By Vaclav Smil: Energy Revolution? More like a Crawl

Vaclav Smil is an intelligent, wise, and knowledgeable expert on a wide range of scientific and social topics related to energy. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and is a respected author of many books.

In this September 2015 talk at McGill University he touches on many important topics including:

  • We are a fossil fuel civilization and will remain so for a long time.
  • Over the last 25 years we have reduced our dependence on fossil energy by only 3%.
  • Power density is critical when comparing energy alternatives.
  • Renewable energy is not renewable and does not have the density to replace fossil energy.
  • Green products are not green.
  • Nuclear energy is dead. What’s left is being developed in the wrong places.
  • CO2 capture is not a solution for climate change.
  • Developed countries do not use energy rationally. Canada (and the U.S.) are the worst offenders in the world.
  • Food and energy have never been cheaper and we should expect to pay a lot more in the future.
  • The solution to reducing waste and energy consumption is higher prices.
  • Innovation is an overvalued and exaggerated topic. All of the critical technologies civilization depends on were invented over 100 years ago.
  • There are more important issues to worry about than peak oil including water scarcity, money printing, low interest rates, and high youth unemployment.
  • Most big events in history were unexpected. We can expect surprises in the future.
  • Reasons for hope include the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union, and the fact that we can have comfortable lives at a much lower level of consumption.

I agree with almost all of Smil’s points except:

  • Smil believes we are unable to accurately predict the effect of rising CO2 and therefore he is not worried about climate change. I’ve done enough reading of climate science to be confident we should be very worried.  While we are not able to precisely predict the outcome, the probable outcome of our current path ranges from dangerous to catastrophic.
  • Smil believes that with fracking and other technology improvements we will have plentiful oil for at least a hundred years. I think we will have energy shortages within 10 years. Our different views are probably rooted in different assumptions about the link between energy and the economy. Smil thinks any oil shortages will increase the price of oil thus enabling new and more expensive sources. I think rising oil prices will reduce worker productivity and incomes which will make more expensive oil unaffordable and therefore supply will reduce in an escalating feedback loop as inexpensive oil is depleted. I also think that oil depletion and consequent rising production costs are the main cause of rising debt, money printing, and low interest rates that Smil worries about.

This lecture is a must watch for people seeking to understand the issues that really matter to our experiment with civilization.

video review: Crude: The Incredible Journey of Oil by Richard Smith


I’ve watched a lot of good documentaries but this one produced in 2007 by Richard Smith for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is among the very best.

Usually, the more important a non-fiction work is, the more scientific disciplines the author integrates into a coherent story. In this case, Richard Smith does a remarkable job of weaving geology, chemistry, biology, thermodynamics, climate, history, and economics into a fascinating story that follows a carbon atom as it moves about the planet over the last 200 million years.

I often marvel at, and wonder how we were blessed with such a large quantity of crude oil which we have used to build an amazing civilization. This documentary does a very nice job of explaining how crude oil was formed 160 million years ago on a hot greenhouse planet with near dead and toxic oceans. The photosynthetic bacteria that converted CO2 and sunlight into the carbohydrates that later became crude oil acted to remove CO2 from the atmosphere thus cooling the planet and returning it to a healthy environment for complex oxygen breathing life like ourselves.

Humans are now reversing this process by burning fossil carbon and returning the CO2 to the atmosphere which may return the planet to an environment incompatible with civilization. Unless, ironically, we run out of oil first, which will also cause our civilization to collapse.

What’s different this time is that humans are doing in a hundred years what took geology thousands or millions of years in the past. This speed makes the outcome more difficult to predict but common sense suggests it’s unlikely to be good.

Given that 10 years have elapsed since the documentary was produced it’s a credit to Richard Smith that it’s still relevant and accurate, although it’s a concern to see how far we have unraveled in 10 years with melting poles, record temperatures, stalled economic growth, zero interest rates, money printing, failing oil companies, and global social unrest.

It’s also a concern, but expected in light of Varki’s theory on denial, that we collectively have not yet acknowledged our predicament, let alone taken any steps to make the future less bad.

Highly recommended!

If you’d like a higher quality version than what’s available on YouTube it has been recently ripped in HD and available as a torrent here.



By Kurt Andersen: How America Lost Its Mind (On the History of Denial)

This is an interesting (and lengthy) article on the recent history of denial of reality.

In summary, we’ve always denied reality, but lately it’s getting much worse.

