By Tom Murphy: The Future Needs an Attitude Adjustment

Peak Oil

I’m resurrecting a 2011 essay by one of my favorite minds on the planet.

Tom Murphy is a brilliant physicist with an impressive catalog of essays on energy related issues. If you prefer to watch rather than read, then this video is a favorite of mine.

After searching for a solution to our energy predicament and concluding that we are in serious trouble, and that we are being extremely unwise by not planning for a world with less, Tom Murphy went quiet. As have many other great minds. A worrying sign.

Here are a few excerpts but the whole thing is worth a read.

Over the years, my diligent observation of people has led me to a deep insight: people want stuff. I know—bear with me as I support my argument. Donald Trump. Okay, I think I’ve covered it. No, it’s true. On the whole, we don’t seem to be satiable creatures. Imagine the counter-examples: “No thanks, boss. I really don’t need a raise.” “I’m done with this money—anybody want it?” “Where should I invest my money to guarantee 0% return?” (Answer: anywhere, lately.) I’m not saying that the world lacks generosity/charity. But how many examples do we have of someone making $500,000/yr (in whatever form) and donating $400,000 per year to those in need, figuring $100,000/yr is plenty to live comfortably? I want names (and actually hope there are some examples).

This basic desire for more has meshed beautifully with a growth-based economic model and a planet offering up its stored resources. The last few hundred years is when things really broke loose. And it’s not because we suddenly got smarter. Sure, we have a knack for accumulating knowledge, and there is a corresponding ratchet effect as we lock in new understanding. But we have the same biological brains that we did 10,000 years ago—so we haven’t increased our mental horsepower. What happened is that our accumulation of knowledge allowed us to recognize the value of fossil fuels. Since then, we have been on a tear to develop as quickly as we might. It’s working: the average American is responsible for 10 kW of continuous power production, which is somewhat like having 100 energy slaves (humans being 100 W machines). We’re satisfying our innate need for more and more—and the availability of cheap, abundant, self-storing, energy-dense sources of energy have made it all possible.


See the Do the Math post on peak oil for particulars on one scenario that has me worried. In brief, a declining petroleum output leads to supply disruptions in many commodities, price spikes, decline of travel/tourism industries, international withholding of oil supplies, possibly resource wars, instability, uncertainty, a sea change in attitudes and hope for the future, loss of confidence in investment and growth in a contracting world, rampant unemployment, electric cars and other renewable dreams out of reach and silly-sounding when keeping ourselves fed is more pressing, an Energy Trap preventing us from large scale meaningful infrastructure replacement, etc.  There can be positive developments as well—especially in demand and in “attitude adjustments.”  And perhaps the market offers more magic than my skeptical mind allows.  But any way you slice it, our transition away from fossil fuels will bring myriad challenges that will require more forethought, cooperation, and maturity than I tend to see in headlines today.


People often misinterpret my message that “we risk collapse,” believing me to say instead that “we’re going to collapse.” It’s interesting to me that the concept of collapse is taboo to the point of coming across as an offensive slap in the face. It clearly touches an emotional nerve. I think we should try to understand that. Personally, this reaction scares me. It suggests an irrational faith that we cannot collapse. If I did not think the possibility for collapse was real, I might just find this reaction intellectually intriguing. But when the elements for collapse are in place (unprecedented stresses, energy challenges, resource limitations, possible overshoot of carrying capacity), the aversion to this possible fate leaves me wondering how we can mitigate a problem we cannot even look in the eye.

Note: Varki’s book, which provides a plausible explanation for our inability to discuss, let alone act on, obvious human overshoot, was published after this essay.


Others react by an over-use of the word “just.” We just need to get fusion working. We’ll just paint Arizona with solar panels. We’ll just switch to electric cars. We just need to go full-on nuclear, preferably with thorium reactors. We just need to exploit the oil shales in the Rocky Mountain states. We just need to get the environmentalists off our backs so we can drill, baby, drill. This is the technofix approach. I am trying to chip away at this on Do the Math: the numbers often don’t pan out, or the challenges are much bigger than people appreciate. I have looked for solutions to things we can just do to alleviate the pressures on the system. With the exception of just reducing how much we personally demand, I have been disappointed again and again. I’ll come back to personal reduction in the months to come: lots to say here.


