Tom Murphy’s back, yay!

Physicist Tom Murphy is one of the brightest and most articulate people in the overshoot awareness space.

A decade ago Murphy wrote frequently for a few years on his blog “Do the Math” where he explored the energy opportunities and constraints for powering our civilization. Then, having said what he wanted to say, he went silent.

Here is some of Murphy’s work that I’ve posted in the past which includes my all time favorite talk on limits to growth:

Today Murphy announced that he has published a new textbook titled “Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet” which can be downloaded for free.

After a long hiatus from teaching the general education energy course at UCSD—due mostly to a heavy administrative role for five years—I picked it up again for Winter quarter 2020. I had always been discontented when it came to textbook choices: my sense was that they tended to play it safe to avoid the risk of being provocative. But provocative may be what our situation calls for! I had been inspired by David MacKay’s fabulous and quantitatively rich Sustainability: Without the Hot Air, but its focus on the UK and not-quite-textbook format kept me from adopting it for the classroom.

So I set out to capture key elements of Do the Math in a textbook for the Winter 2020 class, following a somewhat similar trajectory: growth limits; fossil fuels and climate change; alternative energy capabilities and pros/cons; concluding with a dose of human factors and personal adaptation strategies.


Where is humanity going? How realistic is a future of fusion and space colonies? What constraints are imposed by physics, by resource availability, and by human psychology? Are default expectations grounded in reality?

This textbook, written for a general-education audience, aims to address these questions without either the hype or the indifference typical of many books. The message throughout is that humanity faces a broad sweep of foundational problems as we inevitably transition away from fossil fuels and confront planetary limits in a host of unprecedented ways—a shift whose scale and probable rapidity offers little historical guidance.

Salvaging a decent future requires keen awareness, quantitative assessment, deliberate preventive action, and—above all—recognition that prevailing assumptions about human identity and destiny have been cruelly misshapen by the profoundly unsustainable trajectory of the last 150 years. The goal is to shake off unfounded and unexamined expectations, while elucidating the relevant physics and encouraging greater facility in quantitative reasoning.

After addressing limits to growth, population dynamics, uncooperative space environments, and the current fossil underpinnings of modern civilization, various sources of alternative energy are considered in detail— assessing how they stack up against each other, and which show the greatest potential. Following this is an exploration of systemic human impediments to effective and timely responses, capped by guidelines for individual adaptations resulting in reduced energy and material demands on the planet’s groaning capacity. Appendices provide refreshers on math and chemistry, as well as supplementary material of potential interest relating to cosmology, electric transportation, and an evolutionary perspective on humanity’s place in nature.

I skimmed the book to assess its tone. Murphy is trying to strike a balance between being honest about the difficulties we face, while not saying that civilization collapse is a certainty, and offers some constructive suggestions for how his young students might respond. It’s a similar (and understandable) strategy that Nate Hagens, another well known overshoot teacher has taken.

Here are a few excerpts filled with wise words from Murphy’s book:

19.1 No Master Plan

The “adults” of this world have not established a global plan for peace and prosperity. This has perhaps worked okay so far: a plan hasn’t been necessary. But as the world changes from an “empty” state in which humans were a small part of the planet with little influence to a new “full” regime where human impacts are many and global in scale, perhaps the “no plan” approach is the wrong framework going forward.

19.2 No Prospects for a Plan

Not only do we lack a plan for how to live within planetary limits, we may not even have the capacity to arrive at a consensus long-term plan. Even within a country, it can be hard to converge on a plan for alternative energy, a different economic model, a conservation plan for natural resources, and possibly even different political structures. These can represent extremely big changes. Political polarization leaves little room for united political action. The powerful and wealthy have little interest in substantial structural changes that may imperil their current status. And given peoples’ reluctance to embrace austerity and take personal responsibility for their actions, it is hard to understand why a politician in a democracy would feel much political pressure to make long-term decisions that may result in short-term hardship—real or perceived.

Globally, the prospects may be even worse: competition between countries stymies collective decision-making. The leaders of a country are charged with optimizing the prosperity of their own country—not that of the whole world, and even less Earth’s ecosystems. If a number of countries did act in the global interest, perhaps by voluntarily reducing their fossil fuel purchases in an effort to reduce global fossil fuel use, it stands to reason that other countries may take advantage of the resulting price drops to acquire more fossil fuels than they would have otherwise—defeating the original purpose. Then the participating countries will feel that they self-penalized for no good reason. Unless all relevant nations are on board and execute a plan, it will be hard to succeed at global initiatives. The great human experiment has never before faced this daunting a set of global, inter-related problems. The lack of a global authority to whom countries must answer may make global challenges almost impossible to mitigate. Right now, it is a free-for-all, sort-of like 200 kids lacking any adult supervision.

20.1 Awareness

How many people do you know who are concerned about a legitimate threat of collapse of our civilization? It is an extreme outcome, and one without modern precedent. It seems like a fringe, alarmist position that is uncomfortable to even talk about in respectable company. Yet the evidence on the ground points to many real concerns:

1. The earth has never had to accommodate 8 billion people at this level of resource demand;

2. Humankind has never run out of a resource as vital as fossil fuels;

3. Humans have never until now altered the atmosphere to the point of changing the planet’s thermal equilibrium;

4. We have never before witnessed species extinction at this rate, or seen such dramatic changes to wild spaces and to the ocean.

20.3.1 Overall Framing

In the absence of a major shift in public attitudes toward energy and resource usage, motivated individuals can control their own footprints via personal decisions. This can be a fraught landscape, as some people may try to out-woke each other and others will resist any notion of giving up freedoms or comforts—only exacerbated by a sense of righteous alienation from the “do-gooders.”

Some basic guidelines on effective adaptation:

1. Choose actions based on some analysis of impact: don’t bother with superficial stuff, even if it’s trendy.

2. Don’t simply follow a list of actions or impart a list on others: choose a more personalized adventure based on quantitative assessment.

3. Avoid showing off. It is almost better to treat personal actions as secrets. Others may simply notice those choices and ask about them, rather than you bringing them up.

4. Resist the impulse to ask: “what should I buy to signal that I’m environmentally responsible?” Consumerism and conspicuous consumption are a large part of the problem. Buying new stuff is perhaps counterproductive and may not be the best path.

5. Be flexible. Allow deviations. Rigid adherence makes life more difficult and might inconvenience others, which can be an unwelcome imposition. Such behavior makes your choices less palatable to others, and therefore less likely to be adopted or replicated.

6. Somewhat related to the last point, chill out a bit. Every corner of your life does not have to be perfect. We live in a deeply imperfect world, so that exercising a 30% footprint compared to average is pretty darned good, and not that much different than a “more perfect” 25%. Doing a few big things means more than doing a lot of little things that may drive you (and others) crazy.

7. In the end, it has to matter to you what you’re doing and why. It’s not for the benefit of others.

20.4 Values Shifts

In the end, a bold reformulation of the human approach to living on this planet will only succeed if societal values change from where they are now. Imagine if the following activities were frowned upon—found distasteful and against social norms:

1. keeping a house warm enough in winter to wear shorts inside;

2. keeping a house so cool in summer that people’s feet get cold;

3. having 5 cars in an oversized garage;

4. accumulating enough air miles to be in a special “elite” club;

5. taking frequent, long, hot showers;

6. using a clothes dryer during a non-rainy period;

7. having a constant stream of delivery vehicles arrive at the door;

8. a full waste bin each week marking high consumption;

9. having a high-energy-demand diet (frequent meat consumption);

10. upgrading a serviceable appliance, disposing of the old;

11. wasteful lighting.

