By John House, MD: A Superb Summary of Our Predicament

Here is a must read 4 part series by John House, MD that was published in the Eureka Springs Independent newspaper.

Part 1: The next decade could bring chaos

The ‘60s and ‘70s were an exciting time to be young. So much was changing; everywhere a person looked there were new technologies, new discoveries – even other planets were no longer off limits.

Like many people raised in the industrialized world during the 20th century, I was taught – directly and indirectly – that humans would experience non-stop progress; each generation would build on the successes of the last taking the human race to ever higher levels. There had been setbacks along the way, but that wasn’t something we had to worry about any more. The internal combustion engine, plumbing, electricity, modern medicine, computers, all of these advancements and more would prevent us from having to worry about the collapse of civilization ever again. At least that was the overarching message I received from my education and from society at large. Indeed, there are many who are preaching that message even today.

As amazing as the 20th century was with all the wonders it brought, the 21st century has been equally amazing in how little progress has been made. With the accelerating pace of advancements we saw in the 100 years from 1900 to 1999, it seems astonishing that so little has been accomplished in the last 16.

There are numerous reasons humanity hasn’t progressed at the same pace in recent years. Beginning in this article and continuing in ones to follow, I’m going to examine three of the biggest challenges that will dominate events in the next decade and help us understand why progress has stalled.

They are: 1) decline in net energy 2) explosion in debt as the primary engine for economic growth and 3) climate change.

Decline in Net Energy

Net energy is a simple concept: It is the amount of energy left over after expending energy to produce that energy. For example, if I want to build a fire to cook my food, I have to spend my body’s energy to gather the wood and create a spark to start the fire. The fire gives me more energy than I had to start with, so there is a net energy gain. If a rainstorm puts out my fire before I can cook my food, then there is a decline in net energy since I get very little energy from the fire but still had to spend energy to begin with.

Since the beginning of the human experience, humans have had to use manual labor to accomplish every task. From finding food, to making clothing, to building shelter, humans had only the energy gleaned from plants and animals to get the job done. There was very little excess energy left over for other activities.

With the discovery of petroleum – oil – and how to use it efficiently, humans had something that they had never had before: excess energy. With the incredible stored energy in oil, humans now could do all sorts of work without manual labor.

Fossil fuels are incredible batteries. They hold lots of stored solar energy per kilogram. For example, it would take a fit human adult laboring more than 10 years to equal the energy in one barrel of oil!

Looked at a different way, a barrel of oil has the energy equivalent of 1,700 kilowatt hours of electricity. To get that much energy from a typical 2’x4’ solar panel in an hour you would need almost 19,000 panels! That’s for just one barrel. The world uses 90,000,000 barrels a day!

Fossil fuels led to a paradigm shift in human activity. This advancement, more than anything else, has been responsible for technological achievements, increases in food production, excess leisure time, labor saving devices, and other conveniences that we think of as “the modern world.”

So to define this in terms of net energy, before fossil fuels, humans used virtually the energy they took in via food, simply to gather more energy (grow or hunt food). For all practical purposes, there was almost no excess net energy available.

With fossil fuels, suddenly there was so much excess energy available that humans could achieve almost anything!

But. (There’s always a “but.”) Those incredible solar energy batteries of fossil fuels take millions of years to charge. Once we figured out how to use them, we started burning through them at astronomical rates.

We pumped the easy-to-reach oil first and, since fossil fuels are a finite resource and aren’t replenished, when the easy stuff was gone, we started working on the hard-to-get stuff. Every increase in the difficulty of extraction results in spending more energy to get the energy from the oil. The more energy we spend, the less excess net energy there is.

From about 1825 to 1979 the amount of net excess energy per capita was growing almost exponentially. From 1979 through 2003, however, net energy per capita stopped growing. Since 2003, net energy per capita has been declining.

At first glance, this might not seem to be a big deal. But, it’s actually an incredibly huge problem. Remember, all that excess net energy is what has made every aspect of our modern world possible. What happens when there is less of that very thing?

Actually, we are starting to get just a glimpse of the answer to that question since net energy per capita has been declining for the last 12 or 13 years.

If you think about what excess net energy allows us to do – travel, buy non-essential items, have leisure time, etc., – then it follows that with a decline in net energy, we will have less travel, less leisure time, we’ll buy less non-essential stuff. In other words, we’ll have a recession, perhaps worse.

There is a clear relationship between oil and the economy. In fact, there have been multiple recessions since WWII and all but one have been preceded by a spike in the price of oil. When the price of oil goes too high, it leads to an economic downturn.