Aside from the cadets, the message was clear from reactions that growth is a sacred underpinning of our modern life, and that we must not speak of terminating this regime. After all, how could we satisfy our yearning for more without the carrot of growth dangling in front of us? Some argue that we need growth in the developing world in order to bring humanity up to an acceptable standard of living. I am sympathetic to this aim. So let’s voluntarily drop growth in the developed countries of the world and let the underdogs have their day. Did I just blaspheme again? I keep doing that. I perceive this compassion for the poor of the world as a cloak used to justify the base desire of getting more stuff for ourselves. Prove it to yourself by asking people if they would be willing to give up growth in (or even contract) our economy while the third world continues growing for the next half-century. You may get rationalizations of the flavor that without growth in the first world, the engine for growth in the third world would be starved and falter: they need our consumer demand to have a customer base. I’m skeptical. I think people just want stuff—even if they’ve got lots already.


Many look to political leaders for, well, leadership. But I’ve come to appreciate that political leaders are actually politicians (another razor-sharp observation), and politicians need votes to occupy their seats. Politicians are therefore cowardly sycophants responding to the whims of the electorate. In other words, they are a reflection of our wants and demands. A child who has just been spanked for throwing a tantrum would probably not re-elect their parent if allowed the choice. We all scream for ice cream. Why would we reward a politician for leading us instead to a plate of vegetables—even if that’s what we really need. Meanwhile we find it all too easy to blame our ills on the politicians. It’s a lot more palatable than blaming ourselves for our own selfish demands that politicians simply try to satisfy.


My basic point in all this is that I perceive fundamental human weaknesses that circumvent our making rational, smart, adult decisions about our future. Our expectations tend to be outsized with respect to the physical limitations at hand. We quickly dash up against ideological articles of faith, so that many are unable to acknowledge that there is an energy/resource problem at all. The Spock in me wants to raise an eyebrow and say “fascinating.” The human in me is distressed by the implications to our collective rationality. The adult in me wants less whining, fewer temper tantrums, realistic expectations, a willingness to sacrifice where needed, the maturity to talk of the possibility of collapse and the need to step off the growth train, and adoption of a selfless attitude that we owe future generations a livable world where we can live rich and fulfilling lives with another click of the ratchet.  Otherwise we deserve a spanking—sorry—attitude adjustment.  And nature is happy to oblige.

By Jack Alpert: Unwinding the Human Predicament

Jack Alpert

I’ve been following Jack Alpert for many years. He’s an intelligent clear thinking engineer that was apparently born without any denial of reality genes.

I’ve posted other work by Alpert herehere, and here.

Alpert’s devoted much of his life to diagnosing and prescribing remedies for the human overshoot predicament.

This interview by James Howard Kunstler provides a nice summary of Alpert’s work and includes a “solution” that would minimize suffering as fossil energy depletes and that would create a sustainable civilization of about 50 million people with comfortable lives that could continue to make progress in science, technology, and the arts.

The catch is that 3 billion people have to understand the nature of our predicament and vote to drastically constrain personal freedoms, especially the right to breed. We of course would be lucky to find 3 hundred such people, let alone 3 billion.

As a consequence, Alpert concludes that the best case scenario we can hope for over the next 75 years is a painful involuntary reduction of population, mostly due to starvation,  from 7.6 billion to about 600 million subsistence farmers, with little preservation of science, technology, and the arts.

That’s a pretty big price to pay for personal “freedom”, and a tragedy given how rare intelligent life probably is in the universe.

So sad.

Play Audio

Kunstler’s site with an introduction to the interview:

By Nate Hagens: Contrasts and Continuums of the Human Predicament

Here is this year’s annual Earth Day talk by Nate Hagens.

