New Badass in Town: Jean-Marc Jancovici (Radio Ecoshock interview)

Jean-Marc Jancovici

Step aside all you established peak oil and climate change pontificators. There’s a new badass in town and he’s an engineer who specializes in energy and climate which means you don’t stand a chance. 🙂

It’s very rare to find someone who can articulately explain in one hour, without hyperbole or bullshit, everything important going on in the world, including the underlying causes, what the future holds, and what we should do in response. Jean-Marc Jancovici is one of those rare gems.

Jancovici’s native language is French so English works by him are scarce. I’ve already posted the only other recent English talk that I’m aware of here.

Today’s interview with Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock is a treat. After investing an hour here you will understand much more about the issues that matter than 99% of the people in the world.

Alex Smith wrote a very nice summary of his interview here:

https://www.ecoshock.org/2018/10/jean-marc-jancovici-whistling-past-the-graveyard.html

 

 

Following are a few quotes from the interview that I thought were noteworthy. Notice how close Jancovici comes to discussing denial of reality on several occasions.

 

Tell me how much energy you use and I will tell you how you live.

 

Governments are not guided by [wise] advisors. They respond to external pressure.

 

The present standard of living cannot be sustained without the help of fossil fuels for physical reasons.

 

Two centuries ago the world was fully renewable and consisted of 1 billion peasants with a life expectancy of 30 years. [We therefore] know of at least one option available to us.

 

Every time you hear the words “energy consumption”, replace them with “fleet of machines” .

 

A future with no growth is considered unthinkable by so many people, including Nobel prize-winning economists, that nobody thinks about what to do if it happens for real.

 

Q: What do you think is the greatest soonest threat: peak oil or climate change?

A: I place my bets on the likelihood that nobody will understand what is happening with either of these threats.

 

No government understands that energy equals machines, and if machines work less, GDP goes down.

No political leader understands that climate change is already putting refugees on the road.

 

Think of peak oil and climate change as opposing scissor blades squeezing your finger. Asking which is worse does not make any sense.

 

You must wait over 10,000 years for surplus CO2 to evacuate from the atmosphere. There is no such thing as a reset button for climate change. The only thing we are sure of is the day that consequences become unbearable, it will become worse later on.

 

A huge misunderstanding is that energy is a sector of the economy rather than the blood of the economy.

By Peter Watts: The Adorable Optimism of the IPCC

Peter Watts

A friend just introduced me to Peter Watts, a Canadian biologist, author, and blogger. I wish I could think and write half as well as this guy.

Here are a few more of Watts’ quotes that I like…

People aren’t rational. We’re not thinking machines, we’re – we’re feeling machines that happen to think.

Every concert pianist knows that the surest way to ruin a performance is to be aware of what the fingers are doing. Every dancer and acrobat knows enough to let the mind go, let the body run itself. Every driver of a manual vehicle arrives at destinations with no recollection of the stops and turns and roads traveled in getting there. You are all sleepwalkers, whether climbing creative peaks or slogging through some mundane routine for the thousandth time. You are all sleepwalkers.

Humans didn’t really fight over skin tone or ideology; those were just handy cues for kin-selection purposes. Ultimately it always came down to bloodlines and limited resources.

Brains are survival engines, not truth detectors.

Science is so powerful that it drags us kicking and screaming towards the truth despite our best efforts to avoid it.

Not even the most heavily-armed police state can exert brute force to all of its citizens all of the time. Meme management is so much subtler; the rose-tinted refraction of perceived reality, the contagious fear of threatening alternatives.

Perfect hexagonal tubes in a packed array. Bees are hard-wired to lay them down, but how does an insect know enough geometry to lay down a precise hexagon? It doesn’t. It’s programmed to chew up wax and spit it out while turning on its axis, and that generates a circle. Put a bunch of bees on the same surface, chewing side-by-side, and the circles abut against each other – deform each other into hexagons, which just happen to be more efficient for close packing anyway.

 

Watts’ most recent essay is my new favorite big picture rant on climate change. If you pay attention you’ll see a theme of denial running throughout.

https://www.rifters.com/crawl/?p=8433

The Adorable Optimism of the IPCC

People have noticed.

I got it in Lviv. I got it in an epic email interview with BiFrost. I get it in pubs and emails, and from one disapproving professor at Concordia who— clearly regretting having invited me into her classroom— asked “So why do you even get out of bed in the morning?”

