Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Crocodiles of Reality

I've suggested in several previous posts that the peak oil debate may be approaching a turning point—one of those shifts in the collective conversation in which topics that have been shut out for years or decades finally succeed in crashing the party, and other topics that have gotten more than their quota of attention during that time get put out to pasture or sent to the glue factory.  I’d like to talk for a moment about some of the reasons I think that’s about to happen, and in the process, give a name to one of the common but generally unmentionable features of contemporary economic life.

We can begin with the fracking bubble, that misbegotten brat fathered by Wall Street’s love of Ponzi schemes on Main Street’s stark terror of facing up to the end of the age of cheap abundant energy. That bubble has at least two significant functions in today’s world. The first function, as discussed in these essays already, is to fill an otherwise vacant niche in the string of giddy speculative delusions that began with the stock market boom and bust of 1987 and is still going strong today. As with previous examples, the promoters of the fracking bubble dangled the prospect of what used to be normal returns on investment in front of the eager and clueless investors with which America seems to be so richly stocked these days.  These then leapt at the bait, and handed their money over to the tender mercies of the same Wall Street investment firms who gave us and zero-doc mortgages.

You might think, dear reader, that after a quarter century of this, there might be a shortage of chumps willing to fall for such schemes. Whatever else might be depleting, though, the supply of lambs eager to be led to that particular slaughter seems to be keeping up handily with the demand. We live in what will doubtless be remembered as the Golden Age of financial fraud, an era of stunning fiscal idiocy in which even the most blatant swindles can count on drawing a crowd of suckers begging to have their money taken from them. Millennia from now, the grifters, con men, and bunco artists of civilizations yet unborn will look back in awe at our time, and wish that they, too, might be fortunate enough to live in an era when tens of millions of investors passionately wanted to believe that the laws of economics, thermodynamics, and plain common sense must surely be suspended for their benefit.

To some extent, in other words, the fracking bubble is simply one more reminder that Ben Franklin’s adage about a fool and his money has not lost any of its relevance since the old rascal slipped it into the pages of Poor Richard’s Almanac. Still, there’s more going on here than the ruthless fleecing of the unwary that’s the lifeblood of every healthy market economy. The fracking bubble, as most of my readers will be well aware, has not only served as an excuse for ordinary speculative larceny; it’s also provided a very large number of people with an excuse to scrunch up their eyes, stuff their fingers in their ears, shout "La, la, la, I can’t hear you," and thus keep clinging to the absurd faith that limitless resources really can be extracted from a finite planet.

For the last three or four years, accordingly, the fracking bubble has been the most common item brandished by practitioners of peak oil denial as evidence that petroleum production can too keep on increasing forever, so there!  The very modest additions to global petroleum production that resulted from hydrofracturing shales in North Dakota and Texas got talked up into an imaginary tidal wave of crude oil that would supposedly sweep all before it, and not incidentally restore the United States to its long-vanished status as the world’s premier oil producer. All that made good copy for the bunco artists mentioned earlier, to be sure, but it also fed into the futile attempts at denial that have taken the place of a sane energy policy in most industrial societies.

The problem with this fond fantasy is that the numbers don’t even begin to add up. The latest figures, neatly summarized by Ron Patterson in a recent post, show just how bad the situation has become. Each year, on average, the oil industry has had had to increase its investments by 10% over the previous year to get the same amount of oil out of the ground.  Even $100-a-barrel oil prices won’t support that kind of soaring overhead cost for long, and the problem has been made worse by the belated discovery that many of the shale beds ballyhooed in recent years don’t have anything like as much oil as their promoters claimed.  As a result, oil companies around the world are cutting back on capital investment and selling off assets. That’s not the behavior of an industry poised on the brink of a new age of abundance; it’s the behavior of an industry that has just slammed face first into hard supply limits and is backing away groggily from the impact site while trying to stanch the bleeding from deep fiscal cuts.

As a result, with mathematical certainty, a great many overpriced assets are going to lose most of their paper value in the years ahead of us, a great many businesses that have made their money providing goods and services to the drilling industry are going to downsize sharply or simply go bankrupt, a great many wells that can’t make money even at exorbitant oil prices are going to be shut in or go undrilled in the first place, and a very, very great many people who convinced themselves that they were going to get rich by investing in fracking are going to end up poor. It’s not going to be pretty.  Exactly what effect this is going to have on the price of oil is an interesting question; my guess, though it’s only a guess, is that a couple of years from now the price of oil will spike, possibly to the $250-$300 a barrel range, then crash to $60 a barrel, and slowly recover to $175 or so over a period of several years.

This has a great deal of relevance to the project of this blog.  The last time petroleum production failed to keep pace with potential demand, and the price of oil spiked accordingly, peak oil came in from the fringes and got discussed publicly in the pages of newspapers of record.  That window of opportunity gaped open from 2004 to 2010, roughly speaking, and during that period a great deal got accomplished. That was when peak oil stopped being a concern of the furthest fringe and found an audience in many corners of contemporary alternative culture, when local groups—some under the Transition Town banner, others outside it—began to organize around the imminence of peak oil, and when books on resource depletion and its consequences found a market for the first time since the early 1980s.

Those are significant gains. It’s true, of course, that these achievements didn’t make peak oil go away, or find some gimmick that will keep the lifestyles of the industrial world’s more privileged inmates rolling merrily along for the foreseeable future. What sometimes gets forgotten is that neither of those things was ever possible in the first place. The hard facts of our predicament have not changed a bit:  the age of cheap abundant energy is ending; the economic systems, social structures, and lifestyle habits that were made possible by that temporary condition are accordingly going away, and nothing anyone can do will bring them back again, not now, not ever. 

It’s worth being precise here:  for the rest of the time our species endures, we will have to deal with much more sharply constrained energy supplies than we’ve had handy over the last few centuries. That doesn’t mean that our descendants will be condemned to huddle in caves until the jaws of extinction close around them; I’ve argued at quite some length in one of my books that the endpoint of the mess we’re currently in, centuries from now, will most likely be the emergence of ecotechnic societies—societies that maintain relatively high technology on the modest energy and resource inputs that can be provided by renewable sources. I’ve suggested, there and elsewhere, that there’s quite a bit that can be done here and now to lay the foundations for the ecotechnic societies of the far future. I’ve also tried to point out that there’s quite a bit that can be done here and now to make the unraveling of the age of abundance less traumatic than it will otherwise be.

To my mind, those are worthwhile goals. What makes them difficult is simply that any meaningful attempt to pursue them has to start by accepting that the age of cheap abundant energy is ending, that the lifestyles that age made possible are ending with it, and that wasting all those fossil fuels on what amounts to a drunken binge three centuries long might not have been a very smart idea in the first place. Any one of those would be a bitter pill to take; all three of them together are far more than most people nowadays are willing to swallow, and so it’s not surprising that so much effort over the last few decades have gone into pretending that the squalid excesses of contemporary culture can somehow keep rolling along in the teeth of all the evidence to the contrary.

The frantic attempts to sustain the unsustainable driven by this pretense have done much to make the present day such a halcyon time for swindles of every description. Not all of those, however, have taken aim at the wallets of what we might as well call the lumpen-investmentariat, that class of people who have money to invest and not a clue in their heads that Wall Street might not have their best interests at heart. Some of the most colorful flops of recent years have instead attracted money from a different though equally gullible source: government subsidies for new energy technologies.

Those of my readers who were part of the peak oil scene a decade ago, for example, may remember the days when ethanol made from American corn was going to save us all.  Many of the same claims more recently deployed to inflate the fracking bubble were used to justify what was described, at the time, as America’s burgeoning new ethanol industry, but the target for these exercises was somewhat different. A certain amount of investment money from the clueless did find its way into the hands of ethanol-plant promoters, to be sure, but the financial core of the new industry was a flurry of federal mandates and federal and state subsidies, which in theory existed to lead America to a bright new energy future, and in practice existed to convince the voters that politicians really were doing something about gasoline prices that had just risen to the unheard-of level of $2 a gallon.

You won’t hear much about America’s burgeoning new ethanol industry these days. A substantial fraction of the ethanol plants that were subsidized by governments and lavishly praised by politicians a decade ago are bankrupt and shuttered today, having failed to turn a profit or, in some cases, cover the costs of construction.  The critics who pointed out that the burgeoning new industry made no economic sense, and that making ethanol from corn uses more energy than you get from burning the ethanol, turned out to be dead right, and the critics who dismissed them as naysayers turned out to be dead wrong. Still, the ethanol plants had accomplished the same two functions as the fracking bubble did later: it sucked a great deal of money into the hands of its promoters, and it helped everyone else pretend for a while that the end of the age of cheap abundant energy wasn’t going to happen after all.

It’s hardly the only example of the phenomenon.  Since I don’t want green-energy proponents to feel unduly picked on, let’s turn to the other side of the energy picture and take a look at nuclear fusion. Since the 1950s, a sizeable body of nuclear physicists have kept themselves gainfully employed and their laboratories stocked and staffed by proclaiming nuclear fusion as the wave of the future. In just another twenty years, we’ve repeatedly been told, clean, safe nuclear fusion plants will be churning out endless supplies of energy, if only the government subsidies keep pouring in. After sixty years of unbroken failure, even politicians are starting to have second thoughts, but the fusion-power industry keeps at it, pursuing a project that, as respected science writer Charles Seife pointed out trenchantly in Sun In A Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking, has more in common with the quest for perpetual motion than its overeager fans like to think.

Every few years the media carries yet another enthusiastic announcement that some new breakthrough has happened in the quest for fusion power. Now of course it’s worth noting that none of these widely ballyhooed breakthroughs ever amount to a working fusion reactor capable of putting power into the grid, but let’s let that pass for now, because the point I want to make is a different one. As I pointed out in a post here last year, the question that matters about fusion is not whether fusion power is technically feasible, but whether it’s economically viable. That’s not a question anyone in the fusion research industry wants to discuss, and there are good reasons for that.

The ITER project in Europe offers a glimpse at the answer.  ITER is the most complex and also the most expensive machine ever built by human beings—the latest estimate of the total cost has recently gone up from $14 billion to $17 billion, and if past performance is anything to go by, it will have gone up a good deal more before the scheduled completion in 2020.  That stratospheric price tag results from the simple fact that six decades of hard work by physicists around the world, exploring scores of different approaches to fusion, have shown that any less expensive approach won’t produce a sustained fusion reaction. While commercial fusion reactors would doubtless cost less than ITER, it’s already clear that they won’t cost enough less to make fusion power economically viable. Even if ITER succeeds in creating its "sun in a bottle," in other words, that fact will be an expensive laboratory curiosity, not a solution to the world’s energy needs.

My more attentive readers will doubtless have noticed that the flaw in the current round of glowing prophecies of a future powered by fusion plants is the same as the flaw in the equally glowing sales pitches for corn-based ethanol fuel plants a decade ago. Turning corn into ethanol, and using the ethanol to fuel cars and trucks, is technically feasible; it just doesn’t happen to be economically viable. In the same way, whether fusion power is technically feasible or not may still be up in the air, but the question of its economic viability is not. The gap between technical capacity and economic reality provides the ecological niche in which both these projects make their home, and a great many other alleged solutions to the energy crisis of our time inhabit that same niche.

I’d like to suggest that it’s high time to put a name to the technological fauna that fill this role in our social ecology, and I even have a name to propose.  I think we should call them "subsidy dumpsters."

A subsidy dumpster, if I may venture on a definition, is an energy technology that looks like a viable option so long as nobody pays attention to the economic realities. Because it’s technically feasible, or at least hasn’t yet been proven to be unfeasible, promoters can brandish enthusiastic estimates of how much energy it will yield if only the government provides adequate funding, and point to laboratory tests of technical feasibility as evidence that so tempting a bait is within reach. The promoters of such schemes can also rely on the foam-flecked ravings of economists, who have proven to be so stunningly clueless about energy in recent years, and they can also count on one of the pervasive blind spots in modern thinking: the almost visceral inability of most people these days to think in terms of whole systems. Armed with these advantages, they descend upon politicians, and if energy costs are an irritation to the public—and these days, energy costs are always an irritation to the public—the politicians duly cough up a subsidy so they can claim to be doing something about the energy problem.

Once the subsidy dumpster gets its funding, it goes through however many twists and turns its promoters can manage before economic realities take their inevitable toll. If the dumpster in question has to compete in the marketplace, as fuel ethanol plants did, the normal result is a series of messy bankruptcies as soon as the government money runs short. If it can be shielded from the market, preferably by always being almost ready for commercial deployment but never actually quite getting there—the fusion-research industry has this one down pat, though it’s fair to say that the laws of nature seem to be giving them a great deal of help—the dumpster can keep on being filled with subsidies for as long as the prospect of an imminent breakthrough can be dangled in front of politicians and the public. Since most people these days consistently mistake technical feasibility for economic viability, there’s no shortage of easy marks for this sort of sales pitch.

There are plenty of subsidy dumpsters in the energy field just now. What makes this all the more unfortunate is that quite a few of them are based on technologies that could be used in less self-defeating ways. Solar power, to name only one example, could make a huge dent in America’s energy needs, if the available resources focused on proven technologies such as solar water heaters; once this sensible approach is replaced by attempts to claim that we can keep the grid powered by paving some substantial fraction of Nevada with solar PV cells, though, we’re in subsidy-dumpster territory, as a recent study of Spain’s much-lauded solar program has shown. Renewable energy is a viable option so long as its sharp limits of concentration and intermittency are kept in mind; ignore those, and pretend that we can keep on living today’s extravagant lifestyles on a basis that won’t support them, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for a subsidy dumpster.
Now it’s only fair to point out that the energy issue is far from the only dimension of modern life that attracts subsidy dumpsters. Name a current crisis here in America—joblessness, urban blight, decaying infrastructure, and the list goes on—and there are plenty of subsidy dumpsters to be found, some empty and rusting like yesterday’s ethanol plants, some soaking up government funds like the ITER project, and many more that are still only a twinkle in the eyes of their eager promoters. Still, I’d like to suggest that subsidy dumpsters in the energy field have a particular importance just now.

The end of the age of cheap abundant energy requires that we stop using anything like as much energy as we’ve been using in recent decades. Any approach to dealing with the crisis of our age that doesn’t start by using much less energy, in other words, simply isn’t serious. The parade of subsidy dumpsters being hawked to politicians these days is merely one more attempt to refuse to take our predicament as seriously as it deserves, and thus serves mostly as a way to make that predicament even worse than it has to be. By and large, to borrow a neatly Pharaonic turn of phrase from one of my longtime readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Robin Datta—that’s the trouble with spending all your time splashing around in the waters of denial; all that happens, in the final analysis, is that you attract the attention of the crocodiles of reality.

*  *  *

In not unrelated news, I'm pleased to report that my latest book on peak oil and the future of industrial society, Decline and Fall: The End of Empire and the Future of Democracy in 21st Century America, is now in print. Those of my readers who have preordered copies will have them soon; those who haven't...well, what's keeping you? ;-)


Pinku-Sensei said...

"Each year, on average, the oil industry has had had to increase its investments by 10% over the previous year to get the same amount of oil out of the ground. Even $100-a-barrel oil prices won’t support that kind of soaring overhead cost for long, and the problem has been made worse by the belated discovery that many of the shale beds ballyhooed in recent years don’t have anything like as much oil as their promoters claimed. As a result, oil companies around the world are cutting back on capital investment and selling off assets."

I don't think even the oil companies have cottoned on to EROI, but they certainly pay attention to economic returns, which reflect EROI. That kind of behavior shows that they are responding like they are responding to lower EROI, even if they would deny they are doing any such thing.

Speaking of EROI, as you note, corn ethanol is a net energy loser as well as a factor that has driven up food prices by sucking up every additional bushel of corn grown in the U.S. and then some for the past decade. I show the graphic displaying that to my students just to drive home the point. However, it isn't directly EROI that is causing people to give up on increasing its supply. First, the amount of gasoline being consumed in the U.S. is already decreasing because of more fuel efficient cars and less driving. That negates the rationale behind increasing production. Second, the proposed 15% ethanol standard is being fought by the car companies and the Auto Club, who both point out that it will ruin engines, voiding warranties and causing more breakdowns.

Finally, "subsidy dumpsters"--that's a great phrase. I don't know if I want it to catch on, as it could be used to attack all kinds of technologies, activities, and causes that need subsidies until they do become economically viable or that reduce externalities elsewhere, but it certainly has potential.

Michael Dowd said...


It was worth the wait! I just read this post aloud to my beloved, Connie.

Subsidy dumpsters...

Crocodiles of reality...

Wonderful (and preach able) images! Thanks!

Warmly, and getting warmer every year,

~ Michael (and Connie)

Avery said...

I think readers of this blog would benefit from checking out the New Yorker's long-form investigation of ITER. The four biggest surprises in the article for me were:

1. The multinational bookkeeping for the project is so complex it has its own currency, the ITER Unit of Account.
2. Each member country is supposed to contribute some proportional number of billions of dollars, but things are so complex that there are other billions floating around and nobody knows where they came from.
3. Despite all this complexity, there is no actual machinery on the site yet -- just some concrete foundations. (Check it out on Google Maps.)
4. The entire purpose of the thing is about the promise of the "sun in a bottle", cheap energy for everyone, but the project has been scaled back due to its immense cost overruns and, if successful, it will only produce marginally more energy than it takes in.

This is almost certainly one of the most complex things human beings have ever tried to make. But it will not, itself, function as a power plant. It will merely lay the groundwork for even more complex power plants to be built at some indefinite point in the future, as the political situation grows less stable with every year.

I have talked to more than one fusion physicist and they all seem remarkably upbeat about fusion being the future of energy. But I think the New Yorker article, written by a competent and invested outsider, shows that specialists have an acute myopia about what is technically possible. As JMG has said, it's been 30 years away for 60 years...

John Michael Greer said...

Pinku-Sensei, EROEI very rarely has a direct impact -- it's the indirect impacts that swim up behind you with very sharp teeth. Failure to break even financially is often one of those indirect impacts, as with nuclear power and algal biodiesel: the way you can tell that something is wrong with the starry-eyed claims about high EROEIs is that neither one can survive without subsidies. As for subsidy dumpsters, oh, granted -- but there needs to be a recognition that if you're going to subsidize something, either it needs to start paying for itself at some point, or there had better be some very good reason to fund it with public money forever.

Michael (and Connie), many thanks. By all means use it as raw material for a thumping Sunday sermon, if you like.

August Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
August Johnson said...

JMG - This post is definitely being shared, you keep outdoing yourself!

John Michael Greer said...

Avery, I'd considered putting in a link to the article -- yes, it's a good one! -- but it would have required an extra 500 words or so to talk about the giddy unreason with which so many of the people interviewed by Khatchadourian addressed energy issues. I may do a post just on that one of these days.

Robert Magill said...

Entry: Post Peak Contest

Sanity of Big 4 Nations Examined:

U.N. 2039

The first act of the plenum was the vote which put Japan on the agenda rather than Brazil.
( This was only the third annual U.N. conference since Australia was chosen to replace New York City as U.N. Headquarters and was proving to be the most difficult.)...

Our crew outside U.N. Headquarters here in Canberra strive to keep up with events happening inside and rely on delegates willing to talk off the record to us.
One of our wags has labeled this session ... "Madness and the Web of Days"...

...Today will witness the four leading nations, China, Japan, United States and Russia on the proverbial couch each trying to prove why they should be judged the least psychopathic of the Big 4 nations. Scores of professionals recruited for psychological expertise will be laboring to examine past and recent performance to try to ascertain which of the group is most (least) likely to upset the delicate world equation. Such a psychoanalytical undertaking would have been unthinkable prior to the introduction of female sensibilities into world governance in recent years...

...Female delegates have outnumbered males in the a ratio of three to one since the gender renaissance of the 'UproaringTwenties' and early thirties...

deedl said...

When writing about technologies that are technologically possible, but not economical it is outdated to cite PV. Few years ago it was still expensive and needed subsidies, but today there are many markets where PV can compete and win against other electricity sources without aid. Therefore it is economically viable. For direct self consumption (which is not covered by the feed-in-tariff) even in cloudy Germany today it is cheaper to build PV on your roof than to buy electricity from the grid.

Therefore i wondered about your Spain-PV-study and crunched the numbers. First of all: the study is about large scale solar plants. PV can also be mounted on rooftops, which removes expences like roads, land, fencing, security and so on.

If you remove those large-plant-only-costs from the data, EROEI rises to levels between 3 and 4.

The next thing to take into account is technological maturity. Producing PV gets cheaper and more resource and energy efficient every year. This of course currently makes production equipement obsolete, which is taken into acount by the study. But this obsolenscence means that the technological limits of PV have not reached yet.

Once matured, PV will have a larger EROEI than in this study for several reasons: with maturity progress slows down and so does the obsolescence of equipement, lowering this cost factor signifcantly. Also a more mature process will involve less material/energy. Finally, the maturer PV will have larger energy gains in producing electricity for both longevity and effiency.

Removing obsolescence and just cutting production inputs raises us to EROEIs between 6 and 7. Then taking efficiency and longevity into account gets us to EROEI around 10, which is quite comfortable for a society.

So the study bascially just shows that PV is a technology to be applied on roofs and not in PV-plants and it shows that PV is not yet matured and has potential to grow.

And for all doomsters who are still stuck in the 2000s: PV is now cheap and economically viable.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, got it.

Deedl, now go back and read the post again, and notice that I specifically said I was talking about proposals to pave whole regions in PV panels. I've said repeatedly -- here's one example -- that homescale PV is an option, especially when it's combined with a willingness to deal with the lifestyle changes that dependence on a modest and intermittent supply of electricity involves; it's the pretense that vast acreages of PV panels can keep today's unsustainable lifestyles going that I was challenging. If you want to take issue with my ideas, by all means, but please do take the time to notice what I'm saying first.

steve pearson said...

An interesting statistic on peak oil dynamic and current reducing of capex (exploration and development) spending by International oil companies by Jeffery Browne on is that from 1998-2005 these companies spent $1.5 trillion and added 6.3 billion barrels of oil. From 2005-2012 they spent $3.5 trillion and added 0.3 billion barrels.
One can see why they are cutting capex & paying dividends instead.Otherwise they are probably not far from financial crash and burn.
I may not have the exact quote right, but Arthur Berman described the shale plays as " not a banquet, but a retirement party"
Regards, Steve

nuku said...

An example of the “Golden Age Of Financial Fraud” is the following:

Basically a hedge fund publicly trying to bring the stock price down on a company it is “betting against” by attempting to force the Securities Exchange Commission to investigate. What a farce!

Grebulocities said...

I'll more or less agree with deedl on solar PV. I think it's the sort of technology that will probably survive the transition and will be viable in the long run, provided that the descent doesn't lead to that technology being lost. IIRC, one of the most interesting submissions to the Krampus challenge was about how silicon could be processed to a high enough purity to be useful in PV applications. To make PV cells, the silicon doesn't need to be as pure as is necessary for semiconductor devices, nor does it need to be doped with rare-earth metals or anything else that's going to be unavailable (or at least unaffordable) in a post-FF world. The efficiency suffers, of course, but the emenergy falls too and the EROEI is likely to be ~5 or so. Given that it's likely to be a substantial net energy producer that can be scaled down, PV is probably more likely to survive in the long run than computer chips are.