At present, many of these activities connote success and are part of a culture of “conspicuous consumption.” If such things ran counter to the sensibilities of the community, the behaviors would no longer carry social value and would be abandoned. The social norms in some Scandinavian countries praise egalitarianism and find public displays of being “better” or of having more money/stuff to be in poor taste. Abandonment of consumerist norms could possibly work, but only if it stems from a genuine understanding of the negative consequences. If curtailment of resource-heavy activities is imposed by some authority or is otherwise reluctantly adopted, it will not be as likely to transform societal values.

20.6 Upshot on Strategies

No one can know what fate awaits us, or control the timing of whatever unfolds. But individuals can take matters into their own hands and adopt practices that are more likely to be compatible with a future defined by reduced resource availability. We can learn to communicate future concerns constructively, with out being required to paint an artificial picture of hope. Our actions and choices, even if not showcased, can serve as inspiration for others—or at least can be personally rewarding as an impactful adventure. Quantitative assessment of energy and resource demands empowers individuals to make personal choices carrying large impacts. Reductions of factors of 2 and 3 and 4 are not out of reach. Maybe the world does not need 18 TW to be happy. Maybe we don’t have to work so hard to maintain a peaceful and rewarding lifestyle once growth is not the driver. Maybe we can re-learn how to adapt to the seasons and be fulfilled by a more intimate connection with nature. The value of psychological preparedness should not underestimated. By staring unblinking into the abyss, we are ready to cope with disruption, should it come. And if it never does in our lifetimes, what loss do we really suffer if we have chosen our adventure and lived our personal values?

In this sense, the best adaptation comes in the form of a mental shift. Letting go of humanity’s self-image as a growth juggernaut, and finding an “off-ramp” to a more rewarding lifestyle in close partnership with nature is the main goal. Continuing the freeway metaphor, the current path has us hurtling forward to certain involuntary termination of growth (a dead end, or cliff, or brick wall), very probably resulting in overshoot and/or crash.

The guidelines provided in this chapter for quantifying and reducing resource demands then simply become the initial outward expressions of this fresh vision. Ignore the potentially counterproductive allure of fusion, teleportation, and warp drive. Embrace instead a humbler, slower, more feasible future that stresses natural harmony over conquest and celebrates life in all forms—while preserving and advancing the knowledge and understanding of the universe we have worked so hard to achieve. Picture a future citizen of this happier world looking back at the present age as embarrassingly misguided and inexplicably delusional. Earth is a partner, not a possession to be exploited. Figuratively throwing Earth under the bus precludes our own chances for long-term success. A common phrasing of this sentiment is that humans are a part of nature, not apart from nature. Let’s not lose the path in a flight of fossil-fueled fantasy.

March 22, 2021 Update: Tom Murphy wrote a post highlighting the ideas from his book that will be new for Do the Math readers, and asking for our help to promote his free book.

Textbook Tour

Last week, in the first Do the Math post in years, I kept the post brief, only pointing out the new textbook: Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet, and giving a brief account of the backstory.

In this post, I take a bit more time to introduce new elements in the book that Do the Math readers have not seen represented in some form in earlier posts. In other words: what new insights or calculations lurk within the book?

The following is organized into three sections. The first takes a brief tour of the book, pointing out large, new blocks that are not already covered by Do the Math in some form. The second highlights the results of new calculations or figures that bring new context to our understanding. Finally, I summarize some of the new big-picture framing that emerges in the book.

Rather than laboriously inserting associated graphics into this post, my intent is that you treat this as a companion to be used side-by-side with the downloadable PDF of the book. References are to sections, figures, boxes, etc. rather than page numbers, which vary between electronic and print forms. So go ahead and get a version of the PDF up, and let’s jump in…

Brief Tour of New Content

The Preface may be worth reading for overall framing and motivation. The middle part about student learning and approach to mathematics/problems might not be as worthwhile, but the beginning and end are likely of interest.

The first four chapters attempt to lay out constraints on growth, initially hewing closely to the first two Do the Math posts on Galactic Scale Energy and Can Economic Growth Last. Chapter 3 on population echoes some points in The Real Population Problem, but adds substantial analysis of the demographic transition. I felt this was an important addition because many academics look to this mechanism to “solve” the population problem. What I point out is that the transition is a double-whammy for planetary resources: even though the result is zero-growth, the road to that point involves a population surge and increasing resource usage per capita. More people multiplied by a higher per-capita resource use is bad news for resource constraints. The dream, therefore, has a nightmarish element that might be neglected by many because demographic transitions of the past were not constrained in this way and seemed to be very positive, on balance. A recurring message: the highly abnormal recent past offers poor guidance to the future. Finally, Chapter 4 echoes the popular Why Not Space post, closing off this exit—or at least prompting the invested believers to cast the book aside and waste their time in a manner more to their liking.

Chapter 5 is a dry one on units, and does not exist on Do the Math except in a static page called Useful Energy Relations. Chapter 6 consolidates several posts on thermal energy and heat pumps. Chapter 7 is basically new, as a snapshot of U.S. and global energy and plots of recent trends.

Elements of Chapter 8 on fossil fuels can be found among the Do the Math posts—especially those on peak oil. But no overview of fossil fuels really existed on the blog. Chapter 9 on climate change is similar to the Recipe for Climate Change in Two Easy Steps, but is considerably expanded to detail the expected impact on temperature, explore limiting-case scenarios for the future, and delve into the thermal requirements for heating the ocean and melting ice.

Chapter 10 provides an overview of Earth’s energy budget and introduces the alternative and renewable energy options. This short chapter has no direct analog in Do the Math.

The heart of the book covers topics that do not change much over time: technologies for harnessing alternative energy. Prices might change, but the fundamentals tend not to. Thus, Chapters 11 through 16 largely echo Do the Math content. Note that the writing itself is new, and has benefited from extensive student feedback to improve clarity and accessibility. So it’s not a cut-and-paste job, but the overall take-aways are going to be familiar to Do the Math readers. Chapter 17 is the book’s version of The Alternative Energy Matrix, and is the closest thing to cut-and-paste in the book, being billed as a slightly edited reproduction of an existing chapter in the State of the World 2013 book.

The two main changes in the alternative energy chapters have to do with solar prices going down (now at under $3/Watt for residential and $1/Watt for utility-scale installations; the panels themselves being $0.50/Watt) and new recommendations for wind-farm turbine spacing, lowering the estimated power per land area available. I also added state-by-state maps for hydroelectricity, wind, and solar photovoltaic utilization in the U.S., for four different attributes (total power, power per area, power per person, and capacity factor).

The last three chapters depart the most from Do the Math content, although containing familiar elements like an exploration of personality types and a description of the Energy Trap. Chapter 20 bears some resemblance to posts on household energy and dietary choices. But the packaging may be different enough that it does not feel like repetition of Do the Math.

The Epilogue is completely new, and likely of interest to Do the Math readers.

