV/EREV/HEVs are manufactured on the same assembly lines as ICE vehicles, and roughly 75% drivers in the US have access to an electrical plug where they park.

If we mobilized all our resources as we did in World War II with the single objective of getting off fossil fuels as fast as possible, wouldn't the transition still take at least twenty years, and probably longer than that?

It would be much easier than that. A transition to EVs requires only a change within the automotive industry (for most drivers).

But are we actually seeing any replacements of oil?

Consumption in the US has fallen by more than 15% since it's recent peak in 2007 (while GDP has risen by 3%), and it continues to fall. Production has risen (both C&C and all liquids), and net imports have fallen by 25%.

Didn't past transitions occur in a environment of growth, when making new investments was a good idea, and banks would lend?

The transition from horses to rail occurred mostly during the Long Depression from 1873-1890. The move from horses to tractors and automobiles continued at a very good speed during the depression, as did general electrification. The transition away from oil for electrical generation accelerated during the 1979-1981 recession(s), and CAFE standards rose.

For 2011 electricity produced by petroleum liquids in the U.S. was just 15,840 GWH or 0.39% of U.S electricity, down from 2.5% as recently as 2005, and a more than 30% reduction from 2010. Adding in pet coke pushes total petroleum based electricity share to 0.69% U.S. nuclear, hydro, and other renewables have been increasing electricity generation share over the past decade, despite consumption growth. Other renewables are currently being added (the past few years) at rates greater than electricity consumption growth over the past decade.

China more than tripled hydro output from 2000 to 2010, representing 64% of global growth. China is also aggressively adding other renewables, including those not included in BP data. China is also in the midst of an aggressive nuclear generation program. They are well aware that their present trajectory is not sustainable using coal. At some point in this decade China coal use will begin dropping, as China per capita energy use continues to rise.

I am about equidistant between Gail's "it's impossible" and Nick's "it's easy" views. I think it's possible, technically/financially difficult without massive pain (despite some low hanging fruit), and politically extremely difficult.

Massive conservation programs are needed in the U.S. (particularly) and the rest of the developed world, as well as renewables construction worldwide. There is a lot of low hanging energy efficiency fruit in the developed world.

Over the past 2.5 years in the U.S. over 1M low income homes were weatherized at government expense (with high ROR) at a cost of less than $5B at a rate 3X the previous administration. Policy to increase the private and public pace of that work would be a significant step in the direction needed.

Current prices of natural gas will increase penetration of ethanol in to the U.S. light vehicle fuel market via E85 flex-fuel vehicles. Current CAFE standards (if not rolled back) and increasing prices of motor fuels should keep light vehicle fuel consumption dropping in the U.S. although not fast enough thru efficiency gains to avoid pain without additional policy efforts.

Natural gas prices will encourage heavy vehicle fleet conversion from diesel. CARB standards and fuel prices are increasing the aerodynamic performance of heavy trucks. It would be better to reduce trucking thru improvements of rail freight and waterborne freight infrastructure, but the status quo changes are better than nothing.

Fuel switching from coal to natural gas is proceeding apace, given current prices. Coal prices will drop, and the shift will slow, and natural gas prices will increase, but the current swing is reducing carbon and energy intensity in the short term.

Good thoughts - thanks.

I think our views are reasonably close.

Nick's "it's easy" views

I don't think that overall it's easy, just that the technical part is relatively easy. We have all the tools and technology that's necessary, and almost all of the engineering. We "just" need to overcome political obstacles from legacy industries, as you mentioned.


financially difficult without massive pain

EVs and their cousins (hybrids, plug-ins, EREVs, etc) already have overall Total Cost of Ownership equal to or lower than ICE vehicles. Making long-haul trucks and coal plants prematurely obsolete is, of course, somewhat expensive, but the US has a big output gap (IOW, we have a lot of people and resources hanging around waiting for something to do), and really, it would cost a lot less than another oil war.

Although I believe there will be a role for electric vehicles I do not think it is wise
to just convert from ICE to Electric personal vehicles which still use 2 tons to transport 200 pounds devouring 12 x the land of Rail. It is easy to talk about electric cars but the electricity to run them is still immense. Moreover the vehicle turnover is very slow.
There is a much better immensely successful model for getting out of Auto Addicted gas guzzling or electricity demanding transit. As described in the excellent book "Transport Revolutions:
Moving People and Freight without Oil" by Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl
( ) in just 4 years from 1941-45 the US saved immense amounts of oil, rubber, metals and other resources to be redirected to the War effort by doing everything possible to constrain auto use and increase Green Transit via Rail, Trolleys buses.
Auto production plunged to only 400 cars! Intercity train and bus travel quadrupled.
Local public transit also quadrupled in just 4 years!

