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 Ronald Wright: A Short History of Progress Revisited

Ronald Wright - A Short History of Progress

Ronald Wright presented his book “A Short History of Progress” in 2004 via the Massey Lectures that were broadcast by CBC Radio.

It’s my all time favorite lecture series and I’ve listened to it at least a dozen times. You can listen to it here.

Last month Wright launched the 15th anniversary edition of his book and was interviewed by CBC Radio which you can listen to here.

“I almost don’t want to say what I really think.”

Wright also wrote an essay last month updating our “progress” in the 15 years since his book was published.

Wright’s understanding of the gravity and historical precedents of our predicament is excellent. What to do about it, not so much, as he is an archeologist and not an engineer or physicist. Nevertheless, Wright is a brilliant writer with a superb command of history.


h/t Apneaman

Can We Still Dodge the Progress Trap?

In the 2004 Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, I wrote about the fall of past civilizations and what we might learn from them to avoid a similar fate. Societies that failed were seduced and undone by what I called a progress trap: a chain of successes which, upon reaching a certain scale, leads to disaster. The dangers are seldom seen before it’s too late. The jaws of a trap open slowly and invitingly, then snap closed fast.

The first trap was hunting, the main way of life for about two million years in Palaeolithic times. As Stone Age people perfected the art of hunting, they began to kill the game more quickly than it could breed. They lived high for a while, then starved.

Most survivors of that progress trap became farmers — a largely unconscious revolution during which all the staple foods we eat today were developed from wild roots and seeds (yes, all: no new staples have been produced from scratch since prehistoric times). Farming brought dense human populations and centralized control, the defining ingredients of full-blown civilization for the last five thousand years. Yet there were still many traps along the way. In what is now Iraq, the Sumerian civilization (one of the world’s first) withered and died as the irrigation systems it invented turned the fields into salty desert. Some two thousand years later, in the Mediterranean basin, chronic soil erosion steadily undermined the Classical World: first the Greeks, then the Romans at the height of their power. And a few centuries after Rome’s fall, the Classic Maya, one of only two high civilizations to thrive in tropical rainforest (the other being the Khmer), eventually wore out nature’s welcome at the heart of Central America.

In the deep past these setbacks were local. The overall experiment of civilization kept going, often by moving from an exhausted ecology to one with untapped potential. Human numbers were still quite small. At the height of the Roman Empire there are thought to have been only 200 million people on Earth. Compare that with the height of the British Empire a century ago, when there were two billion. And with today, when there are nearly eight. Clearly, things have moved very quickly since the Industrial Revolution took hold around the world. In A Short History of Progress, I suggested that worldwide civilization was our greatest experiment; and I asked whether this might also prove to be the greatest progress trap. That was 15 years ago.

What has happened — and not happened — since then to alarm or reassure us?

First, our numbers have risen by 1.4 billion, nearly a hundred million per year. In other words, we’ve added another China or 40 more Canadas to the world. The growth rate has fallen slightly, but consumption of resources — from fossil fuel to water, from rare earths to good earth — has risen twice as steeply, roughly doubling our impact on nature. This outrunning of population by economic growth has lifted perhaps a billion of the poorest into the outskirts of the working class, mainly in China and India. Yet those in extreme poverty and hunger still number at least a billion.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest billion — to which most North Americans and Europeans and many Asians now belong — devour an ever-growing share of natural capital. The commanding heights of this group, the billionaires’ club, has more than 2,200 members with a combined known worth nearing $10 trillion; this super-elite not only consumes at a rate never seen before but also deploys its wealth to influence government policy, media content, and key elections. Such, in a few words, is the shape of the human pyramid today.

The 2008 crash triggered by banking fraud was staved off by money-printing and record debt. This primed a short-run recovery, which has in turn revived illusions we can borrow from nature and the future indefinitely — illusions fed by corporate think-tanks, irresponsible politicians, and Panglossian cherrypickers such as Steven Pinker. But what about the long run? In 1923 the great economist John Maynard Keynes famously answered, “In the long run we are all dead.” By that he meant, let’s deal with the problems we see now and leave the unforeseeable to those who come later. Fair enough in the 1920s, when there was only one person on Earth for every four today and the future seemed to have room for endless outcomes, good or bad. Nearly a century later, Keynes’s quip sounds more like dire prophecy, as short-term thinking lures us ever deeper into very difficult problems that science can not only observe but foresee. Predicted consequences of global warming — blighted coral reefs, melting glaciers, spreading deserts, and extreme weather — are already upon us.