I observe that the author does not understand the genetic basis of denial and therefore is like a fish explaining the history of swimming without being aware of water.

And, of course, after pages of facts showing the trend and likely outcomes are very bad, the author supports Varki’s theory by ending on an optimistic note that everything will work out ok in the end.



Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. Some of my best friends are very religious, and others believe in dubious conspiracy theories. What’s problematic is going overboard—letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts. Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.


Much more than the other billion or so people in the developed world, we Americans believe—really believe—in the supernatural and the miraculous, in Satan on Earth, in reports of recent trips to and from heaven, and in a story of life’s instantaneous creation several thousand years ago.

We believe that the government and its co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous and shocking truths from us, concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of aids, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.

And this was all true before we became familiar with the terms post-factual and post-truth, before we elected a president with an astoundingly open mind about conspiracy theories, what’s true and what’s false, the nature of reality.

We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.


How widespread is this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think. But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.


People see our shocking Trump moment—this post-truth, “alternative facts” moment—as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon. But what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional for its entire history.


The Christian takeover happened gradually, but then quickly in the end, like a phase change from liquid to gas. In 2008, three-quarters of the major GOP presidential candidates said they believed in evolution, but in 2012 it was down to a third, and then in 2016, just one did. That one, Jeb Bush, was careful to say that evolutionary biology was only his truth, that “it does not need to be in the curriculum” of public schools, and that if it is, it could be accompanied by creationist teaching. A two-to-one majority of Republicans say they “support establishing Christianity as the national religion,” according to Public Policy Polling.


Trump doesn’t like experts, because they interfere with his right as an American to believe or pretend that fictions are facts.


Not all lies are fantasies and not all fantasies are lies; people who believe untrue things can pass lie-detector tests. For instance, Trump probably really believed that “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years,” the total falsehood he told leaders of the National Sheriffs’ Association at the White House in early February. The fact-checking website PolitiFact looked at more than 400 of his statements as a candidate and as president and found that almost 50 percent were false and another 20 percent were mostly false.

By Nate Hagens: Blindspots and Superheroes

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

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.

You know you are in trouble when…

Examples of denial are both profound and unacknowledged.

The short-term solution to our problems is the long-term cause of our problems: economic growth

The long-term solution to our problems is the short-term cause of our problems: reduced consumption

All political parties in all countries and almost all citizens, including the few citizens that understand our predicament, reject our best course of action: austerity

Most citizens have no idea how fortunate they are to be alive at this point in history: Blindspots and Superheroes

Despite wildly different beliefs about our predicament, there is one thing that almost everyone agrees on: I don’t want to change my behavior

The only problems society does not acknowledge, or discuss, or act on, are the only problems that matter: species extinction, limits to growth, debt, peak oil, overshoot, resource depletion, climate change, sea level rise, fisheries collapse & ocean acidification, nitrogen imbalance & tree decline 

Every country has similar economic problems and not one leader anywhere in the world connects the dots and publicly acknowledges the root cause, even after they leave office: declining energy surplus a.k.a. energy extraction cost + debt

Citizens believe the exact opposite of reality: technology creates wealth and energy rather than energy creates wealth and technology

Citizens misunderstand the root cause of social unrest and wars because the media presents these conflicts as political or economic problems and ignores their underlying forces: biophysical constraints

There is evidence that feedback loops are taking over and causing some problems to go exponential: climate change, CO2 emissions, ice loss, sea level rise, debt

The previous year’s worst case predictions are tending to become this year’s most likely prediction: sea level rise

Actions that improve the long-term worsen the short-term: air pollution masks 0.5C of warming, austerity and debt reduction, renewable energy, population reduction 

The only possible permanent solution is rejected by the belief systems of 90+% of citizens: population reduction

The only possible permanent solution is too slow to avoid the worst problems: population reduction laws

Countries fortunate to have a low birth rate often cancel their good fortune with immigration: Canada

The few people who understand the severity of our problems do not set good examples in their personal lives: leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists

History suggests that the consequence of not voluntarily contracting our economies as non-renewable resources deplete is an unthinkable war, so we don’t think about it: nuclear weapons

The quality of our leaders is declining because those people with high intelligence, wisdom, and integrity do not want to be in charge of our predicament, and because citizens are feeling the impact of overshoot, do not understand what is going on, and are angry: Trump

The leader of the free world denies science and issues daily, jaw-dropping, cringe-inducing tweets: Trump

