Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Some reflections on the Twilight of the Oil Age (part III)

Guest post by Louis Arnoux

Part 3 – Standing slightly past the edge of the cliff

The Tooth Fairy Syndrome that I discussed in Part 2 is, in my view, the fundamental reason why those holding onto BAU will grab every piece of information that can possibly, superficially, back up their ideology and twist it to suit their viewa, generating much confusion in the process.  It is also probably fair to say that the advocates of various versions of “energy transition” are not immune to this kind of syndrome when they remain oblivious to the issues explored in Parts 1 and 2.  Is it possible to go beyond such confusion?

The need to move away from ideology

The impact of the Tooth Fairy Syndrome is all the more felt in the main media and among politicians – with the end result that so many lay people (and many experts) end up highly confused about what to think and do about energy matters.  Notably, we often encounter articles advocating, even sensationalising, various energy transition technologies or instead seeking to rubbish them by highlighting what they present as problematic issues without any depth of analysis.  For example, a 2013 article from the Daily Mail was highlighted in recent discussions among energy experts as a case in point.[1]  The UK is indeed installing large numbers of subsidized, costly diesel generators to be used as back-up at times of low electricity supplies from wind turbines. This article presented this policy as very problematic but failed to set things in perspective about what such issues say about the challenges of any energy transition.

In New Zealand, where I lived close to half of my life before a return to my dear Provence (De reditu suo mode, as a wink to anearlier post by Ugo) about 73% of electricity is deemed renewable (with hydro 60%, geothermal 10%, wind 3%, PVs about 0.1%); the balance being generated from gas and coal.  There is a policy to achieve 90% renewables by 2025. Now, with that mix we have had for many years something like what the UK is building, with a number of distributed generators for emergency back-up without this being a major issue.  The main differences I see with the UK are that (1) in NZ we have only about 5M people living in an area about half that of France (i.e. the chief issue is a matter of renewable production per head of population) and (2) the system is mostly hydro, hence embodying a large amount of energy storage, that Kiwi “sparkies” have learned to manage very well.  It ensues that a few diesel or gas generators are not a big deal there.  By contrast, the UK in my view faces a very big challenge to go “green”.

The above example illustrates the need to extricate ourselves from ideology and look carefully into systems specifics when considering such matters as the potential of various technologies, like wind turbine, PVs, EVs, and so on, as well as capacity factors and EROI levels in the context of going 100% renewable.  All too often, vital issues keep being sidestepped by both BAU and non-BAU parties; while ignoring them often leads to erroneous “solutions” and even dangerous ones.  So as a conclusion of this three-part series focused on “enquiring into the appropriateness of the question”, here are some of the fundamental issues that I see in front of us (the list is not exhaustive):

“Apocalypse now”

At least since the early 1970s and the Meadows' work, we have known that the globalised industrial world (GIW) is on a self-destructive path, aka BAU (Business as usual). We now know that we are living through the tail end of this process, the end of the Oil Age, precipitating what I have called the Oil Fizzle Dragon-King, Seneca style, that is, after a slow, relatively smooth climb (aka “economic growth”) we are at the beginning of an abrupt fall down a thermodynamic cliff.

The chief issue is whole system change. This means thinking in whole systems terms where the thermodynamics of complex systems operating far from equilibrium is the key.  In terms of epistemology and methods, this requires what in anthropology is called the “hermeneutic circle”: moving repeatedly from the particulars, the details, to the whole system, improving our understanding of the whole and from this going back to the particulars, improving our understanding of them, going back to considering the whole, and so on.  Whole system replacement, i.e. going 100% renewable, requires a huge energy embodiment, a kind of “primitive accumulation” (as a wink to Marx) that presently, under the prevailing paradigm and technology set, is not feasible.  Having the “Energy Hand” in mind (Figure 5), where does this required energy may come from in a context of sharp decline of net energy from oil and Red Queen effect, and concerning renewable, inverse Red Queen/cannibalisation effects?  As another example of the importance of whole system thinking, Axel Kleidon has raised the question of the viability of very large-scale wind versus direct solar.[2]

Solely considering the performances and cost of this or that alternative energy technology won’t suffice.  Short of addressing the complexities of whole system replacement, the situation we are in is some kind of “Apocalypse now”.  The chief challenge I see is thus how to shift safely, with minimal loss of life (substantial loss of life there will be; this has become unavoidable), from fossil-BAU (and thus accessorily nuclear) to 100% sustainable, which means essentially, in one form or another, a direct solar-based society.

We currently have some 17 TW of power installed globally (mostly fossil with some nuclear), i.e. about 2.3kW/head, but with some 4 billion people who at best are grossly energy stressed, many who have no access to electricity at all and only limited transport, in a context of an efficiency of global energy systems in the order of 12%.[3]  To address the Oil Fizzle Dragon-King and the Perfect Storm that it is in the process of whipping up, I consider that we need to move to 4kW/head for the whole population (assuming it levels off at some 8 billion people instead of the currently expected 11 billions), plus some 10TW additional to address climate change and other ecological energy related issues, hence about 50TW, 100% direct solar based, for the whole spectrum of energy uses including transport; preferably over 20 years.  Standing where we now are, slightly past the edge of the thermodynamic cliff, this is my understanding of what’s required.

In other words, going “green” and surviving it (i.e. avoiding the inverse Red Queen effect) means increasing our Energy Hand from 17 TW to 50 TW (as a rough order of magnitude), with efficiencies shifting from 12% to over 80%.

To elaborate this further, I stress it again, currently the 17 TW do not even suffice to cater for the whole 7.3G global population and by a wide margin.  Going “green” with the current “renewable” technology mix and related paradigm would mean devoting a substantial amount of those 17 TW to the “primitive accumulation” of the “green” system.  It should be clear that under this predicament something would have to give, i.e. some of us would get even more energy stressed, and die, or as the Chinese and Indians have been doing for a while we would use much more of remaining fossil resources but then this would accelerate global warming and many other nasties. Alternatively we may face up to changing paradigm so as to rapidly steer away from global EROIs below 10:1 and global energy efficiency around 12%.  This is the usual “can’t have one’s cake and eat it” situation writ large.

Put in an other way, when looking at whole societal system replacement one must look at the whole of what’s required to make the system work, including people and their own energy requirements – this is fundamentally a matter of system boundary definitions related to problem definition (in David Bhom’s sense).   We can illustrate this by considering the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).  As a thought experiment, remove oil (the media have reported that KSA’s Crown Prince has seen the writing on some wall re the near end of the oil bonanza).  This brings the KSA population from some 27M down to some 2M, i.e. some 25M people are currently required to keep oil flowing at some 10M bbl/day (including numerous Filipino domestics, medics, lawyers, and son on) plus about three times that population overseas to supply what the 25M require to keep the oil flowing…

Globally, I estimate very roughly that some 1.5G people, directly related to oil production, processing distribution and transport matters did require oil at above $100/bbl for their livelihood (including the Filipino domestics).  I call them the Oil People. [4]  Most of them currently are unhappy and struggle; their “demand” for goods and services has dropped considerably since 2014.

So all in all, whole system replacement (on a “do or die” mode) requires considering whole production chain networks from mining the ores, through making the metals, cement, etc., to making the machines, to using them to produce the stuff we require to go 100% sustainable, as well as the energy requirements of not only the Oil People but the full compendium of the Energy People involved, both the “fossil” ones and the “green” ones; while meanwhile we need to keep existing fossil-based energy systems going as much as possible.  Very roughly the Energy People are probably in the order of 3 billion people (and it is not easy to convert a substantial proportion of the “fossil” ones to “green”, including their own related energy requirements – this too has a significant energy cost).  This is where Figure 2, with the interplay of Red Queen and the inverse Red Queen, comes in.

Figure 2
In my view at this whole system level we do have a major problem.  Given the very short time window constraint, we can’t afford to get it wrong in terms of how to possibly getting out of there – we have hardly enough time to have one go at it.