Of course that doesn't lead to a world that's fundamentally different from the ecotechnic societies that you envision. It just adds one more way to gain electricity under good conditions, not some sort of panacea to save modern society from its own contradictions. But it will still be useful to use PV and wind together to generate some electricity as long as either the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, for anywhere that doesn't have enough hydro power available locally.

The other solar technologies are quite important too, of course. For heating water, it obviously makes more sense to use the sun when available to build a solar thermal water heater, rather than convert to electricity and then back to heat again. And solar concentrators can deliver temperatures that would otherwise requite huge energy input, drive steam engines, and have a variety of other uses under good conditions.

It seems to me that a variety of renewable energy strategies will be employed by ecotechnic societies to make use of what is available, when and where it can be used. But I wouldn't discount solar PV as a part of this mix, even if the large-scale projects (which miss the point in a number of ways) aren't impressive.

Grebulocities said...

Just to clarify my last post, I'm not meaning to echo deedl entirely. I know you've mentioned in the post you mentioned in that reply, and in a number of other posts, that you think PV could be useful in cushioning our energy descent, but my point is that it might well turn out to be viable even in a future society without a fossil fuel subsidy. I think it may make sense to include it as, at least, a possibility for inclusion in the ecotechnic skill set.

Lazy Jay said...

It's not only fusion! Also old trusted fission is clearly in the subsidy dumpster category nowadays, as our dear Finnish example shows

Richard Larson said...

I will agree renewable energy is not scalable, never paying out to the dispensers of energy, plus their shareholders, like fossil fuels do. And can tell you as a matter-of-fact the reason people aren't paying attention is they are simple minded not wanting to make the effort to think it through. Their planned vacation gets all of their thoughts, the idea to secure a heat source, gets no thought whatsoever. The miraculous utility provides all!

A continuation of the chart I posted last week, natgas inventory is getting closer to zero:

But that is the way this ecology works, the stupid and simple minded will not make it through Transition.

Val said...

Captain Hooks of industry
Plead with Smee to warranty
Their surety of solvency,
But where is he?
The time from here
To the croc with the clock
Draws short.
Tick tock.

jean-vivien said...

Hello JMG,

this is a good post, but maybe you omitter another dimension to the psychology behind fusion power. The phrase "sun in a bottle" speaks to me of a hidden agenda, which is not just actual power but also mystical power over the natural world. Sun used to be a God a few years back, but even Gods can fall so low as to be shoved inside a mere bottle...

Since power fantasies are an essential element of the collective imagination, I was thinking, why not harness those power fantasies in more harmless ways ? The crocodile image gave me an idea, since people are so keen to replace gods anyway. What about you marketed a starter kit called "Play God in your Backyard - the game where You Create an Entire Ecosystem" ? Crafting a backyard pond is fairly easy, planting reeds next to it just as much, and usually it takes little work to get frogs or other batracians coming, under temperate climates. It might do some good. And no water filtration, no pump, no chlorid... I am also sure that at some point, people will want to have more things than iPhones to show their children.

Phil Harris said...

JMG & All
The thing I like about crocodiles is the smile! I avoid speculating about their emotional lives, but those beasts are one of evolutions long term success stories.

Others might also enjoy the tidbit that Russia is entering negotiations to build a nuclear power station (ordinary bargain kind) in UK. UK has not quite sorted out its energy policy.
Russian state nuclear firm in talks to build power station in the UK

And I followed New American Century (Victoria Nuland, wife of) escapades in Ukraine with interest. I reckon she got most of what she wanted. Crocs are not ones to pass up an opportunity if they wise up to it faster than the poor saps in the water.
Phil H

Tony f. whelKs said...

Neologisms are at their cutest when newborn, however I can't help wondering (as with other neonates) whether it might not become a bit deliquent as an adolescent?

I can easily imagine it fast becoming a snarl-word and no doubt it will be seen in the company of such fellow travellers as 'socialism' and 'fascism', with whom it will share spluttered sentences, separated only by the slimmest of punctuation and vast clouds of flying flecks of saliva... possibly even before this comment section concludes.

I think we should raise and educate the youngling carefully - as they say, it takes a whole village to raise a child ;-) We don't want it making inappropriate friends. It would be a shame to allow the concept's explanatory value be eclipsed by its denunciatory value. Such eclipsings seem to contribute much to the unproductiveness of many of the societal conversations we really need to have today.

Certainly I can see the concept of 'subsidy dumpsters' having a role in shutting off pointless diversions into wishful thinking and cornucopian claptrap.

Alas, we have a real tendency to pour the subsidy into the dumpster if it means we can focus on trying to solve the problem we want to solve, rather than the one that needs to be dealt with. Why address the problem of living within constrained limits when - by spending ten times as much on a futile gesture worthy of Don Quixote - we can pretend that those limits won't ever come to bear?

And now I can't erase the mental image of an elderly knight-errant sat astride a wheeled dumpster rolling downhill and picking up speed, as a short fat peasant tries to catch up on his waddling crocodile... strange...

--... ...--

Juhana said...

This post about absurdities of our current economic system, which has essentially degenerated into economic equivalent of Matryoshka dolls, with frauds enveloped inside other frauds, is one of my favorites by you. It's exactly this drifting apart of actual reality experienced in grassroots communities in the other hand and official indoctrination in the other hand that is feeding fuel into the fire of growing resentment against political establishment inside European Union.

It's very hard not to get sucked into that vortex of rising emotional response against powers behind the throne, if your roots are within blue-collar communities of Europe. Very hard. From here the passivity of average American working man, faced with so much injustice, seems quite astonishing. As affluent Brahmin class of your state, those East-coast academic intellectuals and their barking media watchdogs, rub open racism and cruel ridicule against faces of your county's white working class, it's odd there is no stronger response than voting Republicans. I have red some pieces of open hatred against Southern white working men in USA that would probably led to prosecution, if same things get written against black people. Repulsive stuff, indeed, and tells a lot about American "intellectuals".

But your society is very young, only five centuries old. Maybe this kind of sadistic ridicule does not face any coordinated resistance because of that. When your ancestors have been living around your native soil from Neolithic Stone Age onwards, it's little bit more difficult to buy stories about modernity and progress and "white guilt", served by technocrats of Brussels.

I don't know if you have been following ”Punk economics” animated series, but they gave quite clear-headed estimate about economic macro-situation inside EU and USA at the following clips:

EU situation:

USA situation:

Only thing missing is peak oil perspective, but you cannot get everything, eh..?

Truly our time shall be deemed insane after long centuries of recovery following dark ages ahead of our generation. Only time period when official truth has been as delusional as ours is right now, was late West Roman Empire. Fake grandiosity of it's last emperors, surrounded by swamps of Ravenna, has disturbing similarity to vanity of our current leadership in industrial "West".

Ronald Langereis said...

Shell: Fracking Reality, a Google translation of an article in a Dutch newspaper, today:

Thu 13 Mar 2014 , 09:08
Shell : less money for shale gas
our financial editors
Shell unscrew the winnig investments in oil and gas in North America driven back . Notably on shale gas and shale oil get less money . Compared to 2013, the investment will fall by 20 % , as did CEO Ben Van Beurden made ​​known this morning.

Since the second quarter of 2013 shows Shell signals that the extraction of shale gas in the U.S. pays far less than budgeted , and therefore there will be less investment . Today , at a presentation of the updated strategy , Van Beurden first mentioned numbers.

Shell wants attention ( both financially and in terms of management) shift to mining projects more profitable . For North America this means more attention to projects at sea , as in the Gulf of Mexico , where Shell can excel by high technology and the willingness to invest significantly prolonged .
Van Beurden this morning reiterated that Shell will have to undertake . Sharper To get more revenue per component clarity include the activities of refining and chemicals disassembled and placed in separate parts. In particular, refining is a financial problem . The world market for refinery has a large surplus which prices are under severe pressure .

The financial objectives of Van Beurden this morning emphasized. In the period 2014-2016 15 billion will be divested. A small $ 5 billion is already done now . Shell continues to invest in long-term projects in Iraq , Nigeria and Kazakhstan .
For the shareholders Van Beurden had a pleasant surprise : the dividend for the first quarter of 2014 will grow by 4% , so he expected.

Cherokee Organics said...


Ah yes, but someone somewhere is making paper wealth and the truth is that it is all the denizens whose governments (our federal governments deficit is widening as we speak) are happily printing their way out of present troubles are actually getting goods and services at less than their true cost.

Did you know that according to wikipedia, the federal government debt to GDP ratio in the US had reached 102.9%.

Look at the appendix recent additions to the public debt

There was a time once when people loudly claimed that a debt to GDP ratio of > 90% was an indicator of a failed state. Not having a go, but just saying...

Sometimes you wonder whether some of the services you lot get from your government are actually at the request of the people - who eventually will foot the bill - or are simply a case of pyramid building (A bit Yes, Minister for those in the UK)? Dunno.

On a related note, I wanted to mention the related issue of food.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was reading a book by Robert Ruark called, "The old man and the boy". Entertaining stuff about life in the late 1920's and early 1930's. Incidentally they visit a farm in Maryland for the final chapter.

The old man in the book was about 70 years old during that time. Anyway, he was reminiscing about a time when hotel food was actually all wild game which had been locally hunted.

Interesting, as this indicates to me that the local ecology was at that earlier time supporting the human population (possibly about 1880). Game was served because it was cheaper than farmed produce.

In the narrative of the book, the old man was complaining that this was no longer the case as only farmed produce was served in hotels and you had to pay for it. In the earlier time food was provided free as long as you drank the alcohol.

Now today the predominant food systems are industrial.

It is fascinating to see the decline of the natural environment from the point of view of the food served to the population at large. Each step down the ladder has less nutritional content and is relatively more expensive and comes at a greater cost to the environment.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. A couple of weeks back Shell - yes, that Shell Oil company - sold off its Australian refineries and 870 service stations.

Shell announces sale of refinery and service stations

Interesting times.



Russ said...

John - excellent scribble! We've had rooftop PV for 10 years and know that even if the backyard were filled with PV and the basement filled with batteries it would not support the "modern-consumer" lifestyle. It has paid for itself, but this last winter was a killer. Snow covered everything for a month and the 5kw on the ground is still covered. Without the grid we would have almost frozen. Lifestyle changes will be necessary for everyone. We have your latest book on order. Regards, Russ Day

jean-vivien said...

I also wonder, if a society revolving around the harvest of solar power achieves a certain degree of sophistication, like what you contemplate, then how does it affect the way people behave, think ? Because the relationship to time would be drastically different... The world of solar harvesting could be elegant but also very slow, and I suspect that fo rpeople living in that hypothetical society, time would have a different texture. Certainly more dilatated than in our own lifestyles which revolve around the idea of fast speed.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi everyone,

Oh no! PV (electricity from photovoltaic cells) has raised its head again.

A month or so ago, I might have mentioned that I have some experience with PV electricity generation on a home scale, being not connected to the electricity grid and also 100% reliant on PV as a source of electrical energy for the entire year. I also happened to mention that during the 3 weeks on either side of the winter solstice (21st June) I'm limited to only 3.5kWh/day.

In addition to that I also happened to mention that it costs me approximately AU$0.80 per kWh to not be connected to the mains electricity grid. It is uneconomic.

Maybe, I misremember the reactions of some commenters at the time, but it was generally along the lines of, "gee, that's expensive".

I can honestly say that PV is not an option to power large scale grids. It will never happen. Yes panels are cheap as they are mass produced in China, but quality controllers, inverters and especially high current copper wire are most certainly not cheap. Often the mounts and cable runs costs almost twice that of the panels.

Small scale PV is fantastic, but due to intermittency issues it will never scale to meet the expectations of today's society. Think about how you lot would go with that little energy during the very coldest and wettest part of the year. What would you do without?

Please if you want to quote numbers at me keep them simple and look at only winter months. My eyes start glazing over when I try to read long screeds quoting here, there and everywhere. Not to mention vapourware, don’t even start me about that…



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi deedl,

I see that you are missing out on one major element. Grid connect PV systems require the electricity grid itself including every single component from generators to sub stations to absorb the production from a grid connected PV system.

In its simplest form, a grid connect system uses the grid as an unlimited battery.

Gird connect inverters are much cheaper because they provide all the energy generated by the PV to the grid. They cannot balance production and demand like an off grid system has to (which is much more difficult and thus more expensive).

If the grid goes down then the grid connect systems are useless as they have to switch off.

Norfolk Island off the coast of Australia popped its small electricity grid a while back because the rooftop PV systems generated more energy than the Islanders used. Not good and an expensive fix.

I'm aware of some people who are tinkering with their inverters and systems so that they can continue in the event that the grid is disconnected, but this is a very dangerous thing to do for both them and other people if done incorrectly.



Rashakor said...

@ Pinku seisei
Many industries are artificially inflated by subsidies even when they could stand by themselves creating in the process imbalances that create the need for subsidies to technologies that do deserve them.
As examples, the oil industry itself is the recipient of subsidies under the guise of preferential leases, roads and infrastructures that they did not pay, environmental and social costs that they will not cover but are paid by the tax payer, etc... If you remove those subsidies, it makes viable many other alternatives would would not be economical otherwise...

Another biggy at the subsidy trough is Big Ag which really only exist thank to generous hand-out from the governments and direct payments, free loans for machinery, crop insurance (often for crops that were not even planted), Pharaonic water infrastructure paid by government (ie California's aqueducts), etc... Removing the subsidies here would immediatly drop energy requirements from the structure and allow agriculture and horticulture to spring back in most other states in smaller scales.
I think the "subsidy dumpsters" or "subsidy sink" expressions are great and i hope will be used as great tools to attack viciously the biggest subsidy hogs out there.

Kutamun said...


Rocks come slithering by , whispering obscene things , long forgotten , utterances of sweaty slaves as they propel the galley through alkaline seas of infirmity , created by the unnatural heat of a planet in decay .
Her and i gaze into each others eyes ; i untie her bun , remove her cute little spectacles and we became lovers for a day , until eventually , turning gray , she perishes into dust even as the memories of gentle loving by flickering firelight still linger, the pepper gum oily scent permeating our stationary bay , punctuated by untimely visits to a water closet where i am able to piss off eternity , yellow streaks of inappropriate memories becoming the fountain of new galaxy glaciers that would support the coming ray of civilisation , a new people , spinning out of the animal kingdom , Wyrd Loom .

Don Plummer said...

Your comment about government subsidies of even viable sustainable energy solutions reminds me of a comment I saw recently about the cost of installing solar panels on every American rooftop being less than the amount the government is paying for some putatively useless activity (I can't remember specifically what, but it might have been military action in central Asia or a particular item of expensive military hardware).

Whether or not the comment is actually true, I think it illustrates something else about government subsidy dumpsters that's important to keep in mind, and that is that they are chiefly designed to help the politicians' corporate sponsors. It seems to me that solar and wind energy are most viable at the local level, meaning primarily the household level. In other words, subsidizing the cost of installing solar panels, solar water heaters, and/or wind generators on America's rooftops would benefit Americans greatly, but wouldn't do much for utilities' bottom lines. Subsidizing your example, the Nevada solar collector, or the giant wind turbine "farms" that are sprouting up all around the Midwest, don't do that much to help individuals or families, but surely benefit the utility companies. It's really tragic that the help that could be provided by reasonable subsidies is thus wasted.

M said...

Yes, there has been a lot of blogosphere chatter about oil industry capital expenditures and the shift from a demand model to a supply model (really another way of saying, Hello, Peak Oil!) Due to that 10% rise per year since 1999 that you mention, some analysts are saying big oil needs prices of $120-130 per barrel to make any money.

But with the economy flat, the oil companies are forced to divest, selling off billions in assets since last autumn to make shareholders happy. As I think Chris Martinsen said, the oil companies are not in the business of supplying us oil, they are in the business of making money.

I'm showing my age when I recall being chided for not capitalizing brands such as Dumpster, which always irritated me. I'm glad to see it has now been officially sanctioned lower case by AP style.

I like the concept of subsidy dumpster. It has some parallels with William Proxmire's Golden Fleece Award.

Lots of syllables, though. How about Sub Dump, or Subsidy Suck. As in "What's that giant sucking sound?" Oh, that's just the government vacuuming up big piles of the nation's treasure and pretending to solve peak energy with it.

tubaplayer said...

Hi JMG. Like August I think that this is SUCH an important post and I too would like to share it with your permission.

Chris Farmer said...

I fully agree that ethanol is no solution to keeping our existing culture running. Although, as you point out, there are no solutions to keeping our existing culture running as is.

However, for the ecotechnic societies of the future, no one should overlook ethanol's potentials. If you're not mixing it with gasoline, there's no need to take it to 200 proof, which is a huge chunk of why it's energy intensive. Another huge chunk of energy it requires comes from the drying down of the distiller's grain - which would not have to be done on a smaller scale - since this high protein, high fat, high fiber "waste" could be fed straight to animals to supplement their mostly forage-based diet.

The energy that ethanol does require to produce is simply 200 F heat, which could be acquired from numerous waste wood sources. One certainly doesn't need coal or natural gas to supply that kind of heat. And yes, transforming the BTUs inherent in waste wood to a liquid fuel could be very useful.

The Japanese Zeros that could outmaneuver and out climb any plane the US had at the beginning of WWII were run on ethanol fuel produced from rice. Ethanol is 105 octane, is suited for efficient, high compression engines, and when run at the proper air-to-fuel ratios, burns much cooler than gas, which means that the energy investment in the engine itself would last for much longer.

Not to mention that ethanol doesn't have to made from corn.

Once again, it may not be appropriate for a culture of Suburbs and Mall-Warts. And it certainly won't be THE solution for future ecotechnic societies.

But it will likely be A solution for our future.

Thanks again JMG for all of your good work.

donalfagan said...

Good post. There was a call-in show on NPR a few nights ago about whether the fracking boom should be used to attack Putin. Sheesh.

I was trying to figure out how the crocs would figure into the name, but you didn't go there. I'd have gone for subsidy leeches myself.

Eddie Tennison said...

I think it's worth saying, or even repeating, that strategies that don't make sense on a massive scale, like solar PV power generation (and biofuels,for which ethanol is an unfortunate poster child) MIGHT make sense, as you rightfully pointed out, on a smaller, more local scale.

While EROEI is an important tool for understanding what is happening in the interplay between economics and energy production in the industrial production of oil and gas, it isn't such an important tool for me when I consider whether I might derive important energy inputs from planting black oil sunflowers on my farm. (Or maybe I should say that the numbers are just different). If (big if) I can grow it,harvest it, and extract the oil myself, and turn it to fuel on site, using my labor and little or no fossil fuel inputs, then the economic viability equation looks quite different than that of a commercial ethanol plant.(In my opinion ethanol plants were always mainly a conduit scheme designed to channel government money into private pockets.)

The reason I mention this is because I frequently see the kind of misunderstanding taking place that I just read in the prior comments between deedl and JMG. People often seem to miss that what fails to make sense on a large scale might still work with a different model on a smaller scale. Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

Nick said...

I disagree with your thought that EROEI does not have a direct effect. Energy quality or EROEI is the fundamental driver behind the complex system that is the economy (as it is for any self organized system). The problem is that EROEI analysis from first principles is never going to accurately reflect the live values because its far too complicated to fully account for. Pinku-Sensei is right that ROI reflects EROEI, but what is needed is a systematic means for evaluating it. PhD C.W. Carey in this paper provides develops means to get an accurate annual proxy on EROEI by normalizing energy costs for a specific energy source over the energy density for the whole economy.

Bottom line is it seems to work and make very good EROEI predictions. More to the point it predicts concrete price points where we will begin to fall below EROEI thresholds which will trigger economic decline.

Based on current economic energy intensities we'll crash before oil goes above $105 because that indicates the minimum EROEI in which the oil dependent sectors can be supported on.

Similarly as we have become more structurally depedendent on natural gas for electrical production we can predict an economic crash there somewhere above $6/mmBTU at current economic energy intensities.

Anyway we aren't in disagreement about the necessity of energy sources to be economic. I'm just saying i firmly believe that it is energy and energy gradients that are root driving the whole system, its just nearly impossible to calculate it all and that without the full data set the economic metrics are the next best thing.

Ljosalfr said...

Subsidy dumpster. I'll be using that fun new term at the next available opportunity. Thanks, Archdruid!

Also, I had not heard of the ITER project before. Subsidy dumpster, indeed!

Eduard Florinescu said...

Nick said...

"And for all doomsters who are still stuck in the 2000s: PV is now cheap and economically viable. "

I agree, and its even more economical if you can use it directly without adding inverters or battery storage. For example use it to drive a DC refrigerator dedicated to ice production and use the ice to carry your food cooling needs through the night or cloudy day or two.

I think the route to go is to develop paralell non grid connected solar PV DC systems, which provide the bare essentials such as refrigeration, communication power, and LED lighting. Its cheaper and has a good ROI relative to full grid connected option with expensive power electronics.

AlanfromBigEasy said...

I see much the same trends as you do, but I take a more moderate view when extrapolating from the current facts into the future.

One of my short stories is about "what could be" - a day in the life of post fossil fuel France. Life is different, but not extremely so.

There are a number of wise investments that should be made, investments that will make a difference, but discernment and judgment are rare virtues.

Steve Morgan said...

Excellent coinage this week, JMG. "Subsidy dumpsters" has a great ring to it, and the imagery of dumping money in the trash is poignant. From a systems view, though, it seems that fossil fuels receive far more subsidies in the form of externalized costs than any of the honorable mentions from your post. That they don't happen to be paid by the government seems a technicality to me.

Thanks for the link to Patterson's piece. It's a great summary of much of the news I've been following. For those who missed it, Steven Kopits gave a presentation that's on video and well worth watching, documenting the shift away from investment in field production by the oil majors due to escalating costs and flat prices, with other fascinating details. It's at:

Not exactly on topic for this week, but it's really close: I've been impressed by all the calls from the politicians and pundits to fast-track approval of LNG export terminals in the US. It's quite loud and coordinated, as if they were all desperate to prolong the shale-gas fantasy by significantly raising prices in the US, at the same time gaining a new "weapon" to use against Putin. The idea that the world's largest consumer of gas (by a lot!) would somehow become a major exporter - while at the same time converting half our electricity generation to gas - using wells with decline rates of 50% per year seems so absurd.

I suppose that's just another crocodile being fed.

Congrats on the new book in print. I'm looking forward to reading it.

thrig said...

On the NY-ITER article:

"If we delay now, we will have a real delay. The only way to avoid a schedule loss is to increase our resources to cope with it."