The one world leader that did understand the problem and spoke out was rejected by the citizens and no longer speaks out: Jimmy Carter

We do not acknowledge that the world’s economic problems began with the peaking of a key non-renewable resource: conventional oil

Low energy prices have led citizens to believe we have a glut of fossil energy when in fact: all types of energy have peaked

We do not discuss or act on economic history research that shows countries always get into serious trouble when they permit an important ratio to exceed a threshold we long passed: debt to GDP

Bankers, the creators of money, do not understand the one thing that creators of money should understand: thermodynamics of wealth

The professionals with the most influence on public policy use models that violate the most trusted laws of physics: economists

The scientific theory that explains the relationship between the economy, energy, and climate is ignored by everyone that should understand it: Tim Garrett

The people who deserve the most respect and admiration get the least: scientists

The people who deserve the least respect and admiration get the most: celebrities

All types of non-fossil energy do not provide a substitute for the only energy we can’t live without: diesel for trucks, trains, ships, tractors, and combines, and mining machines; plus natural gas for fertilizer

People who think the shale revolution will make America prosperous and energy independent ignore one thing: facts and more facts

Intelligent people who understand the climate change threats, like James Hansen and Bill Gates, and who want business as usual to continue, know that nuclear energy is the only option, but they ignore a problem: peak uranium

If climate deniers continue to win elections and try to maintain the existing electric grid they’ll find that strategy may not work for long: peak coal

A key component of our infrastructure appears durable but is not: reinforced concrete

Citizens most vulnerable to a fragile global supply chain with only a few days of inventory experience the strongest illusion of abundance and security: inhabitants of large cities

The “green” revolution, which increased food production to enable 7+ billion humans, was and is entirely dependent on fossil energy, and has long-term consequences that will make a return to traditional agriculture very difficult.

Most citizens are not even vaguely aware of the invention that enabled their existence and created about 50% of the nitrogen in their bodies: Haber-Bosch conversion of natural gas to fertilizer

Well meaning environmentalists demand that we stop subsidizing fossil energy companies without understanding the source of all that they cherish in modern civilization: fossil energy

Well meaning environmentalists demand that we stop subsidizing fossil energy companies without realizing that many fossil energy companies are going bankrupt: ExxonMobil

A solution frequently advocated makes things worse by accelerating growth and decreasing system resilience: efficiency

The best solution for removing CO2 from the atmosphere is being harmed by the same activity that creates CO2: planting more trees which are then injured or killed by ground level ozone

All climate science models that do not predict disaster now depend on an unproven technology that we probably can’t afford and other species definitely can’t afford: BECCS (bio-energy with carbon capture and storage)

We have not acted to prevent a predictable and very dangerous side effect of trying to maintain business-as-usual with low interest rates: increasing wealth gap

We still enjoy historically vast surplus wealth that could be deployed to improve our future lives but we are squandering it: military, airports, highways, new cars, high rises, etc.

Earth with its diverse complex life and a highly intelligent species is extraordinarily rare, precious, and worth fighting to protect, yet we dream of other barren homes: colonizing Mars

The tool that could be used to unite citizens in common purpose and useful action is instead being used to create tribes that reinforce preexisting beliefs: internet

Many people are hurting and lashing out in anger because they do not understand the cause of their pain: Brexit, Trump, Syria, Venezuela, etc.

The few sources of information that understand and communicate the truth are under threat: fake news

Few people study or heed the best predictor of the future: history

The majority of citizens share a common characteristic that makes the election of an intelligent and wise leader empowered to do the right thing unlikely: wacky beliefs

None of our schools teach skills useful and relevant to our future: growing food and other forms of lower complexity life skills

The thing that enabled the evolution of our high intelligence and its ability to understand and act on problems is the same thing that causes our problems and prevents us from acting on them: denial of reality

The theory that best explains our existence and our self-destructive behavior is ignored by everyone, including those people seeking to understand our problems: Varki and Brower’s denial of reality theory

Readers are encouraged to submit additions to the list.

book review: The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager

The Alchemy of Air is one of the better books I’ve read.

As an engineer I’ve always been interested in the history of important science and there is nothing more important than the Haber-Bosch process which uses fossil energy to produce inexpensive fertilizer that enabled the green revolution and human overshoot.

Lest you doubt its significance, 50% of the nitrogen in our bodies was manufactured in a Haber-Bosch factory, and it is the primary reason our population grew from 1 billion to 7 billion over the last 100 years.