Appendix D is the most thoughtful Appendix. Of greatest interest will be D.3 on electric transportation, D.5 on the long view of human success, and D.6 on an evolutionary perspective regarding human intelligence and how that may or may not mesh well in the natural world.

Highlights of New Results

The following tidbits are arranged in chronological order, and for the sake of brevity only represent the more thought-provoking additions.

In Chapter 2, Figure 2.3 on lighting efficiency progress surprised me in that the same 2.3% growth rate adopted for Chapters 1 and 2 on growth of energy fits the lighting history rather well. If the trend continues, we reach theoretical limits well before century’s end.

Chapter 3 has one new development and one new presentation of interest. The development is the recognition that the population surge associated with a demographic transition is proportional to the exponential of the change in birth/death rate times the lag between declining death rate and declining birth rate (Figure 3.16). The factor can easily more than double the pre-transition population. The new presentation is in Figure 3.17, exposing how preposterous the “dream” scenario looks of advancing a growing population to “western” energy standards by the year 2100. Substances that facilitate such delusions are usually illegal.

The only thing I’ll say about Chapter 4 here is that I planted an (accurate) Easter egg in Figure 4.2—only applicable to the electronic version.

I was surprised by Figure 7.9, showing the U.S. as a literal super-power (as measured in Watts) in the mid-twentieth century—using more than 80% of global natural gas and over 70% of global petroleum. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some Americans long to return to these “glory” years (not at all glorious for less privileged individuals, it should be noted). The mistake is thinking that it’s a matter of choice. America’s dominant role in the world had a resource foundation, and that ship has sailed. It’s not a matter of politics: it’s physics, and anger won’t solve it.

Figure 8.8 made an impression on me as well. A simple calculation based on discovery and consumption of conventional oil, as presented in Figure 8.7, provides a measure of how many years appear to remain in the resource. Simply dividing unconsumed reserves by current consumption gives a timescale, and this can be tracked as a function of time as new discoveries accumulate and consumption rate increases. The startling result is that the predicted endpoint has not budged from around the year 2050 for about four decades! I caution readers not to take this literally to mean that oil runs out in 2050. First, the plot only applies to conventional oil reserves. Second, reduced consumption rate due to scarcity, prices, policy directives, or suitable substitutes will mean a tapering beyond 2050 rather than abrupt termination. Still, it’s a relevant and alarming data point: conventional oil is unlikely to persist in its present dominance for even three more decades! I think that’s big news, people. How many decades old are you?

A number of new results accompany Chapter 9 on climate change. Most rewardingly, I “took it up a notch” from the previous calculations of annual and cumulative CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and used annual data on fossil fuel use to produce a graphs of emissions from the three fossil fuels across time (Figure 9.3). Doing so shows coal’s prominence as the king of CO2 emitters—now and throughout the past. Since we still have more coal than any other fossil fuel, it may just be the gift that keeps on giving. But most remarkable was the exercise of plotting the predicted emission on top of measurements in Figure 9.4. Prior to this, I was satisfied by getting the annual and cumulative emission numbers to match measurements. But to see it graphically: faithfully following the curvature and lying right atop the measurements brought a smile of despair to my face. The same approach lends itself well to exploring CO2 emissions scenarios for fossil fuel expenditures going forward: what happens if we cease growth in consumption; if we replace all coal with natural gas; or if we taper off entirely by 2100 or 2050. Only the last, draconian option limits the ultimate temperature rise to 2.0°C, according to my math.

I also had some “fun” in Chapter 9 stepping through the process by which a radiative imbalance equilibrates (Figure 9.15), and computing the timescales for melting ice and heating up the ocean (section 9.4.2).

Box 13.3 in Chapter 13 looks at solar-powered transportation. Why had I never before computed that a Boeing 737 could only get 4% of its cruise power from direct solar power? It’s an important demonstration of physical limitations.

Box 14.3 computes the thickness of all life on the planet, if squashed to a uniform layer surrounding the globe. It’s 4 mm thick! Or should I say 4 mm thin? That’s precious thin: a fragile wafer. It’s what makes this planet special, and our own lives possible. That’s the ultimate treasure of the planet, and deserves every protection we can offer.

Figures 15.14 and 15.15 are my attempt to explain the origin of nuclear waste, and why the neutron-rich daughter nuclei are radioactive hazards. This resurfaces in Figure 15.19 on nuclear waste radiated power, which I derived from probabilities and decay energies found in the Chart of the Nuclides. On another front, a quick-and-dirty financial assessment for both fission and fusion does not put them in a favorable light against (also expensive) solar, while solar is much safer.

The only good part about Chapter 16 is the fish duo in Figure 16.2.

Box 17.1 is a bit of a follow-up to Box 13.3 on solar transportation, exploring electric (battery-powered) passenger airplanes, concluding that for the same “fuel” load, range would be cut by a factor of 20 (to about 200 km), making them sort-of useless.

Chapter 17 also introduces an alternative scoring of the Matrix, based on student weights for the ten attributes of each source. I was interested to see if the fossil fuel gap persists (it does), and if the rankings change (mostly, they don’t).

Box 19.1 takes a stab at quantifying the dollar value of Earth. It’s a crude approach, and not entirely defensible. But even under dubious assumptions, the resulting price is so preposterously large that the point is fairly robust: Earth is far more valuable than our global annual economy, by as much as a factor of a million. Decisions based on money (i.e., most decisions) are therefore woefully misguided. Earth and its ecosystems should come first in societal decisions. Sorry if capitalism gets hurt in the process. Money ceases to have meaning without a life-bearing planet. Priorities!

Chapter 20 works to frame individual adaptation and quantitative assessment of energy footprints. The biggest new piece is the quantitative toolset developed in Section 20.3.4 for assessing dietary energy impact. I think this kind of analysis has the potential to meaningfully reshape our habits and expectations around food choices.

Section D.3 in the Appendices represents a first attempt on my part to nail down the implications of electrified transport for shipping as well as personal transport. Part of the work was already done for Box 17.1 (airplanes), but I had never put pencil to paper on cargo ships or long-haul trucking. The results address the “why can’t we just…” musings on electrifying all transportation. It’s hard. Table D.2 is still new enough to me that I need to study it more and internalize it.

Big Stuff

Okay—that takes care of the nuts-and-bolts additions. What larger messages might emerge from the textbook that may not have been apparent in previous Do the Math content?

Life is Precious

Much of the focus of this blog, and of the textbook, is on energy and resources. But a consistent undercurrent advocates prioritizing nature above ourselves. See, for instance, the reference to Box 14.3 in the section above. Also, Box 19.1—in computing the monetary value of the planet—stresses the backwards way we assess value. We put the flea (economy) in charge of the dog (Earth), ignoring the important fact that the flea can’t live without the dog. An upcoming post will illustrate this theme in an absurd yet compelling manner.

In the end, as the Epilogue wraps up, I try to encapsulate this in a message to the future (but not too soon to adopt the message now!!): Treat nature at least as well as we treat ourselves. It’s a partnership, and the health of the former is a prerequisite to the health of the latter.

Focus on the Long Term

Chapters 18 and 19 discuss the limitations of short-term focus in the face of our challenges. Democracy and business interests tend to have a very short focus, making us vulnerable to the Energy Trap.