My introduction to last year’s talk by Nate is still valid:

I used to preface Nate’s talks by saying he provides the best big picture view of our predicament available anywhere.

While still true, I think Nate may now be the only person discussing these issues in public forums.

Everyone else seems to have retired to their bunkers and gone quiet.

If you only have an hour this year to devote to understanding the human predicament and what needs to be done, this may be the best way to spend it.


By Paul Mobbs: The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics – The Gaping Hole in the Middle of the Circular Economy

Circular Economy Thermodynamics

The laws of thermodynamics govern the universe. Of all our scientific theories, thermodynamics is the least likely to change as we learn more. In other words, thermodynamics is the bedrock of science.

As a consequence, any “sustainable” solution to our overshoot predicament must first be checked to confirm that it does not conflict with the laws of thermodynamics. Unfortunately, most solutions promoted today, like renewable energy, recycling, and a circular economy, do conflict with thermodynamics and therefore are not useful strategies.

We must reduce our population and our consumption. And we will, one way or the other.

Here is a nice essay on the thermodynamics of a circular economy by Paul Mobbs.

Just because renewable energy is ‘renewable’, it doesn’t mean the machines we require to harvest that energy are freed from the finite limits of the Earth’s resources[10].

There are grand schemes to power the world using renewable energy. The difficulty is that no one has bothered to check to see if the resources are available to produce that energy. Recent research suggests that the resources required to produce that level of capacity cannot currently be supplied[11].

The crunch point is that while there might be enough indium, gallium, neodymium and other rare metals to manufacture wind turbines or PV panels for the worlds half-a-billion or so affluent consumers (i.e., the people most likely to be reading this), there is not enough to give everyone on the planet that same level of energy consumption – we’d run out long before then.


The ‘circular economy’ is, I my opinion, a ruse to make affluent consumers feel that they can keep consuming without the need to change their habits. Nothing could be further[25] from the truth, and the central reason for that is the necessity for energy to power economic activity[26].

While the ‘circular economy’ concept admittedly has the right ideas, it detracts from the most important aspects of our ecological crisis today[27] – it is consumption that is the issue, not the simply the use of resources. Though the principle could be made to work for a relatively small proportion[28] of the human population, it could never be a mainstream solution for the whole world because of its reliance on renewable energy technologies to make it function – and the over-riding resource limitations on harvesting renewable energy.

In order to reconcile the circular economy with the Second Law we have to apply not only changes to the way we use materials, but how we consume them. Moreover, that implies such a large reduction in resource use[29] by the most affluent, developed consumers, that in no way does the image of the circular economy, portrayed by its proponents, match up to the reality[30] of making it work for the majority of the world’s population.

In the absence of a proposal that meets both the global energy and resource limitations[30] on the human system, including the limits on renewable energy production, the current portrayal of the ‘circular economy’ is not a viable option. Practically then, it is nothing more than a salve for the conscience of affluent consumers who, deep down, are conscious enough to realize that their life of luxury will soon be over as the related ecological and economic crises[31] bite further up the income scale.

On the Trans Mountain Pipeline

Trans Mountain pipeline

Many environmental groups in my province of B.C. oppose construction of a new pipeline from Alberta to the west coast. The motives of these groups include:

  • preventing dirty oil from contributing to climate change;
  • preventing environmental damage from pipeline and oil tanker spills;
  • concern for First Nation rights.

While these motives are admirable, all of the groups lack an understanding of, and/or deny, the laws of thermodynamics that govern our economy, and our overshoot predicament.

It’s true that climate change is a serious threat. In fact it’s much more serious than most environmental groups acknowledge. We are already locked into a dangerous 2C higher climate with 10m of sea level rise no matter what we do. There are no actions we can take today to solve the climate problem and avoid future suffering. Our choices today are to try to maintain our current lifestyle and increase future suffering, or reduce our population and consumption, and constrain future suffering.