In addition, our liberal use of manufactured fertilizer has distorted the nitrogen cycle creating dead zones in the ocean, and contributed to pollution that is causing the decline of trees worldwide.

The Haber-Bosch process also produces the raw materials necessary for explosives and was a major contributor to the lethality of World Wars I and II.

Haber-Bosch technology was adapted to produce gasoline from coal which powered the Nazi war machine, and someday will probably power industrial civilization’s last gasp when real oil becomes too expensive to extract.

There’s a lot more in the book that I enjoyed.

The detailed history of fertilizer and the wars over its scarce non-renewable resources prior to Haber-Bosch was fascinating.

The behind the scenes look at the role of technology and big business in WWI and WWII was very interesting.

The story of how great minds were destroyed by a scapegoat seeking Hitler provides insight into what we’ll likely see in the future.

Lastly, I found the human side interesting in that men who accomplished much and earned great wealth were still unhappy and unsure of themselves.

I’ll be reading it a second time. Highly recommended.

un-Denial Manifesto: Energy and Denial

This essay attempts to summarize every important topic discussed on this site, and is a work in progress that I frequently correct and expand as my understanding of the world improves. You might want to check back from time to time to read the latest version. I would appreciate readers pointing out any errors or omissions.

This is the story of the two most important things that enabled the success and possible demise of humans: energy and denial.

Simple single cell (prokaryotic) life emerges as a gradual and predictable transition from geochemistry to biochemistry, in the presence of rock, water, CO2, and energy, all of which are found within alkaline hydrothermal vents on geologically active planets, of which there are 40 billion in our galaxy alone, and probably a similar number in each of the other 100 billion galaxies.

Simple life like bacteria and archaea is therefore probably common throughout the universe. Strong evidence for this is that prokaryotes appeared 4 billion years ago, as soon as the earth cooled down enough to support life, and never once winked out despite many calamities throughout geologic history.

LUCA (the Last Universal Common Ancestor), and all life that followed, is chemiosmotic meaning that it powers itself with an unintuitive mechanism that pumps protons across a membrane. This strange proton pump makes sense in the light of its hydrothermal vent origins. For a sense of the scale of life’s energy, consider that the human body pumps a staggering 10**21 protons per second of life.

The transition to, and existence of, complex multicellular life, like plants and animals, is much less predictable and certain. All of the complex life on earth has a common eukaryote ancestor, and it appears this ancestor emerged only once on Earth about 2 billion years ago. This is a vital but rarely acknowledged singularity in biology.

The eukaryote cell was created by a rare endosymbiosis (merging) of prokaryotes (simple cells) somewhat analogous to a freak accident. The resulting LECA (Last Eukaryotic Common Ancestor), having 2 genomes that needed to cooperate and evolve in harmony, was probably fragile, sickly, and vulnerable to extinction which forced it to evolve many unusual characteristics common to complex life such as the nucleus, sex, two sexes, programmed cell death, germline-soma distinction, and trade-offs between fitness and fertility, adaptability and disease, and ageing and death.

As the endosymbiont (cell within the cell) evolved into mitochondria (energy powerhouses), eukaryotes were able to break through the energy per gene barrier that constrained the morphological complexity of bacteria and archaea for 2 billion years. Suddenly there was enough energy to power the evolution of complex structure, multi-cellular life, a symphony of fungi, plants and animals, and one single hominid with an extended theory of mind that took over the planet.

The magnificent and varied life we enjoy on Earth may not be unique in the universe, but is probably very rare, and our existence and ability to understand and discuss the origin of this life, is extraordinarily rare and precious.

Life at its core is chemical reactions that consume energy to replicate themselves. There is a minimum quantity of energy required to sustain life. This subsistence energy supports growth to sexual maturity, finding and winning a mate, reproducing, and feeding the offspring. It also includes the energy for shelter and clothing to create a hospitable environment for the chemical reactions to operate, energy to power the muscles used to evade or fight threats, and energy for the cells to repair damage from sickness or injury.

All of this subsistence energy must come from the surplus left after using energy to gather, hunt, grow, steal, or purchase energy. In other words, life must obtain more food than the food it takes to obtain food. Otherwise it dies. For example, if a coyote burns 2 rabbits worth of energy to capture 1 rabbit then it will die. If on the other hand, a coyote burns 1 rabbit of energy to capture 2 rabbits then it might be able to produce offspring that survive to repeat the achievement. Similarly, an ape that sells life insurance and uses its wages to buy food must be employed by a life insurance company that makes a profit. Without a profit the ape will lose its job and ability to buy food. Profit is an energy surplus.