This shows what is possible with the will to do it.
Public transit ridership increased 2% in the 3rd Quarter of 2011 and miles driven dropped by
5% already. Just imagine what could be done if the political elite acknowledged the reality of Peak Oil, ever-increasing gas prices and launched a campaign to dramatically increase Green Transit (Rail, lightrail, trolleys, buses, shuttles and best of all bicycles and walking)
As I have pointed out before to some deaf ears in this forum, 79% of Americans live in
urbanized areas so we are not so spread out as is often claimed. Brookings in May, 2011 released the results of a 2 year study combining Census data, transit and jobs which found that
70% of working age Americans in 100 US Metro areas ALREADY live only 3/4ths mile from a Transit stop! This is without major capital investment. Yet only 30% could reach a job in under 90 minutes even during peak transit hours due to infrequent service, lack of coordination between trains, buses, shuttles, no local/express service and lack of support for the last mile. Frequently you are dumped out into some interchange and forced to wend your
way through hazardous highways.

Instead of making this better since 2008 over 150 Green Transit systems including jewels like
New York City, have been cut. This is just stupid!

Contrary to canards spun by the Auto/Oil/Sprawl Lobby most Americans WANT access to Green Transit:

More than four-in-five voters (82 percent) say that “the United States would benefit from an expanded and improved transportation system,” including modes of transportation like rail and buses. An overwhelming majority of voters agree with this statement — no matter where they live. Even in rural America, 79 percent of voters agreed with the statement, despite much lower use of public transportation compared to urban Americans.

Some in Washington believe that building or expanding more roads is the best way to tackle congestion — but the majority of Americans don’t agree with them. Three-in-five voters choose improving public transportation and making it easier to walk and bike over building more roads and expanding existing roads as the best strategies for tackling congestion. (59% to 38%).

Like so many other issues - the endless Wars, the banksters bailout, offshoring jobs, Medicare for all, the people are way out in front of their putative political representatives.
And for the usual reasons - there is still immense money to be made propping up the Auto/Oil/Sprawl lobby (well Sprawl seems luckily to have been knocked out!).
When something like 1/3rd of advertising is for Auto Addiction do you expect the Corporate Media to bite the hand that feeds it? When for example here in New Jersey, four of
Gov Christie's top contributors to his "Reform Jersey Now" PAC were auto pavers and builders,
is it a surprise he cancelled the NYC tunnel and absconded with the funds for $7 Billion to
expand the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway without a gas tax increase?
On the Democrats side, one of the biggest Unions is the United Auto Workers.
But most of us will benefit when the change finally comes regardless of these vested interests.
To be nonpartisan Democrat Gov Cuomo with Obama Administration support is proposing to
"jumpstart" $5 Billion to add a new bridge with 2 new highway lanes to replace the aging
Tappan Zee bridge with NO GREEN TRANSIT!
Luckily the locals are opposing this idea and want Green Transit in some form.

Some observations-

It seems to me that one’s view of humanity has a lot to do with ones outlook on humanity successfully mitigating peak oil.

One might say that humanity eased into the industrial revolution confidently in control. Rational master of his destiny, planning for his wants and needs of the day, as well as the future. Lead by wise rational leaders, who made the hard decisions, carefully planning for mans long term survival. I guess the overall theme being man is quite intelligent and rational when he needs to solve problems.

One might posit that humanity stumbled into the industrial age. A mammalian species with a large brain, that unfortunately through the process of natural selection, left man best equipped to solve problems dealing with immediate survival. Lead by men interested in short term success, addicted to the next dopamine release, long term survival or sustainability was never a factor in planning. When man stumbled into the industrial age he killed millions of his fellow species, and triggered a mass extinction event for his planet. Even now due to ecosystem collapse, and possible catastrophic climate change, it is unclear if man will even survive as a species. As far as man negotiating a decline in net energy, which was used to grow the population into massive overshoot, the prognosis looks bleak. Optimists speak of theoretical fixes, the way things could be. Yet the leaders of men look to be the same as they have ever been. Chasing that next million dollars, that next dopamine release, impulsively living for the day our leaders discount the future.

Seeing the world lastly, I think renewable energy taking the place of fossil fuels is wishful thinking.


It is clear economic growth is finished. For the purposes of growing the economy, you're correct renewables are an illusion.