Many believe we entered a global recession after the oil price spike of mid-2014, even if we aren’t technically in a recession here in the U.S., and now the world is awash in cheap oil. We won’t be awash in oil long, however, as most of the hard-to-reach petroleum costs more to produce than the current market price. Very soon, supply will dwindle. And that’s how this time is different. In the past, we’ve been able to grow our way out of recessions by pumping more oil thereby creating more excess energy. Now, we can’t. Now we have a decline in net energy.

Since developing an oil-based economy, we’ve never had to face a decline in net energy. This has enormous implications to our way of life.

The modern economy is dependent on growth. With a decline in net energy, substantive growth is no longer possible. I mentioned earlier that there has been a decline in net energy since the early part of this century. So, how is it possible that we’ve had economic growth since then?

In a word, debt.

Combined with a dramatic increase in debt, a decline in net energy is an explosive combination that risks destroying the world as we know it today. In the next installment, I’ll explain what I mean by that.

Part 2: Increase of debt and decrease of net energy – what we need to know

In the first part of this series, I mentioned that economic growth and energy have been intimately connected since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The more energy available to society, the more the economy grows. Now that we have entered into an era of decreasing net excess energy, economies are shrinking instead of growing.

Debt, too, plays an integral part in powering economic growth. In fact, the modern economy can’t function without it. In recent years, debt has been substituted for excess net energy as the fuel for economic growth. The results have been less than stellar and are likely creating a situation that guarantees economic collapse.

In the loosest sense of the word, our economy is debt. Today, there is more debt than there has been in the history of humankind. Without excess net energy, that debt couldn’t be repaid.

Debt has been part of the human experience for thousands of years. It has taken, and continues to take, many forms. At its most basic, debt is the promise to pay in the future for some good or service provided now.

Another way to look at debt is as an advance of future earnings. A person takes out a loan from a bank to buy a house or car, promising to repay that loan plus interest using income that will be earned in the future. Even in such a simple scenario, a healthy economy is required for a loan to be repaid; if the borrower loses his job because a factory closes due to economic decline, for example, he can’t repay the loan.

Since debt permeates every part of our economy, growth is required in order for debt to be repaid or, at the very least, serviced. Everything talked about with respect to the economy revolves around growth. If the economy isn’t growing, it’s bad. And debt is the reason.

The banking system the average person interacts with is designed around a concept known as fractional reserve banking. That means banks are only required to have on hand – on reserve – a fraction of the money that has been placed on deposit in their bank. The rest they lend out, thereby creating money “out of thin air” while also creating enormous amounts of debt requiring a constant flow of new money being put into the system, i.e. economic growth. On its face, this is good for the economy as it spurs development, creates jobs, increases wealth, etc. If the amount of debt grows too large, or the economy slows, a serious problem develops as the debt can no longer be serviced.

Today, the debt system has grown incredibly complex with debt instruments that are convoluted and almost impossible for the layperson to understand. Most of this debt has nothing to do with “Main Street” but it, too, requires that our economy grow indefinitely and without interruption or the whole scheme collapses.

Since everything in our economy is dependent on energy, a decline in net excess energy means the economy can’t grow, leading to debt default. If the amount of debt default is large it can be devastating to the system. Since even the slightest hint of widespread default would elicit panic in the stock and financial markets, wiping out trillions of dollars overnight, it’s no wonder government and industry agencies are less than honest about the decline in net energy and the impossibility of ever paying off mountains of debt that have been created trying to stimulate the economy. The whole financial system is the very definition of a house of cards.

The financial crisis of 2008-9 brought the global financial system to the very brink of collapse. If it had not been for Herculean efforts of central banks around the world at that time, collapse would have been inevitable. That crisis was one of too much debt that couldn’t be repaid. Ironically, the central banks saved the system by creating more debt. Enormous amounts of it, in fact.

The amount of conventional debt today is estimated to be $100 trillion globally. When the derivatives market is included, the amount of global debt surges to the absurdly high number of $1.3 quadrillion. Since declining net energy is preventing the economy from having the energy it needs to grow, it seems very likely there will be massive debt defaults in the near future. When there is widespread debt, default commerce shuts down.

When commerce shuts down, there is economic collapse and many, many people suffer. Very similar events are happening right now in Venezuela, Greece, Syria, Puerto Rico, and other countries.

With decline in net energy affecting every person on the planet, and with global debt already at unsustainable levels and climbing higher every day, there is widespread agreement among financial experts that central banks will be unable to save the system next time. When that happens, every country – including the U.S. – will experience economic disaster.

We are facing some frightening challenges over the next decade. Next time I’ll explore the most serious of them all: climate change.

Part 3: Climate Change

Climate change is, by far, the most worrisome of the major challenges we face as a species. We can live without debt and a modern economy, and maybe a few of us can survive on the energy levels utilized by our ancestors, but not a single one of us can survive without a livable climate.