“You once described yourself as an angry optimist,” Erwann Perchoc asked me a few weeks ago. “Is that still true?”

Perhaps the tone of my writing has changed over the years. It was always what some insist on calling “dark”— but perhaps the shadows have deepened. Even a dozen years ago, the backdrop of my stories— not the plot or the theme, mind you, just the context in which the story took place— might have been described as a forlorn fire alarm: Jesus Christ, people, can’t you see the cliff we’re headed for? We have to hit the brakes! Now, though— well, in recent years I’ve written at least three stories with happy endings. And the reason those endings are happy is because they end in murder and massacre.

It’s not that I’ve given up hope entirely. But perhaps my narrative emphasis has shifted away from Avoid the Cliff and closer to Make the Fuckers Pay. Hope— dims, as time runs out. Anger builds.

And now, nearly a hundred world-class scientists throw a report at our feet that proves something I’ve recognized intellectually for years, although not so consistently in my gut: I’ve been just as childishly, delusionally optimistic as the rest of you.

Bear with me, though. Read on. I have at least one more happy ending in me.

It’s been a couple of weeks now since the IPCC report came out. You know what it says.  If the whole damn species pulls together in a concerted effort “without historical precedent”— if we start right now, and never let up on the throttle— we just might be able to swing the needle back from Catastrophe to mere Disaster. If we cut carbon emissions by half over the next decade, eliminate them entirely by 2050; if the species cuts its meat and dairy consumption by 90%; if we invent new unicorn technologies for sucking carbon back out of the atmosphere (or  scale up extant prototype tech by a factor of two million in two years) — if we commit to these and other equally Herculean tasks, then we might just barely be able to keep global temperature from rising more than 1.5°C.[1] We’ll only lose 70-90% of the word’s remaining coral reefs (which are already down by about 50%, let’s not forget). Only 350 million more urban dwellers will be exposed to severe drought and “deadly heat” events. Only 130-140 million will be inundated. Global fire frequency will only increase by 38%. Fish stocks in low latitudes will be irreparably hammered, but it might be possible to save the higher-latitude populations. We’ll only lose a third of the permafrost. You get the idea.

We have twelve years to show results.

If we don’t pull all these things off— if, for example, we only succeed in meeting the flaccid 2°C aspirations of the Paris Accords— then we lose all the coral. We lose the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Greenland Ice Shelf (not that it isn’t already circling the bowl, of course). Twice as many people suffer “aggravated water scarcity” than at 1.5°C; 170% more of the population deals with fluvial flooding. The increase in global wildfire frequency passes 60% and keeps going. Marine fisheries crash pole to pole. The number of species that loses at least half their traditional habitat is 2-3 times higher than would have been the case at 1.5°C.  It goes on.

There’s no real point in worrying about a measly 2° increase, though, because on our current trajectory we’ll blow past 3° by century’s end (the Trump administration is predicting 4°, which is why they’re so busy dismantling whatever pitiful carbon-emission standards the US had already put into place; what’s the point of reducing profit margins if we’re headed straight for perdition no matter what we do?). We don’t really know what happens then. Methane clathrates released from a melting Arctic could turn the place into Venus, for all I know.

You probably know all this. You’ve had two weeks to internalize it; time to recoil, to internalize the numbers, to face facts.

To shrug, from what I can see. To go back to squabbling over gender pronouns, and whether science fiction has too many dystopias.

*

Remember last year’s New York Magazine article by David Wallace-Wells? It came pretty close to outlining the fate we’ve made for ourselves, closer than any bureaucrat or politician has ever dared. Remember the pile-on that happened in its wake? Activists and allies all decryig the story as hyperbolic and defeatist? Remember the Hope Police insisting that we had to inspire, not doomsay?

Where are they now?

One of them is Michael Mann, Climate Science superstar. Back in 2017 he shat on Wallace-Wells with everyone else:  “There is no need to overstate the evidence, especially when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.”  And now here he is, just a few days ago: admitting that even this stark doomsday report is “overly conservative“, that it understates the amount of warming that’s already occurred.  And Mann is still an optimist compared to, say, Prof. Jem Bendell, who argues that society is bound for inevitable collapse just a decade down the road and that we might as well start grieving now and avoid the rush. (He even wrote up a paper to that effect, but the policy journal he sent it to wouldn’t publish it until he rewrote it to be less “disheartening”.)