One of the sad ironies of our time is that we have become very good at studying nature just as it begins to sicken and die under our weight. “Weight” is no mere metaphor: of all land mammals and birds alive today, humans and their livestock make up 96 per cent of the biomass; wildlife has dwindled to four per cent. This has no precedent. Not so far back in history the proportions were the other way round. As recently as 1970, humans were only half and wildlife more than twice their present numbers. These closely linked figures are milestones along our rush towards a trashed and looted planet, stripped of diversity, wildness, and resilience; strewn with waste. Such is the measure of our success.

The archaeologists who dig us up will need to wear hazmat suits. Humankind will leave a telltale layer in the fossil record composed of everything we produce, from mounds of chicken bones, wet-wipes, tires, mattresses and other household waste, to metals, concrete, plastics, industrial chemicals, and the nuclear residue of power plants and weaponry. We are cheating our children, handing them tawdry luxuries and addictive gadgets while we take away what’s left of the wealth, wonder, and possibility of the pristine Earth.

Calculations of humanity’s footprint suggest we have been in “ecological deficit,” taking more than Earth’s biological systems can withstand, for at least 30 years. Topsoil is being lost far faster than nature can replenish it; 30 per cent of arable land has been exhausted since the mid-20th century.

We have financed this monstrous debt by colonizing both past and future, drawing energy, chemical fertilizer, and pesticides from the planet’s fossil carbon, and throwing the consequences onto coming generations of our species and all others. Some of those species have already been bankrupted: they are extinct.

Others will follow. Whether we are triggering an extinction as severe as that which killed the dinosaurs, when three-quarters of all species were wiped out, is still to be seen. By the time the answer is clear, there could be nobody left to know it. The lesson of fallen societies is that civilization is a vulnerable organism, especially when it seems almighty. We are the world’s top predator, and predators crash suddenly when they outgrow their prey. If the resulting chaos unleashes nuclear war, it could bring mass extinction in a heartbeat, with Homo sapiens among the noted dead.

Awareness of our predicament is spreading, if slowly and with mixed results. The warnings of science are growing more urgent and precise, gaining wider attention and sparking grassroots movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the schoolchildren’s strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg. People are beginning to see the world dying before their eyes. The dwindling of birdlife in their gardens and bugs on their windshields backs up the scientists’ alarm that falling insect numbers threaten a “catastrophic collapse” of natural systems.

Effective reform will take political will at world level. Yet the very idea of international cooperation is under attack — just when it is needed most. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says in its October 2018 report, keeping global warming below 1.5 C “is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics” but will require “unprecedented changes” before 2030.

Conservation and environmentalism have had some success, a few species have been pulled back from the brink, a few Green politicians have been elected, a few promising fixes (renewable energy, electric cars, etc.) are being developed. Yet at this writing, the momentum of extraction, consumption, and destruction is still gathering speed, driven by the delusion of endless growth, and the willingness of corporations to set financial profit above life itself. Even if fossil energy were replaced at once by clean sources, our other problems — overpopulation, overconsumption, erosion, deforestation, and accumulating waste — would still persist.

The failure of democratic governments to stand up for the greater good over the long run is fuelling disillusionment with democracy itself. There is something badly wrong with an economic regime in which 26 individuals own as much as half the world’s population. Such extreme disparity has never been seen before. Inequality is the main driver behind rising population and consumption. The highest birthrates are in the poorest places, mainly Africa and the Indian subcontinent. At the other end of the seesaw, obscene wealth — the kind which owns mansions around the world and gigantic yachts with helicopter pads — has a colossal footprint, while its undue influence amounts to a dark tyranny.

Back in Classical Greece, Plato suggested that in a just society there should be no more than a 5:1 spread in income between richest and poorest. That was a hard sell then, and still would be. But what might be reasonable today? Where should the balance be struck to help the weakest while still rewarding effort and achievement? Given the seriousness of what we face, this is a conversation we must have. The wealth already wrenched from nature might just be enough to buy us a lasting future if it were shared, managed, and ploughed into solutions.

Of one thing we can be sure: if we fail to act, nature will do so with the rough justice she has always served on those who are too many and who take too much.


Ronald Wright Quote (Studious Fox)

One Strange Rock: A Must Watch

One Strange Rock 2018

One Strange Rock is a 10 part, 8 hour documentary produced in 2018 by Darren Aronofsky and hosted by Will Smith and 8 space station astronauts.

I’ve watched a lot of nature/science documentaries in my life, and I’ve probably seen most of the good ones, but I say without hesitation that One Strange Rock is the best.

The producers and writers found a magical blend of spectacular settings on and off the planet, fabulous photography, inspirational multi-cultural stories, solid yet easy to understand science, and an important ecological message that is neither depressing nor ignorant of our peril.

With regard to the history and science of Earth’s life, they hit most of the important points everyone should know, got none of them wrong, and missed only a few key points (not least of which the significance of reality denial 🙂 ).

The only segment I did not like was the bit on why we must and will colonize other planets. That’s wishful thinking (aka denial) and is not going to happen, but understandable because that’s their gig. Otherwise very well done!

With regard to beauty and inspiration, they hit a home run, without being sickly sweet. If you don’t feel some joyous emotion watching this, you’re not alive.

This should be mandatory viewing for every student on the planet.

If I ever meet someone in the future who doesn’t understand why they should care, I will point them to One Strange Rock.

If anyone would like to view this documentary but can’t find it, send me a message on Facebook and I will help you.


From award-winning filmmaker Darren Aronofsky comes a mind-bending, thrilling journey that explores the fragility and wonder of planet Earth—one of the most peculiar, unique places in the universe.

One Strange Rock is the extraordinary story of Earth – our curiously calibrated, interconnected planet – and why it is special and uniquely brimming with life among a largely unknown but harsh cosmic arena. Anchoring the series is an elite group of astronauts who see Earth’s bigger picture; they provide unique perspectives and relate personal memoirs of our planet seen from space.

Hosted by Will Smith, One Strange Rock reveals the twists of fate that allow life to thrive on Earth.

Part 1: Gasp

For those privileged few who have seen Earth from space, the very first thing they notice is the thin blue line of atmosphere that clings to our planet and sustains life. How our planet creates and regulates that oxygen is a mind-blowing story involving a flying river, a global dust storm, collapsing glaciers and the most important creature you’ve never heard of. It’s an incredible chain of connections that reveal just how truly wondrous our home is. Everything connects, so life and planet breathe together. Astronaut host – Chris Hadfield

Part 2: Storm

Ever wonder how our planet got here? It was born in a cosmic storm and shaped by violence. Earth is a very lucky planet. We’re only here because of random collisions in a dangerous cosmos. They could have destroyed us, but instead, that violence constructed a planet from the rubble of the early solar system; gave us oceans in a bombardment from the heavens; and brought order to our world. Astronaut host – Nicole Stott.

Part 3: Shield

It’s a David and Goliath story — Earth’s relationship with its greatest threat: our seemingly benign sun. Hurling devastating particles and deadly radiation at us, the sun is the big violent boss of the solar system. Without several shields, one generated by our unique planetary core, another by our atmosphere, and a third by our interconnected weather systems, life on Earth never would have survived. Astronaut host – Jeff Hoffman.

Part 4: Genesis

Our rock is special; it’s alive. Though the building blocks of life are common across the universe, life is rare. What is it about Earth that sets it apart? This is the story of dynamic forces and crazy coincidences that took a bunch of dead ingredients and transformed them into something as wondrously intricate as life. And if it happened here, could it happen elsewhere? Astronaut host – Mae Jemison.

Part 5: Survival

Without the cycle of death and sacrifice, from cellular to planetary, life would not be here. From the deaths of stars to planetary scale mass extinctions and the sacrifice of individuals for a greater genetic good, this is the story of how life evolved hand in hand with death. Death drives evolution. It’s hardwired; from our cells to our landscapes, our colorful living planet is only possible thanks to it. Death leads to opportunity and biodiversity, which ironically ensures life on the planet is never wiped out. It’s not enough for our planet to be habitable; it also has to be lethal. Astronaut host – Jerry Linenger.

Part 6: Escape

Is it possible for intelligent life to escape destruction either from the planet or ourselves? Or are we destined for extinction like 99.9 percent of all species before us? Our best chance of survival may be to escape Earth and build another colony somewhere else. But there are real barriers: space radiation, microgravity and the bacteria inside us. And our DNA is coded for the conditions here on Earth, so if we ever manage to colonize another planet, those who are born there might evolve into another species. Astronaut host – Chris Hadfield.

Part 7: Terraform

Ever since life emerged, microbes, plants and animals have all sculpted the planet’s surface and atmosphere in the strangest of ways: fish poop creates islands; dead animals create mountains; and plants help create continents. From rocks to rivers, life has crafted everything that makes our planet so special. But this power of change brings with it profound dangers. Life doesn’t just create. It can also destroy. Astronaut host – Mike Massimino.

Part 8: Alien

All life on Earth started as single-cell bacteria and stayed like that for two billion years. So even if we do find alien life out there, what are the chances of that life being complex like us? On our strange rock, it’s all down to a freak event, which accidentally happened when one cell ate another to create a kind of power pack for life. This almost miraculous event transforms Earth into a complex interconnected web based on a competition for food. And at the top of the pyramid sit we humans. Astronaut host – Mae Jemison.

Part 9: Awakening

Of all life on Earth, how come we’re the only ones with the smarts to leave our planet? For three billion years, nothing had a brain. Even today, over 90 percent of life doesn’t need a brain to survive. So, what happened? How did our planet set in motion the chain of nearly impossible events that gave us our unique intelligence? The greatest mystery of all may be right between your ears. Astronaut host – Leland Melvin.

Part 10: Home

After 665 weightless days in space, NASA’s most experienced astronaut, Peggy Whitson, smashes through the atmosphere on her last journey home to planet Earth. With unprecedented filming on board the ISS during Peggy’s final mission and with the support of our other featured astronauts, we reveal how their time in space transforms their understanding of our planet’s wonders, insights that will change our perspective, too. There is no place like home. Or is there? Just how strange is our rock, and is it really unique in the universe? Astronaut host – Peggy Whitson.


By Tad Patzek: On Human Overshoot

Tad Patzek

Tad Patzek, a professor of petroleum engineering and physicist, gave a talk on January 16, 2019 at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia.

His talk is titled “How Can We Salvage Our Global Civilization?” however Patzek does not answer his own question. Instead he reviews the brief history of humans and shows that we are in a severe state of overshoot with a population that exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet by about 30 times thanks to fossil energy, which he predicts will soon rapidly decline due to depletion. In the Q&A that follows the talk, Patzek advocates for population reduction policies. Also in the Q&A, Patzek gets quite aggressive with audience members who argue that technology will save us. He concludes that we will probably use nuclear war to correct overshoot. I wonder if he’ll be invited back next year? 🙂

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

Thanks to Nate Hagens for bringing this talk to my attention.



Here are some notes I took while viewing the talk:

  • Continued exponential growth of human population is suicidal and will stop one way or another.
  • Humans have only one chance of survival by drastically limiting population and consumption.
  • Patzek quotes from Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, my all-time favorite lecture series, to make the point that humans, the fire apes, have been setting fires continuously from our origin until today when many of the world’s tropical forests are being burned to make way for agriculture and plantations.
  • Patzek does a nice job of explaining that humans have existed for an extremely short period in the context of geologic time. For example, if we call January 1 the start of the Silurian period 444 million years ago when multicellular life first appeared on land, then behaviorally modern humans emerged 70 minutes before midnight on December 31, our first civilization began 9 minutes before midnight, and the industrial civilization we currently enjoy began 20 seconds before midnight. The explosion of human population to 8 billion began 7 seconds before midnight on December 31, and was enabled by the Haber Bosch industrial process that converts natural gas into nitrogen fertilizer.
  • At 3 seconds before midnight on December 31, half of the US’s top soil had been washed into the sea, having taken only 9 seconds to accomplish this feat.
  • For an example of what 10,000 years of agriculture does to the earth, look at Iraq with its complete environmental devastation.
  • We only have one shot at the global civilization, and it shall never be repeated again.
  • Sending colonies to Mars is complete nonsense because there are not enough resources to send them.
  • None of our overshoot issues are captured by our economic models.
  • Our planet can support a maximum of 8 million humans making a living as hunter gatherers.
  • The earth might support 2.5 billion people assuming an 1800’s equivalent life expectancy (32 years) , lifestyle, slavery, and conflict. If we assume today’s life expectancy (71 years) the maximum drops to 1.1 billion people. Adjusting for our increased standard of living decreases the maximum to 500 million people. If we assume a peaceful life without wars the maximum sustainable population drops to 250 million people. This means we have overshot by the 30 times the carrying capacity of the planet by using fossil fuel subsidies.
  • Later in the Q&A, Patzek clarifies that if we assume an American or German lifestyle, the maximum sustainable population is 90 million without fossil energy.
  • I note that Patzek’s estimate of the maximum sustainable population aligns nicely with Jack Alpert’s plan to preserve our modern civilization with rapid population reduction.
  • Patzek shows that population is proportional to power production. Recall that Tim Garrett has also shown that wealth is proportional to power production. Energy is therefore central to our predicament as Nate Hagens elaborates in his video course.

By Irv Mills: My Peak Oil Journey

Irv Mills

Irv Mills today published a very nice history of peak oil in which he summarizes what has occurred to date, and explains how his understanding of the relationship between energy and the economy has evolved and improved over time.

Mills’ essay is clear, accurate, and accessible. I recommend it as an excellent primer on peak oil.