Sounds like a classic case of "Mythical Man Month" planning: to save a sinking ship by piling more sailors onto it. Otherwise, given the cracked concrete found at various US nuclear plants, I've not much confidence in the long-term prospects of this carcass, even if it manages to heave itself up off the ground. Much like the god-warrior in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, if less cinematic. Still, I am impressed that they are apparently bikeshedding such a large and complicated project:

"Not long ago, the director-general...ordered workmen to install at the headquarters’ entrance a granite slab proclaiming ITER’s presence."

"To save money, an entire wing had been abandoned during the construction, and employees worked out of temporary annexes—their staircases and walls hollow, like stage sets—built several hundred yards away, with shuttle buses moving among the buildings. The busing has proved to be impractical, and so the wing will be constructed after all, though now at greater expense."

On a more productive note, grinding flaxseed by hand is amazingly time consuming, even with a hand-cranked mill.

latefall said...

Thanks JMG and thanks Robin Datta!

You've used the term "vaporware" before. Of course it has slightly different connotations, but if you're looking for something that dis-spells the notions of "shiny new future" or "flying cars" I think it does the job better.
To my mind "subsidy dumpster" does not catch enough implications with regard to taxpayers, spenders, and workers. Neither does it hint at a "systems level problem". Lastly "subsidy" already has a strong negative connotation I think. It is called investment if things work on their own, public service, military spending, etc if enough of the right people deem this appropriate spending.
In view of the still strong going IT sector I would stick with "vaporware".
However one should not only criticize, and I am tempted to propose something using "high finance lingo" e.g.:

DBI - Deep(er) Box Investment (opposite to "out of the box thinking" it pushes you further into a conceptional dead end, which will be all the more difficult to get out of, especially due to "sunk cost bias")

CBF - concentrated bubble fuel/feedstock, which can be used in
SLIC - soapy liquid inflation corporation

If you want it more mythological one could call such people Ardnassac (cassandrA), or rat-catchers ( this is used occasionally in Germany).


latefall said...


With all the fusion discussion I'd like to hear more from the proponents side. Preferably a somewhat balanced analysis, not superficial/naive drivel - even though it'd be an answer in itself. I recently ran into a report (IIRC google solve for x) enthusiastic about getting the same energy out as the lasers impinged on the fuel container. Not counting efficiency of lasers (really low), cost of making the lasers, cost of harvesting the energy, harvesting efficiency, projected lower bound cost of building the facility (even though that was far better than e.g. ITER type tech), cost of making the makers of the lasers etc. It is sad that the conventional sources for such "background info" seem to be defunct.
Another point is that you might have to expressly label cold fusion vs hot fusion soon, I'm sure the last ARPA-E round also got some of the former as the "excommunication" has been lifted.
As depressing as all these failures are, there's a glimmer of hope in the tone of the last Davos, World Economic Forum. Now if someone started to give systems theory lectures in business schools I think a lot of the remaining headwind would die down in the next generation or two. Sad that it looks like "the quarterlies" have already spread to vital organs and we won't have that luxury.
As depressing as all this is - there are far more stupid and in some cases bigger projects one could get rid of as well (or before?).

Here's one:
Pin a person to a very ornate (on the inside) but somewhat flimsy garment. This allows him to fly around with godly speed - he only has to watch out that neither he nor his garment get ripped appart by the resulting herculean forces. This garment is used to fly over people that do not like you and conduct a (very short) war dance over them.
These unliked people will sit there and grin up from their little nooks and crannies while the garment is burning through (the equivalent of) their year's earnings. And if someone really wants the dude out of the sky he can use lasers, dust, bullets, rockets, etc. to good effect (there's still a soft human tied to this thing). But most of the time people can just use faints, ruses, decoys and wait an hour or so till it used up its 8 tons of magic juices, falls down eventually, or doesn't start again.

To imagine that this will be an effective way to tackle issues arising with people deprived of US$857 billion (obligatory Eisenhower quote 'Every gun that is made...') is an interesting thought experiment. I would say it ranks one notch below having TSA officers or similar superficially frisking (not) random people. You may achieve something with this, but it is not so much security.

Here's a very nice big picture overview about (US) spending. I would love to see this assessment again using a tad more holistic accounting methods.
Now why did I never get to see something like this in school, and need to refer to a drop-out comic site?

jonathan said...

i vividly recall just a few years back when the hydrogen economy was right around the corner. then a few killjoys began to estimate the cost of producing, storing, transporting and delivering hydrogen to the end user. conclusion-the cost would have required more investment capital than was available to the entire economy for several years.

Robert said...

And of course it's the sucker and not the confidence man who ends up getting fed to the crocs.

Agent Provocateur said...


r.e. your: “Each year, on average, the oil industry has had had to increase its investments by 10% over the previous year to get the same amount of oil out of the ground. … As a result, oil companies around the world are cutting back on capital investment and selling off assets.”

When I first heard of this from Steve Kopits' Columbia talk (first posted on Resilience and latter summarized on Gail Tverberg's blog), I thought “Who is going to buy these assets?”

Looking closer at his presentation, I think Steve was referring specifically to the big 5 publicly owned oil companies, Shell in particular, as the ones selling. If I recall his presentation correctly, I think he suggested the potential buyers are few. These would most likely be the big national oil companies: China, Mexico, those from UAE, etc. i.e. the ones with deeper pockets for the necessary capital investment who don't need to show a profit every quarter. Again, if I recall correctly, Shell is selling to be able to give dividends. Its never a good sign to sell your assets to show a profit.

Nothing above contradicts your essay. My point is that if we follow this possibility to its logical conclusion, we should see the end game of the oil industry dominated by a few big nationally owned companies with the former public companies bought up or nationalized (likely after or during massive bailouts). These nationally owned companies would only be able to operate with state assistance. At about that point, the oil industry itself would then become a subsidy dumpster. Just a guess.

Agent Provocateur said...


r.e. your “Exactly what effect this is going to have on the price of oil is an interesting question; my guess, though it’s only a guess, is that a couple of years from now the price of oil will spike, possibly to the $250-$300 a barrel range, then crash to $60 a barrel, and slowly recover to $175 or so over a period of several years. ”

Several years ago I tried to get a handle on how the price of oil will respond to supply limits. My conclusion was that on an annual basis, the price of oil times volume traded should not rise much above a certain percentage of global GDP. Certainly there is a limit, whatever it is, as the oil trade can only be some fraction of overall global GDP. My attempts were amateurish. I readily admit that so is what follows.

If the money spent on oil is too high a proportion of global GDP, the global economy stalls. A stalling global economy means a sharp drop in the demand for oil and so a sharp drop in its price. Oil price should then climb again as demand picks up due to low oil price. Due to supply shortages, the price should again spike. Rinse and repeat. The price of whale oil as this resource hit peak production may be instructive. If I recall correctly (from an Oil Drum article years ago), the price after the production peak became somewhat sinusoidal at decreasing frequency trending upwards until it finally became indeterminate i.e. when you couldn't buy it at any price because production was so low.

In the case of rock oil, each price spike wreaks havoc on the global financial/economic/political system. There are only so many bumps on the head it can take. Given the financial, economic, and political damage the first bump did, my guess is the system can withstand maybe three, perhaps four, bumps tops. Then what? Well I suppose it ceases to be. This is not to suggest there will be no financial/economic/political systems afterward. Nor is to suggest oil will not be traded after the third bump. What I'm suggesting is that a largely global economy will cease to exist. “Cease to be” in this context means a drastic drop in global international trade. I haven't quantified “drastic” of course. Not doing so gives me wiggle room :-). Just guesses of course; but in the absence of a more rigorous analysis, these guesses may be useful in determining an order of magnitude of the speed of collapse as follows:

Take the period between the last oil price peak (2008) and what might be assumed to be the next (say 2016) and multiply by 3 (for 3 peaks ). This gives 24 years from 2008, or 2032. That should give a very rough idea of the terminal date of the global economy. Maybe its 48 years, maybe 12 years, from 2008. Maybe, but probably not. Of course there is no such thing as “the terminal date of the global economy” as decline is a process not a fixed date. I am well aware of your contempt for apocalyptic dates. What I'm suggesting is one sharp step down at about 18 years out give or take a wide margin. That step down is just one in a very long staircase. A drastic drop in international trade is only one part of collapse. Why international trade? I'm guessing its the part of the world economy most sensitive to oil price. The thing to watch is the price of oil more than the date.

So how is any of this useful? Well one would be well advised to switch to more locally produced low tech essential items well before this date. 18 years (or 6 … but not 42) is not so far from the present. So now would be a good time to start. And have I done this myself? Well yes. But again, its a process with no real fixed end date save my own personal terminal date whenever that may be.

daelach said...

In German, we have the established word "Subventionsgrab", literally translated "subsidy tomb".

It refers to activities the government pours an endless flow (or at least a huge amount) of money in without ever getting back something that would have been worth the deal.

Note that this doesn't refer to all activities that are economically unprofitable in the long run, the payback does not necessarily have to be in terms of money.

You just don't e.g. want a military that "earns" its living itself (think of how it would achieve that and you know why), but its payoff is in terms of national sovereignity. Just ask any of the unhappy former Eastern Bloc states who first fell prey to Hitler and then to Stalin because they didn't have the military to fend them off.

On the other hand, it does refer to the government funding military systems that cost much more than expected and offer much less use than promised. European examples are the EuroCopter, the A400M, the EuroFighter.

This isn't limited to military things, e.g. the new Berlin airport has already earned the label "Subventionsgrab" due to exploding costs and delay. The airport Dortmund has a massive deficit, paid by the public services; divide the 20.6 mio EUR loss in 2008 by the 2.3 mio flight passengers and you get that the public services paid 9 EUR per passenger who traveled via this airport.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Just watched a series I got from the library. The UP series. Back in 1963 or so, the BBC rounded up 14 British kids of varying social and economic backgrounds. They checked back with them every 7 years to see how their lives had progressed. Up to the present.

One of the most interesting participants was a Yorkshire farm boy who went to a one room schoolhouse. He ended up becoming a nuclear physicist with a specialty in .... fusion. A full professor at the U of Wisconsin.

It was kind of sad over the course of the series to see him become disillusioned (or, maybe his subsidies dried up). His field of specialization now is semiconductors.

Thanks to this blog, as soon as the fellow as a young man started to enthuse about fusion, I sat right up and if I were given to yelling at the screen would have been saying something like "Oh, NO, don't go down that road!"

St. Roy said...

Great post. I like your phrases "subsidy dumpster" and "crocodiles of reality" pertaining the "net energy rewind" or "the great kilocalorie contraction", my own recent quips for the TEOTWAWKI. I just ordered your new book. Looking forward to the read.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Crocodiles indeed! There was a prime-time (ish) BBC programme on TV here the other night (Bang Goes the Theory) dealing with the UK's energy, ahem, problem.

I have to say that I almost fell off my chair when they revealed that within a few short years we are likely to be sitting in the dark and playing Scrabble by candle light. Not because this is news to me, but because it managed to make it onto a mainstream TV programme.

So there I was, awaiting the point where the 'c' word would be mentioned (conservation) but, of course, I should not have been so optimistic. The makers of this respected science programme saw fit to reassure us all that the day would be saved by two things:

a) A Europe-wide grid of wind parks ("It's always windy somewhere")


b) Smart control systems.

In case you are wondering what a 'smart control system' is it's someone sitting in a control room somewhere clicking off your supply with a mouse. This, apparently, is the future.

The example they showed was a very large five star hotel in London having its air con turned off for an hour - the guests never even noticed! (Not surprising, who needs air con in Britain?). The presented gushed over how green and clever all of this was.

Presumably, the air con was turned up to 11 shortly afterwards to make up for the down time - with the net effect on energy consumption being zero.

As you said: "... one of the pervasive blind spots in modern thinking: the almost visceral inability of most people these days to think in terms of whole systems."

Well said.

Fidelius said...

Interesting as always; nothing new for those of us who have been following the peak energy debate for years, of course, but I get the impression that lately you have been trying to expand the focus of your weekly posts to a more general audience. :)

May I tell an anecdote? I work at an automobile association (yes, I know it's crazy); soon after I started working there - this was some years before the financial crisis - an informal "meet the CEO" session was organized for us new employees. I asked him what he thought about the future of the automobile, given that petroleum was a finite resource. He agreed that petroleum was certainly finite and started to talk about several technologies en vogue at the time (electric cars, hydrogen, ethanol, you name it). However, these technologies had to become as cheap and comfortable as petroleum in order to be adopted widely, and he stated that for various reasons (difficulty to store and process hydrogen, problems with battery capacity/wear etc.) this would never happen. I agreed and asked him if he thought automobiles would therefore slowly disappear during the next decades as petroleum reserves dwindled with no equal replacement in sight. He became very uneasy, mumbled something about possible new petroleum discoveries and quickly changed the subject.

I learned something important from that conversation: When people are in denial about something, be it climate change, substance abuse or peak oil, sincere disbelief is rarely the true reason. The true reason is that there's no solution that preserves the status quo. Deniers know this, but they can't admit it. Consequently denial is the only way to save face, at least for a time.

John Michael Greer said...

August, thank you!

Steve, that's a very good summary.

Nuku, par for the course.

Grebulocities, and I'm not arguing with any of that -- though I'd point out that, ahem, economic viability is more important than technical feasibility. If the ability to make PV cells is lost, and the economics are favorable, it will no doubt be recovered down the road.

Jay, no argument there at all. No nation anywhere on Earth has been able to build and run fission reactors without huge government subsidies.

Richard, I've been comparing those dwindling inventories with the bluster out of DC and the media about using American natural gas exports as a weapon against Russia, and finding it all most amusing.

Val, thank you. That earns you a gold star, no question.

Jean-Vivien, oh, doubtless. I've found, though, that people are remarkably good at insisting that the mythological fantasies that dominate their thinking aren't mythological fantasies at all, so it's occasionally useful to poke holes in them from another angle.

Phil, agreed. They seem so beatific as they contemplate their prey.

Tony, that's a great image. I wish Picasso were still around to paint it.

Juhana, it's partly that American society is fairly young, partly because it's splintering into the regional and cultural fragments from which, in due time, new nations will be born. I can promise you that the coastal middle class liberals whose comments you've mentioned are being described right now in words of incandescent rage in quite a few places in the US.

John Michael Greer said...

BTW, I'll have very sporadic internet access for a while -- I've arranged for comments to be put through, and will respond to them when I can. In the meantime, keep 'em coming.

Carl said...

While traveling this past week see that airports (CLE) are building larger control towers but don't need to expend runways. Spent the day at the Cleveland auto show and the torrid love affair with cars seems no end. The monolithic I-X Center easily held the hundreds of vehicles and 10's of thousands of people kicking tires. A 3.5L V6 engine with 365HP is described as EcoBoost - Jevons paradox on steroids. Spokesmodels polished, shine and keep the vehicles looking sparkly in the glare of the lights. I do believe I heard just beyond the parking lot at the event the distinct sound of the swish of the tail of a crock in the swamp.

onething said...

I guess subsidy dumpsters would fall under the category of bargaining.

As to using less energy, I hear you, and have begun taking steps to slowly but surely reduce my own use and dependence. However, I tend to think more abstractly than most people do, and so for many, they will not be motivated unless they see that everyone else is doing likewise.

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

onething said...

JMG, would you elaborate on how you see a high cost of oil dropping to $65, and going up again only slowly?

Kutamun said...

We always talk about todays oil price " compared to the good old $25 dollar a barrel that the exonomy was built on. I wonder how it looks adjusted for inflation , ive never heard that mentioned....

Deedl and mates , i reckon at the moment solar pv is looking like a sultry woman or man , depending from where you stand, holding out a cravat of the purest water to Saint Exupery as he stumbles through the desert .. I mean , while many of us are all still gainfully employed , embedded within our cosy oily chrysalis , pv is very attainable, a small hill to climb , if you like .
Once external shocks and events begin to take hold , however, a critical mass will be unable to afford pv, as our wages decrease and the price of pv increases , the mountain becomes bigger . At this point the pv company begins to falter financially, and perhaps bankrupt governmnets may be avle to prop up the industry for a while , but you know, at this point the Titanic is taking serious water . In twenty five years your panels are worn out and you are now a hobbitt in the shire whose main currency is chickens and cords of wood for barter ( thanks Jim Kunstler - funny b......rd ) is the pv thing looking then ?

Cheers mates. ....

Nathaniel Ott said...

JMG ive been reading your blog for a while nw and am very impressed. It is both insiteful and intellectually stimulating thank you. @ Juahna, I just had to comment to your post. While your right about the hypocracy of the so called "liberal" american middle class, and their hatred toward poor rural whites. I would like to point out that there is plenty of that same hypocracy on the other side of the debate as well. A quick google search will show you any number of "conservative" rants againsts poor urban blacks and other minorities and how theyre responsible for all this countries problems too. The truth is both poor rural american whites and poor urban american minorities have MUCH more in common poliyically, economically, spiritually and in general than our politicians and the media would have us believe. The fact is Republicans can secure the rural whie vote by waving the "scary uban minorities" in their faces. And Democrates can secure the urban black and minority vote by playing the "scary rural whites card". I believe JMG said something to that effective before. Being biracial and the product of a poor rural white american mother and a poor black american father, i may have a uniqe perspective. Theyre families were suprised to say the least at just how much they actually had in common, alot. Of course they met in the military, wich despite what the media may tell you, probably has less race and class issues than main stream america does. Again im not trying to deny what you said or insault you in any way, just wanted to point out that situation is a bit more complicated.than all that. Hope to post again onmore relevent topics later JMG and thanks again. Nate

Dagnarus said...

This reminds me of a conversation I had with friends a while back involving the Desertec plan to set up 300GW of solar power production in the Sahara for European consumption. My friends seemed to be of the opinion that the only reason why this deal hadn't gone through was the extreme shortsightedness of the politicians. When I mentioned various possible problems with the plan I was informed that all such problems were non issues. At the end they were pumping in fresh water from desalination plants to wash PV cells which had a special dust repelling coating, while stealth bombers patrolled along the HVDC cable to make certain terrorists don't blow it up.

It occurs to me that the inability to think in whole systems which you discuss is related to the rise of rationalism. One of the weaknesses of applying logical reasoning to any given problem, is that it becomes exponential harder the more variables which are involved. This is generally overcome by finding smaller pieces of the problem which are either independent, or largely independent from one another, and then reasoning about those. This is obviously impossible to do in a system where everything in that system has interdependencies with everything else. Thus I wonder whether the inability to think in terms of whole systems is a case of "if all you've got is the hammer of reason every problem must be broken up into it's reductionist parts and reasoned about individually".

Mark Angelini said...

Wasn't sure if this came across your radar, but it is pertinent to this weeks topic. The man in this video seems like an all-too-likely inhabitant of the ecotechnic future.

Renaissance Man said...

I like the term, but the old term 'money pit' seems to me to fit the bill pretty well, no? Or is that too general a term for this specific application?

We remember everyone, once upon a time, talking enthusiastically about the "Three R's", the first of which was quickly swept under a rug and has been almost totally forgotten, and the second R still vaguely alluded to, but only as donations for charity and thus linked to the idea of poverty. We now focus entirely and eagerly on the third 'R' as if this were the magic bullet to solve the predicament of limited raw materials, and thus completely subverted into yet delusion of further means of maintaining our extravagant lifestyle.
Part of the reason is quite simply: the first idea -- use less -- directly challenges the consumer culture which is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of our industrial economy, on which most people depend physically for their livelihood and psychologically for their belief in how their world should be and their place in it.
This is, of course, not the whole story, but I perceive that this is the key idea you are exploring in this essay: all the twists and struggles of a society psychologically trying to maintain a way of life that is destroying its own means of survival, even as a drunk trying to justify continued drinking in the face of all evidence of its destructive effects.

jcummings said...

I think its worth noting that, as with so many things, the subsidy is just a tool. Its the hand that wields it which warrants concern. Think what would happen if those handouts to big ag were redirected at small scale sustainable farmers ( such as myself). Real cost economics would kill the industrial system, however. And while I often cheer on the demise of doritos, we're very seriously not ready for industrialism to end.

jcummings said...

Jmg - thanks for your blog. Its a little oasis of smart in a giant field of dumb.

A great deal of time is spent here and elsewhere discussing what a future will look like as the products of industrialism become scarcer due to the reality of a lower energy future.

When you actually try to disembed yourself from the products of industrialism, however, you find that a great many life supporting systems have been woven into the fabric of our industrial lives without our even knowing it. Further, the knowhow to replace industrial supports is in most cases lost or incomplete. We tend to focus on the biggies- energy, communication, transport, etc. But there are a vast array of supports that industrialism supplies for us that were incorporated precisely because people suffered so terribly as their lives transitioned away from traditional ones to industrial.

A great example is iodine consumption. We take it for granted because industrialism has long provided a solution to the problem that an industrial diet is bereft of this nutrient - iodized salt. As with most industrial fixes, this isnt the best way to get iodine. The best way is through the consunption of sea vegetables, as would have been a traditional method. In this case, if you lived inland in a preindustrial society, trade routes for such a priduct would have been very important.

And iodine is just a small, easily digestible example which is well understood. How many essential life functions is industrial life "taking care of" for us that we wouldnt even know to replace?

A great many preindustrial support systems were traditions people practiced without really knowing why. Its my suspicion that even though I'd like to see the end of doritos as much as the next guy, I really think were less ready than anyone thinks for a postindustrial future.

steve pearson said...

I guess I might as well contribute my experience on solar for what it is worth. I have spent quite a bit of time on a community in the high desert in S. California: lots of sun, so ideal for solar and 3 miles from road and power lines, so grid was never an option. It works fine; it just doesn't work on the scale that mains would. It runs lights, fridge, office & kitchen equipment,washing machine, some power tools. When you are not using something you turn it off, only leave on the lights you are using. If you are using the power tools or washer a lot or the cement mixer at all or if it is cloudy for a prolonged period, you use the generator.
The batteries don't usually last as long as one might wish and one has to turn the panels a couple of times per day.
It is a great system, but one has to modify ones life around it, not expect it to support a modern developed world life style. "Such is life", as Ned Kelly once commented.
Regards, Steve

Derv said...

Hey JMG,

It's unfortunate, but given the present situation and possible future conflicts, I feel the need to point out the sociopath's alternative to conservation. You state that it is impossible for us to sustain our current lifestyles for any real length of time. This is true, but only as long as it's us and not me ("me" being the psycho version of myself).

There are two ways around those limitations for a time. The first is to impoverish others for my gain. The US has been doing this for a good long while, as you've repeatedly pointed out. But the second is to get rid of the other guy, who in this case is a few billion extra people.

I'm not saying I think that this will happen, mind you, but only that it's an alternative that must come to mind among some of our grand leaders, many of whom are unburdened by the silly notion of conscience. See, for instance, overthrowing a legitimately-elected government to install one run by neo-nazis, or funneling billions into the hands and guns of al-qaeda. That's just in the last year.

Your view assumes that we're all in this together. A person with no conscience, a great deal of power, and a number of opportunities to see his guy win out in a zero sum game is a dangerous thing. We may well be seeing the beginning of the new resource wars and the inevitable dissolution of globalism right now.