Remaining time frame

Indeed, under the sway of the Tooth Fairy (see Part 2) and an increasingly asthmatic Red Queen, we no longer have 35 years, (say up to around 2050).  We have at best 10 years, not to debate and agonise but to actually do, with the next three years being key.  The thermodynamics on this, summarised in Part 1, is rock hard.  This timeframe, combined with the Oil Pearl Harbor challenge and the inverse Red Queen constraints, means in my view that none of the current “doings” renewable-wise can cut it.  In fact much of these stand to make matters worse – I refer here to current interactions between efforts at going green largely within the prevailing paradigm and die hard BAU efforts at keeping fossils going, as perhaps exemplified in the current UK policies discussed earlier.

Weak links

Notwithstanding its apparent power, the GIW is in fact extremely fragile.  It embodies a number of very weak links in its networks.  I have highlighted the oil issue, an issue that defines the overall time frame for dealing with “Apocalypse now”.  In addition to that and to climate change, there are a few other challenges that have been variously put forward by a range of researchers in recent years, such as fresh water availability, massive soil degradation, trace pollutants, degradation of life in oceans (about 99% of life is aquatic), staple food threats (e.g. black stem rust, wheat blast, ground level ozone, etc.), loss of biodiversity and 6th mass extinction, all the way to Joseph Tainter’s work concerning the links between energy flows, power (in TW), complexity and overshoot to collapse.[5]  

These weak links are currently in the process of breaking or are about to break, the breaks forming a self-reinforcing avalanche (SOC) or Perfect Storm.  All have the same key timeframe of about 10 years as an order of magnitude for acting.  All require a fair “whack” of energy as a prerequisite to handling them (the “whack” being a flexible and elastic unit of something substantial that usually one does not have).

It's all burnt up

Figure 6 – Carbon all burnt

Recent research shows that sensitivity to climate forcing has been substantially underestimated, meaning that we must expect much more warming in the longer term than touted so far.[6]  This further exacerbates what we already knew, namely that there is no such thing as a “carbon budget” of fossils the GIW could still burn, and no way of staying below the highly political and misleading 2oC COP21 objective (Figure 6).[7]

The 350ppm CO2 equivalent advocated by Hansen et al. is a safe estimate – a boundary crossed in the late 1980s, some 28 years ago.  So the reality is that we can’t escape actually extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, somehow, if we want to avoid trying to survive in a few mosquito infested areas of the far north and south, while some 80% of the planet becomes non-habitable in the longer run.  Direct Air Capture of atmospheric CO2 (DAC) is something that also requires a fair “whack" of energy, hence the additional 10TW I consider is required to get out of trouble.

Cognitive failure

Figure 7 – EROI cognitive failure

The “Brexit” saga is perhaps the latest large-scale demonstration of cognitive failure in a very long series.  That is to say, the failure on the part of decision-making elites to make use of available knowledge, experience, and expertise to tackle effectively challenges within the timeframe required to do so.  

Cognitive failure is probably most blatant, but largely remaining unseen, concerning energy, the Oil Fizzle DK and matters of energy returns on energy investments (EROI or EROEI).  What we can observe is a triple failure of BAU, but also of most current “green” alternatives (Figure 7): (1) the BAU development trajectory since the 1950s failed; (2) there has been a failure to take heed of over 40 years of warnings; and (3) there has been a failure to develop viable alternatives.

However, although I am critical of aspects of recent evaluations of the feasibility of going 100% renewable,[8] I do think it remains feasible with existing knowledge, no “blue sky” required, i.e. to reach in the order of 50TW 100% solar I outlined earlier, but I also think that a crash on the cliff side of the Seneca is no longer avoidable.  In other words I consider that it remains possible to partly retrieve the situation while the GIW crashes so long as enough people do realise that one can’t change paradigm on the down side as one may do on the upside of a Seneca, which presently our elites, in full blown cognitive failure mode, don’t understand.

To illustrate this matter further and highlight why I consider that production EROIs well above 30:1 are necessary to get us out of trouble consider Figure 8.  

Figure 8 – The necessity of very high EROIs

This is expanded from similar attempts by Jessica Lambert et al., to perhaps highlights what sliding down the thermodynamic cliff entails.  Charles Hall has shown that a production EROI of 10:1 corresponds roughly to an end-user EROI of 3.3:1 and is the bare minimum for an industrial society to function.[9]  In sociological terms, for 10:1 think of North Korea.  As shown on Figure 7, currently I know of no alternative, either unconventional fossils based, nuclear or “green” technologies with production EROIs (i.e. equivalent to the well head EROI for oil) above 20:1; most remain below 10:1.  I do think it feasible to go back above 30:1, in 100% sustainable fashion, but not along prevalent modes of technology development, social organisation, and decision-making.

The hard questions

So prevailing cognitive failure brings us back to Bohm’s “enquiry into the appropriateness of the question”.  In conclusion of a 2011 paper, Joseph Tainter raised four questions that, in my view, squarely address such an enquiry (Figure 9).[10]  To date those four questions remain unanswered by both tenants of BAU and advocates of going 100% renewable.

We are in an unprecedented situation.  As stressed by Tainter, no previous civilisation has ever managed to survive the kind of predicament we are in.  However, the people living in those civilisations were mostly rural and had a safety net, in that their energy source was 100% solar, photosynthesis for food, fibre and timber – they always could keep going even though it may have been under harsh conditions.  We no longer have such a safety net; our entire food systems are almost completely dependent on that net energy from oil that is in the process of dropping to the floor and our food supply systems cannot cope without it.

Figure 9 – Four questions

Figure 10 summarises how, in my view, Tainter’s four questions, his analyses and mine combine to define the unique situation we are in.  If we are to avoid sliding all the way down the thermodynamic cliff, we must shift to a new “energy pool”.  In this respect, dealing with the SOC-like Perfect Storm while carrying out such a shift both excludes “shrinking” our energy base (as many “greens” would have it) and necessitates abandoning the present highly wasteful energy use paradigm – hence the shift from 17TW fossil to 50TW 100% solar-based and with over 80% useful uses of energy that I advocated earlier, over a 20 to 30 years timeframe.  

Figure 10 – Ready to jumping into a new energy pool?

Figure 10 highlights that humankind has been through a number of such shifts over the last 6 million years or so.  Each shift has entailed:

(1) a nexus of revolutionary innovations encompassing thermodynamics and related techniques, 
(2) social innovation (à la Cornelius Castoriadis’ imaginary institution of society) and 
(3) innovations concerning the human psyche, i.e. how we think, decide and act.

Our predicament, as we have just begun to slide down the fossil fuels thermodynamic cliff, similarly requires such a nexus if we are to succeed at a new “energy pool shift”.  Just focusing on thermodynamics and technology won’t suffice.  The kind of paradigm change I keep referring to integrates technology, social innovations and innovation concerning the human psyche about ways of avoiding cognitive failure.  This is a lot to ask, however it is necessary to address Tainter’s questions.  

This challenge is a measure of the huge selection pressure humankind managed to place itself under.  Presently, I see a lot going on very creatively in all these three intimately related domains.  Maybe we will succeed in making the jump over the cliff?

Bio: Dr Louis Arnoux is a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur committed to the development of sustainable ways of living and doing business.  His profile is available on Google+ at:

[1] Dellingpole, James, 2013, “The dirty secret of Britain’s power madness: Polluting diesel generators built in secret by foreign companies to kick in when there's no wind for turbines - and other insane but true eco-scandals”, in The Daily Mail, 13 July. 
[2] As another example, Axel Kleidon has shown that extracting energy from wind (as well as from waves and ocean currents) on any large scale would have the effect of reducing overall free energy usable by humankind (free in the thermodynamic sense, due to the high entropy levels that these technologies do generate, and as opposed to the direct harvesting of solar energy through photosynthesis, photovoltaics and thermal solar, that instead do increase the total free energy available to humankind) – see Kleidon, Axel, 2012, How does the earth system generate and maintain thermodynamic disequilibrium and what does it imply for the future of the planet?, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, published in Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society A,  370, doi: 10.1098/rsta.2011.0316.
[3] E.g. Murray and King, Nature, 2012.
[4] This label is a wink to the Sea People who got embroiled in the abrupt end of the Bronze Age some 3,200 years ago, in that same part of the world currently bitterly embroiled in atrocious fighting and terrorism, aka MENA.
[5] Tainter, Joseph, 1988, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press; Tainter, Joseph A., 1996, “Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies”, in Getting Down to Earth: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics, Island Press, and Tainter, Joseph A. and Crumley, Carole, “Climate, Complexity and Problem Solving in the Roman Empire” (p. 63), in Costanza, Robert, Graumlich, Lisa J., and Steffen, Will, editors, 2007, Sustainability or Collapse, an Integrated History and Future of People on Earth, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, U.K., in cooperation with Dahlem University Press.
[6] See for example Armour, Kyle, 2016, “Climate sensitivity on the rise”,, 27 June.
[7] For a good overview, see Spratt, David, 2016, Climate Reality Check, March.
[8] For example, Jacobson, Mark M. and Delucchi, Mark A., 2009, “A path to Sustainability by 2030”, in Scientific American, November.
[9] Hall, Charles A. S. and Klitgaard, Kent A., 2012, Energy and the Wealth of Nations, Springer; Hall, Charles A. S., Balogh, Stephen, and Murphy, David J. R., 2009, “What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?” in Energies, 2, 25-47; doi:10.3390/en20100025. See also Murphy, David J., 2014, “The implications of the declining energy return on investment of oil production” in Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society A, 372: 20130126,
[10] Joseph Tainter, 2011, “Energy, complexity, and sustainability: A historical perspective”, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, Elsevier