Energy is required to produce anything and everything. For example, your coffee mug required diesel-powered machines to dig up and transport clay to a factory that used natural gas-fired furnaces to fuse the clay into a durable ceramic container that was then transported by a diesel-powered ship and diesel-powered trucks to a store that you drove to in a gasoline-powered car and purchased with wages your earned from a company that generated a profit by using energy to create something worth more energy. Money is a token we can exchange for real things. Therefore money is a claim on energy.

If a species finds a way to capture more energy than is required to subsist, then its probability of survival and population increases. Additional surplus energy is first used by life to increase fertility and decrease mortality. This makes intuitive sense because the chemical reactions at the core of life are replicators that replicate until some resource shortage constrains them. The most important resource, by far, is energy because with sufficient energy many other resource shortages can be overcome. For example, a well fed coyote can range farther to find water, and an ape can use natural gas generated steam to extract oil from sand.

Until recently all species obtained their energy from the current flow of sunlight (e.g. grass) or the recent flow of sunlight (e.g. wood). As an aside, a few species use instead chemical energy from geothermal processes but I will not discuss this since the ideas are analogous. An ape that eats a cow uses current solar energy via the photosynthetic grass eaten by the cow to produce flesh, and recent solar energy via the wood used to predigest (cook) the meat.

The sun shines at a relatively constant intensity and the earth is a fixed size at a relatively constant distance from the sun. Therefore the available sunlight on earth is finite and fairly constant. If one species captures more energy it must come at the expense of a different species. This tension is the driving force behind evolution.

The competition for finite resources as governed by the laws of evolution has created many amazing variations of life. For example, trees that grow tall to capture more sunlight than its neighbors, cheetahs that run faster than their prey, giraffes that eat high leaves, and birds that migrate with the seasons. One species emerged with a unique capability to out-compete all other species for available sunlight, and then used this same capability to break through the sunlight barrier.

About 100,000 years ago there were several intelligent social species of hominids in Africa, all with about the same brain size and power. For some period of time, perhaps several million years, these species bumped up against evolving an extended theory of mind, which would have been advantageous for these social species because it enhances cooperation by enabling an individual to understand the minds of other individuals. Each time an individual was born with a mutation for an extended theory of mind they would have observed, through the normal course of daily activities like hunting and childbirth, other individuals being killed or injured, and therefore would have come to understand their own mortality. All animals have a very useful inherited behavior that causes them to fear and avoid injury, and therefore mortality awareness caused fear, depression, and risk avoidance, which reduced their reproductive fitness, and so the mutation for an extended theory of mind did not fix in the gene pool.

Then one day, through random chance, a member of one tribe was born with a mutation for an extended theory of mind plus a mutation for denial of reality. Suddenly, what was a reproductive fitness disadvantage became a powerful advantage. The genes from that individual became fixed in her tribe and the resulting improvement to the tribe’s ability to communicate and cooperate increased the success of the tribe.

Having broken through the mortality barrier, it now became advantageous and probable for natural selection to evolve a larger and more powerful brain with complex symbolic language, planning and analytic skills, and increased memory capacity. An additional fortuitous side effect of denial of reality was the optimism bias it created which the intelligent species used to advance technology, hunt dangerous animals, wage war, and explore new continents.

This new species that emerged from a small tribe of hominids, that we now call human, and that is sometimes referred to as the chosen people, used its new abilities to out compete all other hominid species.

The mutation for denial of reality, which was essential for dampening the inherited fear of injury and death, caused each new human tribe to create life after death stories which served to define, unite, govern, and entertain the tribe. Thousands of different stories, which we now call religions, were created by thousands of tribes, with their one and only common feature being, due to its genetic foundation, a life after death subplot.

Over this same period of time, and probably even longer, there were other intelligent social species like chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, and crows that were bumping up against the mortality barrier to evolving an extended theory of mind. Some of these species achieved partial theory of mind as demonstrated, for example, by behavior consistent with mourning their dead and revenge, however because of the improbability of mutating an extended theory of mind simultaneous with denial of reality, these species never evolved brains similar to humans.

The enlarging human brain soon became constrained by the size of the birth canal and associated pregnancy health risks. Because of the strong fitness advantage a larger brain provided, evolution found a clever way to work around the birth canal constraint by delivering babies with undeveloped brains. Therefore, as humans became smarter, parents were required to care for their offspring for a longer period before they became independent and able to breed. This led to other behavioral and cultural changes, such as pair bonding, and religions with stories that discouraged adultery.