Over the last 20 years there has been lots of debate about global warming with respect to its causes, how fast it will happen, how severe it will be, etc. The one salient fact that in recent years has become indisputable, however, is that the climate is changing now and happening much more rapidly than almost anyone has predicted.

On a steady basis, new studies are published that demonstrate this rapid change. Sea levels are rising faster, storms are becoming increasingly intense and more common, droughts are more severe and widespread, forest fires are raging more fiercely and over greater areas, and the oceans are dying. All because CO2 and other greenhouse gases are rising faster than ever before.

It’s important to understand that there is a time lag of about 30 years in the effects of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. So the warming temperatures and climate chaos we see today are from the CO2 emitted in the 1980s.

The amount of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere today is far greater than that of 30 years ago. This means that even if we were to stop absolutely all CO2 emissions right now, temperatures will keep climbing for another 30 years! Since it takes at least 1,000 years for CO2 to work itself out of the atmosphere, that likely unlivable temperature would be the new normal for a very long time.

Is it even possible to stop all CO2 emissions? Think about what that means: no cars, no electricity, no stores, no air conditioning, no burning fires for heat or cooking, no food except what you grow yourself by hand, no refrigeration, no medicines, no hospitals or clinics, no Internet, no phone, no TV… in other words, literally everything in our world would have to stop.

There are now more than 7.4 billion people on the planet. Almost every one of us depends entirely on food grown using fossil fuels. If we stop all CO2 emissions, almost every one of us starves to death in just a few months.

What are the odds of stopping all CO2 emissions anytime soon? It should be obvious that the chance of that happening willingly is zero.

A few years ago, politicians decided arbitrarily that Earth can adjust to a 2°C rise in average temperature without too much problem. That seems to be highly suspect, however, as we haven’t yet crossed the 1°C mark (on an annualized basis) and are already having huge problems related to climate change. What’s more, almost every model developed that keeps temperatures to 2°C warmer requires a dramatic reduction in CO2 emissions. Immediately. The longer we delay, the higher the temperature goes in those same projections.

With “business as usual” emissions, the global average temperature is projected to climb to 10° or 20°C above the historical level. Human beings cannot survive those kinds of temperatures. Even if we could, livestock, grains, fruits, and vegetables on which we all rely, can’t survive. We’d have no food.

Already there are places on the planet that are experiencing enormous amounts of suffering related to climate change. Every day one billion people go hungry due to crop failures related to drought and flood. What will it be like at 2°C?

Since it seems clear that we can’t stop CO2 emissions entirely, is it possible that we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Think back to the previous part of this series. Debt requires growth in order to be repaid. All economic growth comes – ultimately – from utilizing energy. The only way to reduce CO2 in any meaningful way requires a significant reduction in economic activity. That leads to debt default and likely economic depression. What politician is going to vote to do anything that’s going to cause a severe economic downturn? What’s more, this is a global problem. One country deciding to reduce carbon emissions isn’t enough – it has to be all of us. As the recent climate accord in Paris demonstrates, no one is willing to take any meaningful action.

Sadly, switching to solar energy isn’t the solution many hope for. Solar panels, while very nice to have when the power goes out, can’t begin to replace the energy density of fossil fuels and are simply unable to provide adequate power to run our economy at anywhere near its current level.

With respect to climate change, it turns out that solar panels, due to the enormous amounts of energy used in the mining and manufacturing processes, actually produce more CO2 per kilowatt of electricity generated than a coal-burning power plant.

Our climate is changing now. There seems to be no viable solution to stop it that doesn’t result in the loss of billions of human lives. And yet, the more Earth warms, the more likely humans will be unable to survive.

When rapidly changing climate is combined with net energy decline and an economic system dependent on unsustainable debt, it’s clear that humanity is facing the biggest challenge of its existence. In the fourth and final installment of this series, I’ll outline what we can expect over the next ten years and what each of us can do to prepare for these changes.

Part 4: Coming Chaos

Decline in net energy, unsustainable mountains of debt, and climate change are just a few of the enormous problems that humanity faces. I believe, that over the next ten years, each of us will feel tangible disruptions in our daily lives related to these challenges.

Throughout the next decade there is likely to be enormous political upheaval, intermittent shortages of energy – both gasoline and electricity – and disruptions in government services, particularly Social Security and Medicare payments. There is a good chance we could see serious food shortages secondary to climate chaos and collapse of the financial system, as well as reduced availability of medications and healthcare services. I also expect to see a dramatic increase in domestic (U.S.) climate refugees as drought, fire, and flooding continue to take their toll.