Still. Optimistic or not, this latest report is unprecedented by IPCC standards. It effectively offers, as The Tyee points out, a simple choice between Catastrophe and Disaster. It does, as a thoroughly-vindicated Wallace-Wells proclaims, give us “permission to freak out“.

So. Are we?

In terms of media reaction, the usual suspects say the usual things. Big Think and  Rolling Stone go straight down the middle, admit the sitrep is dire, express doubts that we’ll doing anything about it even now. David Suzuki— well, zero points for guessing where David Suzuki comes down. The Tech folks are talking about geoengineering again. The Guardiantalks about food. Over at Medium, Daniel Estrada tries really hard to put a good spin on it, to work within the timeline of the IPCC Report and the US Election cycle to explore ways in which we might achieve the merely-disastrous Best Case— and then, halfway through, admits that he doesn’t really think any of it will happen, that this is merely a hopeful thought experiment, and in his heart of hearts he thinks we’re all well and truly fucked.

Over at the National Post— Canada’s answer to Fox News— some idiot named Kelly McParland blames the activists for everything, because they hectored and warned and complained for so long that who could blame the rest of us for tuning out? But perhaps the most telling reaction from the right wing comes courtesy of petro-shill Anthony Watts, who— unable to deal with the actual science— simply ran a cartoon showing IPCC authors whining for more money, alongside a guest editorial suggesting that even if it is all true, it would be way cheaper to just give everyone air conditioners.[2]

Of course, none of these folks wield any actual power. What they think doesn’t matter. What about the people who actually call the shots? How have the World’s Leaders responded to this latest 10-alarm fire, to this 12-year deadline?

Brazil is two days away from electing a far-right reactionary who has promised to quit the Paris Accords once elected. Germany— a world leader in environmental issues, not so long ago— reacted to the report with a profound “Meh”.  Australia‘s Energy Minister dismissed it as a distraction from the more-important goal of lowering energy prices for Australians. Back in August France‘s Environment Minister resigned in disgust over his own government’s inaction on climate change; that was before the report’s release, but has Macron had a come-to-Jesus moment in the meantime? Here in Canada, provincial premiers are taking the Feds to court over a measly carbon tax; the government itself permitted an “emergency session” right after the report came out, a parliamentary debate which— as far as I’ve been able to tell— accomplished exactly fuck-all beyond one side of the aisle yelling Think of the Children! while the other yelled Think of The Economy!

And these are the progressive jurisdictions. I probably don’t have to tell you about Donald Trump’s hilarious “Instinct for Science“, which apparently allows him to dismiss the IPCC’s findings as biased even as he makes clear that he doesn’t actually know what the IPCC is.

And what about the world’s real leaders, the 0.01% who actually hand out marching orders to these presidents and premiers and prime ministers? Turns out they’re retaining consultants to advise them on how to prevent their personal security forces from killing them, once civilization has collapsed and their money’s no good any more. It seems to be a lot more than mere thought experiment to these people: global societal collapse seems to be their default scenario. They call it “The Event.”

Why, it’s almost as though they knew what was coming before the IPCC even tendered their report.

*

To me, one of the most interesting facets of this whole clusterfuck is how eager everyone is to tell us that It’s Not Our Fault. “Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals“, the Guardian charges. “Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum“, claims Naomi Klein (who, in all fairness, I’ve admired ever since No Logo).  Over at Slate  Genevieve Guenther asks “Who Is the We in “We Are Causing Climate Change”?”, and saves us the trouble by answering herself:

“Does it include the 735 million who, according to the World Bank, live on less than $2 a day? Does it include the approximately 5.5 billion people who, according to Oxfam, live on between $2 and $10 a day? Does it include the millions of people, all over the world (400,000 alone in the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City) doing whatever they can to lower their own emissions and counter the fossil-fuel industry?”

GQ reassures us that “Billionaires are the Leading Cause of Climate Change“. And I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read that a mere 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global carbon emissions.

To which I say, Bullshit. You’re all to fucking blame whether Naomi Klein wants to let you off the hook or not.