But Section D.5 in the Appendix takes this to an expansive vista. It starts with the observation that civilization (cities, agriculture) began roughly 10,000 years ago. Lest we be nearer our end than the beginning, we should be thinking about practices consistent with another 10,000 years on this planet, at least. Maintaining uninterrupted civilization (preserving knowledge without a catastrophic reset) for this long is what we will call successful. Failure to do so is, well, failure.

What would it take to achieve success? As spelled out in section D.5, almost nothing we do today contributes to ultimate success. Therefore most of our actions today only make failure more likely. To me, that is sad to contemplate. Each passing day that we do not prioritize the natural world makes ultimate success a more distant prospect.

Section D.6 follows this up with musings on the role of human intelligence in an evolutionary context. My conclusion is that evolution tinkers, and is capable of producing a being that is too smart to succeed. We have the power to create our own failure, and take many species down with us. It’s time to “ask not” what we can do with our power, but what we should do to best ensure a long, rewarding existence in partnership with the rest of nature.

This Moment is Abnormal

Perhaps the most important message the new textbook can convey is that the abnormality of the last few centuries has turned us into the worst judges of future possibilities. Several times in the book, I compare the present era to a fireworks show: dazzling, awe inspiring, and a short-lived exception to “normal” activity. At least we can appreciate the aberration that a fireworks display represents by comparing it to a longer baseline: we have a broader context. Yet for those born and raised entirely within the fireworks show, it is easy to understand how their world view would be badly distorted.

Margin note 12 in Chapter 2 and the one below it points out our tendency to extrapolate, and think that just because we got “lucky” once (finding and learning to exploit fossil fuels) does not mean the trend will continue indefinitely. People often process the abnormality of our time in a dangerous way: because people 200 years ago could not possibly have predicted the amazing life of today, we are equally ill-equipped to fathom the miracles of tomorrow. I appreciate the bigness of thought that it takes to conceive of this. It’s a fair and alluring point. But it also ignores data and context: physical limits; a “full” earth; exhaustion of one-time resources; climate change perils; systemic collapses in ecosystems around the globe. Please work harder to incorporate these “wrinkles” into an otherwise grand notion.

Somewhat relatedly, margin note 24 in Chapter 2 and note 11 in the Epilogue make reference to the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” parable. This is a story told by adults to caution kids against raising false alarms, as setting up a reflexive dismissal of “fake news” can have damaging consequences. But consider two overlooked aspects of this story: first, a wolf did eventually appear and wreak havoc; and second, shouldn’t the adults bear responsibility for not protecting the town? Is the child really to blame? What idiots would put the responsibility of town protection on a child? I say that the failure rests mostly on the adults. They should recognize that children are prone to false alarms, and admonish them for knowingly creating disruption—after checking on the possibility of a real threat, for goodness sake! They utterly dropped the ball, and paid the price.

I came to think as I put finishing touches on the textbook that if asked to pick one message to communicate with this book it would be that the recent highly anomalous past has cruelly misshapen our perception of future possibilities. I put this into the abstract (and the back cover of the paperback), and sprinkled it into the text as an afterthought (search the word fireworks for some instances). As important as this point is, its presence throughout is implicit. I will likely try to more directly integrate the thought into a future edition.

A grounded understanding that our time is grossly abnormal in the long view is, I think, a necessary first step in snapping out of our current mindset, shaking off fantastical dreams, and getting to work defining and implementing a future that can actually work. It’s time to break the spell.


I am too close/biased to judge whether this book has enough intrinsic merit and appeal to “catch on” and reach a broad audience. But people will not give it a chance and instructors won’t adopt it for classrooms if too few people even know about it. Because I intentionally bypassed a for-profit publisher to make the book freely available, I lose the benefit of any publicity apparatus a publishing company might provide. So it’s down to “the people” to let others know of its existence. Fortunately, social media channels are well suited to this. Please consider sharing this book with others (reference the link to the book, not this “inside baseball” post). I hope the book is written in a way that can draw people in and then inspire them to keep turning pages. If recommending to friends and family, perhaps think about targeting a section or two to avoid their feeling overwhelmed by a textbook-sized reading assignment. If you can think of a personal connection to make it more directly relevant to them, all the better.

I don’t think I have ever asked for this sort of favor, and am not wholly comfortable with the appearance that I am shamelessly self-promoting here. But since I receive no financial benefit (even from the printed book) or prospect of job promotion as a result, I can convince myself that it’s out of a hope that the book might have some power to change minds and play some small role in setting us onto a more successful path. Call it optimism, bias, over-confidence, or whatever, but if the book can gain significant traction, then perhaps it deserves every chance and advantage. If months or years go by, this “old news” textbook will no longer have the shiny luster of newness, and will be less likely to spark a flame equal to the task ahead of us. The book may flop on its own (lack of) merits; then it flops—so be it. But let’s at least be able to say that it wasn’t for lack of trying to make people aware of its presence.

Apneaman wrote a song to celebrate the return of Tom Murphy:

Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back

He went away and hopium hung around
And bothered me, every night
And when I wouldn’t buy into it
You said things that weren’t very nice
My Physicist’s back and you’re gonna be in trouble
(Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back)
You see him comin’ better SHUT UP on the double
(Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back)
You been spreading lies that collapse was untrue
(Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back)
So look out now ’cause his math foretells doom
He’s been gone for such a long time
(Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back)
Now he’s back to prove we’re out of time
(Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back)
We’ll all be sorry we were ever born
(Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back)
‘Cause his brain’s kinda big and his math’s da bomb
(Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back)
(You’re a Green dreamer now but he’ll cut you down to size
(Wait and see)
My Physicist’s back he’s gonna prove our damnation
(Hey-la-day-la my Physicist’s back)
If I were you I’d pray for endtimes salvation
(Hey-la, hey-la, my Physicist’s back)
Yeah, my Physicist’s back (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back)
Look out now, yeah, my Physicist’s back (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back)
I could see him comin’ so you better get a runnin’ alright now (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back)
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back)
My Physicist’s back now (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back)
Know he’s comin’ after you because he knows I’ve been true to doom (La-day-la, my Physicist’s back)

By Jean-Marc Jancovici: Will technology save us from Climate Change?

Brilliant new talk by my favorite alien engineer, Jean-Marc Jancovici.

If you only have 90 minutes to spare, and you want to understand everything that matters about how the world works, and the nature of our overshoot predicament, and what we need to do to minimize future suffering, then this talk is the best use of your time.

spoiler alert: the answer is no


Jean-Marc Jancovici is an advisor to the French government on climate change and energy as part of the French High Council for Climate. He is a founding partner of Carbon 4, a Paris-based data consultancy specializing in low carbon transition and the physical risks of climate change ( He is also the founder and president of The Shift Project, a Paris-based think tank advocating for a low carbon economy ( Jean-Marc Jancovici also serves as an associate professor at Mines ParisTech.


The thermo-industrial development of our society has been possible due to resource extraction and the transformation of our environment. Unfortunately, it has led to severe environmental consequences that humanity is experiencing around the globe: shifting and unpredictable climate, extreme weather events, and biodiversity collapse. Humanity is paying the consequences for technical and technological progress. Thus, can technology still save us from climate change?