The humans used their intelligence and social skills to develop technologies to capture a larger share of solar energy. Examples of these technologies include mastery of fire for cooking, heating, and land clearing; domestication of animals initially for protection and hunting assistance and later for transportation, agricultural labor, and sources of food; metal for weapons and tools; projectile weapons for extending its lethal range; replacement of indigenous plants with cultivated food plants; redirection and storage of water; methods and vehicles for migrating to all available continents and islands; shelter and clothing to survive in all climates; architectural structures for defense; and written language to store and transmit the technologies.

The human population increased rapidly and spread to all continents. Large prey went extinct everywhere shortly after the arrival of humans, except in Africa, where the large animals co-evolved with early humans. All of the humans’ close relatives were out-competed and went extinct. Human civilizations like the Egyptians, Romans, Mound Builders, and Mayans, experienced cycles of growth, overshoot, and collapse as they bumped up against the barrier imposed by finite solar energy.

Then, 200 years ago, humans used their intelligence to discover a new technology that fundamentally changed the rules. Humans learned how to exploit a new source of energy to augment finite sunlight. This energy is ancient buried biomass commonly called fossil energy. Unlike sunlight that is constrained to the real-time flow from the sun, fossil energy accumulated over millions of years and therefore acts as a giant solar energy battery. Now humans could not only exploit current solar energy (e.g. grass) and recent solar energy (e.g. wood) but also ancient solar energy (e.g. coal, oil, natural gas).

Because energy is the master resource that can be used to extract other resources, including more energy, fossil energy created a positive feedback driven 200 year period of explosive population, wealth, and technology growth. With surplus energy available to replace human labor with machines such as tractors and combines, fewer humans were required to work on subsistence activities and more humans could specialize in a wide variety of scientific, engineering, and cultural domains.

Food production was increased through the use of natural gas derived nitrogen fertilizer, oil based pesticides, diesel-powered tractors, combines, and irrigation, and diesel-powered trucks, trains, and ships to deliver it. More food enabled the population to increase from 1 billion to 7 billion. New technologies that used the surplus fossil energy improved the quality of human life such as housing, drinking water, sanitation, medical and dental care, communications, transportation, labor-saving machines, and entertainment. Humans used the surplus fossil energy to make amazing advances in science and technology including traveling to the moon and understanding the origin of life and its respiration, replication, and photosynthesizing chemical reactions, and invented light speed digital networked communications technology to share and discuss this understanding with other members of the species anywhere on the planet.

Some side effects of the new technologies also reduced the quality of life for some humans. These included health problems caused by pollution and the new abundance of delicious but unhealthy foods such as sugar that were evolutionarily scarce.

Almost all other species, except those cultivated or domesticated by humans, and those that piggyback on the success of humans, like rats, suffered from the success of humans. The rate of species extinction increased to unprecedented levels. Rather than using fossil energy to replace sunlight energy, thereby freeing some energy for other species, humans used fossil energy to add to the solar energy they already commanded, and most wild species declined. Fast and powerful fishing boats capable of scooping and scraping all life from the ocean anywhere on the planet are one of many examples.

The purpose of the universe, if it can be said to have a purpose, is to increase entropy. The universe abhors an energy gradient and life is its best invention for degrading energy gradients. Humans are the champions of life at degrading energy, and from this perspective, may be the universe’s pinnacle of invention.

Conflict between tribes is a persistent feature of human history with periods of calm and periods of extreme violence. The inherited denial of reality enables a high level of violence without the temper of empathy because tribes with different gods are viewed as lesser humans. For example, one large civilized tribe exterminated millions of “inferior” humans using gas chambers. Another large civilized tribe routinely kills innocents labeled as terrorists with automated drones to protect sources of fossil energy while telling itself it is spreading democracy.

There are three dark clouds looming over human success.

First, climate change and pollution.

The use of fossil energy releases CO2 into the atmosphere which acts as a blanket to trap solar energy which increases the temperature of the planet. Human released CO2 has already increased the earth’s temperature by about 1 degree resulting in many problems including droughts, storms, ice loss, and sea level rise. The CO2 already released by humans guarantees another 1 degree of rise, even if all fossil energy emissions were stopped today. It is now clear that the 2 degree limit agreed by many countries is not a safe target and is in fact very dangerous for civilization. Worse still, probable future human emissions will cause a 4-6 degree rise which raises the possibility of human extinction.