Not that I’m denying any of her arguments. They’re all true. We were certainly  told— by supposed allies like Greenpeace and the PIRGs, as well as more obviously-nefarious corporations and governments— that if we all just recycled and ate one meat-free meal a week, we’d be Doing Our Part to Save the Planet while BP and the Koch Brothers continued to rape the biosphere. Up here in Canada, the reigning Liberals— for all their noble rhetoric about fighting climate change— are still buying pipelines and forcing Tar Sands down our throats and subsidizing Big Oil to the tune of over three billion dollars a year; the Conservative Opposition won’t even pay mealy-mouth lip service to the issue. Down in the states both mainstream parties are sucking too hard on the corporate teat to do anything that might actually endanger the profits of their owners. Individual actions can’t fix things: the very scale of the problem guarantees that institutional responses have always been necessary. All of this is true.

But you know what, people? There were always alternatives. You could have voted for Sanders. You could have voted Green. You could have voted for Ralph fucking Nader, when he was running. Hell, am I the only one who remembers Jerry Brown’s abortive run at the presidency, back in 1980? I still remember his announcement, the Three Priorities he laid out for his administration:

  1. Protect the Environment
  2. Serve the People
  3. Explore the Universe

That’s a damned good mission statement if you ask me. All it got him was jokes from Johnny Carson about how Jerry Brown had locked up the Grey Whale vote, and jokes from everyone else that usually revolved around the fact he was fucking Linda Ronstadt.

Of course he didn’t have a chance. Of course voting for him, or Nader, or the Greens was “throwing away your vote”. None of them had a chance.

And that’s my fucking point. It’s not that no one had heard of these people. It’s not that you weren’t familiar with their platforms. You knew what they stood for and you wrote them off. You were told they were fringe, that they never stood a chance, so you went out and made it true. You voted en masse for the status quo and the corporate teat-sucklers. Now Darby and Klein and  Guenther trip over themselves to let you off the hook, to blame Capitalism and Neoliberalism and its stranglehold on the groupthink of modern politics— but how did you end up with leaders who so willingly abased themselves at that altar in the first place, you ignorant shit-heads? There were always alternatives, and you saw them, and you laughed.

Sure, the Neolibs conned you. Because you wanted to be conned.

Reap the whirlwind, you miserable fuckers. May your children choke on it.

*

So what’s left?

Every pundit on the planet is fond of pointing out that politicians can’t look beyond the next couple of election cycles— but twelve years is a couple of election cycles, more or less, and we’re still accelerating toward the cliff. Last weekend, The BUG and I talked about how we’d have to kill our cats before abandoning the house. We weren’t joking.

And yet— in my own way, I’m right with you in The Nile. I can still laugh at The BUG’s jokes. I still watch Netflix. I lie in bed with a sore back because Minion has been sitting on my chest for an hour and I don’t have the heart to disturb her. Sure, there are fewer insects, fewer frogs, less wildlife than I remember from childhood (more pigeons, at least. More raccoons)— but the ravine across the fence is still green, the sky still blue. The tag line on this ‘crawl remains as true as ever: I’m still In Love With the Moment, because I am not starving yet, because those I love are still doing okay, because all the birds have not quite come home to roost and there’s something so indescribably wondrous about being sapient, being able to look around and wonder at the universe.  There is still so much to love in the Moment.

But the second part of that line is even truer: I am scared shitless of the future. Because those birds are closer than even I allowed myself to think, and not so far from now I could be a skeleton in the background of a Mad Max movie.

The only hope I can see lies in Donald Trump.

Don’t worry. This isn’t one of those contrarian bits of agitprop designed to provoke a reaction. I’m dead serious.

But when I speak of hope, I’m not talking about the world. I’m talking about hope for my country. I’m talking about hope for my family. Hope for maybe an extra decade or two before the ceiling crashes in. That’s the limited, desperate, end-of-need hope I pin on Trump and his enablers.

Because what do you do when your family is starving and the guys next door have food? What does any country do when drought and famine and heat waves are decimating its taxpayers while the cooler, luckier land to the north  has enough— well, if not for all, at least for some? Will the governments of imploding regimes just sadly shake their heads, and—  wracked with remorse for their shortsightedness— resign themselves to well-deserved apocalypse?

Of course, Canada’s hardly immune from the unfolding catastrophe (anyone from Fort McMurray could tell you that much). But we’ll still be better off than the US. Smaller temperature jumps. Less agro impact. Hell, our growing season could actually improve in the short term— and there’s lots of room to move north with the isotherms, even if northern soils don’t hold a candle to what we’re used to. Sorry, Inuit. You lose again.