However, if the objective is simply SURVIVAL, renewables are more promising depending on the country or region. I meant what I said with regard to Wind Power in the US. The potential of Wind Power in the US is HUGE. It's just a matter of determination to make Wind Power the dominant source of electrical power in the US. Other countries and regions are not as fortunate as the US and will have a tough time harnessing renewables. Renewables are just like other resources, they vary in quality according to geography.

We know that airlines and autos are in major trouble and will face major contraction as
our fossil fuels diminish. An encouraging sign is that young people are driving less and would rather have an iPhone than a Car. But this raises a critical issue - is our current Telecommunications infrastructure to enable iPhones, the Internet etc to work sustainable?
There was one hopeful article from Bell Labs on the potential to reduce Telecomm energy consumption enormously:

Bell Labs Leads Efforts to Cut Telecommunications Energy Consumption

By: David Ng | 11th Jan 2010

A consortium, headed by Bell Labs has announced plans to create the technologies needed to make communications networks 1000 times more energy efficient than they are today. A thousand-fold reduction is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world's communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day.

The group, called "Green Touch" brings together leaders in industry, academia and government labs to invent and deliver radical new approaches to energy efficiency that will be at the heart of sustainable networks in the decades to come.

This could be another technotopian fantasy.
I doubt if they are including the future costs for rare earth mineral extraction, global supply chains etc for the IT equipment which runs the network.
However having worked at Bell Labs myself the potential does seem enormous for major
energy savings in IT and Telecomm. According to another article on TOD, Moore's Law of
doubling computer capacity seems so far unaffected by Peak Oil. More importantly, optical networks have enormous potential using compressed wavelengths of light instead of Coax signals
which have pretty much reached their upper bound. But of course laying out all that fiber optic cable is a major Infrastructure task, which like so many Infrastructure tasks neglected for endless Wars for Empire, the US is falling behind the rest of the World.
As in all other parts of the Green Transition like Rail and Green Transit, broadband fiber optic networks need to be built sooner rather than later as the costs of running all those
cable laying digging machines goes up with fuel prices.

Any thoughts TODers on this?

I see big trouble ahead as networks are already being maxed out at times. My 3.0 connection drops to near dialup speeds on nights when folks are downloading movies from Hulu, Netflix, etc. Many of these devices are optimized for high speed, and PCs (especially Windows based) are continuously adding bandwidth overhead. When I switched back to an Ubuntu/Firefox platform, the speed gains were remarkable.

At some point, maximum bandwidth demand will meet declining system capacities, at which point essential services will be compromised, especially during high volume periods when they are needed most. I was at the grocery recently, went to check out and there was a line of about a dozen folks waiting to check out. Though the store wasn't crowded, they were waiting for the food stamp/EBT system which was having trouble connecting at speed. The lady at the register said it happens evenings after most folks are at home. It started when the local cable/broadband provider began offering highspeed TV/internet connections. They weren't ready for primetime, it seems ;-/

Limits to growth ....

I think things are generally moving in the right direction on a number of fronts. I've shifted the bulk of my computer related activities to my Playbook which consumes 3-watts or less, e.g., I can e-mail, listen to Podcasts, watch TV shows and so on, all via a Wi-Fi connection. A conventional desktop PC might use fifty times as much energy and a big screen TV two to three times that again.

The big handicap with tablets is the lack of a proper keyboard. RIM recently introduced a wireless keyboard and folding case for the Playbook and I'll probably go that route (see: For now, I can enter text using my Blackberry keypad and Bridge connection -- using my thumbs as opposed to pecking on glass, just as God had intended. One thing that helps tremendously is the ability to assign blocks of text to a designated short-cut. So, for example, if I'm out in the field and don't have time to get back to someone with a proper reply, I can simply type $oo and it will substitute: "I'm currently out of the office but will get back to you when I return to my desk.", followed by a couple carriage returns and my standard closing. Presto. Done. I have a hundred or so of these commonly used phrases and e-mail templates assigned to a one or two character abbreviation proceeded by the "$"; saves me an enormous amount of time and effort and makes life without a proper keyboard a little more tolerable.


My Asus Transformer has a detatchable keyboard that also acts as a 2nd battery. Being able to type while occasionally tapping the screen is surprisingly intuitive. The poor lonely mouse pad has been touched about twice.

"Also, the rate of GDP growth was likely higher than could be expected in the future."

Actually, the rate of world GDP growth from 1945 to 2000 is much smaller than can be expected in the future: