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

The Energy Trap

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

By James Kunstler: The Uncomfortable Hiatus

The Next Financial Crisis Lurks Underground

I haven’t posted anything by Kunstler for a while. When he’s occasionally good, he’s really good, like today.

http://kunstler.com/clusterfuck-nation/the-uncomfortable-hiatus/

And so the sun seems to stand still this last day before the resumption of business-as-usual, and whatever remains of labor in this sclerotic republic takes its ease in the ominous late summer heat, and the people across this land marinate in anxious uncertainty. What can be done?

Some kind of epic national restructuring is in the works. It will either happen consciously and deliberately or it will be forced on us by circumstance. One side wants to magically reenact the 1950s; the other wants a Gnostic transhuman utopia. Neither of these is a plausible outcome. Most of the arguments ranging around them are what Jordan Peterson calls “pseudo issues.” Let’s try to take stock of what the real issues might be.

Energy: The shale oil “miracle” was a stunt enabled by supernaturally low interest rates, i.e. Federal Reserve policy. Even The New York Times said so yesterday (The Next Financial Crisis Lurks Underground). For all that, the shale oil producers still couldn’t make money at it. If interest rates go up, the industry will choke on the debt it has already accumulated and lose access to new loans. If the Fed reverses its current course —say, to rescue the stock and bond markets — then the shale oil industry has perhaps three more years before it collapses on a geological basis, maybe less. After that, we’re out of tricks. It will affect everything.

The perceived solution is to run all our stuff on electricity, with the electricity produced by other means than fossil fuels, so-called alt energy. This will only happen on the most limited basis and perhaps not at all. (And it is apart from the question of the decrepit electric grid itself.) What’s required is a political conversation about how we inhabit the landscape, how we do business, and what kind of business we do. The prospect of dismantling suburbia — or at least moving out of it — is evidently unthinkable. But it’s going to happen whether we make plans and policies, or we’re dragged kicking and screaming away from it.

Corporate tyranny: The nation is groaning under despotic corporate rule. The fragility of these operations is moving toward criticality. As with shale oil, they depend largely on dishonest financial legerdemain. They are also threatened by the crack-up of globalism, and its 12,000-mile supply lines, now well underway. Get ready for business at a much smaller scale.

Hard as this sounds, it presents great opportunities for making Americans useful again, that is, giving them something to do, a meaningful place in society, and livelihoods. The implosion of national chain retail is already underway. Amazon is not the answer, because each Amazon sales item requires a separate truck trip to its destination, and that just doesn’t square with our energy predicament. We’ve got to rebuild main street economies and the layers of local and regional distribution that support them. That’s where many jobs and careers are.

Climate change is most immediately affecting farming. 2018 will be a year of bad harvests in many parts of the world. Agri-biz style farming, based on oil-and-gas plus bank loans is a ruinous practice, and will not continue in any case. Can we make choices and policies to promote a return to smaller scale farming with intelligent methods rather than just brute industrial force plus debt? If we don’t, a lot of people will starve to death. By the way, here is the useful work for a large number of citizens currently regarded as unemployable for one reason or another.

Pervasive racketeering rules because we allow it to, especially in education and medicine. Both are self-destructing under the weight of their own money-grubbing schemes. Both are destined to be severely downscaled. A lot of colleges will go out of business. Most college loans will never be paid back (and the derivatives based on them will blow up). We need millions of small farmers more than we need millions of communications majors with a public relations minor. It may be too late for a single-payer medical system. A collapsing oil-based industrial economy means a lack of capital, and fiscal hocus-pocus is just another form of racketeering. Medicine will have to get smaller and less complex and that means local clinic-based health care. Lots of careers there, and that is where things are going, so get ready.

Government over-reach: the leviathan state is too large, too reckless, and too corrupt. Insolvency will eventually reduce its scope and scale. Most immediately, the giant matrix of domestic spying agencies has turned on American citizens. It will resist at all costs being dismantled or even reigned in. One task at hand is to prosecute the people in the Department of Justice and the FBI who ran illegal political operations in and around the 2016 election. These are agencies which use their considerable power to destroy the lives of individual citizens. Their officers must answer to grand juries.

As with everything else on the table for debate, the reach and scope of US imperial arrangements has to be reduced. It’s happening already, whether we like it or not, as geopolitical relations shift drastically and the other nations on the planet scramble for survival in a post-industrial world that will be a good deal harsher than the robotic paradise of digitally “creative” economies that the credulous expect. This country has enough to do within its own boundaries to prepare for survival without making extra trouble for itself and other people around the world. As a practical matter, this means close as many overseas bases as possible, as soon as possible.

As we get back to business tomorrow, ask yourself where you stand in the blather-storm of false issues and foolish ideas, in contrast to the things that actually matter.

By Bodhi Paul Chefurka: I’d rather light a candle than curse the darkness

Approaching the Limits to Growth

 

Paul Chefurka was an early thinker about overshoot and has a large body of excellent work.