So, yeah. If your family is starving and the house next door has food, you break in. You invade. And if the US invaded us now, we wouldn’t stand a chance. They’d Spread Democracy north of the 49th without breaking a sweat, and our pathetic little armed forces wouldn’t be able to do a damned thing about it.  (Hell, the West Edmonton Mall used to have a bigger submarine fleet than the Canadian Navy; the only reason that’s not still true is because the Mall shut down their sub attraction in 2006.)

After a couple of terms of Trumpism, though, who knows?

The US is already at war with itself. It tears itself apart even as we speak: wagons circled, guns beyond counting all pointed inward. Trump and his ilk seem only too happy to spur  them on. Maybe, given enough time, they’ll waste all that ammo on each other.  Maybe that hypermilitary will be so busy guarding gated communities and mowing down protestors that they’ll forget to invade anyone else. Maybe— if Trump has his way— they’ll be so busy eating each other that by the time they remember us, they’ll have too many self-inflicted wounds to do much about it.

Maybe then we’ll have a fighting chance. Or maybe they’ll just leave us up here to die in peace, a few decades further down the road.

See? I told you I wasn’t out of happy endings.

 

By Jack Alpert: On Sustainability (without the bullshit)

Sustainability is perhaps the most misused and misunderstood word in the human vocabulary. Most people who advocate sustainability have good intentions but no idea what they’re talking about.

Jack Alpert is an exception. He’s spent a lifetime thinking about the human overshoot predicament and what we could and must do for our species to continue with comfortable lives in a technologically advanced civilization.

Today Alpert released a new video that I think is his best work to date.

In summary, we must reduce our population to a level that does not consume energy and other renewable resources faster than nature generates them, and we must recycle 100% of non-renewable resources, and we must not excrete wastes faster than nature can absorb them.

Once a sustainable population of about 50 million people by 2100 is achieved, they can continue to enjoy our current level of technology despite fossil energy being mostly depleted, in a climate still compatible with civilization, provided they constrain their birth rate to equal their death rate from natural causes.

Alpert believes that both the initial population reduction, and the long-term constraint on population growth, can be achieved in a democratic, voluntary, and humane manner, provided we can get a majority of humans to understand that there is no alternative other than unimaginable suffering.

This awareness needs to occur soon because we are very close to triggering a scarcity-conflict death spiral, probably caused by low-cost oil depletion and/or climate change, where scarcity causes war and other antisocial behavior that in turn worsens scarcity, which will kill the majority of humans and will prevent the survivors from rebuilding a technologically advanced civilization, because the non-renewable energy and other natural resources needed to prepare a sustainable civilization will be depleted by the conflict.

Alpert calls this awareness and willingness to act “anticipatory behavior”. It’s anticipatory because it must be learned from understanding and prediction, rather than experience.

Although Alpert does not get into the details here, the method (I think) he proposes for reducing and constraining the population is a law voted for by the majority that creates a system where a sustainable number of birth permits would be calculated each year and distributed by random lottery.

I’ve heard Alpert argue elsewhere that the best method for building political momentum might be to mobilize grandmothers as a single issue voting block since they are motivated to protect their grandchildren and no longer feel biological pressure to breed. There is one historic precedent that provides some cause for optimism. It was a highly motivated block of women voters fed up with alcoholic males that spearheaded the  1919 constitutional prohibition of alcohol in the U.S..

There will of course be many challenges to passing a population reduction law such as:

  1. Genetic denial of reality behavior which makes it difficult for most to understand what’s going on.
  2. The biological drive to have children.
  3. Economic forces pushing for growth to avoid debt defaults and a deflationary collapse.
  4. Opposing cultural forces like religion.
  5. Widespread misunderstanding that renewable energy can substitute for the 20 TW of depleting non-renewable fossil energy that 7 billion lives depend on.
  6. Enforcement of a population reduction law.

But what’s the alternative?

There is no alternative other than unimaginable suffering and the permanent loss of scientific knowledge and technologies that have improved the quality of our lives.

What we’ve achieved as a species is amazing, extremely rare in the universe, and worth fighting to preserve.

There is one and only one good path available: rapid voluntary population reduction.

You can find other work by Jack Alpert that I’ve posted here.

Here’s the new video Alpert released today:

 

 

 

By Tim Watkins: The Three Vortices of Doom (energy, debt, state)

The Net Energy Cliff

 

Tim Watkins today published a superb big picture essay explaining the troubling trends in our economy that everyone sees but few understand.

It’s a great primer for anyone curious why the stories they hear from their leaders and news media don’t make sense.

If you’re the kind of person that needs hope, Watkins advises to pray for a very large discovery of low-cost oil or a breakthrough in nuclear energy.

Or, if you’re the kind of person that likes to know the most probable outcome they should prepare for, Watkins advises to get used to living with less in a more local economy.

http://consciousnessofsheep.co.uk/2018/09/13/the-three-vortices-of-doom/

Despite the cheerleading efforts of the legacy media, the economic storm clouds are growing on the horizon.  Oil – the economic “master resource” – passed $80 per barrel yesterday.  Meanwhile, central banks around the world have begun to unwind the stimulus packages used to bail out the economy in the aftermath of the 2008 crash.  And all the while, governments are struggling to balance the need to manage their borrowing while maintaining the value of their currencies.  Add to that the politics of the new nationalism and you have a recipe for turbulent economic times in the very near future.

By far the biggest blind spot in economics, however, is its treatment of energy as just another cheap resource to be exploited.  In fact, energy should be treated as a separate category alongside capital, labour and resources in any model that seeks to explain the way the real world works.  This is because energy is the transformative force that allows us to (temporarily) defy the second law of thermodynamics, which says that things move from order to chaos; they break down not up.  As Steve Keen puts it:

“Capital without energy is a statue; labour without energy is a corpse.”

Another way of understanding this is to see that for a mere $80 dollars we get more than $350,000 worth of work (if we had to pay a human the average wage to do it).  This also explains why relatively small changes in the price of energy (particularly oil because its use is ubiquitous) have such a dramatic impact on the monetary economy.  Just three years ago, for every $40 spent on oil, companies were returning $350,000 worth of productive work.  Today, the same $40 is returning just $175,000 of productive work; something that largely explains the so-called “productivity puzzle,” as well accounting for why ten of last eleven recessions were preceded by a spike in the price of oil.

Without the net energy to allow for genuine economic growth, sovereign debt becomes as unpayable as consumer and corporate debt.  It can be defaulted or it can be inflated away; but it can never be repaid in real terms.  States, however, are unlikely to concede this point until it is too late. To put it another way, states will use all of the power at their disposal to maintain the exchange rate of their currencies even if this results in economic ruin for their national economies and their citizens.

These, then are the three vortices which (in the absence of some new high-EROEI energy source) are gradually choking the life out of our global industrial civilisation.  As the net energy remaining to us declines, an ever greater proportion of our currency and useable energy will be sucked into them until such time as our economy consists of nothing else but the growing of food and the generation of energy in the service of an ever more capricious state.  This process will inevitably involve the acceleration of the decline in living standards that those at the bottom of the income ladder have been experiencing since the 1970s.  It will also result in a re-localising of economies as the energy required to maintain global supply chains disappears.  In this respect, the conservative nationalism of Brexit and Trump may simply be the relatively benign early manifestation of the politics of our energy-starved future.

By Tom Murphy: The Energy Trap (we all scream for ice cream)

The Energy Trap

A friend reminded me of this 2011 essay written by the brilliant physicist Tom Murphy.

I read it when Murphy first published it but I had forgotten how good it was so I’ve dusted it off in the hope that it sees more daylight.

https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2011/10/the-energy-trap/

Many Do the Math posts have touched on the inevitable cessation of growth and on the challenge we will face in developing a replacement energy infrastructure once our fossil fuel inheritance is spent. The focus has been on long-term physical constraints, and not on the messy details of our response in the short-term. But our reaction to a diminishing flow of fossil fuel energy in the short-term will determine whether we transition to a sustainable but technological existence or allow ourselves to collapse. One stumbling block in particular has me worried. I call it The Energy Trap.

In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability—first in petroleum—our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here’s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but…energy. And that’s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan? It’s a trap!

 

In the parallel world of economics, an energy decline likely spells deep recession. The substantial financial investment needed to carry out an energy replacement crash program will be hard to scrape together in tough times, especially given that we are unlikely to converge on the “right” solution into which we sink our bucks.

Politically, the Energy Trap is a killer. In my lifetime, I have not witnessed in our political system the adult behavior that would be needed to buckle down for a long-term goal involving short-term sacrifice.  Or at least any brief bouts of such maturity have not been politically rewarded.  I’m not blaming the politicians. We all scream for ice cream. Politicians simply cater to our demands. We tend to vote for the candidate who promises a bigger, better tomorrow—even if such a path is untenable.