Jean-Marc Jancovici will address this question through the paradigm of energy. He will first detail how modern society is structured around thermal and nuclear energies, and will then discuss the impact of this structure on global climate and society. Finally, Jean-Marc Jancovici will conclude by exploring the trade-offs between economic growth and sustainable climate stewardship.


By Tim Garrett: Jevon’s Paradox: Why increasing energy efficiency will accelerate global climate change

CO2 vs. COP

Thank you to X for finding this new talk by professor Tim Garrett.

Garrett has developed the most significant and useful theory for explaining the relationship between climate change and the economy.

In this talk, Garrett explains his theory and tears a strip off climate scientists for their unscientific beliefs.

Garrett, in the Q&A, discusses the disgraceful manner that climate scientists have responded to his theory. I think the fact that almost all climate scientists ignore or deny Garrett’s theory is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence in support of Varki’s MORT theory.

Paraphrasing Garrett, an educated person would not infer from the above plot that human agency has an impact on climate trajectories. Instead, a naive person might reasonably conclude that CO2 emissions are caused by COP climate change accords. 🙂

Garrett used to summarize the conclusion of his theory as:

US$1 (1990) = 9.7 mW

Garrett is now expressing the same conclusion as:

5.8 gigawatts = US$1 trillion (2010)

Garrett observes that a single atmospheric chemist stationed on Mauna Loa would more accurately measure global GDP than the tens of thousands of idiot economists we employ.

GDP vs. CO2

One component of Biden’s climate change plan calls for more efficient appliances, machines, and buildings. Garrett shows that this piece of Biden’s plan will make climate change worse because the more efficient we are, the more we grow.

Garrett does not discuss it, but Biden’s plan would help if we tax away all of the savings that result from improved efficiency and use the taxes to pay down public debt. Biden of course would not have been elected if he included this in his plan.

Garrett also does not discuss the simplest solution for reducing CO2 emissions, which one person at a keyboard can implement: increase the interest rate. Garrett’s theory predicts a higher interest rate will reduce emissions because our wealth would reduce through defaults.

Garrett correctly observes that our current path of trying to switch to renewable energy will increase the combustion of fossil energy, but he doesn’t add the important caveat, until fossil energy depletion collapses our economy.

Garrett remains blind to one key piece of the puzzle: The depletion of affordable fossil energy has created a global debt bubble because the cost of extracting fossil energy is now higher than what consumers can afford. When this debt bubble pops, our wealth and CO2 emissions will decline, a lot. Curious minds want to know if the bubble will pop soon and fast enough to retain a climate compatible with a much poorer civilization.

My take away: The only path to maintaining our wealth and reducing CO2 emissions in time to possibly prevent a climate incompatible with civilization is to switch to nuclear power more quickly than we can possibly afford. And so our wealth will decline regardless of what we do.

One path, if we somehow breakthrough our genetic tendency to deny reality, might be a managed and civil decline. The other path will be chaotic and uncivil.

The Homer Simpson Climate Change Plan

You can find more work by Garrett that I’ve posted here.

P.S. I note from the title slide that economist Steve Keen was a collaborator. Steve Keen, in case you’re not aware, is one of the only economists on the planet with a clue. The behavior of economists differs from climate scientists in that idiocy explains the former and denial the latter. Here is some of Steve Keen’s work that I’ve posted.

By William Rees – Climate change isn’t the problem, so what is?

Thanks to friend and retired blogger Gail Zawacki at Wit’s End for bringing this excellent new talk by professor William Rees to my attention.

Rees discusses our severe state of ecological overshoot and the behaviors that prevent us from taking any useful action to make the future less bad.

Rees thinks there are two key behaviors responsible for our predicament:

  1. Base nature, which we share with all other species, to use all available resources. Most people call this the Maximum Power Principle.
  2. Creative nurture. Our learned culture defines our reality and we live this constructed reality as if it were real. “When faced with information that does not agree with their [preformed] internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information” – Wexler.

I don’t disagree with Rees on the existence or role of these behaviors, but we also need Varki’s MORT theory to explain how denial of unpleasant realties evolved and is symbiotic with our uniquely powerful intelligence, and other unique human behaviors, such as our belief in gods and life after death.

Some interesting points made by Rees:

  • The 2017 human eco-footprint exceeds biocapacity by 73%.
  • Half the fossil fuels and many other resources ever used by humans have been consumed in just the past 30 years.
  • Efficiency enables more consumption.
  • The past 7 years are the warmest 7 years on record.
  • Wild populations of birds, fish, mammals, and amphibians have declined 60% since 1970. Populations of many insects are down about 50%.
  • The biomass of humans and their livestock make up 95-99% of all vertebrate biomass on the planet.
  • Human population planning has declined from being the dominant policy lever in 1969 to the least researched in 2018.
  • The annual growth in wind and solar energy is about half the total annual growth in energy. In others words, “renewable” energy is not replacing fossil energy, it’s not even keeping up.
  • The recent expansion of the human enterprise resembles the “plague phase” of a one-off boom/bust population cycle.
  • 50 years, 34 climate conferences, a half dozen major international climate agreements, and various scientists’ warnings have not reduced atmospheric carbon concentrations.
  • We are tracking to the Limit to Growth study’s standard model and should expect major systemic crashes in the next 40 to 50 years.
  • This is the new “age of unreason”: science denial and magical thinking.
  • Climate change is a serious problem but a mere symptom of the greater disease.

P.S. Stay for the Q&A session, it’s very good.

On Fabric (aka Fossil Energy is Indistinguishable from Magic)

I recently purchased a 6 piece queen sheet set for my bed and marveled at how something so useful, and so difficult to make myself, could be so inexpensive, costing only $30, or about 2 hours of my labor at minimum wage.

I did a little digging and found this video on how fabric was made before fossil energy:

And this video on how fabric is made today with fossil energy:

A podcast I monitor serendipitously had an episode today on the history of fabric making.

Author and journalist Virginia Postrel talks about her book The Fabric of Civilization and How Textiles Made the World with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Postrel tells the fascinating story behind the clothes we wear and everything that goes into producing them throughout history. The history of textiles, Postrel argues, is a good way of understanding the history of the world.

For those who prefer video:

For those who prefer audio:

Postrel described the process required to make fabric products:

  • get fiber
    • grow plants or breed sheep
    • harvest plants or sheer sheep
    • clean fiber
    • transport fiber to spinner
  • spin fiber into thread
    • align fibers
    • stretch and twist
    • transport thread to weaver
  • weave fiber into fabric
    • set up warp threads
    • pass weft thread through alternate warp threads
    • cut and hem edges
    • transport fabric to manufacturer
  • manufacture final product
    • dye fabric
    • cut fabric
    • sew fabric
  • transport product to consumer

Postrel also provided some interesting data:

  • A single pair of jeans requires 10 Km of thread.
    • The fastest pre-fossil energy manual spinners in the world could produce 100m of thread per hour taking 13 x 8 hour days to produce enough thread for one pair of jeans.
    • A modern fossil energy spinning plant can produce 10 Km of thread in a few seconds.
    • Postrel did not provide data on how long it took to manually weave thread into denim for a pair of jeans, but the video above gives a pretty good idea.
    • A pair of jeans today costs me $15 or about 1 hour of my labor at minimum wage.
  • A basic twin sheet requires 46 Km of thread or 59 x 8 hour days for a fast pre-fossil manual spinner.
    • Again, no data on the weaving time.
    • Linen was, until the industrial revolution, a valuable family asset.