He’s also an inspiration for many people wondering how to live with their knowledge of reality.

This 2013 Facebook post by Chefurka provides a nice summary of his journey.

https://www.facebook.com/Bodhisantra

The last six months have seen the most wrenching shift for me since the day I discovered the potential for collapse lurking behind Peak Oil. Moving from a profoundly humanist perspective to a deeply impersonal thermodynamic understanding of the world and its creatures has completely upended my philosophical applecart.

I’ve been steeped for my whole life in the traditions of the Age of Enlightenment, complete with the notions of human agency, reason, free will, morality and the perfectibility of man. My political background was the 1960’s socialist, social-justice movement where concepts of fairness and equality reigned supreme. All that has now crumbled to dust.

My journey to this strange new land began with a simple question. I wanted to know why we couldn’t seem to do anything to stop climate change despite everything we know about its causes and effects.

I first looked outward – “Who is to blame?” Then I looked inward – “What is it that makes us so eager to accept activities that many of us know are dangerous and wrong-headed?”

In the search for answers I kept pulling on the various threads I found, then going over to whatever wiggled in response, finding the threads connected to that, and pulling them in turn.

When the fabric finally unraveled I found myself staring at the Second Law of Thermodynamics, with nobody to blame and precious little to be done about our predicament.

In a way I feel betrayed. Everything I’ve been told about how the world works appears to be wrong. The traditional explanations don’t truly explain what I see happening in either the outer or the inner world. Very few people realize that our precious “Story of the People” – our scientifically derived, culturally grounded, explanatory narrative of the world and our place in it – is little but a comforting, self-deluding fabrication. It’s a fantasy borne more out of wish fulfillment than out of any realistic assessment of what’s actually going on. It may be the greatest piece of confirmation bias that we have ever perpetrated on ourselves.

I feel betrayed by the scientists, the politicians, the activists, the philosophers and engineers. It’s enormously frustrating to have come to this realization about the world, in my limited capacity as a single private citizen. It feels incredibly disempowering, which is not surprising – the very concept of “power” has always been defined by those same scientists, politicians, activists etc. As that worldview falls away I even have to realign my inner definitions of power and relationship.

But while I feel a huge rupture of dislocation, I also feel a soaring sense of freedom and liberation. No longer shackled to shame, blame and guilt, I can see people and events through a less reactive, emotionally filtered eye. The world seems clearer. What people do and why they do it is suddenly obvious. What’s going on in the world has begun to make sense for the first time in my 62 years.

For me the trade-off between clarity and comfort has been worthwhile. As difficult as this journey has become, I’d rather light a candle than curse the darkness.

James Hansen On and In Denial

James Hansen

James Hansen is a great man, and a great example of the power and ubiquity of Varki’s MORT theory.

Despite working harder than any scientist on the planet to bring reality to government climate policies, Hansen himself is also in denial about one aspect of climate change, namely the implications of reducing CO2 emissions.

Wealth is proportional to energy consumption. Over 90% of energy comes from burning carbon. Most “renewable energy” is dependent on burning carbon for manufacture, installation, and maintenance. Basic physics dictates that reducing CO2 emissions must also shrink the economy.

Notice that in this and almost every other article on climate change there is never an honest acknowledgement of the implications of reducing CO2 emissions.

The reality is that one way or the other we are going to have fewer and poorer people soon.

A carbon tax is one way. Raising interest rates is another. A one-child-policy is another. Starvation, forced migrations, disease, and war are another.

We get to choose. Doing nothing is also a choice.

 

“All we’ve done is agree there’s a problem,” Hansen told the Guardian. “We agreed that in 1992 [at the Earth summit in Rio] and re-agreed it again in Paris [at the 2015 climate accord]. We haven’t acknowledged what is required to solve it. Promises like Paris don’t mean much, it’s wishful thinking. It’s a hoax that governments have played on us since the 1990s.”

Hansen’s long list of culprits for this inertia are both familiar – the nefarious lobbying of the fossil fuel industry – and surprising. Jerry Brown, the progressive governor of California, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, are “both pretending to be solving the problem” while being unambitious and shunning low-carbon nuclear power, Hansen argues.

There is particular scorn for Barack Obama. Hansen says in a scathing upcoming book that the former president “failed miserably” on climate change and oversaw policies that were “late, ineffectual and partisan”.

“The solution isn’t complicated, it’s not rocket science,” Hansen said. “Emissions aren’t going to go down if the cost of fossil fuels isn’t honest. Economists are very clear on this. We need a steadily increasing fee that is then distributed to the public.”

“It’s not too late,” Hansen stressed. “There is a rate of reduction that’s feasible to stay well below 2C. But you just need that price on carbon.”

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/19/james-hansen-nasa-scientist-climate-change-warning

Michael Pollan on Psychedelics

Who knew?

Michael Pollan says psychedelic drugs help terminal cancer patients accept their mortality.

As readers know, Varki’s MORT theory says humans needed to evolve denial of mortality to enable their unique brain power, and a side effect of how evolution chose to implement denial of mortality is that humans deny all unpleasant realities.