The only way out of the political trap is for a substantial fraction of our population to understand the dimensions of the problem: to understand that we’ve been spoiled by the surplus energy available through fossil fuels, and that we will have to make decade-level sacrifices to put ourselves on a new track. The only way to accomplish this is through sober education, which is what Do the Math is all about. It’s a trap! Spread the word!

 

Tom Murphy stopped writing in 2013 after (I think) he realized that no amount of education will change the behavior of the majority.

On Famous Polymaths

See No Evil

There are two and only two topics required to understand the basis of every success and problem in our civilization: thermodynamics and genetic behavior.

By thermodynamics I mean:

  • the laws of thermodynamics that govern our universe
  • the relationships between energy, economy, wealth, population, and pollution
  • the relationship between debt and surplus energy
  • the maximum power principle of biology
  • the history of energy use
  • the types, sources, qualities, density, scalability, and applications of energy
  • the discovery rate, consumption rate, and reserves of non-renewable energy
  • what is and is not feasible with, and the dependencies of, non-fossil energy

By genetic behavior I mean:

  • human behaviors that are mostly hard-wired
  • genetic behaviors that contributed to our unique success and predicament
  • why those genetic behaviors evolved

Why is it that every famous intellectual understands many topics except the only two topics that really matter: thermodynamics and genetic behavior?

  • Steven Pinker
  • Sam Harris
  • Jordan Peterson
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Sean Carroll
  • Yuval Noah Harari
  • David Suzuki
  • David Attenborough
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • Stephen Hawking
  • Lawrence Krauss
  • Elon Musk
  • Stewart Brand
  • James Hansen
  • Matt Ridley
  • Richard Dawkins
  • Frans de Waal
  • James Lovelock
  • Jared Diamond
  • Joe Rogan
  • Michael Pollan
  • Ken Burns
  • Chris Hedges
  • Vaclav Smil
  • Niall Ferguson
  • Alan Greenspan
  • Thomas Sowell
  • John Kenneth Galbraith
  • David Stockman
  • Joseph Stiglitz
  • Paul Krugman
  • and many others

Why is it that there is no famous intellectual (nor political or business leader) who understands thermodynamics and genetic behavior?

  • ???

Why is it that the few intellectuals who do understand thermodynamics and genetic behavior are distinctly not famous?

  • Dennis Meadows
  • Tom Murphy
  • William Catton
  • William Rees
  • Charles Hall
  • Nate Hagens
  • Tim Garrett
  • Jay Hanson
  • David Korowicz
  • Paul Chefurka
  • Reg Morrison
  • Jack Alpert
  • Richard Heinberg
  • Joseph Tainter
  • George Mobus
  • Dave Cohen
  • Gail Zawacki
  • Jason Bradford
  • Nicole Foss
  • Steve Ludlum
  • James @ Megacancer
  • xraymike79
  • and very few others

This can’t be an accidental coincidence because famous polymaths are fluent in many topics.

I suspect the answer is that famous polymaths deny everything they don’t want to know, and they wouldn’t be famous if they didn’t, because their audience doesn’t want to understand those topics either.

It’s a fascinating phenomenon to observe once you see it.

P. S.

Why is there only one person in the world, a cranky old retired electrical engineer, who writes about genetic reality denial?

I suspect because denial is the reality that must be most aggressively denied to avoid collapsing the house of cards that keeps us functioning.

On Oil

Oil

JTRoberts recently made an important and insightful observation which I paraphrase and elaborate here.

Oil is a non-renewable resource that we extract from the earth. Oil companies are motivated by profit so they start with low-cost reservoirs and as those deplete they move to increasingly higher cost sources like water injection, offshore, tar sands, and fracking.

All economic activity depends on energy, as the laws of thermodynamics explain, and as the near perfect correlation between wealth and energy consumption confirms.

Oil is the keystone energy because oil is required to extract or capture all other forms of energy including food, coal, natural gas, wood, solar, wind, nuclear, and hydroelectric energy.

The cost of oil can be viewed as a tax on economic activity. Our economy is configured to operate profitably on about $20 per barrel oil. We have already captured most feasible energy efficiency gains making it difficult for our economy to operate profitably on oil over $20.