Sea level rise predictions from melting ice on Greenland and the Antarctic increase with each new study. At least a meter of sea level rise by the end of the century is now probable and subsequent predictions are expected to worsen. This is a significant problem because much important land for agriculture and cities is near sea level. There will be heartbreaking refugee migrations, starvation from decreased food production, and loss of capital property this century.

CO2 also acidifies the ocean which harms many species such as shellfish and corals, both of which are in sharp decline. Another large and widely unrecognized problem is that byproducts of fossil energy combustion create ozone which harms plants and trees. There is evidence that trees are in global decline. This should concern humans for many obvious reasons. One not so obvious reason is that planting trees is one of the few things humans can do that might succeed in removing CO2 from the atmosphere. If trees are being killed by the same activity that puts CO2 in the air then this strategy will not work.

Climate change is a wicked problem. A rising temperature creates other self-reinforcing feedback loops such as ice loss and methane release which act to further increase the temperature. At some point these feedback loops may dominate over human influences thus eliminating any ability for humans to affect the outcome. No one knows for sure, but we may be near or passed this tipping point.

Choosing to act on climate change in a meaningful way will also create new problems. Wealth is proportional to energy consumption. More specifically, $1 US adjusted for inflation to 1990 equals about 10 mW of energy. Over 90% of our energy comes from fossil energy. Therefore any meaningful reduction in CO2 emissions must shrink the economy, and because we have a debt backed fractional reserve monetary system with a large and rising quantity of outstanding debt, a meaningful reduction in CO2 emissions will probably cause an economic depression, at best. Thus a political platform promising to actually do something about climate change is unlikely to be elected, or re-elected.

Furthermore, a decline in economic activity will result in a rapid reduction of aerosols that currently mask some UV radiation resulting in a warming impulse of about 0.5 degrees thus making climate change worse in the short-term.

Second, finite and non-substitutable fossil energy.

The fossil energy that supports 7 billion humans is finite and rapidly depleting. The easy low cost oil is gone. The oil that remains, while substantial, is expensive, and becoming more expensive to find and extract. Each year it takes more energy to produce the same quantity of energy.

The fossil energy that remains is also dirtier and creates more pollution and CO2.

As the cost of energy goes up, the amount of energy society can afford to leverage productivity goes down. Thus productivity and incomes are falling at the same time that the cost of producing energy is increasing. This is the root cause of the worldwide economic problems that began in 2008 and persist today.

The price of energy required for energy companies to produce the quantity of energy necessary to maintain our current standard of living is now higher than society can afford. We have masked this problem with near zero interest rates and a huge increase in debt. These are temporary solutions that will soon be overridden by the laws of thermodynamics and mathematics, and will most likely end with an economic depression more painful than that had we chosen to take our medicine in 2008.

Think of a coyote forced, because rabbits are becoming faster, to burn 2 rabbits worth of energy to catch 1 rabbit. Even though there are plenty of rabbits, the coyote is in serious trouble. The coyote could switch his diet to mice (solar & wind energy) but then he’d have to burn 3 mice of energy to catch 1 mouse. The coyote is able to lead a fairly normal life for a while because he burns fat (debt) that he built up in previous good years. The coyote knows it could make do with less food if it quit fighting, played slower games, and had fewer pups, but prefers not to change its lifestyle. Over time, the coyote becomes weak and sick, and then decides to change, but no longer has the strength to catch even mice.

Any system in nature, including human civilization, is sustainable only if it survives on the interest generated by the capital of the system. For example, bison on prairie is a sustainable system surviving on the interest generated by sunlight, soil, and rainfall. Replacing the bison and grass with wheat fertilized with natural gas generated nitrogen and irrigated with diesel pumped non-renewable aquifers converts the capital (soil, aquifer, and fossil energy) into income (calories).

Debt at near zero interest rate is a means of converting capital into income. Our recent increase in debt can therefore be viewed as energy that would otherwise have been available to future generations. We are aggressively impoverishing our grandchildren (and other species) in an attempt to maintain our current privileged lifestyles.

Depleting fossil energy is a wicked problem. A law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created. The battery we have been relying on is running low and will take millions of years to recharge, and may never recharge unless the planet’s biological and geological processes realign in the necessary and fortuitous configuration that created fossil energy the first time.