  1. Have you looked at high altitude wind power?
    If this Kite-gen system works it would have a very high EROEI (>100)
    It gets the high EROEI because it is so light weight and the wind is so much stronger the higher you go.

    1. Hi Occam's Comic,
      Yes, I have. The problems with wind have been highlighted by Axel Kleidon: wind turbines generate a lot of entropy down wind, aka turbulences. At small scales this is not a big issue. However, in terms of whole system replacement of fossil based infrastructures, large scale use of wind would actually reduce the total amount of indirect solar energy harvestable by humankind. On a large scale wind is more akin to a mining industry than a true renewable one. I view it as a false good idea. In my view the only safe approach is direct solar - (Kleidon, Axel, 2012, How does the earth system generate and maintain thermodynamic disequilibrium and what does it imply for the future of the planet?, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, published in Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society A, 370, doi: 10.1098/rsta.2011.0316.)

  2. Dr. Arnoux
    Do you still see the nGeni, described in some You Tube videos you made for the SynGeni corporation, as being part of the solution? If so, could you please give us some update on the status.

    Thanks...Don Stewart

    1. Hi Don,
      SynGeni was a JV attempt that did not work out. We pursue our work through other channels and yes, we remain convinced that nGeni is part of the solutions.

  3. Where are you coming up with this 2-3C increase over the next 20-30 years.

    We are already above 1.0C from baseline now - add in another 0.5C from CO2 emissions over the next decade and 1.5C from loss of Arctic Sea Ice in next decade plus methane release from permafrost melt and arctic sea bed and you get another 0.8-1.0C.

    In total, it seems you are more likely looking at 5.0C+ in 10-20 years, well before any consideration of additional warming from other feedback loops (water vapor increase, loss of additional carbon sinks from natural disasters, et cetera)

    Also, we have nothing that extracts CO2 from the atmosphere today.

    In all, another article peddling fantasy.

    1. Hi Anonymous,
      In the above post I quote current sources about potential warming, somewhat conservatively. We may well endure much higher warming than currently expectedly these sources. The point is that even at those levels, we can't afford to keep burning more carbon. This is an issue that now combines with the rapid end to the Oil Age and debt, the whole making matters much worse.
      As for Direct Air Capture (DAC) quite a number of researchers now consider that it has become an urgent necessity. There are now a number of start-ups progressing an exciting range of technologies in addition to reforestation, bio-char, and accelerated silicate rock weatherization. The chief issue is a high efficiency, high EROI, 100% sustainable energy solution to supply the energy required by DACs. My team considers that we do have such a solution.

  4. considering the two comments above... i am amazed, that this far into obvious overshoot and smacking into the limits to growth, we STILL have people pimping techno-cornucopianism.

    1. Hi Shastatodd,
      We are not talking "techno-cornucopianism" here. "Limits to Growth" is essentially a turn of phrase originally put forward to flag and alert about major issues. However, we know now that in the main societies and civilisations collapse out of their own dynamics, before actually reaching physical limits. See notably the work of Joseph tainted on this matter. When talking of 50TW as an order of magnitude we are not talking of "growth". De facto, since EROIs for oil & gas combine passed below 10:1, "Growth" is dead, not only in financial terms (GDP, etc.) but much more importantly as a way of mythical thinking. This being said, the sobering reality is that to extricate ourselves from the present situation, we do require more energy, much more, 100% sustainably, implemented outside mythical thinking. This is the challenge of our times; billions of lives are at stake as well as the ecosystems of the whole planet.

  5. I don't think even with a 10 year conversion plan off FFs to complete renewables could possibly maintain the population at the 8B goal number you set. The reason isn't an energy deficity, it's a water deficit. Even at the current AGT and current population level we are draining the fresh water system faster than replenishment. In a decade's time Lake Mead will be bone dry and so will the Ogalala Aquifer. Agriculture will be virtually impossible west of the Mississippi River. In China, already more than 60% of their groundwater is unfit for human contact and they will lose most of their Agricultural production. The Indian subcontinent will loose water supply coming down from the Himalayas.

    The amount of arable land left with good water supply and topsoil probably won't support more than 1/4 of the current population.

    So in terms of calculating necessary per capita energy, you really have to factor not for 8B, but more like 2B. So you only need 1/4 of the build out you projected, at most.

    Not that I think such a build out on such a scale will occur of course. Who is going to finance it? What is the projected return on investment?

    The best you can hope for is that small communities and individuals will build their own resilient communities based on renewable energy and reducing the per capita energy footprint they need to walk the earth.


    1. Hello DD,
      Like you I tend to consider that maintaining an 8B population has low prospect of success at the moment, like next to nil under the prevailing paradigm. Overall we are looking at extreme stress re energy, water, soils, forests, and much, much more. However, there are other ways we are working on. Water can be recycled in a variety of ways that require energy. The 50TW order of magnitude includes waste water recovery and recycling into fresh water on a large, highly distributed scale, at or near the points of use.

    2. I would have to see some really detailed numbers to believe that.

      IMHO, it would take extensive desalination and/or purification along with even more extensive pumping of water up from sea level or from deep underground to bring the water to where it is needed. Maybe you can pull enough up for 2B. For 8B, sorry, that dog won't hunt.


    3. RE

      This 3 part post by Dr Aenoux deserves a good rant by you on the DD

    4. Hopefully, Louis and I will hash this out in a podcast. :)


    5. Hello DD,
      At the moment I live in what is called Green Provence, because, well, it's green. This is a Mediterranean climate with several months of very dry season each year. It is also a biodiversity hot spot (in terms of number of species per hectare). It functions at a much smaller scale a bit like the Amazon, with moisture coming from the sea progressively making its way inland in cycles where biomass perspiration plays a key role. In short this dry place is full of water. The lesson is that nature does things in gentle ways and rather efficiently energy wise. Humans can and do learn to emulate this. See for example, or water recycling reed beds or the Kickuth engineered reed bed wetlands for grey and black water recycling. You seem to consider only brute force, energy intensive methods inherited from BAU. There are plenty of other, much more effective ways.

  6. Hello,
    Eduardo Porter in NYT has a good overview of the situation:
    Hortense Michaud-Lalanne

    1. Hi Hortense,
      Thanks for pointing out this article. In fact matters are rather more complex than what is portrayed there. For example, its treatment of nuclear is inaccurate. Beside the toxic waste issues, fundamentally nuclear technology is grossly energy inefficient. There are also the major social issues related to the use of "nuclear gypsies", itinerant precarious workers many of whom get quietly progressively irradiated and die young. And above all the article approaches matters from an economic perspective that no longer can pass muster. One must sharply differentiate between considering this or that technology on its own and whole system replacement. The challenge we face is whole system replacement and in that perspective none of the so-called "green" technologies currently pursued, subsidised, etc., can be considered able to form a viable, sustainable replacement system.

    2. Hi,
      Thanks for the comments. I agree with the unsustainability and danger of nuclear plants. Canadian Candus are in a class apart - worse, due to plutonium.
      However, the density of population is the ultimate limit of renewable.
      Before the steel age, a population of one million has been reached in Rome - moderate climate, aqueducs, sewers. It took more than a thousand years and the dense energy of coal for London with its less friendly climate to grow as big as antique Rome.
      Conurbations the size of Tokyo, Mexico, or New York are impossible without the dense energy of fossil fuel. In IEEE, Vaclav Smil has made this point repeatedly.
      Since my right to pollute stops where yours and others' start (the cumulative limit on much more than CO2 is set by Earth whose size is not growing)
      it is urgent to realize that stabilizing, then diminishing gradually human population is the only chance left to civilization.
      My first engineer job in the '60s, was in a steel plant, so I learned early in my career that energy and CO2 are inevitable for steel. No steel means no highrises, no reinforced concrete, no rails.
      Add that fossil fuel is necessary for aviation, and it becomes clear how putting everyone on a budget rationing pollution is the way to go.
      Children learn early that 3.1416 is fundamental to the circle they (and most economists) should also learn about growth
      Hortense Michaud-Lalanne, grandmother, MBA(HEC-Montreal)B.Sc.A(Poly-Mtl)

  7. Here, six decades:
    Oil led tobacco in deception

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      Sure, large players in the energy sector have and will play games. All the more in the tail end of the Oil Age. We have entered into what I call the Big Mad Scramble in an "everyone to themselves and the devil takes the hindmost" mode. However, I am not to fussed about this. BMS is on. It's a fact of the situation we are in. What I focus on is how to extricate ourselves from it as a number of us have established conclusively that we only have 10 years to act. In my view we no longer have time to agonise, even about deceptive aspects of the BMS.

  8. Dr. Arnoux
    I mean this as a question, not a contention. You say:
    'with efficiencies shifting from 12% to over 80%.'

    How are you defining 'efficiency'. For example, photosynthesis is generally agreed to be about 2 percent efficient. But that means taking a ratio of some used solar energy to the total solar flux. And the solar flux is free. So treating it as an EROEI calculation is at least mixing apples and I think EROEI measures are meant for scarce sources of energy.

    So when you say 80 percent, are you thinking along the lines of a passive solar house, where 80 percent of the heat comes from the sun and is free, while 20 percent might come from a woodlot, and is considered scarce?

    In other words, I am quite uncertain how you are defining your terms. Can you clarify?
    Thanks...Don Stewart

    1. Hello Don,

      Good question ;-)) An example first. I spent many years in New Zealand. When I migrated there over 80% of the electricity was hydro or geothermal. It is now down to some 73%. What surprised me when I arrived is that nearly all hot water (low grade heat) was made with electricity. When this is hydro produced it's not a big deal. When one uses coal or gas with 25% to 50% efficiency at the power plant it's another matter. By way of contrast life on this planet makes productive use of most of the solar influx. I refer here to what James Lovelock had called Gaia, in the view of some of us a silly name, rather anthropomorphising - we call it Earth-Life, a self regulating complex, far from equilibrium, system. I am also referring to the work of Axel Kleidon on the thermodynamics of Earth-Life that shows how solar energy cascades through Earth-Life's networks of networks to end up largely as infra red radiation towards outset space. We can emulate what life does, somewhat roughly, and with existing knowledge, technology and experience, reach above 80% productive use of the direct solar influx. A key is to move from centralised systems, e.g. power plants, large solar farms, etc. to highly distributed and networked ones where waste heat from one part of the process is recycled into the next. This requires shifting away from internal combustion engines, gas turbines, etc. - the technology for this is available (since the 1950s, but had been forgotten). My team is attempting to get enough funding to do a demo. Then yes in addition there is a lot one can do along passive solar housing, sustainable biomass, water recycling, etc...

  9. Hi Dr. Arnoux, 1000 thanks for a very stimulating set of facts, analyses and narrative. I would have to agree with Ron Swenson that 4 kW/person as a global average seems very high. If the driver of this is every person living in an electrified house and using an electric personal car (together with 4-5 others in the same house and car), it really is just BAU in my opinion. And we all agree that BAU is an impossible future. But consider that most of the world will still live in huts, have a few LED lights, a charger or two for a phone, and maybe-a small refrigerator and an electric bicycle- then they only need perhaps 1 kW/person. I suspect very many of us in the developed world will be forced to adapt to this level of material living standard. And that it will in fact be OK for most.
    But back to the original hypothesis- that the lack of liquid fossil fuels will cause a breakdown in society in general. Well I am reading the headlines of Venezuela, and this is a country drowing in oil. And yet it is falling apart in a rapid and horrifying way. So yes society can fall apart-but for a variety of reasons, only one being critical shortages of liquid fuels.

    best regards,
    Todd Flach

    1. Hello Todd,

      Thanks. Yes, my 50TW is stimulating thinking. This is an order of magnitude that stems from 45 years of "enquiring into the appropriateness of the question", so there is a lot behind that number, that is related to Figure 5, the Energy Hand. To extricate ourselves for the present situation requires not less but much more energy than the GIW uses presently, but it must be 100% sustainable and thus entirely direct solar (again in defence to Axels Kleidon's work, see earlier comments). I don't know about your own life experiences. In my case I have been, for example, in India among "untouchables", felt the same hunger as them when the monsoon was late and their huts where 100% bare… Ditto in many other parts of the world. I do know first hand that these guys would dearly like to live with much more than a few watts. A key component of an energy budget at this level is not what you list. It's getting food, processing farm produce, and cooking it. You don't get it in a healthy and sustainable fashion with 1kW/head… However, there is much more to this. Dealing with the land and water based consequences of 200 years of BAU, requires a lot of people with access to a fair deal of power, highly distributed and networked. This is how I arrived at the 4kW, again as an order of magnitude to highlight that we require more not less. In addition we also require extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, which also requires a lot of people and energy. Ditto the 8G people are a number to invite people to think critically. UN demographers currently project 11G people. 8G means a 3G people attrition re present dynamics. I could have produced a scenario with only 1G. This may well happen but considering it remains taboo among most demographers. And again, a lot of people are required to deal with the Oil Fizzle DK… However, let's not make the mistake that these 8G will think, act and live like most people today. 8G people at say the 2050 time horizon means that they have managed to survive and "tame" the Oil Fizzle DK. They simply cannot be like people today - probably as other to them as were Iron Age people say around 800 BC compared with Bronze Age ones, in the East Mediterranean, before 1200 BC. Simply here instead of 400 to 600 years, the timeframe is a few decades - it's very tough, never been done before, hence my quoting Joseph Tainter. On the other hand the required knowledge to do it is available. Now the ground for this all, that has been stressed by many researchers, is that the solar influx is orders of magnitude bigger, annually, than the whole of fossil and Uranium reserves, and even more so than what humankind may ever require, even the 50TW scenario. We live in an energy bath. Humans create scarcity for their own predatory aims, not Earth-Life.

  10. Dr. Arnoux, thank you for this third installment. You appear to have provided a thoughtful overview of the systemic requirements of "what it would take" to salvage an acceptable standard of living for about 8 Billion people. A realistic understanding of "what it would take" is absolutely necessary for making realistic plans. My own takeaway is that, given the very large increase in energy (and/or redirection of current uses) and technological advances required, the complete mental/spirtual paradigm shift that has to occur, and the fact that this must ramp up to a full court press within the next two years, there is essentially no way this is going to happen. It seems that people basically go insane under the effect of increasing resource constraints, they lose capacity for rationality, not gain it. (Grace under pressure is decidedly not the norm!) My own view from my haphazard reading of history is that major paradigm shifts in worldview do not happen voluntarily but are the result of passing through some horrible crucible. Those who survive the collapse of industrial civilization and are witness to the massive die-off and terrible climate changes will have a new reference point and experiental basis that will perhaps enable a new "religious" perspective on man's place in the world, hopefully one that abandons the Judeo-Christian view that the earth has been given to Mankind to exploit, that all resources and living things are man's property.

    In 1966, Martin Heidegger gave an interview to Der Spiegel in which he addressed his very controversial role as university Rector under the Nazis and his quasi- philosophical support of the Nazi movement. There's a lot of high level rationalization there. However, the interview is particularly famous because, when the interviewer switched to Heidegger's view of the current state of the world, Heidegger famously remarked that "only a god can save us" from "technicity," which he viewed as a form of nihilism. Heidegger was of the very strong view that, contrary to our thoughts about technicity, it was not something we controlled. Something which I believe events have more or less borne out. Citing the Sorcerer's Apprentice, he stated "It is obvious that man is never master of his tools." For those interested, I think it is worthwhile to read and ponder (begins at middle of page 55 to end):

    I second RE's response. It may be more "realistic" (if one can even use such a word in our circumstances) to plan to salvage some semblance of a modern standard of living for a 1B or 2B world, than to try to save 8B in a modern world. But really, the only option we really have some measure of influence over is to plan for and implement local resilience as best we can.

    1. Hi Jeff,

      Thanks. I am familiar with those Heidegger views. Much has transpired since 1966 about his Nazi involvement, anti-Semitism, etc… on the one hand, and we have moved much further re critiques of what he called "technicity" on the other hand. So personally I prefer to look further afield. Yes, part of what I call the BMS (see above comments) involves much irrationality, turmoil, etc., which means that 8G people sounds awfully optimistic. On the other hand people tend to be resourceful under duress. As some have pointed out elsewhere, much can be learned from the collapse of the USSR for example (even taking into account that Russia had plenty of oil at the time). So again, re my previous reply to Todd, I am not concerned here to "save" 8G people versus 1G or 2 G people. I am instead considering that some 8G people may well survive the next 30 years, that it is still perfectly feasible, and that it would make Earth-Life easier if they did, knowing that if they actually do, it will be because their mind has transformed (some 2000 years ago they used to call this "metanoia" in Greek, a change of mind). I am also aware that the shift from hunting-gathering to agriculture was not "planned" not was the "Industrial Revolution". Bunches of people took various innovative initiatives that catalysed the transformations. This is what I am working on, now.

  11. Dr. Arnoux
    Thank you for the clarification on ‘efficiency’. What follows will be an expression of concern on my part…as someone who saw ‘appropriate technology’ come and then disappear in the 1970s, and who saw a sort of rebirth in the ‘small farm and ecovillage’ movement of the early years of this century, and now sees that movement also threatened. A small farmer friend who has been farming now for 40 years, and who was one of the founders of a farmer’s market when ‘you couldn’t sell red lettuce in this county’, sent out his weekly email. He has just returned from a cover crop seminar, and was heartened by meeting so many likeminded farmers. Then he ruefully notes that, under pressure to make money, many small farms are now turning toward commercial compost operations and are essentially farming ‘fencerow to fencerow, all the 12 months a year’. He includes a picture with some plastic tunnels in the background and a luxurious stand of ground cover which is fixing nitrogen and depositing carbon in the foreground.

    If we examine the picture, we see a vital import, the plastic for the tunnels, which enable greatly increased production, and also the notions you express about harvesting all the solar energy and using it on site and creating no waste and other good 1970s goals. If we were to look at a commercial composting operation selling to farms, we get a ‘green party’ solution involving a lot of fossil energy. Food is trucked into the cities, processed expensively, sold for cash, much of it becomes waste, waste collected by big trucks, compost processed with earth moving equipment, and then the compost distributed to the farms with trucks. What you seem to be aiming at is more like my farmer friend and less like the commercial composting operation.

    At the present time, the oil industry is losing money. But the losses by the companies themselves are being softened by the voracious appetite on Wall Street for investments that promise to yield more than zero. So, if you went to college and studied Econ 101, and now you are the head of a pension fund’s investments, you are convinced that the price of oil is bound to go higher. And so you buy oil futures from the producers. What I am pointing out is that I think it will be really hard to convince people, such as small farmers, to do something which is not in their short term interests, especially so long as prices do not reflect your view of what is ‘rock hard’ about to happen.

    Good luck….Don Stewart

    1. Thank you very much Don,
      In the main I no longer try to convince people. I do what I can to try and alert about what I see going on globally, but mostly I focus on trying to get funding to build a full demo of what is feasible at the very practical level of a point-of-use unit, low cost, that can open the way to 100% sustainability and provide energy independence to end-users. Getting funding is proving hard to achieve.

  12. The Right Question:

    Every time someone looks at going renewable, they seem to always look to replace the same amount of energy that people use now (or more). The right question is how do you make a modern world that uses far less energy per capita. My Sundanzer freezer (presently keeping foods at minus 15 degrees F) is quietly chugging down an average of one to two amps at 12 volts. If you really stress it, it can use up to 100 watts (very high outside temps will do that). The average fridge uses 1000 or more watts when it runs (and it runs a lot more than mine---with 4 inches of foam in the walls). I checked a side by side and it said it needed 1300 watts. THIS is the problem: wasting energy. This can apply to heat and air conditioning. It is a start. Then we have to all travel less, and use more efficient means (what is wrong with sailing across an ocean or taking the train on land. In Egypt, almost no one has a car (in Luxor where my girlfriend spends a good deal of time) the people flag down minivans, pay one Egyptian Pound (about 12 cents) and get the local ride they need). Then we all need to eat less meat (I eat none) as most agricultural land is used for corn and grains to produce that meat. Lots of energy and water and machines go into that.

    Now you have the right question and a few suggestions on how to get where we need to get to (to not lose the civilization that we have). I'm afraid that we are just too late to avoid the death of quite a few billion people, though. I have come to terms with that. Can you?

    1. Hello Philip,

      Thanks for your comments. It may be a little more complex than what you seem to suggest. Yes, being more efficient at home or on the road, and being more frugal are good ideas. However, may be consider two points. (1) most of the energy wasted is not wasted at the level of end users, but upstream along the long and complex production chains that encompass exploration, extraction, transport, processing (e.g. into electricity), transport and distribution to end-users; so just considering what we do individually at the end of those long chains is a start but not enough. (2) We are bathed in abundant solar energy, with the earth each year receiving over 1,100 times humankind's current yearly energy requirements's and over 15 times total remaining fossil fuels and uranium reserves. Humans create scarcity, not nature. Then considering Figure 5 (Part 2), there is the question of dealing with the issues concerning all five fingers. This is a whole system replacement question, that necessitates encompassing all that is required in the process, including mining the ores, transporting them, processing that to make machines used to make machines, etc. to arrive at a fully fledged new system, while also decommissioning the sold, all the while ensuring supply to end-users, also taking care of people currently energy deprived (some 4 billion of them)… and also encompassing the energy requirements of all the people involved in energy systems globally (both the old and the new) and the energy requirements of their support systems… That's some 3 billion people, that even your very efficient freezer has to do with. Then there is the necessity to correct the damaged caused by 200 years of "growth" including climate change, and that also requires a lot of energy. So looked at it this way, one comes to thee conclusion that whole system replacement requires quite a bit more energy than used presently, and that this energy must be 100% sustainable as rapidly as possible, which is a very big challenge. This is why I quoted Joseph Tainter. Now, yes global population may come down quite a bit in the near future. The 50TW power level that I used as an example assumes an attrition of some 3 billion people relative to current dynamics. To get a sense of what this means, consider that the level of 6 billion people reached around 2000 included an attrition of some 100M to 200M people due to wars, other forms of violence, epidemics and famine during the 20th century. So even with that huge level of human population attrition an energy transition to sustainability in a civilised way requires a lot more energy. There is also an other point. Correcting the damage caused by BAU, including climate change, requires a lot of people.

    2. Hello again Philip,

      I had to cut my reply in two because of the character limit. Yours is an important question in my view, so here is the tail end of my reply:
      Part of the challenge humankind faces, that some people contemplate but that most ignore, is a major Copernican revolution. That is, letting go of the myth that humankind "owns the planet and can do with it as it pleases". Humans could well believe this while they were not too numerous and had access to plenty of fossil fuels. This is now coming to an abrupt end. The challenge is to drop this dualistic belief system and shift to a non-dualistic mode of thinking, acting, deciding and living that is integral to the whole of life on earth, codependently arising with it, taking part in its self-regulating dynamics, and in particular in repairing the damage. It would be a mistake to think that the 8 billion people I have considered, scenario-wise, for around 2050 would be similar to most people now. If they are alive then, it means that they not only survived the Oil Fizzle Dragon-King, but also managed to "tame" it. This means that somehow, they have undergone a fair deal of this Copernican shift and no longer are like most people today, in terms of what they think, how they think, decide, act, and live. In my view, sailing through the "Perfect Storm" being whipped up right now by the Oil Fizzle DK and surviving to tell the tale entails such a shift.