I can’t write a post without drawing a connection to reality denial.

In this case, Russ Roberts, a relative rocket scientist as far as mainstream economists go, never once in the interview drew a connection with non-renewable rapidly depleting fossil energy.

There was a long discussion on the economics of applying “technology” to textile production. But zero awareness of the link between technology and non-renewable energy.

Roberts did draw a connection between food and textiles in that he observed only 2% of the population are now farmers. Again, no apparent awareness of the centrality of natural gas for fertilizer and diesel for tractors and combines.

I’ve added Russ Roberts to my list of famous polymaths in denial, although I probably should have added instead “all economists except Steve Keen”.

By Art Berman: Stop Expecting Oil and the Economy to Recover

This recent essay by Art Berman may be the best historical analysis of oil and its relationship with the economy I’ve read.

Here is my simplified summary of Berman’s analysis:

  • both supply and demand for oil have recently fallen
  • oil demand has fallen more than oil supply
  • this despite an all-time record amount of debt conjured to stimulate the economy
  • which means the global economy is contracting and is in serious trouble
  • the contraction was underway before the virus – the virus accelerated but did not cause the contraction
  • the problem began in 1974 when oil prices increased above the level that the economy can grow without debt growing faster
  • we’re not going to run out of oil, we’re going to run out of people that can afford oil
  • the problem being geologic and thermodynamic in nature, has no business as usual fix, and will continue to worsen

Berman’s analysis is consistent with the conclusions of the other leading minds on the energy-economy relationship: Gail Tverberg, Tim Morgan, Nate Hagens, and Tim Garrett.

The most interesting question, by far, when viewed from 10,000 feet is why do none of our political or intellectual or business leaders understand the most important influence (energy) on the thing they care most about (economic growth)?

The answer of course is that the human species evolved to deny unpleasant realities.

As an aside, recall that Eric Weinstein, the brilliant physicist/hedge fund manager whom I recently wrote about as a case study in denial believes correctly that economic growth and scientific advancement slowed in the late 70’s, but he doesn’t understand the cause despite thinking about it a lot. It’s no wonder that the much lesser intellects of almost all economists don’t have a clue what’s going on.

Berman believes that our economy, being a dissipative structure, will either collapse or spontaneously re-organize itself into a simpler form that uses less energy. I suppose the virus lockdown is a good example of a spontaneous lower energy re-organization. I put my money though on some form of collapse in the not too distant future. Despite a surfeit of entitled citizens, we could weather a significant reduction in living standards because we in the developed world consume so much more than we need to survive, however, the unprecedented debt bubble we have created by denying reality blocks a civil contraction.

Berman concludes that as the economy necessarily simplifies and we live much poorer lives, our energy mix will shift to lower productivity energy sources like wind and solar. My response to this is maybe. It’s more likely that Berman is denying the reality of his own analysis.

I can see solar panels being used for low power/high impact applications like, for example, LED lighting and pumping water into a gravity fed cistern. But it is unlikely and probably impossible that we will heat our homes, or cook our food, or cultivate and harvest our crops, or mine and smelt our minerals, or transport ourselves and our necessities with solar and wind.

When our solar panels and wind turbines wear out some decades in the future it is unlikely that the sophisticated factories and complex supply chains needed to manufacture and install replacements will exist. If some do exist to supply elite customers, like the military, most citizens probably won’t be able to afford their products.

I expect reality denial will prevent us from ever acknowledging peak oil and its offspring human overshoot. Instead, our consensus story all the way to a medieval lifestyle, at best, will likely be that there’s plenty of oil if the other tribes would stop using so much and we just need to elect someone tougher to deal with them and get our economy growing again.

Acknowledging our genetic tendency to deny reality would be a good thing because we might then focus on the best response to our overshoot predicament which is to rapidly reduce our population. Other wise responses can be found here.

Here’s the excerpted conclusion from Berman’s essay, but it’s definitely worth your time to read the whole thing for the data backing up these conclusions.

The Great Simplification

Energy is the economy. Money is a call on energy. Debt is a lien on future energy.

What is happening to oil markets and to the global economy is not because of a virus. The virus greatly accelerated what was already happening. Things won’t go back to normal when the virus ends.

The expansion of energy and debt have been leading toward some sort of reckoning for at least the last fifty years. That day of reckoning has been brought forward by coronavirus economic closures.

Oil prices had averaged $25 per barrel from the end of World War II until 1974 when average prices doubled (Figure 9). From 1979 through 1986, oil price soared to an average of $86 per barrel. These massive economic dislocations resulted in use of debt to maintain economic growth.

Excessive debt was the leading cause for the Financial Collapse of 2008. The crisis was resolved with more debt and monetary policies that ushered in the present era of central bank primacy in the world financial system.

Quantitative easing, near-zero interest rates and high oil prices led to the first wave of the tight oil boom. Over-investment resulted in over-supply and price collapse in 2014. By February 2016, WTI price reached $33 and investors rushed in to support the second wave of the tight oil boom.

WTI reached $72 by mid-2018 but by then, investors had begun to abandon tight oil as well as oil companies in general. The coronavirus economic closure brought monthly average prices to $17 in April, 2020—the lowest month on record. Unlike early 2016, investors weren’t writing any checks this time.

U.S. production may be 50% lower by mid-2021 than at year-end 2019. The implications for U.S. geopolitical power and balance of payments are staggering. It seems likely that the economy will weaken as government support for the unemployed decreases

I doubt that we are on the cusp of either a global energy crisis or the end of the oil age. It is more likely that both supply and demand will fall in tandem as the global economy contracts.

These observations are at odds with the mainstream view that both supply and demand are recovering. Some might concede that I am correct for the present but that things will improve and return to normal although it may some time.

Figure 10 shows credit growth and credit impulse for the United States from 1960 through the first quarter of 2020. Credit impulse is the change in flow of credit (debt) relative to economic activity (GDP).

Spikes in credit impulse correlate well with the oil-price shocks of the 1970s and 1980s. The extraordinary U.S. comparative inventory drawdown of early 2017 through the second quarter of 2018 also corresponds to credit impulse anomalies.

The chief feature of Figure 10, however, is that the magnitude of the first quarter 2020 credit impulse was more than twice as large as any previous increase. Moreover, GDP growth was either neutral or positive during previous spikes but was negative (-10%) for the first quarter of 2020. Also, oil prices were increasing during earlier periods but prices were decreasing in early 2020.

Ilya Prigogine was a chemist who won the 1977 Nobel Prize for his work on dissipative structures and self-organization. Dissipative structures are physical systems that release considerable heat as they consume ever-greater energy to support their growth and increasing complexity. A crisis occurs when growth can no longer be supported by available energy resources. The system either collapses or spontaneously re-organizes itself into a simpler form that uses less energy.

Empires, organizations and economies are dissipative structures. So is the human brain.

My friend Nate Hagens has applied some of Prigogine’s ideas to his own research about world energy, economics and ecology. He believes that we are on the cusp of something quite different from the scenarios suggested by Ahmed, and Goehring and Rozencwajg.