It’s also true that the pipeline will create some new risks for environmental damage, but these risks pale in comparison to the damage the human footprint is already causing. Habitat loss, species extinction, soil depletion, nitrogen imbalance, pollution, deforestation, overfishing, and non-renewable resource depletion are the real threats environmental groups should focus on. As with climate change, nothing can be done about these threats unless we reduce human population and consumption.

In addition, if you want to maintain our current lifestyle, and you are concerned about the risk of oil spills, then there is a good argument to build the pipeline.

With regard to First Nations rights, all 7.6 billion humans descended from one small tribe in Africa about 100,000 years ago, meaning we’re all basically the same. Environmentalists should focus on the rights of all future generations, including First Nations.

Our standard of living is completely dependent on the burning of fossil energy, especially oil. We have already burned most of the cleaner and cheaper oil. That’s why we are mining dirty expensive oil sands, and fracking. To reduce our use of fossil energy we must reduce our standard living and our population.

Put another way, new pipelines will be built for another decade or so, until even the dirty oil is gone, unless we reduce our consumption of oil, and the only way to accomplish that is to shrink our economy, standard of living, and population.

If environmental groups want to make a difference on the issues that matter, as well as lesser issues like preventing new pipelines, they must:

  • set good examples in their personal lives (no more than one child, no long distance travel, reduced consumption of everything);
  • advocate for a global one child policy;
  • advocate for austerity, conservation, and a smaller economy (the simplest and most effective way to accomplish this would be to implement a higher interest rate).

It’s true that our choices are unpalatable, but they are reality, and there is a key point that must be understood when weighing what to do. The remaining affordable fossil energy is depleting quickly. Extraction will, in a decade or so, become too expensive for us to afford, meaning fossil energy will be gone for all intents and purposes. When this happens, our lifestyles and population will collapse, thanks to the laws of thermodynamics, no matter what we choose to do.

The advantages of choosing to voluntarily contract today are threefold. First, we would constrain future suffering caused by climate change. Second, we could use some of our remaining wealth to prepare a softer landing zone and to orchestrate a fairer and more humane descent. Third, we might leave some oil in the ground for our grandchildren so they can enjoy some of the comforts we take for granted. The alternative of doing nothing until thermodynamics forces the issue is chaos, war, and much more suffering for all species, including humans.

This article today suggests that environmental groups may have succeeded in preventing construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline:

Kinder Morgan said it would halt nearly all work on a pipeline project that is crucial to the entire Canadian oil sands industry, representing a huge blow to Alberta’s efforts to move oil to market.

Here is what I predict will happen:

  1. Environmentalists will continue to deny reality and focus on the wrong things.
  2. We will not voluntarily contract the economy.
  3. We will not implement a one child policy.
  4. The Trans Mountain pipeline will be built, provided that our luck persists at avoiding an accidental crash caused by the instability we have created by using extreme debt to maintain an illusion of economic growth.

Let’s check back in a year to see if I am correct.

By Ajit Varki: Why are there no persisting hybrids of humans with Denisovans, Neanderthals, or anyone else?

Denisovan Family Tree

Ajit Varki wrote a letter to PNAS in April 2016 asking a question that is supportive of his Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

Here is my crude attempt to paraphrase Varki’s letter in simpler language:

Behaviorally modern humans successfully bred, in more than one geographic location, with our close relatives the Denisovans and Neanderthals. All of our cousins subsequently went extinct and we, the 7.6 billion offspring from interbreeding, have retained a relatively small number of genes from our cousins, mostly related, if I recall correctly, to disease immunity. The interesting fact is that no full hybrid species persisted.

This strongly suggests that there was some unique and complex combination of genes that gave behaviorally modern humans a strong cognitive advantage over their cousins.

Here is the original text:

The tour-de-force report of Sawyer et al. (1) on genomes of two Denisovans and the accompanying editorial and figure (2) support the notion of “a web of now-extinct populations linked by limited, but intermittent…gene flow” (3): involving multiple hominin lineages for thousands of years, before the mysterious disappearance of all taxa other than us “behaviorally modern humans” (BMHs). Although attention focuses on rare introgressions of non-BMH alleles facilitating adaptation of invading BMHs to ecological challenges, there is a bigger elephant in the room.