When there isn't enough bread for every starving peasant in the line, people don't agree to go with half a loaf. They storm the trucks and beat each other up. Moreover it gives the IDEAL cover for economic crises (our economy would be fine if the dang *insert ethnic slur*s hadn't decided they hate freedom!). I don't like it, but such is the real world. That's a mess even harder to predict, but I think now more than ever it deserves some thoughtful consideration.

A bomb here, a nuke there, and pretty soon you're talking real surpluses again.

Neo said...

HI i want to highlight that subsidy dumpster itself does not mean that it is not workable for a long time. Every thing in our society is always a subsidy from one part of the economy to another part that people deem important. The problem arise only in the world today because of too much financialisation that overly distorts the real economy. Real problem arise when too much money is diverted from other critical issues that also require our attention. The problem for us all is that we cannot handle three or 4 critical problems at the same time the idea of limit to growth basically

Anselmo said...

The creation of false hopes, apart from being very convenient for politicians ,speculators and subsidy hunters, is essential for the maintenance of elite´s leadership in times of crisis and too is necessary for prevent social disintegration.
Projects that promise cheap energy allows us to act in accordance with the fundamental beliefs of our civilization, similar to how other civilizations have done when they faced serious problems. We have the example of the natives of Easter Island, erecting Mohais or the Mayas facing drought by increasing of human sacrifices. It was not a problem of greedy or lust of power of his leaders. This was a problem of crowd´s psychology, as to do otherwise would involve the need for a change in the fundamental beliefs of the masses that constitute the society, which leads to social revolution. (Crowds, le Bon).

russell1200 said...

I don't disagree with your general point.

However, there is a problem with the ethanol example in that the government was controlling the demand for ethanol, rather than the supply. Thus there is a (semi-) hard limit to the silliness based on the ability/desire to fund the silliness. Solar gets into this territory in a more complex way.

The second larger however is that these subsidy dumps, along with their close cousin the speculative financial bubble, have on major occasions succeeded in funding an uneconomic technology on the front end. Granted the investors get burned, but the public gets to use the infrastructure after it is built. Railroads are a classic example, the cabling for broad band internet (telecom bubble) a more recent one, and as Warren Buffet has noted, he doubts there has been any net positive investment results within the airline industry over its short life.

So there is the chance that a viable, but overly expensive technology (fission, solar w batteries, worm holes, what ever) could get the funding it needs. The key is that the assets have an after-life after the funding rush tapers off, and that it actually work. It is hard to remember all the overfunded bombs, but I am sure they greatly outnumber the successes.

Somewhatstunned said...

Jason Heppenstall said:

"In case you are wondering what a 'smart control system' is it's someone sitting in a control room somewhere clicking off your supply with a mouse. "

No, a 'smart control system' is not operated by a person. The idea is that lots of devices feed information to a centralied system which tweaks the whole system (ahem) in response to the frequency microfluctuations of the

To forestall any responses, this is not touted as the perfect response to everything, but as the a part of battery of interventions. Of course that's a problem with TV shows - even when they attempt to talk about something complicated in a way that is both accessible yet not totally oversimplifed, it always comes over as either inacessible or oversimplified. So it's interesting that you misread the programme in this way - it means most people watching probably got the same message.

Actually, as science programmes go, and in its own terms, BGTT wasn't too bad at all. But yes, it did come from within a certain ahem, paradigm ... with a bunch of cultural assumptions.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Lewis,

Well done and an excellent series to spend some time on.



team10tim said...

RE: Cheap PV panels from China.

Chaori Solar in landmark Chinese bond default:

"Chaori Solar becomes the first Chinese firm to default on its onshore corporate bonds. It is the first Chinese firm ever to default on its onshore corporate bonds."

The Chinese firms, especially PV, have enjoyed easy access to cheap loans and guarantees from the state and it appears that some of them can't turn a profit even with abundant cheap credit. What the real costs of Chinese PV production is difficult to determine.

Also, more broadly, the bond default is significant for China in general because it indicates that the government is allowing risk into it's market for the first time and dropping the blanket guarantee for all businesses at all times.


. said...

Hello JMG,

I've greatly enjoyed reading your series of essays regarding energy. However, I take issue with regards to your contrasting ethanol production with fusion.

The technology that is used, currently, to produce ethanol from corn is thermodynamically infeasible - higher energy inputs than the stored energy in the ethanol (net energy loss). This is a matter of nature being the arbitrator of what is possible.

With regards to nuclear fusion, if the technology does succeed in net energy production, to me, that is a game changer! The "Laws of Economics" are nothing more than human abstractions that we can change at any time. Basically, it is a voting mechanism humanity has produced to divide the raw materials and finished goods that are produced - it has nothing to do with explicit limits of reality. The real materials and technology (the arrangements of those materials) are expensive because, mainly, a large number of very specialized disciplines are solving extremely complex problems. It may end up being technically impossible, with our current knowledge, but this is a different argument than saying it is not economically possible.

Phitio said...

What they are really trying to do with ITER is impossible.
They are triyng to extract energy from plasma, which are naturally prone to become chaotic. But the magnetic confinement can work on ly if we have plasma laminar status. So we have to force the plama to remain at laminar status even at nanometric scale, because chaos grows hyper-exponentially wit time.

Sun is a fusion furnace, but obviously is really chaotic in nature, as It can be seen. It is a boiling plasma inferno, where overheated ions swirl and swirl, an are put together only by the huge gravitaional force ( except whan we have explosions and flares, obviously).

If an instability grows chacotic, the ITER engine will be torn literally to pieces by the huge Lorsnts forces, or pierced by runaway electrons (that is electrons shot against the walls at relativistic velocity ).

Bottom line, the ITER is a phantasmagorical unstable machine, that tries to counteract a basic law of nature ( it is like trying to boil water without the water boiling, just to made an example), and that will cost billions and years every time after a failure.

Sidenote: the "real" sun nuclear fusion is a pretty different process: every cubic meter of reacting plasma inside the sun emits a few watts of energy. It is a really diluted emission. Only the huge volumes interested sum up to the observed outputs.

We want to replicate on heart a process that isn't really the natural one.

What defies me is the obvious absurdity of the ITER in itself, apart from your explanations.


Jason Heppenstall said...


"Actually, as science programmes go, and in its own terms, BGTT wasn't too bad at all. But yes, it did come from within a certain ahem, paradigm ... with a bunch of cultural assumptions."

Agreed, but when the presenter concludes that they are 'excited about our energy future' after showing us a bunch of non-solutions I simply see it as a techno-lullaby.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Phitio: A story comes to mind.

There was once a man who was berating his attorney over his handling of the man's divorce. He claimed that the law had beggared him, draining away all his and his ex-wife's assets into the pockets of the courts and the attorneys, and now there was nothing left. The lawyer patiently endured this abuse for a time, then at last held up his hand to stop the tirade and said, somewhat smugly, "Sir, you are surprised and disappointed, but only because you entirely misconstrue the purpose of the law."

I think most people entirely misconstrue the purpose of modern science, and the purpose of fusion research in particular.

Fusion research has nothing whatsoever to do with energy.

Fusion research is about publishing papers, as a means to obtaining continued scientific funding. Idealistically, it is about "advancing knowledge of the universe," though in practice, like most everything in the modern world (and I suppose the ancient world as well), it is merely one more process of grubbing for a paycheck.

Viewed from this standpoint, ITER is a remarkably successful venture, which is why it exists.

I wrote about this in a recent blog entry of my own, before I'd read about ITER: -- you might find it interesting.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

If we could get a fusion reactor to work, we could turn lead into gold, thus killing two technological pursuits with one philosopher's stone.

For us older folks, "three Rs" calls to mind "reading, writing and 'rithmetic" not "reduce, reuse, recycle". I had to stop and think about that. We don't all speak the same dialect.

rj8957 said...


I wonder what it was like to be a peak oiler during the 80s and 90s.
It must have been a lonely position during those heady years. I was curious what you, and the few others who believed in resource limits, did during those times? This was before my time so I guess I'm imagining what it would've been like for me;and I only came to this subject by chance on the Internet in this day and age. Where did one find the intellectual resources pertaining to this topic back then?

Also, since you are talking about the, American Dark Ages, in an upcoming series I thought I'd bring-up the issue of overpopulation. I think that birth control is one of the best inventions that the modern era has given us. And I'm worried that it'll go away once the lights go out. Here's one guy actually trying to do something about that through ,World Vasectomy Day:

Raymond Duckling said...

@Deborah Bender

I read the "three Rs" the same way you did.

Eventually I figured out what it was really meant. Though the image of contemporary culture compulsion to scrap "Reading" on behalf of the blind application of "aRithmetic" to solve every problem at hand turned very amusing yet significant to me!

Josh said...

I don't think fusion power will materialize to save us, either.

I follow your reasoning that, physical practicalities notwithstanding, economical barriers due to capital formation impairment from declining cheap abundant fossil fuels will prevent wide scale implementation of fusion energy systems, anyway.

But what about the argument, "If, by chance, the science and technology could be worked out in time, the energy windfall released by fusion power could be used effectively to collateralize the massive debt accumulation required for buildout."

Exploitation of cheap abundant fossil fuels permitted tremendous expansion of infrastructure and debt; why could the same not be true for fusion power (provided the science gets worked out in time for large scale implementation)?

Can technological optimists making arguments in favor of putative windfall energy systems based on the reasoning that they'll pay for themselves (eventually) be answered with more of an argument than, "Yeah, but it's not likely to happen soon enough?"

Myriad said...

@JMG - If "subsidy dumpster" seems to trip off the tongue, it might be because a phonic pattern familiar from our childhoods, "city dump," is embedded in it. Since those have all been "landfills" for decades now, the young'uns might not find it as catchy.

@Phitio - Actually, the "average" cubic meter of the sun generates less than a third of a Watt. Most of the fusion takes place in the denser hotter core, so the actual figure depends on which cubic meter you pick. But overall, the equivalent mass or volume of hamsters running in wheels would outperform it by two or three orders of magnitude. Talk about diffuse energy!

If you think about it, it has to be the case that a given volume of sun carries out fusion very slowly. Otherwise, even running on fusion power, it would run out of fuel in much less than billions of years.

As you say, the sun's sheer size more than makes up for this. A square meter of solar heater or PV 93 million miles away on earth can collect thousands of times more power than a cubic meter of the sun produces, largely because of the sun's immense depth. Each square meter of the sun's surface radiates the power converted in about 230 million cubic meters of the sun's volume.

(Nature: renowned for subtlety, but no slouch at brute force either.)

Enrique said...

I know this is slightly off topic, except as a prime illustration of just how out of touch with reality the American political class is as it wallows in the river of denial, oblivious to the crocodiles of reality circling around.

When I saw the present fiasco in the Ukraine start to unfold, one of the first things that came to mind was the Archdruid’s scenario as outlined in the “How It Could Happen” series. All of the elements seemed to be there: a new “color revolution” bought and paid for by the American political establishment and intelligence community (including millions in subsidies for Ukrainian neo-Nazis), a belligerent but clueless US political establishment desperately trying to stick it to the Russians any way they can, intentional provocations by the US and EU, and a rival great power, namely Russia, deciding to fight back and outmaneuvering said clueless American establishment at every turn.

Sooner or later, we seem destined to have something like the fictional scenario in Tanzania happen in real life, if for no other reason than the stupidity (and in many cases, outright incompetence) of people like George W Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Barack Obama, John Kerry and Susan Rice. Sooner or later, the US will find itself in a disastrous confrontation it can’t win with either Russia, China or Iran, or perhaps even all three, since the US has done everything it can to push great powers that would normally be geopolitical rivals (like China, Russia, India and Iran) into each others arms.

The folly and shortsightedness of it all never ceases to amaze me. It seems to me that the hamhanded diplomacy of the US and the EU with regards to Russia and the Crimea will have the effect of driving Russia into an even deeper alliance with China and Iran, making the long term strategic position of the EU and US even worse. As has been noted before on this blog, the nightmare scenario of Anglo-American strategic planners has been a Eurasian heartland dominated by hostile rising powers in alliance against the Western powers. The struggles of the Western powers against Germany and Russia in the 20th century were motivated in large part by a desire to prevent that from happening, and the same logic applies in American attempts to “contain” China, including Obama’s “Pivot to Asia”. The TPP likewise is an attempt by the US political establishment to create an anti-Chinese economic bloc in the Pacific Rim as a counterweight to the growing might of the PRC (following the dubious example of Obamacare, it also has a lot of corrupt giveaways for special interests like Hollywood, the recording industry, Monsanto and Big Pharma). Thanks to the folly of the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, the nightmare scenario that kept earlier generations of British and American statesmen up late at night is well on its way to becoming a reality.

(Contd below)

Enrique said...

(Contd from above)

As for talk of exporting US natural gas to counteract Russian predominance in the European energy markets, good luck with that. Experts say it would take at least 2-4 years for the necessary terminals and other infrastructure to be built. Moreover, as was pointed out in this week’s post, there is every indication that the oil and natural gas bubble made possible by fracking is at its apogee and the downturn will likely be swift and hard. Those terminals should be completed right around the same time the big downtown in North American gas production gathers momentum. Personally, I doubt these half-baked proposals will go anywhere or that the terminals will ever be completed even if they are started. Not only that, but the US is still a net importer of natural gas and in spite of all the rhetoric about “energy independence” due to fracking, the US still imports more than half of the oil it consumes. The rhetoric from American politicians about using American natural gas exports as an energy weapon to undermine Russia shows just how deluded and out of touch with reality the American political class really is as the crocodiles close in.

All hail Sebek!

Ray Wharton said...

The conversation on solar power in this weeks tread seems more in depth than I can recall seeing recently. Carrying on from my comment last week about what technologies are viable in the future I want to throw in my two cents.

Mass production is the first thing I consider when thinking about how our technologies would have to adapt to stay viable as their environment changes. Current solar voltaic cells, at least the ones being lauded as 'cheap' coming from huge factories, are manufactured in a system which is completely dependent on mass production to maintain costs. I wonder, how small of an economy can possibly manufacture photo-voltaic cells? Perhaps a modest city state could, if its technological character is appropriate, support a tool set which would make the manufacture of silicon crystals possible? The process to make the crystals is 19th century, primarily needing extreme heat in a controlled space, burning hydrogen was the technique used; and a supply of clean base mineral.

Without mass production, or a large trade network, even if solar cells are made, how many could be made would? With out mass production it is more costly to get the tools, and the types of production likely to be able to endure are much smaller.

So you're a Cell-wright living in the future. Can you find the materials and tools you need on the market? At what scale? How does this limit your production? Who is interested in doing business with you? Are they rich? Do you have a, perhaps tiny, product the middle or lower classes might be willing to pay for? Is there something your product make possible that people value?

In the near future, tools and materials on a small scale might be at the market place as their former owner have liquidated, but how reliably? And can you afford one of the power sources available at the time? Could a work site power itself?

I don't have very good answers to such musings. But I think photo-voltaic best shot would not be in providing power for most of the things we do with electricity, it would be out competed in most situations, perhaps could focus on low wattage tasks which can only be done with electricity, especially ones that can operate independently or and sporadically. Out side of those niches I think that other energy sources, for example solar-thermal, bio-mass, and elbow grease, would out compete it, or demand would be too low to justify the expenditure on an additional energy source on the market.

Then again maybe some solar powered dumpsters can find some sustainable mass hysteria to live off of for a thousand years.

Redneck Girl said...

Blogger jean-vivien said...
I also wonder, if a society revolving around the harvest of solar power achieves a certain degree of sophistication, like what you contemplate, then how does it affect the way people behave, think ? Because the relationship to time would be drastically different... The world of solar harvesting could be elegant but also very slow, and I suspect that fo rpeople living in that hypothetical society, time would have a different texture. Certainly more dilatated than in our own lifestyles which revolve around the idea of fast speed.

Anything that was done prior to petroleum and in the future post petroleum as well, takes time. If you live off the garden you plant or work with livestock, as in my case with occasionally training a horse, you'll realize that. You can't force a horse to accept anything until they understand thoroughly. If you DO try to rush it you pay for it with even more time getting them to understand and accept such an alien situation for the horse. It all depends on the individual horse which is what makes training a horse both fun and sometimes frustrating. It takes as much time as the horse needs to understand, just like it takes time for YOU to understand why you must do certain things in a timely manner to make a vegetable garden happy and productive.

Actually, what do you mean by sophistication? Many American Indian Tribes were very sophisticated socially and were still basically in the stone age when their/(our) lands were invaded and usurped. Oratory was highly valued in many tribes, isn't that a talent many European Peoples credited themselves with? Or are you equating sophistication with knowledge or a 'high' technology? Surviving sustainably within the environment requires a sophisticated working knowledge OF that environment.

Personally, I would love a world slowed down that way. Time to look at the changing sky, feel the wind caressing my face, the demanding heat of the sun prickling my skin, view the lives of the wild animals around me in their seasonal rhythms and even stop and play with my silly goats or watch my horses play or graze as the mood takes them. Maybe take a long ride over trails I haven't seen before to find berry vines, wild fruiting trees or even wild herbs to harvest. As long as I'm back in time to milk the nanny!


earthworm said...

Are the archdruid's ideas about to go mainstream?

A new study sponsored by Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

Noting that warnings of 'collapse' are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that "the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history." Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to "precipitous collapse - often lasting centuries - have been quite common."

Michelle said...

JMG, please accept my humble gratitude for sharing your thoughts in a consistently cogent manner. Reading this blog has guided my personal development and understanding of the world now for several years, and I value its/your guidance immeasurably. I am now (since Thanksgiving) homeschooling my 10th grade son (he's 15 1/2, for those in differing educational systems) and more than once I have assigned him one of your weekly essays to read and discuss. Along those lines, Enrique - I don't know anything more about you than the content of your comments, but by golly you hit it out of the park this week. My son will be reading your succinct summary! He's still in the "American Dream and technology is the answer to everything" phase, but I'm helping hm expand his understanding. (as a side note, I was thrilled when his 14 y/o sister recently asked to homeschool for high school starting next fall!)

earthworm said...

The comments on that article (posted before) contain the usual mix - it was interesting to look through them to get a 'flavour' of the mood of posters.

John Michael Greer gets a few mentions, as does Jared Diamond - also Dmitry Orlov's name popped up and even a plug for the NTE crowd.
A snippet from a comment that stood out (given the discussion that goes on here):

"Change is inevitable, sure, but by and large most of it is evolutionary because it is influenced by as yet to be known human ingenuity and inventions. We've made tremendous progress in the last 150 years or so, more than at any other time in our history! All this nonsense about limited space and resources completely disregards NASA's original quest to establish a grander human presence in the high frontier. It is as if visionaries like Gerard O'Neil or Carl Sagan never existed with this current crop of NASA bureaucrats. Computer models will always predictably reflect the data that is fed in... that is the thing about computers, garbage in, garbage out!"

...and a reply to it that made me smile:

"Ahhh...Ron L Hubbard has been resurrected. Like him, so many words and so little wisdom."

earthworm said...

...and a link to a paper:

Human and Nature Interaction (Safa Motesharrei,Jorge Rivas, Eugenia Kalnay) November 13, 2012

Collapses of even advanced civilizations have occurred many times in the past five thousand years, and they were frequently followed by centuries of population and cultural decline and economic regression.

Although many different causes have been offered to explain individual collapses, it is still necessary to develop a more general explanation. In this paper we attempt to build a simple mathematical model to explore the essential dynamics of interaction between population and natural resources. It allows for the two features that seem to appear across societies that have collapsed: the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity, and the division of society into Elites (rich) and Commoners (poor).
The Human And Nature DYnamical model (HANDY) was inspired by the Predator and Prey model, with the human population acting as predator and nature being the prey.

Hombre said...

My, what a lot of evidence lies herein of an obscure but existent, though ultimately unfounded, faith in the technical salvation of our current social abundance bubble.
For the late 21st reality think shawnee, Cheyene, or at best 1830 Indiana farmstead, complete with outhouse and cornpatch.

Luckymortal said...

JMG, all, this post and your discussion of "subsidy dumpsters" has me wondering:
Do you see a "green wizard's" private work on food/energy/etc. sovereignty an act towards social justice? Is this something you've written about?

I especially wonder about this in comparison to a "subsidy dumpster" approach towards social justice, which I have personally seen exploit marginalized, powerless people to benefit of those with power, who then pat themselves on the back for their good deeds!

A large part of my identity as a "liberal" privileged white dude is that I care deeply about justice and equality. Yet, I find working towards this end skillfully is wrought with peril...

I find myself imagining two groups of privileged suburbanites... The first sets out to address social justice, and "share their power" by getting involved with a local landbank project to improve food access for "poor urbanites" through expensive government-funded construction projects implemented by affluent suburban administrators, contractors and workers, who end up the end recipients of 99% of the grant money. Meanwhile, the second group sets out to grow a garden of chardonnay grapes, arugula, and Escargot, which begins to make them producers in the economy instead of consumers, thereby reducing their reinforcement of the negative impact of a colonial food system abroad and an unfair migrant worker system at home. It begins to undermine a food distribution system predicated on restricted access (the market) and frees up production capacity for less powerful communities to access...

I don't mean to imply that we shouldn't try to work towards justice... just that doing so skillfully is something I'm currently struggling with, and I'd appreciate your thoughts on it.

Roger said...

The crocodiles of reality are biting people in the derriere north of your border.

The govt of the province of Ontario signed expensive contracts for wind turbines to replace conventional power sources and especially coal-fired power plants thinking this would 1) be politically popular 2) solidify Liberal Party "green" credentials 3) be economically feasible.

Politically popular? "Green energy" sounds good if you say it fast. Wind turbines run into walls of opposition from people in whose backyards they are being built.

The government ends up looking highly attentive to the wind power lobby, that is, ideologically motivated urbanites who will never have wind farms in their communities. Not to mention monied interests who stand to gain from wind turbine construction.

And, on the other hand, they look highly disdainful of the interests of communities that bear the brunt of wind turbine construction. That is, those hicks out in the sticks who, in the opinion of highly self regarding urbanites, just don't "get it".

Never mind the politics. These are old stories. The most important thing to "get" is that, in Ontario, wind power is not do-able from an economic stand-point. At least, not the way it's being done.

In Ontario, wind power needs complicated and expensive integration with back-up capacity from conventional (ie natural gas) power sources.

This, naturally, is because wind doesn't blow on demand producing power when needed. Especially, in Ontario where, according to what I've read, wind does the opposite, it doesn't stop blowing when you don't need it. So, most inconveniently, wind produces 80% of its power when nobody wants it.

Most comically, it doesn't displace conventional and relatively dirty sources of energy which are there as back-up to ensure the continuity of supply. And, most un-comically, it requires the sale to the state of New York of excess power produced at the wrong time and at a large financial loss to Ontario.

While this may be good for the citizens of New York, it is not so good for the people of Ontario that end up footing the bill for this silliness.

No matter, the govt plan now is to triple the number of wind turbines.

Renaissance Man said...