  13. Is your demo, "humans in the future" interesting enuff to be Kickstart-able ?

    The problem for me is that the more I learn about the history of human civilization & general male nastiness, the less I am interested in dinosaurs or humans, specially when a new mass extinction event is here now to change life & everything for the 6th time.

    So why not go with the flow and congratulate extincting humans for their achievements toward instigating change in the earths biosphere considering we're intelligent enuff to know life has to evolve into non-carbon lifeforms to survive in space & biodiversify to silicon based lifeforms ?

    1. Hello Yif,
      I see two questions here. so 2 replies:
      (1) demo. My colleagues and I think that yes, it is very much worthwhile to get a demo of what we have established to be feasible to be funded.
      (2) Fate of humankind. In my view, humans are just as hard to eradicate as cockroaches. So please consider my replies to Philip above. The fundamental point is about life on earth (that James Lovelock called Gaia, but I do not like this anthropomorphising label using one of the many names of the "Great Goddess" to whom many humans offered human sacrifices over millennia). Instead some of us call this system Earth-Life. The evolution of Earth-Life through selection engendered humankind. Humankind has placed itself under huge selection pressure. Humankind changes far more rapidly than other species because it can do so through changing its psyche and cultures without significant genetic changes. It is now clear that there is no ecological niche within Earth-Life for a hyper-predator species like humankind (i.e. one that preys onto everything and everyone it encounters, especially its own kind). However there is at least one (possibly more) niche(s) for intelligent life form(s) able to codependently arise with the whole of Earth-Life and take part in its self-regulating dynamics in non-dualistic ways as I commented on in my above reply to Philip.

  14. Dr. Arnoux
    I agree with much of what you say, e.g., 'there is no ecological niche within Earth-Life for a hyper-predator species like humankind '. I would like to cite one problem which a decentralized, much smaller government probably will not deal with effectively...the sociopath. For example, John Liu was involved in a restoration of conch populations in Bonaire in the Carribean. The web site indicates that poaching is a debilitating problem. So, despite all the well thought out programs and all the outreach to school children and so forth, a very few people may bring the program to failure.

    In The Sociopath Next Door, the estimate was given that 4 percent of the US population are sociopaths, and perhaps a third of the prison population are sociopaths. In a much less wealthy society, we probably can't afford to keep people in prison and small groups of people whose livelihood depends on healthy ecosystems cannot afford to tolerate sociopathic behavior. Which implies that some fatal 'accident' is probably going to befall 4 percent of the population, with more males than females reaching untimely ends, with no role played by far-away big governments.

    Some years ago some aborigines in Australia were asked to write and act in a movie. A group of the men go into the forest and construct some canoes and set off to hunt and fish. While they are sitting at the campfire one evening, a stranger presents himself perhaps 25 yards away from them. The men are confronted with a choice. They either kill him or welcome him to the campfire. Being rude to him and refusing admittance only invites him to kill them in their sleep.

    'Civilized' people are quite unused to thinking about the real problems which arise when one is dependent on a cohesive group for survival, and sociopaths and strangers are always risks.

    Don Stewart

  15. Dr. Arnoux
    This will be a rather verbose comment. Please forgive. I believe the odds are against you, but your project is extremely important. I previously pointed out that it is very hard to get very many people to do something which is not in their short term best interests.

    I am not a biologist, but I have been reading Nick Lane’s The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life. Lane has already laid out his case for the origin of life in alkaline hydrothermal vents in the ocean. Then, on page 137 and following, he discusses the ‘problem of membrane permeability’. Briefly, and in my paraphrase, how did we get from membranes which were permeable to protons to membranes which are quite impermeable to protons. Modern cells pump protons to one side of the membrane, creating a gradient, and then feed the protons through ATP synthase to provide turbine power inside the cell. But it turns out that, in the ocean, the membranes had to be quite permeable in order to work, and that there was no apparent evolutionary path to impermeable membranes. I won’t try to reconstruct his argument here, but there are some important points:
    *The cells used anti porters to pump sodium ions, to which the permeable membrane is much less permeable than it is to protons. The addition of the sodium pumping increased total energy available, thus providing a reason to grow an organic membrane rather than rely on structures in the ocean. And the more impermeable the membrane became, the better it worked.
    *The ancient cells, by computer modeling, were just as efficient as modern cells. But they were efficient because modern cells spend 98 percent of their energy pumping protons, and only 2 percent building organic structure. The ancient cells were relying on naturally occurring substances in the alkaline vents to serve as the membrane, and a naturally occurring pH gradient, and thus did not have to pump. (I asked you a few turns ago how you defined ‘efficiency’. Not doing things which don’t have to be done is an important consideration.)

    Here is my point. Perhaps it is worthwhile stepping back from the immediate problem and looking at a basic evolutionary problem which was resolved in ways that were not direct attacks. Nobody lectured governments or chemicals in the ocean about the many advantages that might someday accrue from taking radical steps. Instead, circumstances led to certain small steps which then became subject to variation and selection. Interestingly, the advantage was not increased power…it was the ability to move out of the hydrothermal vents into the wide open ocean.

    For example, I can sketch two broadly contrasting strategies. One is the Irish Monk strategy. Given the collapse of Rome, a handful of Irish Monks set out to save civilization by copying some books for the glory of God. Those books later became very interesting to a larger population, many of whom are quite secular. I consider that strategy to be analogous to lateral gene transfer…a few survivors carry some technologies and ideas into the future. The other strategy is to try to develop an evolutionary plan whereby large numbers of people adopt an nGeni (or equivalent) and it turns out to have very large evolutionary repercussions just due to natural selection. The second strategy is what we observe in terms of the membrane issue. But there has to be some advantage, no matter how small, to wide adoption of the first small steps.

    Don Stewart

    1. Nick Lane's book is fantastic. I am digesting it, chapter by chapter

    2. Hello Don,

      Many thanks for your comments and suggestions. I am familiar with the research that you refer to about the origins of life. Great stuff. I arrived at the nGeni out of considering 3.8 billion years of Earth-Life evolving and among other facets looking at how "circumstances led to certain small steps which then became subject to variation and selection" as you point out so well. With this in mind, I do not see the contrasting strategies as alternatives. Instead in my experience they are necessary and complementary.
      Alan AtKisson published Believing Cassandra in 1999, then a revised updated edition in 2011. In there he uses the metaphor of an amoeba stretching an "innovator" pseudopod towards an innovation to explain his take on how a society evolves, with "organelles" acting as "transformers" and "change agents" and others as "mainstreamers" "laggards" and other forms of resistance or "heads in the sand" behaviour. It's a bit rough from a social science perspective but a very useful framework of action. I guess I am in the innovator category - hard life, out of the mainstream. There is also a good deal tone learned from Clayton Christensen's work on disruptive innovations. After decade at the coal face on this front I consider that quite a number of his points have strong merits. Combining both (and a few others) has led me to this approach that roughly speaking integrates your two strategies.
      Then there is your earlier comment about sociopaths. This issues runs very deep. On the social science of life I can say that the GIW engenders sociopath and psychotic traits, and does so increasingly it seems. A linguist and psychoanalyst like Julia Kristeva speaks and write of the "new diseases of the soul", for example. As the Oil Fizzle DK progresses, a number of us expect a flaring of "turmoils of the psyche" let's say as well as increasing social disruptions. No transition to any form of sustainability can be nice and smooth. It is worth to note that pre-industrial societies, with people living in small groups had their ways and means of dealing with such issues. According to Dmitry Orlov, when the USSR collapsed, locals devised creative ways of dealing with them. I am far from agreeing with all he says these days but here is a quote based on his observations at the time: “You might think that when collapse happens, nothing works. That's just not the case. The old ways of doing things don't work any more, the old assumptions are all invalidated, conventional goals and measures of success become irrelevant. But a different set of goals, techniques, and measures of success can be brought to bear immediately, and the sooner the better” (Dmitri Orlov, Social Collapse Best Practice, 14 Feb 2009). Here in France a huge amount of creativity took place among the resistance to the Nazi invasion. I think this kind of experiences are worth pondering.