Current genomic and archaeological data indicate that BMHs arose in Africa ∼100,000–200,000 y ago and spread across the planet (including the rest of Africa), encountering other extant hominins like Neanderthals, Denisovans, archaic African hominins, and possibly other lineages from earlier diasporas of Homo erectus. Although genomic evidence indicates interbreeding, the number of functional genes incorporated is limited, resulting in a “leaky replacement” (3), without persistence of true hybrids. Thus, our single BMH (sub)species was the “winner” in every contact/replacement event, spanning tens of thousands of years. I cannot find any other example wherein a single (sub)species from one geographic origin completely replaced all extant cross-fertile (sub)species in every planetary location, with limited introgression of functional genetic material from replaced taxa, and leaving no hybrid species. Typically, one instead finds multiple cross-fertile (sub)species, with hybrid zones in between.

Although this apparent one-of-a-kind phenomenon could have occurred by chance, the singularity allows one to posit a uniquely complex genetic/biological/cultural transition of BMHs. As Pääbo suggested (3), adaptive accumulation of an “explosive constellation” of genetic variants (alleles) could have endowed BMHs with an unparalleled combination of cognitive features, guaranteeing success at every subsequent encounter with other hominins.

Why did hybrid species not persist, at least at the geographical extremes of BMH expansion? Assuming that hundreds of new alleles comprised the BMH genotype, F1hybrids with other hominins would likely lack the complete cognitive package required to compete for mating within BMH groups. Tellingly, 10 of 10 non-BMH mitochondrial sequences are outside the current BMH range (1), suggesting that mating of BMH males with non-BMH females generated progeny that were not included within BMH groups. In contrast, progeny of female BMHs and non-BMH males may have had the opportunity to survive within BMH groups, with sufficient mating success rates to allow transmissions of a few alleles valuable to the newcomers, but related to ecological adaptation, not cognition.

Such “human exceptionalism” is currently frowned upon, as are extraordinary explanations of evolutionary events. However, unless there are other clear examples of such complete replacement of all related taxa by one single (sub)species, BMHs may indeed be a rare exception. Although environmental factors such as climate or infectious disease (4) could have generated the initial African bottleneck, the critical BMH phenotype was likely cognitive. This fits ecocultural models predicting Neanderthal extinction through competition with modern humans (5) and suggests an improbable BMH transition through a long-standing “psychological evolutionary barrier”––possibly involving initially maladaptive features such as reality denial and mortality salience, which conspired to generate the winning combination (6).


Note: Ajit Varki sent me this letter when he published it but I thank reader Derek Peter Carne for reminding me about it.

By Tim Garrett: Linking Wealth, Energy Demand, CO2 and Climate Change

Tim Garrett

Tim Garrett is the scientist with the best understanding of the relationship between energy and the economy, which means he has the best understanding of what can and cannot be done to mitigate the climate change threat.

Don’t take my word for this, read his papers and explore his site.

As far as I can tell, Garrett is ignored by all other climate scientists, and everyone that formulates climate change policies.

Think about that for a moment. Our experts ignore the one person they should not ignore.

Now you know why I am so fascinated by the human tendency to deny any reality we do not like. This tendency afflicts almost everyone, including our best and brightest.

I missed this excellent interview with Garrett when it was first broadcast in October 2017 although I have read and listened to almost everything previous he has done.

Paraphrasing a few quotes from the interview:

It is now generally accepted that a 5 degree rise in temperature will collapse civilization. At our current economic growth rate we can expect 5 degrees in 50 or 60 years from now. The only way to avoid this is to collapse civilization now.


I doubt there are solutions but if there are solutions we won’t get at them by imagining fairy tales like improved efficiency and renewable energy.


We need to start thinking now about the most humane way to deal with a collapsing civilization because we know from history that our tendency is to not behave well in such situations.


Interviewer: Why is your work so unknown?

Garrett: Humans have a deep-seated need for optimism and a belief that solutions exist.

Me: aka denial