NASA Study predicting the collapse of our global civilization.
Blog about in the Guardian Posted by
Nafeez Ahmed
Friday 14 March 2014:

Anselmo said...


Continuing off topic, you're talking about real tyrannosaurs, no about crocodiles.

In my humble opinion, this is an episode in the struggle for hegemony between adversaries. An old play since the times of the War of Troy,except because now the adversaries are equipped with generous amounts of nuclear weapons.

About the specific details, We only see the shadows as the man of the metaphor of Plato's cave.

Glenn said...

earthworm said...

"Are the archdruid's ideas about to go mainstream?

And the final paragraph points to different studies predicting collapse around 2030.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

DeAnander said...

I was thinking about collapse in the 80's and 90's... but I wasn't expecting it to be moving along as fast as it seems to be. I thought the cracks would barely show in my lifetime. Oops.

An interesting cultural experience is the BBC doco team's recent series, "Human Planet". In it they do a Nat Geo type of travelogue, visiting human communities who live a lot closer to subsistence than city folks. There's a curious mixed message in the series (I'm only 5/8 through it); on the one hand there's the familiar theme of "look how hard and depressing life is w/o industrial technology," yet on the other hand there's a wistfulness coming from the narration and from some of the interviewees, for lifeways now lost to them/us.

One interviewee refers to some remote tribespeople (as yet un-contacted by Western Civ) in the Brazilian rainforest as "the last free people on Earth." So, on the one hand the narration dwells on the challenges of wresting a bare subsistence from often-marginal environments, and on the other hand it acknowledges the enslavement of modern people to the calendar, the clock, and the machine. Definitions of "freedom" are in tension.

Admiration and wonder are also expressed by the Anglo film crew for the sheer competence of various indigenous people in their home environment -- their ability to build shelter, find food, move freely through difficult terrain. The Westerners certainly look clumsy and over-equipped by comparison.

The series ends up sending a very mixed message -- part late-industrial triumphal smugness (look at what a hard life you've been spared thanks to the wonders of cheap oil and technocracy), and part insecurity and uncertainty about our core values (maybe these people are smarter and better fitted to survive than we are, yikes).

That message would not have been mixed in the 1950's or 1960's. It would have been purely triumphalist cock-a-doodling. Perhaps that frisson of doubt is another indicator of societal unease, forebodings of civilisational crisis?

Varun Bhaskar said...

I finished your article on the end of the space age and came away quite despondent. While I concede your point that our civilization probably won't make it to the stars, I'm gonna stick with the hope that down the line an ecotechnic civilization will figure out how to make it. Maybe in a way that is intermittently sustainable even if it is not permanently sustainable. Guys, gotta have hope after all.

Speaking of the crocodiles of reality, the warring states period seems to have picked up in earnest. It looks like the great game will be played till the last chip is down and the next regional powers will be those who stay out of the game and save their resources. I'm hoping its India since that civilization hasn't been able to pull itself together since the end of the vedic period.

I'm not really following the people here who are complaining about the US/EU role in Ukraine, while not criticising Russia. What makes the Russian imperial project different from the western one? When you have exploitive capitalism on one side and authoritarianism on the other it's a no win for anyone.

I haven't found blood of the earth in the libraries so I will be ordering it. Right now I'm saving up money to buy some of your older books on magic and ritual. I wanted to know about magic because I wanted to try to break the spell of the cult of progress that my friends are under. However, after giving it some thought I don't know if I should. I don't think they'll actually appreciate me forcing the red pill down their throats. I know, having actually seen the reality, I'm not happier knowing it.

I would like to know about story telling though. Are there any articles about the bardic/druidic story telling methods that you can direct me toward? I feel like that might be useful.

Ray Wharton said...

I get so jealous of those dumpsters, I saw a million dollar 'wildland rehabilitation project' today, just a bunch of dudes shoving dirt around with giant machines making a heck of a mess, what's worse they are reworking a site 'rehabilitated' two years ago. Barely enough time for the weeds to get comfortable! But such is Fort Collins, and such is how the city keeps the gravy train running. I wonder what a circle of Green Wizards could get done with that kind of cash, on a local or regional scale I think it could be a fair bit,

The 'rehibilitation' is just south of my little work gig on a tree farm, it really makes me squeamish when we pull the little guys out of the ground, but they're tough ones. Still, I get to study trees in my head while working the body and earning some money. It could be enough to cover my needs all summer, and into fall in just three weeks. That way I can focus on gardening and composting, also learning some crafting skills to be ready to try salvaging some technologies next winter when the frost exiles me from my gardens. Welding, kiln glass, pottery, and wood gas. I hope to make a biochar system that can power some salvage era technology.

The tree farm of course has a lot of equipment which in its current form is absurdly unsustainable. The parts we had to get to keep the tree spade running, oi! But I look at those hydraulics, and wonder how long they would last at half the pressure and one tenth the flow rate. Pretty long I suspect, and even at that lower pressure they could still do some very useful work.

If there are subside dumpsters, why can't I set up a freelance recycling station to collect some of that disposable wealth?! Maybe its possible? Not that there will be much wealth for long, but on the other hands when the money vanishes there will be a long of real wealth practically lying in the gutters. What ought one be working to transmute those remains in to, in hopes of doing the most good? I hope that the contributers to this discussion are able to try many things, each at scales approprate to their own circumstances.

George said...

This seems relevant to your interests:

Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'?

Shane Wilson said...

I registered for the green wizards site, but have yet to get my password e-mailed. I'm new to peak oil, guess you could say my head has been in my posterior during my misspent youth, but I'm eager to get active now and share what talents I may have or could develop. I'm centrally located in the eastern US, in a naturally rich area (imho) I'm pretty much financially collapsed already, so ways of living a "rich" life on modest means ranks high, along we with establishing community.

John Michael Greer said...

Got a few spare minutes, so let's see how many responses I can fit in...

Ronald, fascinating. Thank you for the story!

Cherokee, the US will be a failed state in due time -- it just hasn't quite gotten there yet.

Russ, thank you! I've noticed consistently that the people who think it's possible to maintain a modern industrial lifestyle on renewable energy aren't living on renewable energy. When you're still dependent on the grid, it's easy to have such fantasies.

Jean-Vivien, that depends on what you mean by that ambiguous word "sophistication." Still, I doubt that any society at any point in the future will ever again be able to afford attitudes like ours.

Kutamun, I'm still trying to parse this. This isn't a poetry blog, you know...

Don, subsidy dumpsters are there to meet the demands of all the different pressure groups who press around the Federal feed trough, not just corporations. Other than that, no argument.

M, "subsidy suck" has a certain alliterative charm, but I;'m sticking with my original.

Tubaplayer, by all means!

Chris, small-scale ethanol might be an option, or it might not, depending -- ahem -- on issues of economic viability. I notice with some amusement that, responding to a post that talked at such length about the way people avoided the issue of economic viability, you still avoided the issue of economic viability.

Donal, "subsidy leeches" also has a certain charm.

Eddie, that's a valid point. If you have the surplus necessary to produce something that will be a modest energy sink, and there are other good reasons to do so, that might well be a valid point. On the other hand, if you were a subsistence farmer living on the edge of starvation, and somebody claimed that you ought to turn a third off your grain crop into ethanol, your ability to follow that advice for more than a single season might be very limited.

John Michael Greer said...

Nick, I think you've misunderstood what I'm saying. Of course EROEI has an effect, and a massive one. What makes it tricky is that the effect is easy to mistake for the result of other factors, because it shows up via other effects, such as financial profitability. There isn't a big red EROEI alarm that suddenly starts letting off klaxon whoops! Instead, you just can't make money, and only if you run the numbers on energy in vs. energy out will you realize that this is happening because your EROEI is too low.

Ljosalfr, by all means!

Eduard, very funny. Many thanks!

Alan, funny, what you call a more moderate view looks remarkably like what I call an all too familiar form of unjustified optimism.

Steve, thank you.

Thrig, the ITER is shaping up to be a fiasco for the record books.

Latefall, vaporware's a different thing -- it's the high tech that never even gets to the implementation stage, but is used by people to insist that we really don't have to change our lifestyles because this untested, mostly imaginary energy technology will inevitably live up to its salesflacks' wildest and most optimistic dream. A subsidy dumpster gets built and then fails.

Jonathan, excellent. Yes, the hydrogen economy was another subsidy dumpster.

Robert, well, of course.

Agent, excellent. Both those are solid points.

Daelach, thank you -- I should have guessed that German would have a noun for it. "Subsidy tomb" has a nice solid ring to it, too.

Lewis, well, with any luck someone will yell that at someone who hasn't yet made the choice.

August Johnson said...

JMG - I think you might find this interesting.

"A new study sponsored by Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution."

"While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory 'so far' in support of doing nothing."

Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for 'irreversible collapse'?

Here's the draft paper (pdf):

A Minimal Model for Human and Nature

I believe that those of us in the "Developed World" would be considered the "Elites" in this study.

Nathaniel Ott said...

The subsidy dumpster idea makes me think of the reasons people support these projects and blow off others. Recently I gave a copy of The Long Descent to a friend of mine. He gave it back a week later, saying it was too crazy for him. Aparrently living within hard ecological limits is crazy. But things like physics defying Warp Drives, thermodynamics defying Zeropoint Energy, and brain uploading into immortal robot bodies is total reasonable.

Joel Kessler said...

Hello JMG ... I brought up Peak Oil the other day with a fellow I met and he hadn't heard of it, and as soon as I began explaining Peak Oil he immediately countered with: "We don't need oil, we have 'gasification.' Not knowing anything about gasification, I've been googling around and find myself in the realm of synthetic fuels and 'clean coal.'

Would you please share your views on the viability of gasification/synfuels ... using biomass and the contents of landfills as the fuel source?



Paul Thompson said...

Hi John,

Please excuse me for commenting on a perevious post rather than on the current one.

Your three essays on the potential re-emergence of fascism reminded me of one of your posts from almost two years ago; the process of [u=]Anacyclosis[/u]. You described the process whereby ". . . the democratic system freezes into gridlock under the pressure of factionalism or unsolved crisis; the democratic system loses its legitimacy, political collapse follows . . ."
Is it plausible that the rise of facism is one of the mechanisms that completes the cycle of Anacyclosis?

Nathaniel Ott said...

Ment the utilization of Zero Point Energy in that last post. Zero Point Energy itself is pretty widely accepted. My point being the willingness of otherwise perfectly intelligent people to dissmiss what they dont like even if it makes more, and completely ok with things they like even if they make less sense. Is this some kind of evolutionary thing, culture or something else?

John Michael Greer said...

St. Roy, thank you!

Jason, fascinating to see that the unwelcome news is leaking through. Scrabble can be a lot of fun, mind you.

Fidelius, bingo. What makes it denial, rather than sincere disagreement, is that the person in denial knows that he or she is wrong, but can't deal with the implications of that fact.

Carl, I could almost hear it from here!

Onething, you get today's gold star simply for the Lewis Carroll quote -- but you're also quite correct, of course.

As for the crash in the price of oil, that's what happened in 2009 and subsequently, and for the same reason I expect it again: demand destruction. The economic shock delivered by an oil price spike will put businesses out of business and people out of work, which means that oil consumption will drop because fewer people will be able to afford to use it.

Nathaniel, thank you.

Dagnarus, exactly, Your friends were stuck in the usual rut of insisting that technical feasibility is all that counts, and losing track of who was going to pay for all those stealth bombers et al. Yes, it's a classic example of rationalism gone awry -- and for the reasons you've noted. among others.

Russ said...

John - agree! There are a lot of folks who talk out of both sides of their mouths. I attended a few meetings of the local Sierra Club to offer advice on renewable energy, but no takers. I wrote the state chapter of the same group to suggest a survey of its members on usage of renewable energy but no reply. I then wrote the home office in San Francisco with similar verbiage - still nothing.
We're in our mid-eighties and decided when we retired 20+ yrs ago to stay in place with a too-big all-electric home in a nice area. We began to weatherstrip the house and power it with renewable energy. We've had a solar hot water system for 25 years and the rooftop solar for 10. We installed a ground-source heat pump in 2006 and replaced the windows that same year. We have triple cellular shades on all the windows and a special film on the inside window panes to block the UV rays in the summer. This past year we installed a 5kw PV system on the back lawn. We have yet to scrape all of the snow off those panels. Our 35+ year database of electrical usage indicates that the past 10 years our net average annual usage has declined 2/3rds from the annual average that existed prior to the inception of this renewable energy venture. What is quite evident is that even with 16+kw of installed PV there is insufficient energy to power the heating unit, etc. The idea that we could sufficiently run the household off the grid is goofy. Some idiots have even proposed electric cars charged at your work that would power the grid at night. (How would one get to work the next day?) None of this could have been done without cheap energy; making, delivering and installing the products. Fortunately the warranty date will probably outlast us. When we moved here in 1975 we planted trees and now we are harvesting some for firewood. Our neighbors said we were crazy. Some of them snickered when we put on the rooftop solar, yet we now have two more solar installations on our road and another three or four in the neighborhood. The good news is that all of this has paid for itself and the annual return on equity is 6% over the years since the hot water solar.
Although I have some slight disagreement with some of your thoughts I think you have good insights based on historical precedents. Best Regards, Russ Day

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, thanks for the link. I'm actually a fan of those who are building Farnsworth fusors in their basements -- I think they're barking up the wrong stump, but they're actually doing something about their beliefs, which is much more than one can say for most cornucopians.

Renaissance. "money pit" will also do, but I thought a more focused neologism might be useful. As for the broader point, exactly.

Jcummings, remember that we're not talking about the industrial system coming to a sudden stop at some point in the future. We are already in the Long Descent, which should give you some time either to figure out a source of seaweed or to check your own soil for adequate iodine content -- most soils have enough so that vegetables grown in them have adequate amounts.

Steve, exactly. Now factor in the fossil fuel inputs that are used to manufacture and install those panels and the rest of the system, and figure out just how demanding it would be to replace all those inputs with renewable equivalents; that's why I'm far from sure the PV fans are right to say that continued manufacture of PV systems will be economically viable straight through the Long Descent.

Derv, remember that population is a dependent variable of things like food supply. I don't see any need for nukes; all that's necessary is that the price of food keep moving raggedly upwards while the supply of jobs moves raggedly down, and you have the kind of steady population contraction found in most of the former Soviet Union, where current trends will halve population levels by 2100. I'd be amazed if people in the corridors of power in most industrial nations aren't quietly counting on that to take some of the pressure off.

Neo, I think it's more complex than that. By "subsidy" I mean specifically the diversion of funds by the government on a basis that has nothing to do either with financialization or any other economic value, but is straightforwardly political. When subsidies are used intelligently, they give an industry the boost it needs to get going, and then the subsidies stop and the industry becomes self-supporting. Otherwise, you've got a subsidy dumpster.

Anselmo, good! I'd add a good book on cognitive dissonance to Le Bon's book, too.

Russell, I'm actually hoping that we get a rush to PV as a subsidy dumpster; after the bubble has popped, there will be huge numbers of PV panels for sale dirt cheap, and a lot of green wizards can then swoop on them and set themselves up with off-grid home PV systems. That is to say, on occasion, you can be right -- though I can't think of much that could be done with the wreckage of ITER once that crashes and burns.

Tim, yes, I saw that. The results could be very interesting, in the apocryphally Chinese sense.

Dot, no, there you're wrong. The laws of economics are not merely human abstractions; they're whole systems properties of all economic systems, reflecting hard limits of energy and resource supplies. The fact that a fusion reactor might be able to produce plenty of electricity does not guarantee that the electricity can be produced at a price anybody can afford, and ignoring that reality is one of the things that's got us wedged into the present mess.

Phitio, that's certainly my impression. To get sustained nuclear fusion, you need a compressive force that isn't susceptible to distortion by electromagnetic fields -- plasmas are wickedly prone to twist lines of magnetic force, and the higher the pressure and heat, the more enthusiastically they do so. We know how many fundamental forces there are in the physical universe; only one of them -- gravity -- has the necessary properties, and it won't do the job on any scale smaller than a star. If someone wants to prove me wrong, I look forward to the working model.

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown Deborah, nah, lead is element 82, gold is element 79. You'd need fission, not fusion, to turn lead into gold. On the other hand, fusion might succeed in turning gold into lead -- and that would certainly explain the cost overruns at ITER! ;-)

RJ, remember that all this stuff was studied intensively in the 1970s. Those of us who didn't mortgage our brains in the boomtimes of the '80s and '90s reread The Limits to Growth and the collected works of E.F. Schumacher, and wondered whether anybody would get a clue in time. As for population, well, people have been beating that drum for a long time, without any noticeable effect; I think we'll probably have to wait for collapsing public health and food shortages to do the job.

Josh, the difference is return on investment. Light sweet crude from a shallow well had a net energy payoff on the order of 200 to 1, and so the very modest investment needed to drill the well was very quickly overwhelmed by the torrent of wealth to be had by selling the oil. With fusion, you've got colossal investment to produce a modest amount of electricity -- say, as much as a current fission plant, but for 20 or 50 times the price. It;'s not a windfall if you have to pay that much for it -- and only a refusal to deal with economic viability makes it look like one.

Myriad, you may be right! Still, it's worth the try.

Enrique, I'm using details from the Ukraine crisis to fill out my description of the Tanzanian crisis in the novel based on my scenario -- it's very much along the same lines, though not far enough from the other side's borders to make a good proxy war.

Ray, Thank. You. For. Getting. It. It's a source of wry amusement to me to watch just how many intelligent people can go skimming right past the hard economic realities of the deindustrial future, in the increasingly desperate quest to find a way to claim that we can have our accustomed trinkets into the far future.

Earthworm, I have perceptive readers! I've had a flurry of people catch that, and yes, it's most interesting to see so unfashionable a concept getting air time.

Michelle, thank you -- I'm delighted to hear that your children will be getting a real education, rather than the mummified corpse of one that gets handed out by American public schools these days.

Redneck Girl said...

Blogger Hombre said...
My, what a lot of evidence lies herein of an obscure but existent, though ultimately unfounded, faith in the technical salvation of our current social abundance bubble.
For the late 21st reality think shawnee, Cheyene, or at best 1830 Indiana farmstead, complete with outhouse and cornpatch.

I think Cherokee, wish I spoke it. Might try to get the book and DVD from Amazon. Be nice to visit my roots and not on a Rez or Rancheria. Depressing places.

Speaking of roots, as a child I had relatives who still grew their own gardens and HAD outhouses. I remember using my grandparent's and even a granduncle's, although they went to an indoor bathroom ASAP.

My idea, in a story I'm working on, is an American version of Mongol herders, at least at first. Seems to me it would be an ideal way to live, moving herds to fresh grazing and water, oxen pulling gurs, (the Mongol word, not the Russian yurts). Such a lifestyle would go a long way toward replenishing the soil fertility of the prairies much like the bison did at least until bison numbers grow and regain their proper place, if they ever do.

I've also been toying with a story idea for the contest titled 'Marietta Mcreedy's Traveling Babysitter and Equestrienne Circus'. Women who refuse to give up their beloved horses and take their kids on the road for ranch country roundups and cattle drives when the crunch hits. Or not.


Chris Farmer said...

JMG wrote: "small-scale ethanol might be an option, or it might not, depending -- ahem -- on issues of economic viability. I notice with some amusement that, responding to a post that talked at such length about the way people avoided the issue of economic viability, you still avoided the issue of economic viability."

You're very right. I consciously avoided it for many reasons, although I do agree with you that it is a crucial issue. In a nutshell, though, I avoided it because I feel you approach economic viability in a rather, excuse me for saying so, un-holistic fashion - despite the fact that I find you to be one of the most holistic thinkers I have read. And it was hard for me to explain why in a concise way.

But I will give it a try here - toward the end of your comments. I'll start with my smaller point.

1) Decades ago, most economists wrote off the sustainable/ local/ organic food movement. It was easy to write off because it was not economically viable. There was no way for SLOw food to compete with the cheap food of the industrial Ag system. Despite being uncompetitive, it has grown tremendously. I'll return to this point after the second.

2) I agree with you wholeheartedly that there will soon be another drop to another plateau along our long descent - that will likely leave oil prices stabilized for a while around $175 as you guess, and that of course, natural gas prices will be dramatically higher as well in the after-bust of the fracking boom.

It seems that as you stress the importance of economic viability in your article, you simultaneously stress how the economics are going to soon change as well.

I am simply trying to connect the dots and see therefore that the economic viability of any project in question is not a fixed status, but is going to change as well along with the changing economy - a changing economy that affects not only commodity prices, but joblessness numbers as well.

3) Juxtapose points one and two. Looking at point one alone, one could say that despite the SLOw food movement being the fastest growing sector of the food industry today, that it is still small potatoes relative to conventional Ag.

But juxtaposing it with point two, we can begin to see that anybody who owns cleared land in a relatively moist climate in the US will clearly want to use some waste-wood from a local sawmill to distill a batch of ethanol twice a week, and feed the wet distiller's grain to their dairy cows throughout the week as they come in from their pastures for milking twice a day.

Sure, this didn't catch on in the early 1980s as the North Slope, the North Sea, and the Bush family connections to the Saudi royal family brought oil prices down to the $20s, and there was an economy with jobs and benefits to be had.
But it's already a different world than the 80s. And as you well know, in another ten years, it will be even more so.

Things that were pie-in-the-sky in the early 80s will be common fare before too long - if we don't distort their potentials in the meantime based on metrics that will be irrelevant in the relatively near future.

In other words - what is not economically viable now may become economically viable in the not so distant future.

There is more to say (especially in regards to energy density and societal complexity), but that's it for now. Thanks for writing such an impressive weekly column, and thanks for reading your reader's comments. Take care

SLClaire said...

Off topic for today but on topic for your blog ...

It was a little windy here today. Nothing too great, a steady 20-30mph breeze with the occasional 40mph gust. No snow, sleet, or freezing rain, even though all had been predicted. Just wind. And still, our electricity flickered on and off multiple times in the couple of hours before dawn. Then it failed for about an hour. Was restored. Failed again for about another hour. Was restored. Failed yet again for perhaps a half hour. Was restored. All this before noon. It's been on since then and it's early evening by now. But here's my point: I'm old enough to remember back to the 1960s, and I've lived in the US Midwest, land of severe thunderstorms, most of that time. A breeze like today never used to cause electric outages, much less multiple ones throughout a morning. Even severe thunderstorms didn't cause electric outages most of the time! As late as the 1990s electricity just stayed on, no matter what. But since then, a different story. First it was severe thunderstorms that sometimes knocked the electricity out for anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Now, the electricity just seems to go out every so often, for no particular reason, like today. Sure, it's fixed before too long, sometimes just a few minutes, maybe a half hour or so. But how long before it doesn't get fixed for hours? Then for days? This is what decline looks like, friends.

sunseekernv said...

@deedl - yes, Germany's feed in tariff has now declined so much that for many people it's cheaper to get a PV system (if they can afford it or find financing) than to buy grid electricity.

Same in Hawaii and most other island places with sun and imported diesel.