Hagens predicted a global economic decline in the 2020s and publicly expressed that opinion before the Covid pandemic. The main reason for decline, he stated, was too much debt undertaken to continue consuming and growing the economy. The virus has accelerated its timing and may result in contraction greater than the 30% drop during the Great Depression.

The Great Simplification will occur when the credit-supported part of the economy is removed. Economic activity will contract and less energy will be needed because it will be increasingly unaffordable to many parts of the population. People will be forced to adjust living standards downward and self-organize around energy with greater emphasis on local supply chains and regional economies.

I expect that the mix of energy sources will be similar initially. That will probably change as declines to meet the decreased carrying capacity of a society deprived of fossil energy productivity. Then, I imagine the world will move increasingly toward lower productivity energy sources like wind and solar. A viable economy may very well be created based heavily on wind and solar. It will, however, support a much poorer world than we have known for many decades in the world’s advanced economies.

Most ideas and analyses about future trends in energy and the economy fail to recognize that they are the two aspects of the same thing. That is why they are so far off the mark. This basic misalignment is painfully obvious because the energy sector represents only 2.5% of the S&P 500 valuation but underlies probably 95% of U.S. GDP.

That is what Hagens calls energy blindness1.

1I call it energy denial.

By Jack Alpert: How the World Works

This latest video from Jack Alpert is very good.

Alpert explains why on our current default trajectory most of the global population that lives after 2050 will experience starvation and that by about 2100 our 8 billion will be reduced to about 600 million serfs leading a medieval lifestyle on a sick planet.

Alpert then describes an alternate trajectory via voluntary rapid population reduction that avoids unnecessary suffering and preserves a modern human civilization of 50 million living on a healthy planet.

Alpert remains the only person that I’m aware of with a thermodynamically feasible plan for maintaining a modern human civilization as fossil energy depletes.

His plan does require us to break through our evolved tendency to deny unpleasant realities. A few, such as the readers of this blog, have demonstrated this is possible but scaling to the majority remains in serious doubt.

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

What a relief, I was wrong, we’ll be ok…

I just listened to Michael Shermer’s interview of Michael Shellenberger on his new book Apocalypse Never.

Here is the publisher’s summary of the book:

Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All

Michael Shellenberger has been fighting for a greener planet for decades. He helped save the world’s last unprotected redwoods. He co-created the predecessor to today’s Green New Deal. And he led a successful effort by climate scientists and activists to keep nuclear plants operating, preventing a spike of emissions.

But in 2019, as some claimed “billions of people are going to die,” contributing to rising anxiety, including among adolescents, Shellenberger decided that, as a lifelong environmental activist, leading energy expert, and father of a teenage daughter, he needed to speak out to separate science from fiction.

Despite decades of news media attention, many remain ignorant of basic facts. Carbon emissions peaked and have been declining in most developed nations for over a decade. Deaths from extreme weather, even in poor nations, declined 80 percent over the last four decades. And the risk of Earth warming to very high temperatures is increasingly unlikely thanks to slowing population growth and abundant natural gas.

Curiously, the people who are the most alarmist about the problems also tend to oppose the obvious solutions.

What’s really behind the rise of apocalyptic environmentalism? There are powerful financial interests. There are desires for status and power. But most of all there is a desire among supposedly secular people for transcendence. This spiritual impulse can be natural and healthy. But in preaching fear without love, and guilt without redemption, the new religion is failing to satisfy our deepest psychological and existential need.

Key points from the interview:

  • It’s unhelpful, unscientific, and depressing to describe our problems in apocalyptic terms.
  • Doomers are angry depressed people who want the world to collapse.
  • Environmentalism fills a spiritual need within atheists. When you’re living a life of prosperity and you stop believing in god and think you’ll become worm food after you die, you ask yourself what’s the purpose of life?
  • There is no 6th mass extinction underway. We are only causing 0.001% of species to go extinct each year. It is a problem that we’ve reduced wild animals by 50% since 1970 but the solution is to end poverty.
  • People are overreacting to Amazon deforestation.
  • CO2 emissions in advanced countries have been falling for years.
  • Nobel price winning economist William Nordhaus has shown that 4 degrees temperature rise is optimal considering the benefits of burning fossil energy and the costs of climate change; it’s a good thing we’re only going to experience 3 degrees rise thanks to us switching from coal to clean and amazingly abundant natural gas.
  • Nothing bad is going to happen at 3 or 4 degrees temperature rise, nor will it remove the flood control system that protects my house in Berkeley. The only bad thing that might happen at 4 degrees is we grow less food, but that can be solved by providing tractors, irrigation and fertilizer to farmers in poor countries.
  • The Netherlands has proven that sea level rise is not a problem for rich countries.
  • Eating less meat will not help climate change nor improve your health. We evolved to eat meat and CAFO’s have reduced our use of land for livestock by an area equivalent to Alaska.
  • People wanting to lower their impact should drive a used car and fly less.
  • Cheap abundant energy is the source of our well being.
  • Renewable energy has too low power density to support our lifestyle. If you want to reduce climate change you should support nuclear energy.
  • Using more energy is good for people and nature because it reduces the consumption of materials.
  • The solution to environmental problems is to bring poor people up to our standard of living.

To summarize what I think is Shellenberger’s message:

  • A modern affluent lifestyle is good for the environment and is enabled by abundant low cost energy.
  • Renewable energy does not have sufficient power density, we need fossil and nuclear energy.
  • There are serious environmental problems but helping poor countries achieve a similar lifestyle to ours will solve many of them, and if we’re wealthy we can cope with the remaining problems.

I think Shellenberger is intelligent and is correct on many of his points. Unfortunately the points he’s wrong on are fatal:

  • Affordable fossil energy will deplete much quicker than he assumes. Our economic problems of the last 12 years are evidence that power down is underway.
  • If I’m wrong on the depletion rate of affordable fossil energy, our economic growth will be constrained by other non-renewable resources.
  • Nuclear energy was once a good idea, but not now that fossil energy depletion is weakening economies and governments thus making good governance a too risky bet. Nuclear also doesn’t solve our dependency on diesel for tractors, combines, trucks, trains, and ships.
  • The consequences of our current 1 degree temperature rise are already dire due to the loss of ice. The 3 degrees Shellenberger is comfortable with will create a planet incompatible with modern civilization due to the impact on food production and sea level rise. Even if I’m wrong, we won’t have the wealth to cope.

People like Michael Shellenberger, Eric Weinstein, Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, and Yuval Noah Harari demonstrate that regardless of how intelligent or well educated you are, if you deny the reality of energy depletion, then most of your beliefs are probably wrong, because pretty much everything depends on energy.

Perhaps this is why Nate Hagens once likened discussing peak oil to eating a bad oyster.

I’ve added Shellenberger to my list of famous polymaths in denial.

On the other hand, if you think Shellenberger is right, then I’ve got just the tune for you.

By Nate Hagens: Earth Day 2020 – The State of the Species

Every year Nate Hagens gives a talk on Earth Day. I missed the announcement of his talk a month ago, perhaps because I killed my social media accounts, but better late than never.

Nate’s presentation as usual is excellent, and this year he provides thoughts on how the virus may influence our overshoot predicament.