Mills observes that oil consumption in recent years has grown about 1.7% per year despite little or no real growth in the economy. He speculates that the extra energy is being consumed by the oil industry to produce oil that is now hard, and getting harder, to extract. I suspect he’s right and recently wrote about this red queen phenomenon here.

Mills sees economic problems in our future but also expects some surprises. I agree. As readers know, I am fascinated by the fact that we collectively deny the reality of peak oil, despite it being, by far, the most serious short-term threat to civilization. My hunch is that we will never accept the reality of peak oil. Something else will happen that we can blame for our economic woes. Like war. To admit that growth is over due to nature being more powerful than our hubris, and that we totally screwed up by ignoring obvious facts, is a pill too big to swallow for our egos.


As that average EROEI declines toward about 15, economic growth grinds to a halt and it becomes difficult to raise capital to start new ventures and to maintain existing infrastructure. Below 15 a modern industrial civilization quits working. Because this is a weighted average, choosing to produce more energy from low EROEI sources makes things worse while temporarily seeming to make them better. It has been estimated that the current average EROEI of the world economy is around 11. Of course some lucky countries are doing much better than that.

But because of our “lowest hanging fruit first” approach, EROEI continues to decline. Real economic growth appears to have stopped in the 1990s, with governments using clever new ways of calculating gross domestic product, and unemployment and cost of living statistics to make things look better in the short run. And low interest rate policies to encourage lots of borrowing and keep the economy growing, again, in the short run.


The major oil companies were hurt by low prices too, and cut back on their investment on discovery in order to save money. This has left us in a very bad situation as far as oil supply goes over the next few years. Trillions of dollars would have to be spent on discovery to catch up with demand. It seems to some of us that there is no sweet spot where oil prices are low enough to keep the economy growing and high enough to make the oil business profitable.

In any case, it seems unlikely that there are actually sufficient oil resources out there even if we could find the money to spend on discovery.

By Sam Harris & Bart Ehrman: What Is Christianity?


Fascinating discussion, especially when viewed through the lens of Varki’s MORT theory which says the uniquely powerful human brain exists because it evolved an ability to deny mortality.


In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks to Bart Ehrman about his experience of being a born-again Christian, his academic training in New Testament scholarship, his loss of faith, the most convincing argument in defense of Christianity, the status of miracles, the composition of the New Testament, the resurrection of Jesus, the nature of heaven and hell, the book of Revelation, the End Times, self-contradictions in the Bible, the concept of a messiah, whether Jesus actually existed, Christianity as a cult of human sacrifice, the conversion of Constantine, and other topics.

Bart D. Ehrman is the author or editor of more than thirty books, including the New York Times bestsellers Misquoting Jesus and How Jesus Became God. Ehrman is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity. He has been featured in Time, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post, and has appeared on NBC, CNN, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The History Channel, National Geographic, BBC, major NPR shows, and other top print and broadcast media outlets. His most recent book is The Triumph of Christianity.


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.


On Apollo: The Most Impressive Human Achievement

How Apollo Flew to the Moon

I’m an electrical engineer that specialized in operating system design. I built my first computer in 1981 before the IBM PC was available. I designed an integrated circuit in 1983 for my Masters thesis. I managed large R&D groups for most of my 25 year career. I continue to be a technology geek in my personal life. As a consequence, I have a pretty good sense of what is impressive, and what is not, from an engineering perspective.

As readers probably know, I think net energy constraints have placed us at, or passed, the peak of all forms of complexity, including technology. I see evidence everywhere of peak technology.

The highlights of human engineering accomplishments for me include: steel, concrete, glass, Haber-Bosch fertilizer, diesel engines, turbine engines, turbine electricity generators, electric motors, electromagnetic communications, hydraulics, heat pumps, Panama canal, Golden Gate bridge, Chunnel, Concorde, Apollo, Hubble, Voyager, nuclear submarines, skyscrapers, deep-sea oil rigs, integrated circuits, microprocessors, magnetic storage, lasers, LED lights, internet, lithium-ion batteries, robotics, and DNA sequencing.

Notice that everything on this list is over 20 years old.  I can’t think of anything of equal importance that was invented in the last 20 years.

Gasoline and turbine engine efficiency gains have stalled. Diesel engine efficiency is going backwards due to new pollution regulations. Air travel speed plateaued many years ago.  The promise of too cheap to meter nuclear electricity appears certain to remain a dream. Battery performance barely creeps forward despite a hundred years of promises. My 3 year old smart phone works fine with no compelling reason to upgrade. Cameras were good enough many years ago. Household appliances are getting smarter, but their core functions are not improving, and they don’t last as long due to cost reduction pressures. TV resolution is increasing but few need it. LED lights are getting cheaper, but the technology was invented many years ago. Popular Mechanics magazine no longer writes about jet packs and flying cars.