  16. We were a malleable species, evolution sending us in pursuit of the greatest concentrations of energy on the planet, so much energy was available that we became fully systematic. This means that we became the producer of tools and keeper of information, complexity, mostly done within our technological cells. Like organic cells and the structures into which they are arranged, organisms, we have many specialized organs including immune systems, waste removal, information storage, energy delivery, distribution system and so on. We are like eukaryotic cells that coalesced into various plant and animal forms except by virtue of gravity we are stuck to the surface of the earth and relatively immobile. So now that we have formed this great and globalized, interdependent body of cells making things and growing 24/7, we face the grim conclusion that no one was ever “in control” of this process and likely no one ever will be in control of this process. Yes, incremental technological evolution can occur much more rapidly than in organisms, but putting chlorophyll into the skin of a cave bear whose main prey has gone extinct, is not going to work. The old structure must be abandoned but no one wants to give-up their investment and belief in the continuing fairy tale of civilization.

    Since most people are fully invested in the existing infrastructure and will likely cling to it given hell or high water, and expect it to continue delivering the good life in perpetuity as promised by their leaders, how are they to be convinced to abandon their investments prior to catastrophic collapse? Beyond the investment in infrastructure and information supporting our civilization, their minds have been educated, at significant cost, to function within the fossil fuel system to deliver to them some portion of the fossil fuel bonanza through wages. Not only do those fully participating in technological civilization want more of the same, billions of others are waiting their turn to get a good job and get inside a plush cell hooked-up to the fossil fuel conduits. China has a billion or more that would like to have one, two or three cells to call their own, dependent upon the flow of fossil fuels to provide livable conditions. The momentum over the cliff is unstoppable and now all that prevents the plunge into the chasm is a twisted lifeline of fiat currency. I think we've already dropped the ball on the Hail Mary pass and nature is going to push us deep into the end zone.

    1. Hi James,

      Thanks for this great summary of the GIW's predicament. Please note I am careful to talk of the GIW (as social, political and technological phenomenon) and not of people, "us", "we", etc. You ask "how are they to be convinced to abandon their investments prior to catastrophic collapse?" It's clear to me that they are not going to be convinced and there is no point in trying to and above all not time left to do so. Humans have never innovated that way. Let's reflect. The stone bashers who invented the mastery of fire some 1M years ago did not try and convince their fellow budding humans to do so. They simply did it. This thermodynamic innovation turned out to have major consequences - new forms of social organisation, increased safety at night and cooking. The latter provided much better use of food-energy and access to new pools of food energy. It appears that over the ensuing millennia this provided distinct selection advantages, in terms of reduced gut size and changed micro microbiome relative to chimps and more energy available, enabling a bigger brain… This is an example of the detail behind slide 10 above. Humankind is under huge selection pressure, culturally, socially and in terms of its psyche. I have come to think that those who cling to BAU for dear life do not have much prospects to last long simply because they are no longer within a viable thermodynamic space. On the other hand there are millions currently innovating and doing their utter best to stay or come back within such a space. They do so mostly flying blind, mostly without enquiring into the appropriateness of the questions they ask, which makes their life a lot harder and riskier. As a result many will end up outside the viable space and vanish, however, given the numbers, I think that statistically quite a number will manage to live within that space and evolve new ways, probably enough for one or more new kind(s) of civilisation(s).

    2. Yes, GIW was never going to reach the whole human world. Even now many live mostly or partly by the work of their own hands in a semi-subsistent world, which arguably in some ways is sustainable.

      You have clearly defined the end of GIW 'growth', which probably means fairly rapid 'retraction' thereafter. But let's take it step by step. Relative cost structures vary greatly in detail across the GIW as well as ROW. I particularly appreciate Art Berman calling societal minimum demands in Saudi Arabia an 'overhead'. He sees 'the next step' within 5 years.

      What is going to happen in the context of American and European and similar economies with their particular relative cost structures seems hard to predict in the next decade or so. It might be hard to generalise just now.



    3. Hi Phil,

      Yes the "crystal ball" has gone dark… I am familiar with Art's analyses. As far as I can see he does not engage directly with the thermodynamics but uses indirect data to "read the writing" on various walls. So I think there are some confusions re "oil prices", aka prices of what? Here are some considerations about this.
      For over a century the ratio of gold to oil has remained in a narrow range of 1g to 6g of gold per barrel of sweet crude - gold being an age old monetary means that goes by weight and is not subject to inflation and other vagaries it can be used as a fixed metric not amenable to much manipulations (as fiat currencies and price indices are). This ratio is presently close to 1.04g/bbl. However, as we have seen, the GIW does not "live" on crude but on net energy from crude, essentially in the form of transport fuels. Currently the net energy that reaches end-users is about 16% of the gross energy in an average barrel of sweet crude (it was about 70% in 1920). This gives a present shadow price of about US$277/bbl, a highly unpalatable figure for the GIW's operations (or 6.5g of gold/bbl). Of course, as net energy keeps dropping, a time will come, very soon, when after a burst the shadow price also drops to the floor (a value of x times zero equals zero). Put in other words, gold and oil have begun to diverge since 2014. All currencies have been dropping against gold since 1971. The stable gold-oil relationship is breaking down because the fundamental was not the crude barrel but the amount of net energy able to "power growth"; since 2012 this is now fizzling out. I don't think Art has understood this. How individual countries, companies and people ail cope and react remains to be seen.

    4. To clarify my understanding: you are saying the system as a whole is paying $277/bbl , unwittingly as it were, in comparison with the 1920 price/.7 and then adjusted for inflation?

    5. Hi Crybaby,

      I am saying that when 1 barrel of sweet crude is traded at US$44 (actually as I write it's at about $43 and a bit), the GIW has access to only 16% of the energy it contains, so the net financial impact for the GIW as a whole is yes, $277/bbl equivalent. The GIW can't make money with the full barrel, only the 16% residual, so it all happens as if it was attempting to "grow" at a basic cost of $277/bbl, which these days is quite a challenge. Even adjusting for inflation, at the time of the 1978-79 crisis (based on BP inflation adjusted price data) with some 56% net energy available to end-users, the shadow price was around US$188/bbl equivalent, and back then the situation was dire. In New Zealand we had carless days… So now at $277/bbl? The main difference I see is that now the GIW lives fully on debt, with central banks "printing money" like there is no tomorrow, which is probably correct - there is no tomorrow for the GIW in this fashion. We are at the stage where thermodynamics comes back home to roost.

  17. I am failing to understand the derivation of necessity and the composition of the 50Tw requirement, 100% direct solar and 80% efficient. It implies approx. 20 fold increase in useful energy. My own experience suggests most modern western energy use can be slashed easily and with small capital and labour cost by around a factor of 3 to 5. If that experience is translatable in some fashion to the whole system and assumed by you, then a real 40 or 100 fold increase in useable energy is contemplated as necessary. I see the reparations and restorations and direct GHG treatments you are suggesting but they don't seem to add up to the suggested target for 'more energy is required'. I wonder if you have a more detailed reference to this? Thanks for a thought provoking series.

  18. I am a fairly bright guy but I am really struggling with the idea that a barrel of oil that is only 16% usable energy somehow makes oil (in general) less valuable. If there were an alternative I could see it. If barkeep number one waters down his whiskey but bar keep number two does not then barkeep number one will have to discount his whiskey to compete. But at this point there isn't an alternative. So given that shouldn't demand for oil go up since more barrels are needed to get the same amount of work done? I am sitting in a bar with a dozen other guys, we all want to get drunk. The whiskey is watered down but we can't get any whiskey anywhere else. I would normally buy 10 shots but now I need to buy 20. But the same is true for everyone else in the bar so we end up bidding up the price of the whiskey in order to buy the 20 shots we need to get wasted.

    Is there any comparable model or metaphor that could be used to make this more intuitively graspable? Obviously mine does not work.


    1. Not a bad metaphor, Avalterra. Actually, it is a very good one! The problem is that as the whiskey becomes more and more water, you'll have to drink a lot of water in order to get drunk. And when you get to 90% water and 10% whiskey, then it starts becoming difficult. But the metaphor works as long as the whiskey is not too much watered down.