Actually, levelized cost of energy for grid-connected PV has reached approximate grid parity in most places. An example:

re: Prieto & Hall (the study of the Spanish PV boom/bust).

Actually, small systems suffer from dis-economies of scale, and the special circumstances of each roof. Roof mounting (because these are mostly after market system) has to deal with the roof construction type/implementation. Access to the roof is different (some people will have flower beds, some not). Paperwork for a system costs about X $, regardless of the size. Smaller inverters are more costly per watt of capacity. One truck trip for a few kW costs about the same as the same truck hauling 50 kW of modules. Etc, etc, so small scale systems are more expensive on a per-watt-peak basis.

see "tracking the sun", around figures 7 and 8.

I do agree that Prieto & Hall is deeply flawed.

I have a review at:

(1) outdated info - PV SYSTEM costs are less than half of what they were, so using their total national energy use/GDP method, EROEI more than doubled. Really?
(2) the total national energy use/GDP method is flawed. In 2007, polysilicon prices were stratospheric, (spot above 300$/kg, contract above $100/kg), and most of it was made by established vendors, using about 65 kWh/kg.
Now there is essentially no true fix priced contract market, spot is below $20/kg, and the marginal price depressing excess is made by small, inefficient Chinese producers using 80 kWh/kg. By the Prieto & Hall method, EROEI radically improved/increased; in physical reality, it's now slightly worse.
(3) the "things other people didn't look at" turn out to consist mainly of the 8% overbuild - which happened no place else, due to the politics of the Spanish leadership.
(4) they're full of "we assume…" - sorry, I put more trust in the European life cycle cost people who go to factories, sign NDAs, and actually measure process energy use and material consumption.

So - you are correct, it's not a truly representative study of the EROEI of PV. Not that the EROEI of PV is anything like the halcyon days of 100:1 crude oil, I think it's between 5 and upwards, not exceeding 10 at the moment. Probably technologically limited to about 15.

sunseekernv said...

@ Ray Wharton - absolutely true that mass production of PV cut costs - substantially.

The PV learning curve is about 15-20% price decrease for each doubling of production.
The first cells from Hoffman electronics (for satellites) were thousands of dollars per watt at a yearly production of a few thousand watts.
Now at just over 30 billion watts annual production, cells cost is pushing 50 cents/watt.

a typical learning curve chart at
(semi) related article:

That was the whole raison-d'etre of the German Feed In Tariff and other nation's subsidy plans - get volume up, people will learn and invent, costs will come down, lower prices -> more volume, … . Eventually to where PV is in fact cost competitive in a great many markets like we are today. (and the conventional fossil fueled and nuclear utilities are howling).

When you say: "The process to make the crystals is 19th century, primarily needing extreme heat in a controlled space, burning hydrogen was the technique used; and a supply of clean base mineral." - what are you talking about?

The Czochralski process was invented in 1916.
First applied to silicon in the 1950's.
It's electrically heated (for silicon) for precise temperature control and efficiency - if one did use a hydrogen flame, one would have to seal it off (reducing thermal transfer) from the argon atmosphere around the crucible containing the silicon. Silicon will oxidize in steam, pulling the oxygen out of water molecules.
The silicon melt even oxidizes a bit by pulling oxygen out of the quartz (silicon dioxide) crucible!

Directional solidification for PV didn't come along until the 70's, and didn't get popular until the 1980's.

WOW - thank you! In searching for a picture of DS ingot/process to show you I found
(enlargable) pic with guy's hand on a DS ingot shows a more modern size than:shown at:

It is so fracking unbelievably hard to get custom boules in <111> orientation, maybe these guys will help me when I need another one.

Did you think the Verneuil process can be used for semi-conductors? Mmmm - nope.

FYI - I delved into silicon and PV for the Krampus challenge:

How small an industry is viable?
Hard to say without actually doing it - and I've got too many other fish to fry at the moment.

Matt Heins said...

If a given society is capable of producing and maintaining combustion engines on sufficient scale, then there will be a niche for them economically. Because of their performance advantages. It may be a luxury niche or a specialty niche, not a mass market niche, but it will be there.

If there is a niche for combustion engines, there is a niche for their fuel. Ethanol or methanol will be the fuel of choice for different engine markets, depending on a range of factors. But both would be cost effective tech wise if combustion engines were, and both are useful feed stocks for plastics/lubricants/other chemicals essential to such engines, bolstering the economic potential of both.

No engines, plastics, or high-temp lubricants markets though, and every still just stops at making booze.

sunseekernv said...

@JMG - solar power

(1) re: solar hot water heating.

I join your puzzlement as to why it's not popular in the U.S. Is is so unknown/out of mind? Maybe people are so focused on the payback times and figure they'll move on in a few years, so why bother. Or maybe it's a squick factor of "what's that weird thing on the roof?". Or maybe it's "don't remind me of peak anything".

The federal 30% residential renewable energy tax credit is good for solar hot water as well as PV, wind, etc.
The only "limit" is you must get at least half your hot water from the solar system. No maximum.
Most states have some kind of incentives too:
Get it while the getting is good.

I do note that only about 18% of US home energy use is water heating:
So a lot will have to give in terms of heating efficiency. But super insulated houses can basically finesse the 45% of home energy used for heating - that would be an even better subsidy.

(2) Spain's "much-lauded" solar program.

"much-lauded" by whom?
Textbook example of how NOT to do it.
Stomp on the gas pedal with overly generous subsidies and all kinds of niggly, petty rules (100kW/system limit, etc.). Then slam on the brakes and renege on the deal.

Germany's Feed In Tariff is much-lauded, because it worked. Simple rules, declining subsidy forces people to get more efficient/economic over time. The boom years are over now, but the industry (at least installers) is in reasonable shape and still substantial sized, though down to only a couple of gigaWatts likely in 2014. Because the FIT for most people is at/below retail electricity rates, which effectively means new PV owners sell excess electricity for less than they have to buy back needed electricity at night. So now they start to work on storage.

If the coal lobby will let them. The latest political coalition is desperate to save conventional utilities, and extend the subsidies to the coal miners.
They're even proposing charging people for generating their own electricity.

But as you note, PV subsidies at least get something besides dirty air, black lung invalids, and ruined mountains.
Germany has 35 GW of PV installed, 10x Spain, 3x US. They generate 5% total electricity by PV. That's 420 watts per person in Germany, about two solar panels per person.

Nobody in the PV industry I know ever thought subsides should continue forever. They were always intended to get volumes up so costs could go down, down to grid parity. Then if we can cut subsidies to coal and nuclear it would be fair (fat chance).

Note that "remote industrial" and "off grid" PV markets have NEVER BEEN subsidized.
These are things like cathodic protection of pipelines, remote signal/control powering, navigation aids, roadside call boxes, remote highway signs, and people living "off the grid".
These markets were small - about 100 MW, so were too small to get the volumes need to get to grid parity.

But with the decline of system prices, we start to see larger volumes of un-subsidized on-grid systems. IHS predicts 700 MW in 2014. While a small proportion of the 40 GW or so predicted for 2014, it wasn't so long ago that the entire world-wide PV market was 700 MW, like 2003-2004.

As far as PV's dependance on petroleum, that's transport, gas fired glass furnaces and polymer based encapsulants. The polymers are an issue, but very small volumes compared to world oil use. Solar/wind/... powered glass furnace anyone? So transport - well, we'll see how things turn out. People in the old West bought glass windows shipped in from the East. The biggest factor will be how many people have enough money to afford anything.

Matthew Lindquist said...

The fact that our time is running out seems to be percolating up from our collective subconscious more often and unavoidably these days:

It's still somewhat of a fast collapse scenario(a few decades? Come on.), and their time frame is suspiciously close to the 2030 fantasies, but at least it's something.

More personally, those crocodiles are something that I and everyone in my generation who's realized that they're not going to ever actually pay off their student loans can feel stirring the waters as they circle. I'm mired in the "despair" phase of peak oil grief, is what I'm trying to say. Any advice?

Somewhat more interestingly, I have a friend who's doctorate program in physics is centered almost entirely on fusion research, and he sings a very different tune from what's typically heard in the press releases, which is that everyone he talks to says all the experiments and dead ends and false starts have served to prove one thing: we can't do it without artificial gravity. In fact, if we could do that, it would be easy, according to him. But if wishes were warp drives...

Anyway I was stunned because it was an admission of guilt on the part of the scientific community, as the next step of reasoning is obviously that all the magnetic bottling and what-have-you is simply there to keep the grant money coming, and damn the consequences. Which is not something that will help them when the nooses come out.

sunseekernv said...

@Cherokee Organics

re: being off-grid

3.5kWh/day is about 1/10th of the US average residential use - congratulations on collapsing now and avoiding the rush.

re: Norfolk Island

I've been unable to find any reference to a PV induced outage. Can you point one my way?

This says their diesel generated electricity was AU$0.64/kWh, apparently in 2008.
Not so different than what you're paying.

This says: "Electricity is generated locally by large diesel generators and power surges are common so the use of surge protection devices is recommended …"

A fair number of small (8-12 panel) PV systems with a few solar hot water systems seen while scrolling around on Google maps, a couple of larger rooftop systems. Rarely a building oriented squarely North-South for good solar - musta' been thinking oil would last forever, if anybody was thinking anything other than "square with the road" or about the view. Bet this place get lonelier and lonelier as oil peaks and declines.
Lots of nice pine trees though.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Chris Farmer,

Organic agriculture may be growing as a market, but your argument neglects the fact that that market for that produce - which is predominantly dependent on middle and upper class incomes - is basically uncompetitive on an economic basis with industrial agriculture. That is why the stuff that most people eat is cheaper than organic. Yields are lower and costs are higher for organic. Only those higher incomes can support that difference. This is an economic issue and can't be dismissed as easily as you've done.

If you also provide some of your produce to the local wildlife - like I do here - then the costs for the produce are even higher again as the yields are further reduced.

The basic economic problem is that demand (wants) are unlimited, whereas supply (resources) are limited. It is simply not possible from my experience to feed the current population utilising entirely organic methods. Something has to give.

Plenty of people tell me that they'd like to eat organic food, but can't afford it as it is a luxury good. The majority of people actually prefer to eat (as just one example) industrially farmed chicken meat rather than a chicken produced on a free range organic farm. Just sayin...

Hi sunseekernv,

I have to ask this question form sheer curiosity:

How do you write those long screeds whilst ignoring the simple fact that Russ Day commented that his very large PV system is currently under snow? Sorry dude, but I just don't get it.

By the way, it’s maybe just me, but it is worth mentioning that the sun doesn't shine at night.

Hi Russ Day,

Sorry to drop you in that one above.

By the way your comment: "The idea that we could sufficiently run the household off the grid is goofy."

Perhaps, but it all depends on your location on the planet. The household here in a more sunny locale runs entirely on electricity generated from only a small 3.8kW PV system for the entire year (24/7, 365 days).

Conservation should be your number one goal if you want to go 100% solar powered. Still, snow doesn't help much and it is not a problem I have to deal with.



OrwellianUK said...

Hi John

We have been here before of course, with the Peak Oil reality making a breakthrough only for Peak Oil bloggers to shoot themselves in the feet with collective foolhardiness and for the Corporate Cornucopian Denial Machine to kick in once more, and you have discussed this fairly recently - in the last year or so.

However, we may on the other hand be getting to a stage where the public is no longer conned by the denials. I see a parallel for this in the current spate of Western Hysteria and Double Standards in regards to Ukraine, where a Western backed Coup D'Etat has overthrown a legitimately elected (albeit corrupt and incompetent) Government and replaced it with a cabal of US/EU Stooges and violent Neo-Nazis.

This new "Interim" government the Western Powers and Media insist, is "Legitimate" but a referendum held under International Election Observation in the Crimea is strangely "Illegitimate".

The public however, are not buying the hype. People I talk to are seeing the hypocrisy and double standards for what they are. It is plainly obvious to anyone paying attention that if the US favoured such a referendum it would be declared "Legitimate" and the only reason they didn't is because they knew they would not get the desired result, laying bare their real opinions about "Democracy".

Likewise, the shouting and handwaving about Russian "Aggression" in the aftermath of Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen etc is also blatantly hypocritical and it insults the publics intelligence to act as though they wouldn't notice, but that is what the Western political system seems to be attempting.

I see a similar reaction from the public beginning to occur in relation to Government promises on the Economy, of which claims surrounding Hydro-Fracking are a major part. Nobody believes the hype anymore. Or if they do, they're kind of thinking, "if I'm being lied to this time...". This skepticism is more prominent in Europe of course.

Jason Heppenstall said...

In light of the link that earthworm shared about Nasa claiming that 'the end of the world is nigh' ... it was interesting (make that amazing) to watch three hours of TV live from space last night.

The technological feats that we have accomplished are quite staggering, and gazing down on our planet in real time was alone worth the annual TV license fee.

But that doesn't mean these feats can go on for ever. During the transmission various Nasa people stressed that the work being done on the ISS was 'essential for the future of humankind' and there were several mentions of expanding to Mars being our 'only hope'.

Could it be that Nasa is worried about its immense subsidy hoovering powers being eroded?

"Give us a trillion dollars or the species gets it."

Phil Harris said...

We in Britain copy, or try to copy the USA. Sometimes there is a time lag - but mysteriously, phenomena like the very recent 'Food Banks' can arrive pretty promptly. These make one think there are generic 'causes'.

There are still differences of degree however. The overwhelming need for car ownership in the USA is striking compared with here. No car = no job, apparently.

I found this account of food and cars in Atlanta interesting. Even more striking "no car = malnutrition".


YJV said...

I happened to stumble across this article right now and simply had to link it:

Basically the archdiocese of the religion of progress itself is beginning to have doubts on the future of industrial civilisation. They seemed to have applied their scientific sense in the same fashion as Toynbee/Spengler and reached a similar conclusion. I wonder why?


AlanfromBigEasy said...

Dear JMG,

I recognize that this is your domain, so I let me give you an analysis of why our outlooks for the future may differ.

I feel that there are technically possible mitigations (the window for solutions closed during Jimmy Carter's second term) that will enable a desirable quality of life with quite a bit of technology (less than today though) for many, but not all, nations.

Though technically possible, such mitigation strategies are rarely being followed. One example that does follow what I would prescribe, more or less, is France. See the description of Grenelle I prepared for Zhou Dadi.

I failed to mention that Grenelle also calls for 20% of French agriculture to go organic by 2020.

Since I think it is technically possible to mitigate, the failure point is public policy and society. This means that the results post-Peak Oil, Peak resources and Climate Chaos will vary considerably - since the preparations and responses will vary considerably. I do not expect the uniformity that you apparently do.

I am inferring that you think that effective mitigation is not technically possible, so the results will be more or less uniform. Perhaps an inaccurate assessment.

On a related note, you claimed that nuclear power has been a failure everywhere. I do not agree with respect to France, Sweden, Belgium and Switzerland (perhaps others as well). The first 34 900 MW reactors in France are clearly an economic success.

John Michael Greer said...

Earthworm, the fact that it's being discussed at all strikes me as a positive sign -- and the fact that the cornucopian you quoted had to reach for pie-in-the-sky space mining fantasies strikes me as better news still. Who knows? People may start getting a clue.

Hombre, except that the Cheyenne, and the homesteaders with their corn patches and outhouses, all knew how to live in those much less energy-rich ways, and did it with some degree of grace. Those who don't collapse now and beat the rush won't have that advantage, and will probably be busy instead pushing up daisies. Yes, the situation really is that grim.

Mortal, I think that's an excellent point. Subsidy dumpsters are as common in social-justice activism as they are in the energy field, and no more useful -- for anything except providing employment opportunities for bureaucrats and activists, that is. It's embarrassingly common to see white middle class liberals speaking for the oppressed in such a way that the oppressed themselves can't get a word in edgewise!

Roger, exactly. Those wind turbines are the excuses urbanites in Toronto use to justify continuing their unsustainable lifestyles; they won't actually help, but they make the privileged feel good, which is of course the point.

DeAnander, fascinating. Yeah, you're probably going to see at least a good solid round of decline in the next few decades.

Varun, why does the concept of hope require fantasies of humanity metastasizing across the galaxy? I'd encourage you to reflect on that, and consider the possibility that there are more worthwhile things to hope for. As far as bardic traditions of storytelling, good heavens -- your own culture has some of the world's richest storytelling traditions!

Ray, that's a good point. If you can figure out a way to sell something actually useful to the privileged by claiming that it will help them maintain their lifestyles, you might be able to tap into the subsidies while they're still flowing.

Shane, most of us suffered from craniorectal insertion at some point in our lives, but the faint popping sound that announces the end of that condition has become more common of late. Welcome to the real world!

August, thank you, and a thank you also to everyone else for catching that story!

Nathaniel, excellent. You've glimpsed the stark staring insanity that underlies today's alleged common sense.

Joel, it's an energy sink. Your friend doesn't know any more about the subject than you do -- it's just his lullaby, his incantation to keep the evil peak oil monster at bay so he can roll over and go to sleep.

John Michael Greer said...

Paul, good. Yes, that's one way Polybius' cycle can certainly work out.

Nathaniel, this is why an introduction to the basics of thermodynamics ought to be an essential part of everyone's education. Of course zero point energy exists, but because it's at the zero point, it can do no useful work. Work can only be done by taking energy that is above the zero point and letting it move closer to zero. Thus it's utterly irrelevant to the future of any human society -- especially one that relies on energy at levels of concentration and intensity very, very far from zero.

Russ, excellent. You're walking your talk; any disagreements of detail we may have are irrelevant compared to that point.

Chris, as usual, you're completely neglecting the issue of the limits to available real wealth. Sure, some grain can be turned into ethanol; if so, that grain cannot be used to feed people or draft animals. You only have so much grain per year. What is the most economical use for that grain? It probably won't be fuel for engines, because engines require the infrastructure needed to manufacture and maintain them and the things they drive. Human and animal muscle requires much less infrastructure, thus in an environment of pervasive poverty and hard systems limits, are more economical. BTW, the slow food movement is hardly the example you want, as it's a status symbol of the privileged middle classes, who like to buy things that cost a lot to show how much better off they are than the poor; as the limits to available real wealth clamp down, the market for luxury items of that sort will go away.

SLClaire, exactly. Welcome to the Long Descent.

Matt, no, that's simply not true. The mere fact that a technology is technically feasible does not mean that it will be economically viable. If there are other ways to do the same tasks that cost less, all things considered, those other ways will be embraced and the technology will be abandoned. It amazes me that so many intelligent people simply can't grasp that the mere fact that a machine is possible to build and run does not mean that anyone can afford to do so, or that it will necessarily outcompete all the other options!

AlanfromBigEasy said...

As a sophomore in high school, I decided that the greatest contribution I could make would be in helping make fusion work. Even before Limits to Growth, I was aware of the looming issues.

My undergraduate degree was in Physics, leading towards a Plasma Physics PhD. But I decided not at that point. One reason was I was not brilliant enough to make a breakthrough. I would be just another PhD, filling a spot on a team, No better than the person that would replace me if I went elsewhere.

The other was a loss of faith in fusion. I tried to fit a massive (say 2 GW to 10 GW) generation into a grid that would periodically drop off-line without warning. Hard to run a grid that way without a massive buffer.

And the tokamak required prolonged stability with no clear way to transfer heat into power.

The two avenues that I thought (and still think) have a glimmer of hope are both pulsed. Laser fusion and a very long linear fusion.

The second approach is inject some fuel in one end of a 3 to 4 km long magnetic tunnel, compress it quickly and hold it long enough to fuse and spray the results at relativistic speeds into a magnetic field to capture the energy.

The fusion energy to electricity conversion is 90+% efficient. The materials engineering is doable (unlike tokamaks) . The electricity captured is widely varying voltages DC (perhaps 1 MV peak) in a pulse.

But there are avenues in power electronics to convert such pulses, in rapid succession, to useable power.

One could "load follow" within a range by varying the time between pulses. etc.

But such linear fusion has been left out of current research.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- I haven't researched the NASA-funded model of collapse, but just from reading the article about it, there are two takeaways.

First is that the principle danger they see from the wealth-gap in their model is the reality-distortion bubble is creates around the "elites" or the "privileged classes" in the model. As a result, they ensure that they cannot even become aware that there is a problem, until the problem consumes the non-elite (working) class on which the elites depend. Once the working class collapses or (in the most extreme cases) dies off, the elites are left to starve as they complain that "you can't get good help these days."

The second is that the argument that we won't have shortages in the future because our technological processes keep getting more "efficient," apart from being thermodynamically absurd, is also just a matter of clueless mis-observation. Our industrial processes are demonstrably more efficient than lower-tech processes, but because of the efficiency of scale. That is, it is more efficient per unit because we are making more of them per unit of industrial overhead, and consequently using more resources, not less. The overall process does not conserve scarce resources at all -- it actually uses more resources than any lower-tech process.

Neither takeaway should be surprising to anyone who has been reading your column for long.

This does provide some support for the idea of reducing the wealth-gap significantly as a means to soften the rate of decline. Within the US, of course, this means (probably) maximum wage limits and taxing the uber-wealthy back to the stone age, perhaps even outright confiscation of property, as when FDR recalled all the gold, or when the Colombian government took the latifundio from some of the biggest landowners and parceled it out. Where the tax money goes isn't that important; dump it into subsidy tombs. Build gold-plated stone monuments to the egos of the uber-wealthy you've offended. What matters is bursting the reality-distortion bubble. But half-measures won't do -- you have to get the movers and shakers back to working for a living, like everyone else, or all you've done is anger them and set them to plotting revenge.

The US itself, of course, is the elite of the world, and we would need to do much the same on a global level. But that would require a World Government with some kind of redistributory authority that would raise the rest of the world at the expense of the US, Germany, etc., which isn't going to happen. Even if you could get a super-government together (e.g. the EU), they invariably exist to pump air into the reality-bubble rather than to deflate it. And we have the basic problem of seven billion people, which spells a very low average quality of life for each person.

My impression is that the global economy needs to simply end, which could be done by those old-fashioned things called tariffs, or even (as in Shogunate Japan, or post-Ming China) closing the borders.

That all sounds a lot like what the various Communist governments have tried to do, and we see how well that worked out. The descendants of the wealthy of the 1930's are still spitting the initials FDR and trying to bring down Social Security, and I believe the Colombian land breakup is what created the FARC (?).

I think we're just going to go down the traditional way.

Amy La Gato said...

Mr. Greer:

Another Crocodile akin to the Ethanol bust, the Wyoming methane industry has also gone bust, leaving a legacy of hundreds of abandoned toxic uncapped wells. "Coalbed methane bust leaves thousands of orphaned gas wells in Wyoming" and because many companies have gone bankrupt, and they were only reguired to give a 25,000 bond, BLM charges just a $25,000 bond to cover all of a company's wells in a given state, and it costs about $30,000 to reclaim one well.