It’s been 6 years since I built my current desktop computer. There’s still no compelling reason to upgrade it. If I spend the thousand dollars required to upgrade it, I will gain 25% performance. That’s nothing compared to the gains we saw 20 years ago.

I can see how a non-engineer might think otherwise. A computer in your pocket with a wireless connection to the internet feels like magic, but advances in the technologies used to build smart phones began to level off years ago. It’s not advances in fundamental technology that’s creating today’s magic. It’s thousands of small innovative apps, plus a few monster apps that leverage a 25 year old internet to connect us with friends and businesses, that creates the illusion of magic. Apps are software, and software is not new. There’s just a lot more software variety available to supply a much larger market created by everyone having a networked computer camera in their pocket.

For a long time I’ve felt our most impressive technology accomplishment occurred 50 years ago when we visited the moon. I vividly remember as an 11 year boy going outside at night and looking up in awe at Armstrong on the moon.

Over the years I’ve read and watched much about the Apollo program but never encountered anything that got into the details of Apollo’s engineering. I intuitively suspected there was a lot of impressive technology depth to Apollo, but never had the facts to back up my intuition.

I’ve just finished the book How Apollo Flew to the Moon by W. David Woods and now I have the facts to confirm my intuition. The book covers all of the technical details for every phase of the mission from launch to splashdown. I love the clear, concise, and engaging writing style of the author.

What those 400,000 people 50 years ago accomplished over 10 years is breath-taking. Every step of the mission involved staggering engineering challenges and trade-offs.  Lives were at stake on prime time television. The scale is hard to fathom. For example, the power produced by the Saturn V first stage was equivalent to the entire electricity consumption of the UK. More recent engineering accomplishments are not even in the same league.

Wood’s book answered all of my questions plus many I had not thought of:

  • how did the engines work?
  • how did they navigate?
  • how did they steer?
  • how did the stages separate?
  • how do you move from an earth orbit to a lunar orbit and back?
  • how did the lunar module land?
  • how did the lunar module take off, find, and rendezvous with the command module?
  • how did mission control track location and monitor systems?
  • what did the computers do?
  • what were the emergency contingency plans?

If you prefer to listen than read, here are some excellent podcasts with W. David Woods discussing the Apollo program:

Omega Tau 083 – How Apollo Flew to the Moon (December 15, 2011)

Omega Tau 097 – How Apollo Explored the Moon (June 18, 2012)

Omega Tau 176 – The Gemini Programme (July 18, 2015)

Omega Tau 239 – The Saturn V Launch Vehicle (March 12, 2017)

If you prefer to watch than read, here is a video presentation by W. David Woods in which the production quality is mediocre, but the content is strong.


If you are wondering why we have not accomplished anything even close to the Apollo program in the intervening 50 years, it’s because per capita net energy peaked around 1970, and has been declining ever since. In other words, our most complex achievement coincided with the peak of per capita net energy, as students of thermodynamics should expect.

I predict that the Apollo program will remain in perpetuity the most impressive achievement of the human species.


Per Capita Net Energy



By Paul Arbair: The World in 2018 (part 4)

Paul Arbair - The World in 2018

I just stumbled on Paul Arbair. I’m very impressed.

I now need two hands to count the number of people in the world that understand and regularly write about the reality of our predicament. Although apparently Paul Arbair is a pen name (his avatar is a Polar Bear), so maybe one hand will continue to suffice.

Here Arbair explains the history and centrality of energy to the success of humans, how economics (and all the other social sciences) are embarrassingly ignorant of this vital relationship, how we have used debt to mask a decline in the quality of energy and to accelerate ecosystem damage, and how we are fast approaching an unpleasant end game.

I note that Arbair concludes his essay by discussing our near universal denial of reality.

Following are a few paragraphs I extracted from the essay, but I recommend you read the whole thing.



The issues with conventional economic theories and models are many, varied and complex. They include a number of flaws and blind spots, which have been laid bare by the Great Financial Crisis and its aftermath. Most importantly, they include the almost complete ignorance – or rather voluntary omission – of the fundamental biophysical foundations of the economic process. This ignorance of how the flows of energy and matter underpin economic activity – and economic growth – results from the evacuation of the natural world from mainstream economic thought, which occurred in the 20thcentury, when it suddenly looked like homo sapiens had managed to conquer nature and the curse of resource scarcity had been all but defeated.