    2. Hello,

      just to add a wee bit to Ugo's reply. In practice, no one but businesses from the oil industry buys oil. End-users buy transport fuels, plastics, etc… Now, in the main transport fuels are used to generate economic activity. No one can generate as much economic activity per barrel now, with only 16% net energy that can be used to do so, as compared to say 1920 when about 70% net energy was available. So after quite a bit of speculation up and down by traders who by and large have not a clue about what is going on, progressively the price of crude adjusts in proportion to the economic activity that can be generated downstream. The globalised industrial world (GIW), taken as a whole, cannot afford to pay more for its fuel than the amount of economic "growth" that it can generate with it, not for a long time any way. The consequence, however, is that the GIW decelerates in proportion, which is what we are observing.

  19. Enjoyed the series very much. As a retired transportation engineer I recognize in detail the challenge with respect to travel and transport of goods. Land use and transportation are tied together. Both have to change. In my mid-south metro area cranes surround the downtown skyline, building condos and apartments within new or renewed walkable neighborhoods. Citizens eschewed an incremental surface bus expansion plan, demanding something more radical (light rail or commuter rail). I heard citizens calling for things unspoken just five years ago, rapid transit rather than wider freeways, mixed use neighborhoods (with nearby conveniences) rather than three-hundred single family lots at one acre each.

    Politicians will not drive this movement. A ground-level demand has to arise. My wife and I use Amtrak regularly, even though the closest station is three hours way. In the last two years more people have asked us about train travel than in the past twenty. Something is changing.

    I've reviewed recent High Speed Rail (HSR) preliminary engineering studies for a number of corridors in the southeast USA. A notable trend is that the recommended route is invariably within the rights of way of an Interstate highway, not a railroad corridor, and the station locations always include whatever commercial airport is available. In one sense, this is an odd choice. How many people choosing HSR will also need an airport, especially when few other stations are available within the corridor? As best I can tell, the logic has to be that commercial airports have existing parking structures, check-in and baggages facilities, eating and retail, etc. Perhaps the smaller commercial airports are the future rail terminals outside of the center city areas.

  20. Hi William,

    Thank you very much for these comments. Yes, I feel like you that more and more people sense that things have to change, and while not understanding much about the underpinnings or the global situation, in their own space hey seek alternatives and try and change what they can to adapt.

  21. Thank you sir for a great piece of work. Among the many take-home points your ten year time-frame for the great demise of the fossil fuel industry presents some interesting challenges for those parts of the world which rely to any degree on nuclear power.

    All nuclear power plants (NPPs) require fossil fuels for their operation some to bring essential staff to work on the NPP site, but also to operate other power stations on the network. During the fuel strike in the UK (September 2000) coal fired plants were on the verge of shutting down because their coal supplies were running out and staff could not get to work on the sites. Persistent loss of fossil fuel supplies will lead to progressive shutdowns of FF fueled plants and resulting power network problems.

    While admittedly (hopefully!)an extreme example, the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) demonstrated that NPPs require a source of external power to operate control and cooling systems for many years, even with all reactors SCRAMd.

    Consider say France with its 58 operational NPPs providing over 70% of its energy needs. These NPPs will need external mains power to keep them safe for decades after the reactors have the control rods shoved in and welded. So the 'sensible' solution would be to start this shutdown process today, so things are (comparatively) safe by the end of your ten years.

    But of course as soon as you shut down one NPP in the grid, it reduces supply and increases instability in the rest of the grid. As you progressively shut down NPP generation you will eventually bump into partial then complete failure of the grid area by area. If you are lucky the NPPs in the area will have their spent fuel in dry cask storage, so not too bad. If you are unlucky, NPPs which are on line will be dropped, and they will promptly 'Fukushima' once the fuel in their standby generators runs out. Once that starts to happen then surrounding areas will be abandoned, with consequent cascading failures of control on the network. That could rapidly lead to mains supply failures at the remaining NPPs, with disastrous consequences for the entire nation and all down wind of the plumes of radiation. Most of these plants operate beside large water bodies (rivers or oceans), and their surface water emissions of radioactive water will also have devastating impacts on downstream areas, as is happening in the Pacific already from just one failed NPP.

    There are over 440 NPPs in operation in the world today and they all have this procedural requirement for continued electricity supply for safe shutdown to a cold state.

    Similarly there are several NPPs in areas of the world where air temperatures are reaching the point where human life cannot be sustained. Abandoning NPPs in the face of such compelling and virtually instantaneous threats to human life could have very serious consequences.

    The best time to start closing NPPs would have been ten years ago. The next best time would be today. I hope that someone will notice this issue and push the big red button sooner, rather than later, where a horrible nuclear disaster awaits many heavily populated areas of the planet.

  22. Most alternative energy inventors claim to be concerned about the dire straits of humanity and are here with the rescue. Of course they won't show their product until they have enough investors to produce their product and sell it for a handsome profit. Capitalism is the problem, I have the solution, I'll let you know just as soon as I raise enough Capitol. Just release it already and let the inventiveness of all humanity implement it and improve it as needed. That's what someone really concerned for his fellow man would do.

  23. Dear Dr Arnoux,

    I have read your articles on cassandralegacy several times, and it has helped me a lot to understand the problem. Thank you!

    I would like to ask you a question, however, which I hope is not too personal.

    In general you, Ugo Bardi and the Hills Group do not seem to offer much hope as far as those huge changes expected to come within 4 to 10 years. What results from those changes is rather scary at least for us in the developed world.

    You mentioned several times that you lived many years in New Zealand, a country far away from most of the worlds troubles, and around 75% self-sufficient in energy terms, generating that amount from renewables.

    Though I am in Europe right now I am considering going back to Australia, but after reading and accepting all those calculations and explanations from you, Ugo Bardi and the Hills Group it seems to me that New Zealand would be the perfect destination for somebody who would like to escape the perfect strom developing.

    But then you mentioned that you moved from New Zealand to the Provence. While that is a beautiful place, considering the future you are painting - would it not be the time now to STAY in New Zealand instead of moving to a continent which would be hit hardest when your predictions become real?

    I see a contradiction between your writings and your actions. So I was wondering how serious you are with you models and how much you expect them to impact your own life?



  24. Regarding Kleidon's paper, see here:

  25. Dr Arnoux: have you considered ambling over to and presenting your views in the comments sections? It would make for interesting conversation I am sure. It looks to me as though there is a dual narrative -- yours and theirs; the narratives have points of relationship that need exploration.
    Oil Collapse (“Death Spiral”) Coming Soon
    October 23rd, 2016
    "In February, Bloomberg warned readers that the next collapse of oil prices will occur within 10 years, maybe sooner, due to an explosion of electric cars on the road.... the chart below...shows when the oil collapse is expected, assuming three different scenarios for the growth of electric cars. The selloff could begin as early as 2023 or as late at 2028. No one can predict the future, but Bloomberg offers this advice: 'One thing is certain: Whenever the oil crash comes, it will be only the beginning. Every year that follows will bring more electric cars to the road, and less demand for oil. Someone will be left holding the barrel'.... The Fitch Ratings report warns of an 'investor death spiral.' First, savvy investors will cash out their utility and auto investments, then the rush for the exits will begin in earnest. Bloomberg says the meltdown will begin in 2028. Fitch puts the date at 2023"
    Here’s How To Build 100% Clean Renewable Energy In The US Before 2040
    October 12th, 2016
    "[This] plan builds upon the great work done at led by Stanford University Professor Mark Jacobson. His work describes the end state of a 100% clean renewable energy future by 2050. What we add is a plan to actually build all that clean energy generating capacity, pay for the $6.3T cost over 22 years with the savings as we cease buying fossil fuels, and do it all in time to prevent the worst effects of the climate crisis.... Costs will peak around 2029 when total investment in wind and solar reaches $387B per year. But that year is also when yearly savings from lower spending on fossil fuels reaches that same level. Further spending will be roughly flat at about $387B/year through the full buildout in 2037, but yearly fuel savings keeps growing, until by 100% at 2037, the US economy is saving ALL of the former $875B we used to spend each year on fossil fuels (w/ 1% on nuclear ). Thus fuel savings alone will more than pay for the investment over time."



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)