Here are a few of Nate’s predictions and ideas I thought were noteworthy:

  • The virus gave our economy a heart attack, although it was already sick.
  • The Great Simplification has begun: a GDP decline of 12-20% is likely this year.
  • Global peak oil was, with no uncertainty, October 2018.
  • Diesel availability is at risk because of surplus gasoline (my note: big problem because diesel powers everything we need to survive: tractors, combines, trucks, trains, and ships).
  • The financial system has been nationalized: central banks are now both the lender AND buyer of last resort.
  • Global debt/GDP, which was before the virus already unsustainable at 350%, will now rocket to 450+%, which sets us up for another more acute crisis in the not too distant future.
  • Poverty will increase in all countries.
  • Renewable energy is in trouble.
  • 25+% of higher education institutions will go bankrupt.
  • The experts don’t have answers: they do not understand energy or how our system works.
  • We need humans to have better bullshit filters: if we don’t use science to help us going forward we have no hope.
  • We should nationalize the oil industry and drain America last.

Nate concludes with many constructive and positive ideas on how we might respond to our predicament.

Unfortunately Nate did not mention the most important response needed: rapid population reduction. Yes I know that reality denial and the Maximum Power Principle, which govern our behavior, make voluntary population reduction highly improbable, but so do they make improbable all of Nate’s suggestions.

I’m thinking that since it’s unlikely we’ll do anything except react to crises as they unfold we might as well focus on the one and only action that would improve everything: population reduction. It simplifies the conversation, and makes it (theoretically) effective. Much better than talking about many things that we also probably won’t do, but even if we did wouldn’t address the core issue: overshoot.

Imagine this political platform: “We only need to do one thing, and there’s only one thing we need to do, don’t have children unless you win the lottery, so there can be future generations.”

You can find other excellent work by Nate that I’ve posted in the past here.

Gail Tverberg on what to expect…

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

Gail Tverberg is one of my favorite thinkers and has been writing about our overshoot predicament for years. In today’s essay she makes the most specific predictions I’ve seen on the probable outcomes of the economic deceleration caused by the Wuhan virus.

I suspect most of her predictions will happen, but I’m not confident on the timeline. It’s possible money printing will buy us a few more years, or maybe not.

I think we should hope for the best, and plan for the worst.

Regardless, time is running out to make preparations.

Here are a few excerpts from her full essay.

COVID-19 and oil at $1: Is there a way forward?

Our basic problem is a finite world problem. World population has outgrown its resource base.

In this post, I suggest the possibility that some core parts of the world economy might temporarily be saved if they can be made to operate fairly independently of each other.

The COVID-19 actions taken to date, together with the poor condition the economy was in previously, lead me to believe that the world economy is headed for a major reset.

A reset world economy will likely end up with “pieces” of today’s economy surviving, but within a very different framework.

There are clearly parts of the world economy that are not working:

  • The financial system is way too large. There is too much debt, and asset prices are inflated based on very low interest rates.
  • World population is way too high, relative to resources.
  • Wage and wealth disparity is too great.
  • Too much of income is going to the financial system, healthcare, education, entertainment, and travel.
  • All of the connectivity of today’s world is leading to epidemics of many kinds traveling around the world.

Even with these problems, there may still be some core parts of the world economy that perhaps can be made to work. Each would have a smaller population than today. They would function much more independently than today, like mostly separate economic pumps. The nature of these economies will be different in different parts of the world.

In a less connected world, what we think of today as assets will likely have much less value. High rise buildings will be worth next to nothing, for example, because of their ability to transfer pathogens around. Public transportation will lose value for the same reason. Manufacturing that depends upon supply lines around the world will no longer work either. This means that manufacturing of computers, phones and today’s cars will likely no longer be possible. Products built locally will need to depend almost exclusively on local resources.

Pretty much everything that is debt today can be expected to default. Shares of stock will have little value. To try to save parts of the system, governments will need to take over assets that seem to have value such as farm land, mines, oil and gas wells, and electricity transmission lines. They will also likely need to take over banks, insurance companies and pension plans.

If oil products are available, governments may also need to make certain that farms, trucking companies and other essential users are able to get the fuel they need so that people can be fed. Water and sanitation are other systems that may need assistance so that they can continue to operate.

I expect that eventually, each separate economy will have its own currency. In nearly all cases, the currency will not be the same as today’s currency. The currency will be paid only to current workers in the economy, and it will only be usable for purchasing a limited range of goods made by the local economy.

These are a few of my ideas regarding what might be ahead:

(a) There will be a shake-out of governmental organizations and intergovernmental organizations. Most intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations and European Union, will disappear. Many governments of countries may disappear, as well. Some may be overthrown. Others may collapse, in a manner similar to the collapse of the central government of the Soviet Union in 1991. Governmental organizations take energy; if energy is scarce, they are dispensable.

(b) Some countries seem to have a sufficient range of resources that at least the core portion of them may be able to go forward, for a while, in a fairly modern state:

  • United States
  • Canada
  • Russia
  • China
  • Iran

Big cities will likely become problematic in each of these locations, and populations will fall. Alaska and other very cold places may not be able to continue as part of the core, either.

(c) Countries, or even smaller units, will want to continue to limit trade and travel to other areas, for fear of contracting illnesses.

(d) Europe, especially, looks ripe for a big step back. Its fossil fuel resources tend to be depleted. There may be parts that can continue with the use of animal labor, if such animal labor can be found. Big protests and failing debt are likely by this summer in some areas, including Italy.

(e) Governments of the Middle Eastern countries and of Venezuela cannot continue long with very low oil prices. These countries are likely to see their governments overthrown, with a concurrent reduction in exports. Population will also fall, perhaps to the level before oil exploration.

(f) The making of physical goods will experience a major setback, starting immediately. Many supply chains are already broken. Medicines made in India and China are likely to start disappearing. Automobile manufacturing will depend on individual countries setting up their own manufacturing supply chains if the making of automobiles is to continue.

(g) The medical system will suffer a major setback from COVID-19 because no one will want to come to see their regular physician any more, for fear of catching the disease. Education will likely become primarily the responsibility of families, with television or the internet perhaps providing some support. Universities will wither away. Music may continue, but drama (on television or elsewhere) will tend to disappear. Restaurants will never regain their popularity.

(h) It is possible that Quantitative Easing by many countries can temporarily prop up the prices of shares of stock and homes for several months, but eventually physical shortages of many goods can be expected. Food in particular is likely to be in short supply by spring a year from now. India and Africa may start seeing starvation much sooner, perhaps within weeks.

(i) History shows that when energy resources are not growing rapidly (see discussion of Figure 3), there tend to be wars and other conflicts. We should not be surprised if this happens again.


We seem to be reaching the limit of making our current global economic system work any longer. The only hope of partial salvation would seem to be if core parts of the world economy can be made to work in a more separate fashion for at least a few more years. In fact, oil and other fossil fuel production may continue, but for each country’s own use, with very limited trade.

There are likely to be big differences among economies around the world. For example, hunter-gathering may work for a few people, with the right skills, in some parts of the world. At the same time, more modern economies may exist elsewhere.

The new economy will have far fewer people and far less complexity. Each country can be expected to have its own currency, but this currency will likely be used only on a limited range of locally produced goods. Speculation in asset prices will no longer be a source of wealth.

It will be a very different world!