Renewable energies such as wind and solar do not have the density, scalability, or storability necessary to replace the fossil energy humans currently depend on. Most importantly, we do not have a viable alternative to the diesel that powers our critical life support network of trucks, trains, ships, tractors, combines, and mining machines. If trucks stop running, for any reason, all of civilization will be in immediate and extreme danger.

Renewable energies cannot stand on their own without fossil energy to create, install, and maintain their materials and infrastructure. For example, wind turbines use large quantities of concrete, steel, and copper that cannot be made without fossil energy. Renewables are at best fossil energy extenders. At worst they accelerate economic growth and burn up the remaining fossil energy faster to capture some wind or solar energy with equipment that will wear out in less than 50 years when there will be little or no fossil energy needed to replace the equipment.

Nuclear energy has the required density and scalability but lacks the storability necessary to replace vital diesel discussed above. In addition, current nuclear technologies rely on non-renewable and possibly peaked uranium fuel, plus non-renewable fossil energy for infrastructure, materials, transportation, construction, and maintenance. Future nuclear technologies might address these shortcomings but are many years and trillions of dollars away from deployment. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the combined threats of climate change, fossil energy depletion, and limits to growth caused economic instability, make it a very dangerous bet that we will be able to properly govern and maintain nuclear facilities in the future.

Third, denial of reality.

Humans succeeded as a species due in large part to their evolved denial of reality. This behavior is now a disadvantage because it prevents the majority of humans from recognizing and acting on climate change and fossil energy depletion. It is noteworthy that there is not one senior leader in any country on any continent that has publicly communicated an understanding of what is going on and what we should be doing at this time, even after leaving office. Likewise, all groups including climate scientists, climate deniers, fossil energy experts, renewable energy experts, environmentalists, capitalists, socialists, communists, conservatives, liberals, Christians, Muslims, Scientologists, you name it, everyone is in denial about human overshoot. This is of course what we should expect given the genetic basis for denial. But it is nevertheless a concern.

The human brain, the God it believes in, and the overshoot it enabled and denies, all resulted from the same improbable genetic mutation that occurred about 100,000 years ago.

What should we do?

There are no painless solutions to our predicament. The problems are wicked and politically intractable:

  • problems are complex and difficult to understand;
  • there are no easy or short-term solutions;
  • solutions that improve the long-term are likely to worsen the short-term;
  • solutions usually conflict with evolved human behavior;
  • some problems are out of our control.

We are in a severe state of overshoot which guarantees some form of bottleneck and collapse. Our aim should be to slow the descent and prepare a softer landing zone.

Despite the depletion of fossil energy we still have a lot more surplus energy than is required for subsistence. Remaining surplus energy should be redirected from activities that have no future such as air travel, automobiles, military, and advanced technology; and towards infrastructure and skills that will be required in a simpler low energy world such as local food production, resilient water supplies, and energy conservation.

Policies should be implemented to reduce the population as quickly and humanely as possible. Paraphrasing Albert Bartlett, there is no problem on the planet that does not improve with fewer people.

After the inevitable economic reset, a new monetary system will be required, preferably an energy-backed full-reserve system,  as we move into a long-term energy constrained contracting economy. Wealth redistribution and rationing policies should be developed in anticipation of their need.

Citizens should be proactively educated on the root causes of our problems to avoid inappropriate blame and wars which will only worsen the situation by accelerating the depletion of non-renewable resources.

What will we do?

Evolved denial of reality will probably continue to block any constructive discussion or proactive action. When a crisis forces action we will probably blame the wrong actors. Our responses are not likely to be rational or optimal. Expect chaos.

A few people have broken through inherited denial. So it is possible. But scaling this to the majority will be a challenge.

The singular emergence of human intelligence, and its ability to write and read this paragraph, evolved in a gene controlled machine with an unusually powerful computer, that was created by an improbable simultaneous double mutation for an extended theory of mind with denial of reality, and whose complexity was enabled by the increased energy per gene provided by mitochondria, that resulted from an accidental endosymbiosis of two cells, powered by an unintuitive chemiosmotic proton pump, that pumps 10**21 protons per second to maintain human life, that originated in an alkaline hydrothermal vent, on 1 of 40 billion planets, in 1 of 100 billion galaxies, and that planet had an improbable store of photosynthesis and geology generated fossil energy, that the species leveraged to understand and appreciate, the peak of what may be possible in the universe, before it vanished, because it denied the consequences of its success.

A good place to go next is Why My Interest in Denial?