Losing thrust at high altitude

However, in advanced economies this energy boost started to wear out in the 1970s, for several reasons. First, energy use ran into a classic phenomenon of diminishing returns: the low-hanging fruits of economic growth had been picked first, many large-scale infrastructure investments with a high economic multiplier effect (including electrification) had already been made, and in many industries and sectors maximum machine speed/velocity was already being reached. Just like the average speed of automobiles, motorbikes or planes, the average speed of industrial machines in many sectors increased much faster until the late 1960s/early 1970s than after that. The physical and economic limits to energy-based speed-ups thus probably played a role in the sudden slowdown in productivity growth at the turn of the 1970s. Second, increasing concerns about the atmospheric and ground pollution resulting from fossil energy use – and from material use made possible by fossil fuels – triggered the adoption at the beginning of the 1970s of the first set of environmental regulations in Western countries, which established some constraints on the further expansion of energy use. Third, oil depletion in the U.S. – until then the world’s largest producer – and a subsequent realignment of energy geopolitics lead to a dramatic rise in the price of oil (i.e. the 1973 oil crisis), which rapidly reverberated across the economy. This triggered a considerable slowdown of the rate of increase of energy consumption, resulting in much slower economic growth. The combination of economic stagnation and soaring price inflation came to be known as ‘stagflation’, and lasted until the beginning of the 1980s, when oil prices finally started to decrease. After a sharp growth slowdown in the 1970s, world energy use per capita started to decline slightly in the 1980s and 1990s, an only picked up again at the beginning of the 21st century, as a result of China’s rapid expansion and massive use of domestic coal resources.

Oil depletion and its effects have remained a constant source of concern – and of geopolitical tensions – since the oil crises of the 1970s. The threat of oil supply shortages was partly alleviated in the 1980s and 1990s by the discovery and exploitation of new major oil fields in North America (Alaska) and Europe (North Sea), but it resurfaced in the 2000s when wars disrupted production in the Middle East, oil prices spiked, and fears of an imminent peak and decline of global oil production (‘peak oil’) grew. These fears have since then receded, largely as a result of the exploitation of ‘tight oil’ (also called ‘shale oil’) in North America, using hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) and horizontal drilling, as well as to other ‘unconventional’ sources (oil sands, deepwater oil) and to the use of enhanced recovery techniques in conventional oil fields. These are however temporary fixes: shale oil production is expected to peak in just a few years time, and global oil discoveries have fallen to their lowest point since the 1940s, prompting rising fears of a supply crunch – and possible price spike – around 2020.

While concerns about oil depletion – and fossil fuels depletion in general – tend to mostly focus on quantitative aspects (i.e. availability and affordability), qualitative aspects are often overlooked. Yet they are as, or even more, significant. In fact, depletion means that it is getting more and more difficult, costly, resource-intensive and polluting to get oil – and other fossil fuels – out of the ground. It also means that the energetic quality (measured in terms of exergy) and productivity (measured in terms of net energy or EROI) of what is extracted tends to go down, resulting in a decreasing capacity to power useful and productive work, and in a decreasing ability to provide ‘surplus energy’ to society (i.e. energy that can effectively be used for doing other things than finding, extracting, processing, converting, transporting and distributing energy). According to some estimates the EROI of global oil and gas has declined by nearly 50% in the last two decades, meaning that new technology and production methods (deep water or horizontal drilling) help to maintain production but appear insufficient to counter the decline in the energetic productivity of conventional oil and gas. In other words, we are now entering the age of ‘crappy oil’, or at least we are clearly heading that way…

The declining energetic quality and productivity of fossil energy resources has resulted in the last decades in a rising energy intensity of the global energy system. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the share of the world’s Total Primary Energy Supply (TPES) used by the energy supply sector (which comprises all energy extraction, conversion, storage, transmission, and distribution processes that deliver final energy to end users) expanded from 24% in 1973 to 31% in 2015, while the share available for Total Final Consumption (TFC) by other sectors of the economy went down from 76% to 69%. Overall, the quantity of energy supplied to end-use sectors (i.e. industry, transport, residential, services, agriculture, etc.) rose by 101% over the period, but the quantity of energy that had to be used by the energy system to supply this energy to end users increased by 196% (source: IEA Key World Energy Statistics 2017). Overall, a rising share of the fossil energy we get out of the ground therefore ends up being used by the energy system itself – or in other words the ‘energy cost of energy’ (ECOE) is rising, and the trend is accelerating. This relative energetic productivity decline not only constrains the growth the amount of ‘net energy’ that the global energy system can make available for use by other sectors, it also increases the share of those sectors’ output that has to be consumed by the energy sector. As the energy sector becomes less productive, it indeed tends to consume not only more energy but also more materials, more labour, more services, etc. A rising share of the output of other sectors has to be dedicated to servicing the needs of the energy sector, which ends up constraining economic growth and eroding economic prosperity (i.e. the capacity for societies to dedicate a rising fraction of economic output to discretionary uses).