There are 1200 wells left uncapped, and the number of abandoned wells expected to double or even triple within a year
"bonding amounts often fall below the costs of reclamation"

Another interesting nugget, recently I heard a radio ad touting that the "opportunity" now exists for individuals to invest in fracking wells, the swindlers are now directly after the "Mom and Pop" investor.

Matt Heins said...


Perhaps I did not make myself clear.

I understand perfectly the affordability issue. I understand perfectly the issue of cheaper competitive technics.

This is why I wrote IF they can be built and maintained in sufficient numbers. How can this be done if it is not affordable to do so? Affordability is assumed in my statement. Just as unaffordability is assumed by the conditional "if".

Also, the mention of luxury and specialty markets addressed the issue of cheaper competition.

There was a time when electric lighting was expensive and kerosene lighting was inexpensive and tallow candles were dirt cheap. What happened then? Did tallow candles monopolize lighting? Did electric bulbs do the same? Or kerosene lamps?

No, of course not. The notion that a product must either outcompete every alternative in every market niche or not exist is utterly mistaken.

So what happened with lighting is that the wealthy had electric lights, the masses in the middle had kerosene (or town gas) and outside of public or private spaces not theirs that had one of the above, the underclass had candles (or limited kerosene, etc.).

Now, why would the wealthy or institutions who could afford its high cost due to technical and material limitations pay for electric lighting? Were they perhaps just being trendy? Maybe they were just silly tech geeks ignoring sense?


They paid for electric lighting because of that technic's PERFORMANCE ADVANTAGES : clean, quiet, odorless, steady light, safety, etc.

Which brings me back to my point.

If combustion engines can be made affordable for even a specialty market (like say, propulsion for military ships, even backup) then they will find a niche because of their performance advantages over cheaper alternatives. Because there are quite simply some tasks that combustion engines can perform that cheaper alternatives - or any alternatives - cannot feasibly do.

So, if there is desire enough for some such work and the engines can be made suitably affordable, there will be a market for engines. If this happens, there will be a market for alcohol fuels. If this happens, the products or byproducts of alcohol fuels will also have market potential.

If not, as I wrote before, the stills make only booze (and medicinal alcohol).

Robert said...

Meanwhile getting back to Ukraine - here are the sanctions.

So, anyone seriously think allowing trade through Russian companies while barring 21 officials will be effective? I’m sure anyone with any clout in Russia has networks of offshore companies on nominee accounts, so, no.

But let’s face it we need a pointless gesture at this time to allow the EU politicians to save face.

Reminds me of Yes Minister. Something must be done, this is something, let’s do it.

latefall said...

@roger & jmg
re wind power

I surely am biased on this technology but I would be careful to dismiss it based on the points mentioned. NIMBY issues of wind power are not a permanently fixed thing:
After a couple of years a local can profit from maintenance
After decades possible downcycling (okay not sure if that's so great, but it could be)
If the urbanites actually depend on the power, and you have control over it...
One very old town I lived in had a "windmill square" pretty much smack in the middle of the oldest (and back then densely populated) part of town.

On back-up and integration I agree.
But again, who says we won't ever have decentralized, low inertia manufacturing that can kick in when it is too windy (possibly also use turbine waste heat as process heat), or boiler & solar thermal combos that store extra energy with very little up front cost, make that high efficiency freezers in warm climates?
Moreover there's is still quite some potential (admittedly also risk due to weird weather) that these things last a fair bit longer than projected. Remember that they are planned using the current economic approach that just wants to have a quick, 5 power point slide pitch-able ROI.
You may be able to keep them running far longer - eventually downgrading(?) to mechanical power and do away with the more complex (magnetic) stuff. The rest that goes in there has many other good uses, so there's a chance it'll stick around longer.

As for "Those wind turbines are the excuses urbanites in Toronto use to justify continuing their unsustainable lifestyles; they won't actually help"
I'd respectfully ask to be really careful with such assessments - especially as I am not convinced we won't have significantly more new (indirect) readers soon.
This can very easily be taken out of context to make an anti-tech point. I believe this is not what the blog is about though. Of course it would be good if people would start to think about how EROEI, society etc. are related. But from that perspective intermittency might not be such a bad thing after all, no?

latefall said...

re: vaporware vs subsidy dumpsters

My impression is that at the point of getting investment for developing technology it is rarely specified unambiguously enough to differentiate the two. Certainly not in sales pitches and lobby work.
You can usually argue that the implementation of the current embodiment is only one iteration on the way to economic feasibility and eventual market domination.
If I was in the bio-fuel business I would argue for example that we'd just need to get a slightly more efficient conversion process, that the market is currently distorted by this or that, that if you apply such and such a "learning curve" with big logarithms we're perfectly on track, etc.
If someone told me windmills were economically pointless sometime, somewhere in the medieval ages I'd have kept arguing for "just one more round of investment" till today. There certainly were many ups and downs with respect to economic viability. I think the viability however is an extremely complex matter to judge, especially when there are large changes to the system pending. Of course what's gone is gone - no argument there. Yet, for example sandbags were very easy to sell through some very troubled times. That doesn't mean they make equal economic sense all the time.

latefall said...

re: climbing down the tech tree

I really did like (I believe it was) Ray's list that included criteria like mass production, historical precedent and Bill of Materials. My gut feeling was that it sounded quite sensible as rules of thumb.

There's a couple of other aspects that deserve some consideration though:
If you imagine a "tech tree" similar to how e.g. the civilization computer games use it, just a lot more complex - and then start kicking out a few techs (or products) more or less at random (e.g. like most techs that are based on this (or include it in the Bill of Materials) get nixed as well after a couple of decades - if no one wants to volunteer the up front cost in face of the perceived risks. I imagine JMG's early steps down will coincide with ripples product of extinctions.
If you want money to develop tech I would assume the risks are then perceived about a magnitude higher than say a decade ago. That is to say capital will be extra tight.
Techs that have more than one use or better access to markets of course have much better chances of scraping capital together from (potential) customers and suppliers. They'll need it, as I would imagine that up front costs also get doubled or so to reduce risk of failure to a large degree. Of course technologies that can adapt/have long half life equipment/good skill base have better chances to ride out disruptions without having to be revived from scratch.
I assume there are going to be many mutually exclusive "right answers" as much of this tech tree is based on self fulfilling (or not) prophecies.

This leads me to add other potential aspects to Ray's list:

Non-perishable high value goods with small mass and/or volume may also have some chance to survive for a while.
Especially if you need mass production you could nicely keep a worldwide "last man standing monopoly" (ie consolidation 200->3->1?), of course only if there is sufficient willingness and capability to pay in the market. If that market is only 1E9 people of whom 9/10 are at bare subsistence level we go back to Ray's rules of skinny thumb.
However the ball bearings mentioned in a recent post are a nice example of a mechanical product and "bridge-tech". They are usually small, valuable, ship well and will always make a nice Christmas present to anyone in a "mechanical society" without much explanation.
A 8 gb micro-sd card or USB-drive in a no-internet (but physical postage) world on the other hand could add significant value to (remaining) electronics, e.g. for dissemination of knowledge, etc. - in an "electronic society". However another question is if their relative complexity is not too high for most societies to have/perceive a net benefit from all this, and not use them as door-stopper.
I assume societies will differ quite strongly in what kind of tech base they'll hang onto, as well as how means are distributed and stuff is valued. Maybe more so than today. Glass beads and spice trade come to mind.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi sunseekernv,

Norfolk Island

You can read the thread, it’s all in there.

What grid connected solar systems can't deal with is a situation of demand destruction. Such an event may be a lethal blow to a major grid at a time when the system can least afford it. The funny thing is that people may be scratching their heads trying to work out what exactly happened.

The grid connect inverters just aren't designed to throttle down supply as and when needed.

An off grid inverter is entirely different in that it acts like a water pump and only supplies energy when it senses the demand. It can also vary the amount of energy supplied. That's why they cost a whole lot more money.

I'm not sure whether you noticed, but JMG's speculation involves a period of demand destruction for energy as a result of economic factors. Just sayin... Oh well.



John Michael Greer said...

Sunseeker, 18% domestic energy use plus a comparable fraction of business and industrial energy use is pretty considerable, as you point out, and comparable fractions of the national energy budget could be slashed by other relatively simple low-tech methods. I'd like to see activists focus on those first and foremost. As for "much-lauded," why, by the people in the peak oil blogosphere who were insisting that vast PV installations would allow us to keep our current lifestyles, of course. Go back in the archives of any peak oil website and you'll find glowing comments about the Spanish PV program as a model for what everyone else should do.

Matthew, I'll want to write something about the issue of despair sometime soon. It's important, but there are answers to it.

Orwellian, if people are beginning to see through the nonsense, we may be closer to crisis than I thought. I expected that to happen only when the brick wall was right there in our faces.

Jason, that's probably about right.

Phil, bingo. The US is in much worse shape than most people overseas realize.

YJV, I admit I'm wondering why all of a sudden they're singing that tune. Jason's theory -- that they're trying to shake down governments for another round of subsidies -- is probably involved, but I'm not at all sure if that's all of it.

Alan, why is it that I can say exactly what I mean and someone as intelligent as you can literally blow right past it and insist that I'm saying the opposite? No, I'm not saying that mitigation isn't technically feasible. I'M SAYING THAT IT'S NOT ECONOMICALLY VIABLE. Will you please read this week's post again, and notice that that was what I explicitly said, not once but over and over again?

As for your preferred modes of fusion, well, do you recall my discussion of vaporware in earlier posts? Every nuclear technology, without exception, looked great on paper. I suggest we stop chasing after fantasies, and instead, ahem, use less energy.

Joseph, no argument there. We've seen any number of proposals for change that amount to asking the rich and influential to hand over their wealth and influence to some coterie of social planners, and you've doubtless noticed how well that's worked.

Amy, thanks for the heads up. That's about par for the course.

John Michael Greer said...

Matt, no, you made yourself clear. You're still wrong. In the abstract, it would have been possible for societies during the post-Roman dark ages to maintain Roman urban centers and all their amenities -- it was technically feasible, and there were people who wanted the services those centers could have provided. The centers still were abandoned over large sections of the former Western empire, because what wealth was available had to go to more critical needs. The many advantages of Roman urban centers did not outweigh the hard fact that there wasn't enough wealth to maintain them and still survive. In the same way, while building internal combustion engines (and PV cells) in the post-industrial dark ages is technically possible, and there will no doubt be people who want them, the limits on the whole economic system will very likely be such that the necessary technological infrastructure will not be able to be supported, and the engines will not get built.

Robert, no argument there.

Latefall, I'm also biased in favor of windpower, but I want to see it on a small enough scale that it can be maintained with a much more modest technological basis and converted to mechanical use without too much difficulty. It's not windpower as such that's a subsidy dumpster and an excuse for conspicuous consumption, it's the gargantuan turbines on which so much attention is fixated today. As for ball bearings and the like, I'll be discussing that shortly.

John Michael Greer said...

(Long alphanumeric string), nice try. If you want to respond to me at that kind of length, get your own blog and post a link here; eight-screen screeds discussing everything but the point of this week's post are way past what I'm willing to inflict on my readers.

DeAnander said...

Speaking of slow food, there's a sign on the till at our local coop which reads something like this **Enjoy your local, organic, seasonal diet... you know, what your grandma called "food".**

So yeah, on the one hand Slow Food can be a trendy status symbol for yupsters. But on the other hand some of it is just what ordinary folks used to eat. There's peasant slow food as well as aristo slow food. Kimchee and sauerkraut were found in humble kitchens in olden times :-)

Those folks stranded in the dismal food deserts in declining US cities are, in some places, depaving and growing their own. Good move.

sunseekernv said...

@Cherokee Organics re: PV system under snow

I'm not sure I get your point.

Renewables are site specific - always have been, always will be. For people new to sustainability I suppose that could be a major revelation - perhaps I'm wrongly assuming most folks here have a good grounding in sustainability. Renewables are also variable on their own unique time scales: sun, wind, water, waves, tides. Even geothermal declines over time. If one is considering renewables, I would plug JMG's Green Wizardry as a starting point, he talks about going out and looking at the site, siting down and seriously thinking about flows, time, seasons. The references JMG cites will be helpful as well. A key to successful sustainability is to think, and think in systems, and make conscious/informed choices.

The fool's paradise of fossil fuel super-abundance allowed people to mindlessly set up camp anywhere without paying attention to local conditions/ecology/etc. As fossil fuels decline, places with poor renewables conditions will become less habitable.

Do you disagree with any of the above?

If one wants to use solar in places where it snows,
then one ought to think about things like:
* the panel angle w.r.t. slope so snow will slide off - maybe adjustable mount?
* azimuth w.r.t. the winds that may carry blasting snow
* If one has such windy snow, one may dis-consider things like evacuated tubes or certain PV mounts that collect snow.
* access for cleaning
* elevation above ground to allow snow that came off the panels to sit without shading
* is there potential for ice to fall/be blown off nearby trees, buildings onto panels and damaging them?

Same sorts of things for wind, hydro, geothermal, wave, tidal, biomass.

As to Russ's system, not clear if it warranted comment. It paid for itself, he accepts lifestyle changes are necessary. He's on the grid, so no immediate worries of freezing. I would take his comment about "… basement full of batteries…" as hyperbole - it's not absolutely true, a wealthy person in good sun with a big roof/large lot can do the BAU thing (at home) as long as panels/inverters/batteries hold out, but his comment certainly applies to most folks - so I felt no need to nit pick that.

As far as going off-grid (does he have batteries now?), would it not occur to him to raise the ground mount racks/steepen their angle? If he had a place to put the snow, would it not occur to him to go out and stomp down snow and/or move it around, assuming he has time/physical ability to do that? Is he just figuring - "gee, this is the worst winter in 30-40 years where I'm at, this will never happen again."? I wonder if his house is super-insulated, etc., but JMG's book covers the virtues of passive survivability and the interplay of conservation & renewables - am I wrong to assume he hasn't read it when he says "We have your latest book on order"?

I write to offer up my views when I think there are misconceptions and the correction is generally applicable, like:
The data I presented show small roof-mounted systems are more expensive/W than large ground mounts.
The Verneuil process cannot be used to make silicon or any other semiconductor crystals I can think of - hmmm, just thought of one, copper oxide.
But that's a rare curiosity AFAIK.
If someone disagrees and can point me to some reasonable data/papers, then point away.
Otherwise I'd like to save people some grief, for example:
if they should come across a bunch of silicon powder for sale cheap thinking they can save/make money fusing it in an oxy-hydrogen flame for silicon PV, the results will not work, or worse!
WARNING: finely divided silicon dust is FLAMMABLE, even EXPLOSIVE under certain conditions.

Tom Bannister said...


I've just thought of an interesting analogy for the issue of economic viability vs technical feasibility. Think of it as like in a game of scrabble. You might have a really really good word you can spell with your allocated letters. But of course, in the game of scrabble, what gets you points is whether you can actually put the words on the board, not just whether or not you can spell or think of a good word that will theoretically win you a lot of points. For these purposes of course, a good knowledge of the English dictionary is necessary (analogy- a good knowledge of technical feasibility) but also a good idea of how a game of scrabble might actually work out in practice and what words you will actually be able to put on the board is also useful (analogy- economic/ practical/ logical feasibility). Anyway, just my two cents



Joseph Nemeth said...

A minor correction: I always get confused by who's who in Colombian politics.

Apparently the FARC is the Marxist group that pushed for the breakup of the latifundio (large farms owned by urban industrialists). After peace was made with FARC and they achieved a degree of political representation, the landowners unleashed a wave of assassinations of FARC-affiliated politicians.

The point remaining unchanged that the confiscation and redistribution of private land provoked a devastating armed response from the landowners. I'm sure a forcible redistribution of wealth in the US would go down about that well.

AlanfromBigEasy said...

My apologies for being unclear#. When I said "technically feasible" I meant economics as part of technically feasibility. And I do think it is economically feasible with proper public policies. See the French Grenelle plans.

On a related point, the same Conservative government that created Grenelle had these follow-up plans.
Since 2012, political discussions have been developing in France about the energy transition and how the French economy might profit from it.[21]

In September 2012, Minister of the Environment Delphine Batho coined the term "ecological patriotism."

The government began a work plan to consider starting the energy transition in France. This plan should address the following questions by June 2013:[22]

How can France move towards energy efficiency and energy conservation? Reflections on altered lifestyles, changes in production, consumption, and transport.

How to achieve the energy mix targeted for 2025? France's climate protection targets call for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030, and 60% by 2040.

Which renewable energies should France rely on? How should the use of wind and solar energy can be promoted?

What costs and funding models will likely be required for alternative energy consulting and investment support? And how about for research, renovation, and expansion of district heating, biomass, and geothermal energy?

One solution could be a continuation of the CSPE, a tax that is charged on electricity bills.

The Environmental Conference on Sustainable Development on 14 and 15 September 2012 treated the issue of the environmental and energy transition as its main theme.[23]

Unfortunately, the Socialists won the election in 2013.

Fortunately, the 2007 Grenelle plans continue to roll along. The Socialists have slowed them (the Paris Metro will be doubled (+208 km) by 2030, not 2025 as previously planned, but they added another major project).

The goal for oil consumption is to drop from 2 million b/day (@ 2000) to 850,000 b/day by 2040.

Circumstances may force an even deeper cut, but such a planned drop under BAU allows for greater cuts faster in an emergency.

It appears that France is (was ?) trying to couple economics with an aggressive energy transition.

And I repeat that the French nuclear build-out has been economic and not a "subsidy dumpster". They are taking care to make sure that the same is true for renewables.

In 2007, they believed that wind was then economic, but solar was not. In 2007, they planned a shift from wind to solar @ 2020. Subsequent economic improvements in solar are likely to bring that date forward in time.

I would use France (at least under the Conservatives) as an example of avoiding "subsidy dumpsters' while aggressively changing energy and resource use economically. And they are looking at what changes in lifestyle et al will be required.

Unfortunately, only a few other nations are doing likewise.

# I am caring for my father after he broke his leg, so my concentration and precision are not as they should be,

Enrique said...

Anselmo said:

“You're talking about real tyrannosaurs, not about crocodiles.”

No argument there. My Canadian friends often describe the USA as the “world’s biggest bully”, while Mexicans have long referred to the USA as the “Yankee Colossus of the North”. A President of Mexico once famously said “Poor Mexico; so far from God, so close to the United States”. Eastern Europeans like Ursachi Alexandru feel pretty much the same way about Russia, and for very good reason.

Enrique said...

JMG said:

”The US is in much worse shape than most people overseas realize.”

Dmitri Orlov had a great post about this a while back, noting that in a great many categories, including standards of living, health care and quality of life, the US is at or close to the bottom amongst industrialized nations.

This makes the Faux News and pseudoconservative propaganda about the alleged evils of European style “socialized medicine” even more risible, since Europeans, Canadians and the industrialized nations of East Asia have better health care systems than the US and at a much lower cost. But then again, thanks to decades of propaganda and a truly appalling level of provincialism, most Americans live in an Orwellian world where “war is peace”, “slavery is freedom” and “truth is a lie”.

latheChuck said...

A couple of years ago, while visiting family in Michigan, I read a story in the local paper about a wind turbine that had been installed as a gift to a local institution, as a green technology demonstration project. Then "something" went wrong with the turbine, estimates were that it'd cost thousands of dollars just to get a qualified technician to examine it, and who knows how much more expense to put it back into operation! The details are hazy now, but I think I remember that to total market value of the electricity it had produced before the breakdown was in the tens of dollars, or maybe low hundreds.

I'd say it was a fabulous demonstration, one that should be explained to every student in detail.

I don't know whether or not this story is about the same turbine, but it's a fun read either way.

If you don't follow the link, the Department of Environmental Quality decided to donate their broken turbine to a community college "for parts".

dragonfly said...

I think it's worth noting that the "NASA Funded Study" (original here) that so many have mentioned in the preceding comments, bears this acknowledgment in section 8:

"This work was partially funded through NASA/GSFC grant NNX12AD03A, known as “Col-laborative Earth System Science Research Between NASA/GSFC and UMCP"

So, while I am personally in agreement with the study's findings (being an aspiring Green Wizard, after all), until more information surfaces I'd be hesitant to assume the report represents anything like NASA's official stance on the matter. Much less that anyone important at NASA has even read the darned thing.

sunseekernv said...

@ Cherokee Organics re: Norfork Island

Thanks for the link.
Ah - small system, unsophisticated inverters, high penetration, nobody thought this many PV systems would show up so fast, oops!

Yes, well, (wait for it) "in Germany" large systems can be throttled down by the grid management. (PV as well as wind) And smaller systems are gaining that capability.

There's a push to put in/enable that capability in the U.S. before much more solar gets added.

re: "PV is not an option to power large scale grids"

As far as PV not suitable for the grid - small, old, battery systems like yours were expensive, too expensive for the grid - but thank you for being a pioneer.

When systems get put up in the multi-megawatt size or bigger, they get cheaper. If you look at page 22 of Tracking the Sun VI, there are installed price distributions for small, medium and large systems.
Even in the US there were $2/Wp large systems in 2012.
This is based on thousands of actual system prices gathered by the authors.

Read the link re Austin's 5 cent/kWh 150 MW PPA.

What Austin Energy released today:

5 cents per kWh. yes, that's five cents per kWh (wholesale price) - which is cheaper than most gas, coal or nuclear. (but not wind) No batteries involved, only the PTC (Production Tax Credit) of 30% as a subsidy. That's 80/5 = 16 times cheaper than your system, albeit no storage.

BTW - are you aware that German has 35 GW of PV on its grid as of the end of 2013? Thirty Five Billion watts!

"It will never happen." Ummm, it already did. There's 12.1 GW of PV and 0.9 GW of CSP in the U.S. China is aiming for 14 GW of PV in 2014 alone.

Things have changed and keep changing in PV land. Welcome to grid parity in many places.

How long the grid will stay up, etc. - who knows, but grid scale PV and CSP has been here (and in Germany) for a decade.

sunseekernv said...

@Russ Day - dooh! I finally saw your 1st post in the thread.

16 kW is pretty big, though if it spends a month under snow, it's next to useless.
(lots of useful stuff on this site).

I'm assuming the rooftop panels are at a fairly low angle, snow + cosine loss will really get you.

Some things to think about:

Were these systems properly commissioned?
Recently checked?
Not too uncommon for a loose wire/connection to disable a string.

I'd use PVWatts to check the output vs. what it should reasonably be.

Do you know your heating degree days (and cooling degree days)?
I'm guessing (from "snow") most of your load is heating.

How's the insulation/tightness?
Have you had a blower door test?
N.B. depending on the climate, sealing a house without adding a heat-recovery/enthalpy recovery ventilator can bring nasty mold problems.
My cottage will have R40 walls, almost Passivhaus, will take 1/3 ton (1200 watts) of heat pump to heat it - worst case!

Can you zone the house to avoid heating every part of it? Thicker insulation in unused rooms windows in winter?

I would think about either optimizing the tilt for winter or doing an adjustable mount for the 5kW in the yard. You can play "what if" with PVWatts to see how it helps with winter. Or brute force it and add another 8kW ;-)

How's the East-West Azimuth of the systems?
Shading? Even bare branches in winter can cut output a lot. Just a touch of shading from a building can cut output a lot too. Maybe micro inverters or optimizers would help.