I’m thinking that a practical solution to getting people to accept and act on human overshoot and its many tentacles like climate change, resource depletion, species extinction, and the debt bomb is to inject magic mushroom extract into the water supply.

I’ll be reading Pollan’s new book soon to learn more.

 

By Nate Hagens: Where are We Going?

Nate Hagens

Nate Hagens followed up his recent talk with a very nice essay in which he explains our predicament using his rare and broad understanding of the issues.

The possible outcomes for our near-term future fall on a curve of probabilities ranging from an optimistic gentle decline to a pessimistic zombie apocalypse collapse.

Nate leans to the optimistic side of the curve and makes a good case for it here. His most persuasive argument, for me, is that we use much more energy and materials than we need to have pleasant lives, and so a 30% haircut, which Nate thinks will happen soon, need not be cause for undo concern.

I lean more to the pessimistic side because of the instability we have created by using extreme debt to kick the can, the Seneca Effect on resource depletion, accelerating decline of our ecosystem (especially but not limited to climate change), nasty human nature in times of scarcity, and our evolved tendency to deny unpleasant realities and thus near certainty we will blame the wrong actors.

I hope Nate’s right but I would not put money on it.

http://www.resilience.org/stories/2018-05-08/where-are-we-going/

We cannot know the future, but we have reasonable confidence of what it will not be.  The peak in fossil sunlight flow rates and resultant higher costs will mean major changes in our lifetimes. We can be reasonably sure the average energy/material throughput for Americans – and global citizens, particularly in advanced economies, will decline in coming decades.  It’s important to point out that a 30% drop in material wealth per capita (for those in the United States and Canada) though sounding draconian, brings us back to 1993 levels – a 50% drop would bring us back to 1977 levels– both periods nobody considers economically challenging.  How we respond to this energy descent as individuals and as a culture will be a deciding moment in our history.

All the ‘cultural’ and ‘individual’ observations above coalesce to a fine point: we are capable of much more, but are unlikely to alter our current trajectory until we have to. And when we add in the economy and environmental points: we will soon have to.  Recognizing this, the next step is urgently discussing and cataloguing what initiatives might be worked on by small groups using intelligent foresight nationwide.

Given we have ~100:1 exosomatic surplus buffer, there remain a great deal of benign, and even excellent futures still on the table.  But they won’t arrive without effort.  The world isn’t irretrievably broken, the Great Simplification has barely started, and there are quite a few people who are discovering exactly the shape of our predicaments, and the nature of the things which could substantially change them.

NB: While I believe education itself is insufficient for major change, it is still a necessary first step so that pro-social engaged citizens work towards feasible and desirable goals and react to events in more rational ways. My own goal with this content is threefold:

  • Educate and inspire would-be catalysts and small groups working on better futures to integrate a more systemic view of reality
  • Empower individuals to make better personal choices on navigating and thriving during the Great Simplification coming our way
  • Change what is accepted in our cultural conversation to be more reality based

 

By Dahr Jamail: Update on the State of the Planet: How Then Shall We Live?

Dahr Jamail quote

A must watch presentation on climate change by Dahr Jamail recorded March 16, 2018.

I’ve criticized Jamail in the past for blaming political leaders for lack of action on climate change while Jamail regularly flies long distances to report on climate change.

Nevertheless Jamail is an excellent journalist and this talk is a superb (and sobering) update on climate change.

The first 38 minutes presents the latest data and may feel like being smacked with a 2×4 if you’re not current on the science.

The balance of the talk explains Jamail’s personal journey through awareness, depression, and finally acceptance of that fact that we’re not going to fix climate change. Jamail shares the things he has done in his personal life that permit him to function despite knowing the dire reality.

I found his advice helpful. One plank of his strategy is having a few local friends to talk to that share his knowledge and concerns. I need to work on this. I don’t know anyone nearby that shares my outlook.

Portions of the Q&A at the end were disappointing. Jamail thinks solar energy could save modern civilization if only we would reign in those evil fossil energy companies. He should try flying to Australia on a solar powered plane to gather data on climate change by snorkeling on the great barrier reef. Then he should read Varki.

Jamail understands what is going on, but not why. For the why, see Tim Garrett or Richard Nolthenius.

Jamail’s presentation can be viewed here:

https://media.csuchico.edu/media/Update+on+the+State+of+the+PlanetA+How+Then+Shall+We+LiveF/0_2ljujwjg

 

Dahr Jamail is a journalist who has spent several years researching what he labels “anthropogenic climate disruption,” also referred to as human-caused climate change. In this presentation, he shares some findings of his research, which will be included in his soon-to-be-published book, “The End of Ice.” He presents compelling – and sobering – information about the rise in the Earth’s surface temperature, the melting of the polar ice caps, and sea level rise. Jamail then talks about the human response to these very serious problems, and how people can cope and cooperate with each other in the face of them.

h/t Mike Stasse