Therefore, starting in the 1970s fossil energy progressively ceased to boost global economic growth as it had done since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, and most particularly during the post-WWII period. The world’s energy-based growth engines, it suddenly appeared, were losing thrust, exposing the global economy to growing and hazardous turbulence while flying fast and at high altitude…


We are now in the tail end of what arguably constitutes the biggest bubble in economic history, the ‘everything bubble’ that has been blown in response to the Great Financial Crisis. This ‘everything bubble’ concerns all asset classes, and its effects directly or indirectly extend to the whole of the global economy. There is no single activity, sector, firm, household or public body in advanced economies – as well as in most emerging economies – whose current economic and financial situation is not either determined, underpinned or heavily influenced by the ‘everything bubble’, and not a single of them will remain unaffected when the bubble pops. To some extent, it could be argued that it’s the global economic and financial system itself that has now become the bubble. Most of us fail to understand or acknowledge it, probably because the bubble is so massive and so extended this time that it is paradoxically more difficult to recognise than more circumscribed and classic asset bubbles. Probably, as well, because our collective intoxication with technology and with the promises of a techno future is increasingly blinding us to the reality of the economic system we’re living in. Probably, also, because the consequences of our global economy being predicated on the existence and perpetuation of an all-encompassing financial bubble are too uncomfortable to contemplate. Yet we are inevitably approaching the unavoidable denouement of our bubble cycle, and the slight economic recovery about which we have been rejoicing of late might now be bringing us there faster as it puts pressure on central banks to tighten monetary policies more rapidly and decisively, thus getting us closer to the point where the bubble edifice starts to unravel.

Debt accumulation and financialisation, globalisation, liberalisation and ‘technologisation’ have thus largely failed, over the last four decades, to adequately compensate the global economy’s waning fossil energy boost. They have nevertheless lifted economic growth enough to continuously push up the use of fossil fuels and of other natural resources, as well as the environmental damage resulting from this use. Half of all oil burned by the human race has been burned since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and almost one-third of all human emissions of greenhouse gases occurred in the last twenty years. After remaining flat during the 2014-16 period, these emissions started to rise again in 2017 as economic growth was picking up. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have been rising increasingly fast over the last decades, destabilising the planet’s climate system and setting in motion a climate change dynamic that we only partly understand, that we cannot control, and that we already know we will be unable to fully mitigate. And if climate change is probably the major threat facing humanity, it is also just one of the symptoms of the destabilisation of the Earth system that is occurring and accelerating as a result of homo sapiens’ relentless activity. Every year we consistently increase our use of non-renewable resources, thus drawing down our reserves, degrading our environment and crowding out other life forms ever faster. Earth Overshoot Day (EOD), i.e. the date on which humanity’s resource consumption for the year exceeds the planet’s capacity to regenerate those resources that year, now falls in early August, vs. the end of December at the beginning of the 1970s. Our demand for renewable natural resources and the services they provide is now equivalent to that of more than 1.5 Earths, and is on track to require the resources of two planets well before mid-century. All this, it needs to be remembered, is only occurring because of the burning of fossil fuels and the energy and material input into human activity that it makes possible. Scaling back our use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible, and eradicating it before the end of the 21st century, has now become the only way for humans to avoid terminal environmental catastrophe.


‘The World in 2018’, hence, is a world that has been unable to find adequate substitutes to the long-term economic boost it received from exploiting fossil energy, and that has merely managed to substitute genuine economic growth with debt accumulation and financial manipulation. It is a world that has been deceiving itself through financial leverage about the essence of its economic growth and progress, and that is still very much in denial about the scale of the consequences of the energy and resources binge this growth and progress have entailed. It is a world that has now left itself just a few decades to stop using the energy sources that underpin its modern economy and even modern civilization – or that risks seeing this modern economy crashing down and modern civilization burn itself to the ground. All this, of course, is not exactly how economists and policy makers typically talk about the state of the world or of the economy. It is also not exactly what dominates most people’s perceptions of their economic and financial conditions, which remain largely based on shorter-term considerations. Yet it is nevertheless the reality of our world – a reality that increasingly influences and shapes the course of events around us, and that will increasingly impose itself to all of us over the coming years. A reality, as well, that determines or at least significantly constrains the economic, social and political prospects and options we now have. We will start looking at these prospects and options in more details in the next instalment of this series.