My cottage will have a half-shed room with the panels, and a flat "extensive" green roof to the North, allowing me to SAFELY brush snow off with a soft brush if I care.

There are soft snow rakes to clean panels SAFELY FROM THE GROUND - (no sense risking life/limb climbing on a roof in winter for a few bucks of electricity). Though in your 80s you may not care to be out in the snow that much.
relevant video starts at 3:20

How's the loop temperature on the ground source heat pump? Does it recharge by lots of air conditioning in the summer or irrigation water?
If not, some solar thermal panels using the loop field/wells as a "dump load" would improve efficiency/cut energy use.

I hear you on the Sierra Club and vehicle-to-grid non-senses.

Cherokee Organics said...


Perhaps it is merely my take on this week’s discussions, but it seems to me that people are focusing on the minutiae thus thereby completely overlooking the big picture?

My gut feel is that this situation is a mental disease of our current culture.

Whilst out supervising the chooks activities this evening, I came up with a natty line based on this week’s comments: "people need to get out of the laboratory and into the field".

As an interesting side note, the season has turned here and I finally received about an inch of rain the other day. I'm now exhaling a big sigh of relief for now.

Incidentally, this evenings adventures included scaring stumpy the wallaby away from the herb bed before too much damage was inflicted on my new freebie 18x rhubarb crowns sourced from local contacts. Rhubarb is a clear winner here as a filler for jam.

Anyway over the weekend I had the opportunity to visit the beautiful - and much moister - Otway mountain ranges to the south west of here. The vegetation told me that they had a pretty rough summer there too. However, during this visit I spotted another wallaby that most certainly didn't look as fat, glossy and healthy as stumpy and his cohorts do here!

Not to make you jealous, but in my travels I also spied a wild quince tree - and stripped it of its fruit. YUM quince!



RPC said...

The flip side of the decreasing returns of energy/technology is that the first increment of either can be immensely valuable. $3/kwhr would be ridiculous to run an inflatable figure for your front lawn, but it's a bargain for the first light or refrigerator. Most of the United States got wired for electricity when the average household used less power - total - than a blow dryer. So I think that e.g. photovoltaics and wind won't need to compete with today's energy prices; they need to compete with oil lamps and ice houses.

thrig said...

For those who claim that the car will remain running, on what would it run? No, not the fuel, the road. Roads only last, oh, 25 years for asphalt, or 75 for concrete, more or less. Consider the quick reversion to the hand-drawn Chinese wheelbarrow after one of their dynasties went down (they had asphalt roads). The Roman roads lasted longer, though those had most impressive engineering. As a modern example, Seattle is having trouble paying for its non-arterial roads, with no serious funding there since, oh, 1993. They do pothole patching, if you call it in, but that's a band-aid. Some of the arterials are in none too good shape: I can see the old brick under the broken asphalt on Eastlake Ave, when there is not an oily puddle in the way. The populace seems mighty tax-shy, so we'll see what funding they are willing to drop into road maintenance. Longer term, geographic and other barriers will come into play: who is maintaining the bridges, the mountain passes? What happens when the distance between boutique fuel-makers is too great, what remains of the road too troublesome? Local use, local neglect: cars going, cars gone.

On the plus side, horses are already self-driving, so that need not be invented. They are also expensive. In "The Clouds" by Aristophanes, a wayward son spends too much on horses, or you can count the infantry versus calvary numbers in, say, Cyropaedia. The ratios there favor a few more pedestrians than Persians.

William Church said...

JMG said "Nathaniel, this is why an introduction to the basics of thermodynamics ought to be an essential part of everyone's education."

Amen to that. If I am ever made emperor one of my actions shall be to require the completion of an entry level engineering thermodynamics class prior to ANY collegiate degree being granted. Lord knows the other departments have flogged us for decades with their useless "core curriculum" nonsense.

As an added bonus the inclusion of a real collegiate level science/physics laden course may go a long way toward deflating the education bubble. I'm not sure a lot of students could actually pass such a course.


OrwellianUK said...

Hi John. I think they may be seeing through the nonsense but not with a conscious knowledge of what it means. Very few people I speak to have any notion of what Net Energy is or have ever thought about the concepts of finite resources and the absurdity of perpetual growth. However, they do seem to be understanding that something isn't quite right and that we cannot go on as we have been doing.

The increase in localised food sourcing and "grow your own" in both the UK and US is possibly an indicator of this. Perhaps at a deep genetic level, we have a failsafe survival quality which encourages us to try and live within our means? Would be nice if that was the case.

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...

> (Long alphanumeric string), nice try.

Nice try at what? I tried to post a comment, a bit longer than my usual, but I've posted long ones before that interested some people.

> discussing everything but the point of this week's post ...

The premise of your post, stated explicitly, is "for the rest of the time our species endures, we will have to deal with much more sharply constrained energy supplies than we’ve had handy over the last few centuries."

This requires the failure of fusion, which you also address explicitly in the post. My comment mainly concerned fusion.

My main points are:

1. you are talking as though a $16 billion research project is a lot of money. The oil industry spent $4 trillion on drilling since 2005. In the energy industry, $16B is just a deal.

2. Your physical arguments (in the comments) concerning fusion are not valid. This doesn't mean the conclusion is incorrect, just that your arguments don't carry the conclusion. There are no known obstacles to a working fusion device. There may be unknown ones but you were arguing that known physical principles rule it out, which is incorrect.

Personally I'd rather invest $16B in a solar breeder project than a Tokamak, so I'm not carrying a torch for fusion, it's just that I don't see how the discussion is advanced by asserting something to be known when it is currently unknown. The feasibility and/or viability of fusion is unknown at present. ITER is just an experiment (and not a very good one in my view). The media may not understand that, for sure.

I have an alternative name for the dumpster concept:

Subsidy White Elephant -> Subsidy Blanc Nelleplump (via babytalk) -> Subsidy Blanceplump -> Plump

Dimitry Orlov mentioned a similar concept in Russian which I think was called a fuffle.

Val said...

Thrig, I agree heartily with your comment on the maintenance of roads. For example in Oakland CA I encounter some really appalling potholes on a regular basis, such as would not have been tolerated in such a large and comparatively important town 30 or 40 years ago. Work crews try to keep up by patching with asphalt, but the level of maintenance is far below former standards. It's one of the more obvious signs of infrastructural decay.

Roman roads were awesome. They were paved with heavy flagstones laid on a bed of sand, gravel and rocks, or so I've read. Some of them are still in use, as are, I believe, certain Roman aqueducts. Now that's what I call real engineering.

I also heartily agree with Enrique's assessment of the Orwellian nature of current American society. Most of us may not be getting that midnight knock on the door just now, but I'm not assuming that situation will endure indefinitely.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi sunseekernv,

This is my last response to you.

You completely disregard the fact that grid connect PV systems require fossil fuel backup generators because the sun simply does not shine at night.

This situation cannot be ignored as you so clearly have.

Then, wait for it, large scale fossil fuel generators are uneconomic to have been built and operated only to idle away the day whilst PV supplies intermittent energy to the grid. With the exception of gas, fossil fuel generators are incredibly difficult and complex to throttle up supply if the sun goes behind clouds on any particular day.

Of course grid connect systems are cheaper. It is because they have a massive fossil fuel subsidy which no one seems to want to mention in their rush for renewable energy sources.

Planning to (or the push to) install a smart grid is not actually installing it on the ground.

Then you brush away my comments regarding appropriateness. Yeah, that's right, some parts of the world - and I expect Germany falls into this category - can only produce the equivalent of mouse flatulence from their installed solar capacity during the dead of winter.

For your next trick you seek to somehow ignore that little problem by blaming problems of snow on the specific installation itself. Nice one, but the rhetorical trick doesn't impress me.

Not only do I live with this stuff, but I have dialogue with people who actually install and also live with this stuff and that it is the source of my utter disbelief in your comments. Your comments remind me of a addicted gambler, in that you’ll only ever consider the wins whilst at the same time completely ignoring the massive losses.

As a suggestion, build your cottage and install a PV system. After a year of observations, you will be well equipped to discuss the ins and outs of the technology.

Until then, goodbye!


Renaissance Man said...

An aside about wind power and economic viability.
The current resentment for wind turbines in Ontario has more to do with the fact that the turbines are not generating any local economic benefits, except for a few farmers and local people feel (quite rightly) as if they are being shafted. You cannot travel across northern Germany or Holland and be out of sight of a giant turbine, but they don't complain because the locals get direct economic benefits.
Nevertheless, I do not for one minute believe these huge turbines will remain economically viable, as they require huge supply chains of exotic materials. The CNE turbine went up to much fanfare and then the manufacturer who was supposed to maintain it, Lagerway, went bust & it is now run by knowledgeable volunteers. It does generate electricity, but no real revenue.
Low-tech has an article about the 16th (?) century windmill factory city in Zeeland in Holland, all single small windmill-powered factories. I imagine that is what wind-power will really be like in the future, except with the gains from efficient design developed in the 20th century.
As for electricity, I'd go with hydro power, like 100 years ago.

onething said...

I shall treasure the gold star. I was rather sure I'd never get one.

Now you mention it, gas prices did plunge sometime after the 2008 crash. I'd forgotten that.

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...

Interesting observation in a recent podcast at Peak Prosperity concerning inadvertent subsidies for fracking:

"Even with that, the Department of Transportation in Texas did this analysis and said, "Fracking is doing about four billion dollars of damage to our road surfaces and bridges on a yearly basis. These eighty-thousand-pound trucks, of which it might take as many as almost twelve hundred to complete a single well—six hundred if you want to re-frack it—and those twelve hundred trucks weighting eighty thousand pounds filled with sand and water and fracking fluid and who knows what and giant diesels and…"

Richard Heinberg: "Drilling rigs, yeah."

Chris Martenson: "…drilling rigs and stuff. They are only collecting about a billion dollars in severance tax back to repair the road damage and doing four billion in damage. Who is going to pay that?"

irishwildeye said...

rj8957 said

"I wonder what it was like to be a peak oiler during the 80s and 90s."

My Peak Oil moment happened in the early 1980s, I was a 21 year old agricultural college graduate working as a dairy herdsman on an intensive farm. One morning after milking I sat down to smoke and watched that days milk leaving the farm. Just after the milk went out of sight I saw a huge lorry load of fertiliser come into sight.

It suddenly struck me that there was a vast amount of goods coming onto the farm and in comparison very little was leaving. I began to question everything I had learned in college. As a newly minted young critic of modern farming I already had the advantage of having worked with and talked to many old time farmers in my teens.

By the mid 1980s I was a converted peak oiler. Like JMG I read "the Limits to Growth and the collected works of E.F. Schumacher". My greatest moment of existential angst came the first time I saw President Carter's malaise speech. It was then I realised that Reaganomics and Thatcherism were hideous historical mistakes. Carter wanted us to make sacrifices so that our grand children might prosper, Regan advocated partying on. Like insane drug addicts we betrayed our own grandchildren so that we could get one more fix of the industrial age party. After that I parted company with the mainstream world view and learned to keep my opinions to myself. The late 1980s were an angst ridden and depressing time in my life.

On the upside I rediscovered the virtues of the bicycle and fell in love with the joys of long distance solo bikeing and camping trips. In an other wise secure and dull life, my long distance solo bicycle tours in Ireland and England have been the great adventures of my life. From the lows of being lost in the dark far from home, cold and wet, with the wind driving the rain in my face, to the highs of cycling over a great plain with the sun beating down and a tail wind pushing me on. If I had not been peak oil aware I might have missed all that.

The really big upside of being peak oil aware for the last 30 years is that I live in a very small house, with very modest expenses and no debt. Our household income is way below the Irish poverty line, yet we live very well and have a modest amount of money for on going capital investment.

John Michael Greer said...

DeAnander, the self-described "Slow Food movement" is a status symbol for yuppies; the fact that other people are doing the same thing without the glitzy marketing, and for other reasons, is another matter entirely. I was discussing the former because that's what the commenter to whom I was responding brought up.

Tom, that's quite a workable metaphor.

Alan, when the post to which you were responding was all about the difference between technical feasibility and economic viability, insisting that you meant to include the latter in the former is a bit disingenuous, don't you think?

Enrique, I noted in a post here several years ago that the US was in the process of becoming a Third World country. As far as I can see, we're still very much on track.

LatheChuck, that's a classic example. Many thanks!

Dragonfly, duly noted. The fact that it's gotten this much publicity is the detail that interests me.

Cherokee, glad to hear about the rain. As for focusing on the minutiae, well, yes -- that's how you avoid seeing the big picture if the big picture is too scary for your comfort zone.

RPC, in the case of wind, no argument at all -- PV is a more complex matter, since it requires all that industrial infrastructure to make PV cells and the rest of the ingredients for a system, and that also has to be maintained. As long as you're thinking about renewable energy as the equivalent of oil lamps and iceboxes, though, you're in the realm that renewable energy can support; it's when people insist we can maintain a modern middle-class standard of living on a renewable basis that we've passed into the territory of subsidy dumpsters.

Thrig, no argument there. I was in Chicago at a speaking gig this past weekend, and the streets were rutted with potholes to an astonishing extent -- if things go much further in the same direction, I'm not at all sure that cars will still be able to use the surface streets without suffering serious damage.

Will, no argument there, either.

Orwellian, the instinctive sense that something is very wrong and is getting worse seems fairly common on this side of the water, too. Unfortunately, as you've noted, it's usually combined with a complete lack of understanding of what's actually going wrong, and that leaves the door open to scoundrels of various kinds.

Myriad said...

@RPC: That's a good point. And $3.00/kWh is hardly a limit. Even in the present day, you might sometimes willingly pay well over $150.00 per kWh. How? By turning on a flashlight with alkaline batteries in it. Light, where and when you need it, is worth a lot. Always has been, always will be.

Weighing against that is all the difficulties Ray Wharton laid out in his excellent comment. Prediction one way or the other involves very complex factors. For example, if I didn't know it from history, I doubt I'd be able to "predict" that people would be able (technically or economically) to sail halfway around the world in wooden sailboats on two-year voyages to hunt huge animals in their own element with hand weapons, to obtain superior lamp oil.

But can 19th-century whaling and post-collapse PV making really be compared? Both require a lot of expertise, and roughly similar amounts of capital (a provisioned ship versus a small factory), so call that a wash. But one required high manpower and personal risk; the other would require more sophisticated tooling. Not directly comparable at all. So it depends on what other conditions exist.

About all I can be sure of is that PV-based lighting won't have to compete with whale oil, for the next few centuries.

John Michael Greer said...

1ab, you're still evading the point, and comparing apples to oranges in the bargain. Realistic estimates have long suggested that a fusion reactor would cost 10 times as much as a fission plant, and produce only about the same amount of electricity. The current estimated cost of ITER ($17 billion at this point) suggests that if anything, those estimates were on the low side. Fission's already unaffordable -- no nation on the planet has ever been able to afford fission power without gargantuan government subsidies -- and an energy source at least ten times more costly is thus right out of the running.

Whether or not my speculation about the physical obstacles to nuclear fusion is correct -- and I note from one of the other comments here that it's a speculation shared by at least one specialist in the field -- is ultimately irrelevant, because, ahem, technical feasibility is not economic viability, and an abundant energy source that will bankrupt any society that tries to rely on it might as well not be there. As to the other potential modes of fusion, well, of course vaporware always looks great when it's still on paper; the tokamak concept looked really exciting in its early days, too. Until somebody can offer something other than verbal handwaving, I see no reason to pin unwarranted hopes on fusion, and every reason to plan for the future based on realistic estimates rather than the overdeveloped sense of collective entitlement that seems to drive so much thinking on that subject.

Renaissance, here again, I'm a great fan of windpower on a home and community scale. As long as you're willing to adapt your lifestyle to deal with the intermittency and low energy concentration that are inseparable from renewable energy, wind is great. It's the attempt to pretend that we can maintain today's absurdly extravagant lifestyles on a renewable basis that I'm trying to critique.

Onething, a deft display of cultural literacy will usually get something of the sort from me!

1ab, good catch. That could also be seen as an example of catabolic collapse in action -- the transformation of some of our society's capital (the road system, and a range of other uses for tax revenues) into waste in an attempt to maintain a resource flow.

Chris Farmer said...

1) I believe you were right when you implied that it is a bummer when someone responds to you but doesn’t address your key point. My key point in my last comment was “what is not economically viable now may become economically viable in the not so distant future.”

2) JMG wrote: “you're completely neglecting the issue of the limits to available real wealth.”

Perhaps. But my experience has been that the great majority of modern folks view these issues (if at all) from a consumer’s perspective. This is natural, since a great majority of modern folks exist primarily as consumers.

However, I have found it extremely useful to look at the “limits of available wealth” from a producer’s perspective as well, which most of us will have to be in the not too distant future. I have made over ¾ of my living as an adult either producing organic food, crafting homes built from wood from trees I helped to kill, or by designing and installing off-grid utilities. I don’t claim myself as some kind of shining example of how to pull off these enterprises. But no doubt I’ve given it my best shot for the last 2 decades.

Nevertheless, when working on these front lines, I’ve found that one perceives not only the wealth enabled by our society’s cheap food, timber, and fuel, but also the wealth disabled by that very same cheap food, timber, and fuel. Our cheap commodity culture marginalizes an incredible amount of potentially valuable resources from our economy, including human imagination and labor, as well as all kinds of ecologically integrated systems.

As the modern age of cheap energy wanes, all kinds of wealth marginalized for so long from our economy will come back into play. Our industrial Ag system’s cheap food is built on that cheap energy – all the way from fertilizing through seeding, cultivating, harvesting, processing, refrigerating, and transporting. As the cheap energy goes, so will the cheap food.

Cheap meat raised in CAFOs will very likely disappear. The market share for Sustainable, Local, & Organic (w) meat and dairy raised on rotationally grazed pastures will, on the other hand, likely actually grow, since it is more ecologically efficient and arguably more sustainable than cultivating annuals which require more energy intensive inputs (SLOw or not).

What I am saying here is akin to your theory of catabolic collapse – although I am focusing more on assets that were marginalized by the previous economic system, as opposed to assets that were abandoned by the previous system for lack of capital to maintain.

3) JMG wrote: “Sure, some grain can be turned into ethanol; if so, that grain cannot be used to feed people or draft animals.”

Actually, that’s not true. First of all, as a reminder, ethanol can be made from things other than grain (from bad apples to cattails grown in grey-water systems). But even if we are talking about grain – all that the process of brewing and distilling alcohol does is remove the sugar and starch from the crop. All of the protein in the grain remains (actually it is now pre-digested by the yeast, so is even more digestible), all of the fat in the grain remains, all of the vitamins and minerals remain (actually the vitamin complex has been improved by the yeast’s production of B vitamins), and all of the fiber remains.

People could eat the distiller’s grain (although likely wouldn’t unless they were real hungry). But ruminants can actually be more productive supplemented with distiller’s grain than straight grain. (The first stomach within a cow – the rumen, evolved to convert sugar and starch from the cellulose the animal ate – not to be flooded with sugar and starch from straight grain, which upsets the rumen’s whole microbial ecology.)

An engine designed or modified to run on straight ethanol will run dramatically cooler than on gas – dramatically increasing its overall useful life.

Once again, we are not going to run Suburbia and Mall-wart on this ethanol. But as great as bodies and muscles are, engines too may have their place in the ecotechnic future.

Thanks again

irishwildeye said...

Enrique said
EU and US policy on Ukraine is "belligerent but clueless", a brilliant and concise description. This is not going to end well for the EU if they hold their current course. There is a lot of idle chatter here in Europe about punishing the Russians by not buying their oil and gas. Good luck with that one guys.

The west's propaganda campaign is also risible, the Russians are winning that as well. The Russian ability to intercept US and EU diplomatic phone calls is very impressive indeed. The two now famous US and EU intercepted diplomatic phone calls are the crocodiles of reality that drag the western narrative under the water.

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...

JMG, I didn't compare the efficiency of any two sources, I compared the funding scale of a long term fusion research project to the immensely larger amounts that are spent every year to dredge up black gunk. Fusion has been a cottage industry by comparison. I don't have the numbers at hand but it wouldn't surprise me if CERN is a bigger cottage industry and they've never had any practical purpose at all. It seems to me that the amounts spent, being so small, are not important. What is important is the question of whether this is being used as a distraction from a realistic future. Since ITER isn't even designed to achieve ignition, well, that speaks for itself.

I have no problem with speculations about fundamental obstacles to fusion. Indeed yours is not only a reasonable one, it was the starting point, obviously, when physicists first asked the question: is a gravity well the only way? Prior to the recent Higgs experiment, there were equally plausible speculations as to what it would find, but the truth is, nobody knew either way. Fusion is like that, nobody has proven it either way. It could be that it is simply "too big" for us.

None of that should have anything to do with planning for a future on the basis of speculative science. However I suppose, in the real world, the mere existence of energy research provides an excuse for anyone who wants to take it. "They'll think of something". Well, they certainly will but it might not be what was hoped for.

I wonder if there is a term that could be used in place of "uneconomic" to describe low EROEI energy sources. Since economics is a largely hallucinatory discipline, it just seems to me that all of their terminology should be avoided since it leads people to get lost in abstractions.

Candace said...

Just as a comparison point on costs of investment in the future. Funding for WIC and Head Start for 2014 was about 8 billion for each. Personally I think investing in the health and cognitive development of the people who are likely to do most of the heavy lifting during the long desent would be a better investment of funding than fusion research.

I also find it interesting that big oil spends so much money on drilling rather than fusion research. It could be shortsightedness on their part or it could be they prefer to invest in things that will make them money.

AlanfromBigEasy said...

There have been at least three "persistent" civilizations for roughly five millennia - Egypt, China (both north & south) and India.

Then there is Roman civilization that persisted till at least 1453 when the walls of Constantinople were breached by cannon fire, and succeeded by another civilization.

This implies that some cultural norms and some knowledge required for civilization persist. Perhaps not universally, but in some locations.

rapier said...

Of all the dark shadows being cast by the Ukraine situation the seeming faith that fracked NG will save the EU from Putin's clutches rates as perhaps the darkest. I mean do political leaders actually believe this nonsense?

It's one thing for them to shill for who the dollars come but another to make strategic blunders based upon easily and ever more widely recognized false assumptions. Such would be incompetence on a grand scale.

Well since the events in Ukraine were driven by incompetence it seems probable the blundering can compound. It's a frighting thought.

jcummings said...

Hi - I really appreciate the long descent point of view. It's refreshing. I guess my point is not that things will be cut off abruptly, but that if things start to disappear either by becoming too costly, or impractical, or however things go, we may not necessarily even know what's important to replace, given how pervasive industrialism is in our lives. Because we've replaced many traditional practices with industrial products, the vast majority of us won't know how to take care of ourselves in the absence of industrial practices that go on behind the scenes of our lives.