Thus, as the cost of extraction due to depletion of low-cost reserves pushes the price of oil above $20, the difference must be made up with debt.

At today’s $70 oil, which we burn about 96 million barrels per day, that works out to 96 * 365 * ($70-$20) = $1.8 trillion, which as predicted, is about the rate that global debt is increasing.

If you believe we have many years of oil left, then you must also believe that debt can continue to increase much faster than our income for many years without consequence on the value of money.

Money has value because we have confidence that the debt which creates our money will be repaid with interest, which can only occur when the economy grows, which can only occur when the quantity of energy we burn grows, which due to continually increasing extraction costs, can only occur when debt grows faster than the economy, which at some point will erode our confidence, which will reduce the value of money, which will reduce the amount of energy we can afford to burn, which will reduce economic activity, which will further erode our confidence in the value of money.

Do you see our energy and climate predicament?

Do you see why our leaders deny we have a problem?

Do you see why the longer we deny the problem the worse the outcome will be?

Additional Thoughts (30-Jul-2018)

Most people do not think we have an imminent oil problem because they’ve read in the news that there is 50 years or more of unconventional oil left to extract. While probably true, this fact is misleading.

What does it mean to say oil is depleted?

Depleted does not mean that all the oil is gone. Depleted means that all the oil we can afford to extract and purchase is gone. Big difference.

To be a little more precise, depleted is the point at which the cost to extract oil exceeds the price that our economy can pay and still grow.

Today we are paying the price and achieving a little growth, but it is taking a lot of debt at a very low interest rate to do so, and each year it takes more debt.

The ability of our global debt-backed fractional reserve monetary system to function (i.e. not collapse), and the high standard of living we enjoy, and the high capital things we invest in like modern infrastructure and technology, all fundamentally depend on economic growth. If growth stops our system will collapse, and our monetary system will have to be replaced with a different design, such as an asset-backed full reserve system, which will mean much lower standards of living, and much less availability of many things we currently take for granted.

I wrote an essay on economic growth which I recommend you read because many people think they know why we want economic growth but in fact don’t know the main and much more important reason.

So what evidence exists that oil is getting close to being depleted?

  1. Our economy in aggregate is losing money. Debt is growing much faster than the economy. It now takes over $3 of debt to generate $1 of growth. This is not sustainable. A sustainable economy invests $1 of debt to create more than $1 of growth, as we did prior to 1970.  It’s important to note that this state of affairs exists despite the interest rate (i.e. the cost of money) being historically low (in some cases zero). It’s also important to note that this is a global phenomenon. So we can’t blame bad leaders, or the political system, or the culture. Every country in the world is growing their debt in an unsustainable manner, or wants to. The common denominator is energy which is the most important thing that drives every economy in the world. And the price of energy has been trending up for 5 decades simultaneous with our debt.
  2. The US central bank is starting to increase interest rates for their money that the world uses to buy oil. There are many different ways to interpret this action. My own speculation is they are worried about confidence in their money and want to maintain or strengthen its purchasing power for oil. Looking through the other side of the lens, this is the same as saying the Fed wants to lower the price of oil because they are worried about inflation since oil is required to make almost everything. If the price of oil drops, the supply of oil will drop.
  3. Most companies that extract high-cost oil are struggling. For example, the majority of US fracking companies are losing money.
  4. Countries that are highly dependent on profits from their high-cost oil reserves are struggling. For example, Venezuela with the largest unconventional oil reserves in the word seems to be collapsing.
  5. Countries with large low-cost reserves are behaving oddly for countries that used to be fantastically wealthy. For example, Saudi Arabia has implemented aggressive austerity and wanted to sell a portion of their state oil company to raise money. They’ve recently backed off from this sale, possibly because it would have required them to submit to an independent audit of their remaining reserves, which some smart people speculate are much lower than stated.
  6. War-like behavior is increasing towards countries that have large low-cost oil reserves and that are not viewed as close friends. For example, Russia and Iran.
  7. Weak countries that lack the ability to borrow US$ needed to buy oil are struggling.
  8. Our central banks, economists, and politicians appear to have no clue about what is causing our persistent global economic problems. I speculate this is a combination of the fact that they’ve never needed to understand thermodynamics until now, and the fact that they deny unpleasant realities as explained by Varki’s MORT theory. I do find it very telling that not one senior leader anywhere in the world has spoken publicly about this issue. A few must understand our predicament and they must be terrified.