I make no claim of being a fortuneteller, so I can’t say with certainty when an event will occur or even that it will happen at all. But I do know that if I hold a lit match to a piece of paper, there’s a real good chance the paper will start burning. The same can be said about the issues I’ve raised. A series of events is underway and they have a logical, expected outcome.

I began to develop an awareness of these problems more than five years ago and I’ve been educating myself and watching developments closely since then. So far, events have deteriorated at a pace consistent with my concerns.

I know that I’ve laid out a pretty depressing, “doom and gloom” picture. My intention isn’t to depress you, but to inform you. Knowing what’s coming is the best way to make provision for the future.

The core challenges humanity faces aren’t really that much different than the challenges we’ve always faced: ensuring adequate food, water, and shelter. What’s different now is that there are many, many more people on the planet, we have extracted most of the easy-to-reach non-renewable resources, and we have a climate that isn’t going to be working in our favor.

It’s too late to do anything to stop the processes that have been put into motion; the match has already lit the paper on fire. But there are some things we can do to ensure that we – and those we love – are as prepared as possible for what’s headed our way.

As you consider the short list I’ve compiled, keep in mind that no matter what happens, making these changes won’t be a waste of time as they will benefit your health and your state of mind.

I encourage you to look at every aspect of your life and find a way to meet your needs locally. Think about how the founders of Eureka Springs lived in the late 19th century and it will give you a good model to follow for your own preparations.

Start growing as much of your food as possible, or partner with some of our local growers. Most of them usually need extra help and, I suspect, would welcome the opportunity to share some of what they know and grow in exchange for a little labor. I also recommend learning how to can foods, putting away as much as possible to ensure you have enough for you and your family to eat through the winter months.

If you have a yard, get a few chickens. They are a lot of fun to care for and can provide both meat and eggs. If you have a few acres, then you might want to try your hand at raising goats. Goat’s milk is delicious and nutritious and there’s nothing quite so fun as a goat kid.

In the event that water supply is disrupted, don’t expect to get your water from bottles at the store. If you have a well powered by electricity, you may want to invest in a solar powered system. If you rely on city water, having a large storage tank is a good idea.

An adequate heat supply can be vital during an ice storm or other electricity outage. If you don’t have a wood-burning fireplace, you may want to consider having a woodstove installed.

If you’re dependent on daily medications, discuss the issue with your doctor to see if there are any you can live without. For the rest, you may want to start stockpiling those medicines to help you weather any short-term disruptions. Having a good first aid kid is always a good idea as well.

There are several good books available that provide step-by-step instructions on living a simple, self-sufficient life, describing how to garden, store your harvest, raise livestock, work with bees, make simple repairs, and more. The purchase of one or two of these books (a printed version, not electronic) can be an excellent investment.

Whether we are facing hardship or joy, the most important thing any of us can do is to live every day as if it is our last, making preparations just in case it’s not. I encourage you to be kind to those around you – human and non-human alike. As the stress of our daily existence increases over the coming years, kindness and forgiveness will make everyone’s life a little more bearable.

[Eds. Note: Dr. House responds to mining and manufacturing of solar panels producing more CO2 per kw of generated electricity than coal-burning plants, ESI May 18: The manufacture of solar panels is highly energy intensive including the cost of mining the raw materials, turning those materials into a photovoltaic cell, assembling the solar panels themselves, the packaging to protect them from breaking in shipping (usually large amounts of Styrofoam™), fuel to transport from the East to the West and then to the assembly site, the energy used to build the support structure for the panels, etc. Any number of studies can be used to support a debate one way or the other, but ultimately, the fact remains that the only way to stop catastrophic global warming is to stop all CO2 emissions right now. Since solar panels generate large amounts of CO2 in their manufacture and it would take millions of square meters of solar panels to power our world, it’s clear that solar panels do not offer a meaningful solution to the problems at hand. Don’t misunderstand me, though, fossil fuels don’t solve our problems either.]

3 thoughts on “By John House, MD: A Superb Summary of Our Predicament”

  1. Thank you for posting this Rob.

    I printed it off so I can read it through a few times & keep it to show others if I think they might be interested (which are few & far between). It’s very clear and simple to read. I’ve been trying to put it all together in my mind at Our Finite World but find that rather heavy going there (although I love the comments there & contribute myself (I think that’s where I came across your site?) whereas what you posted here sums net energy & debt very well & in more simple terms I can relate to.
    I’m really looking forward to part 4 although it makes for sobering reading as it clearly points out we basically have no way out of this.

    Thanks again Rob.

    Brendon.

    Like

      1. Hi Rob,

        Yes I knew it was by John House, just wanted to thank you for posting it on your blog. I’ve been looking to see if he’s written anything else too. Looking forward to part 4 of this series.

        Thanks Rob,

        Brendon.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s