Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Abandoning a fossil fuel powered civilization means abandoning civilization?

In the 1950s, the Italian anthropologist Fosco Maraini (1912-2004) had a chance to witness the tremendous cultural shock that the Japanese society experienced the defeat of the 2nd world war. He described his experience in the book "Meeting with Japan", published in 1960. We may expect to go through something similar worldwide as we experience the cultural shock of having to abandon fossil fuels.

I am writing this post just after having gone through one of the usual exchanges in the comments of a blog. You know how it goes: it is based on the idea that "renewables will never be able to replace fossil fuels." The reasons are always the same: renewables are intermittent, renewables cannot provide liquid fuels, renewables cannot fly wide-body planes, renewables cannot do this, renewables cannot do that. And if we try to move to renewables, we'll go back to barbarism.

At the basis of this position, there is the total refusal to face any change, to abandon the business as usual (BAU) paradigm. Those who are used to BAU cannot imagine a different world. So, it is inconceivable for them that the supply of power may vary in time; it is inconceivable that they wouldn't be able to have their car parked in front of the entrance of their home, it is inconceivable that they wouldn't be able to buy cheap tickets for their deserved vacations in Hawaii.

Every time I read this kind of exchanges, I am reminded of the book of Fosco Maraini "Meeting with Japan", published in 1960. There, Maraini tells his experience in Japan before and after the second world war and of the tremendous cultural shock that the Japanese experienced with the defeat. In the book, we read of a Japan that's unusual for us, today: a shocked Japan, a poor Japan, a nation of people who were desperately trying to adapt to a world that had changed in ways they had never imagined as possible. But, no matter how they disliked the new world, they had no choice.

A paragraph of the book that has forever remained in my mind tells of a restaurant, somewhere in the Japanese countryside, that Maraini describes as (p 116 of the 1st edition):
.... one of those monstrous local taverns where all the styles of history seem to have been distilled into a final residue of hideousness. Sensitive and discriminating as the Japanese are when they move within the orbit of their own civilization, they become barbarians when they renounce their past and mimic foreign ways ... Renouncing a civilization means renouncing civilization.
 ... the bare concrete floor was plastered with congealed mud. When the Japanese abandon tatami, the straw mats on which they walk with bare feet, they are left with a psychological void. The floor, not being tatami, is merely an extension of the street: the street brought into the house.
And there we are: when we think of abandoning fossil fuels, we are left with a psychological void. Abandoning the fossil fuel powered civilization means abandoning civilization and a world not being powered by fossil fuels can only be the extension of the barbarian ages of the past. Barbarism brought into our world.

But no matter how much some of us dislike the new world we will be experiencing, we have no choice. I think we are in for quite some cultural shock!


  1. For those of you who have not discovered him I recommend John Michael Greer's blog -
    He regularly points out that it will not be business as usual nor will it be "Mad Max".

    1. ...based on personal aesthetic preferences and his reading of history rather than any particularly keen understanding of the current situation. He's constitutionally incapable of saying, "it's different this time", and the primary tool in his toolbox is that of triangulation, to arrive at a middle way, mentally eliminating the possibility of dramatic shifts, especially from the climate quarter. That's how I see his work; your mileage may vary.

      Still a very good read (I stick to his non-fiction bits) with some excellent perceptions.

    2. Since a long time i read his blog regularly i appreciate his deep and pointy analysis immensely. I was truly shocked though when he wrote that USA of the 50's was to be considered as a highpoint of a sustainable lower tech society. Rich and confortable, sure. Sustainable, no way.
      The highpoint of USA power maybe... and a nostalgic position imo.
      Much like the steampunk culture in UK fantasising about victorian lifestyle as a better one (highpoint of british empire).
      Personally i think that the most vulnerable parts of our civilization are the transportation and energy systems. They both can crash suddently and ring a just-in-time system down within hour like happened in post-tsunami Japan. Lack of trasportation and energy was as much responsible for cascading disasters like Fukushima as the earthquake and tsunami.
      Another lesson from Japan

  2. Hello Mr. Bardi,

    "Abandoning a fossil fuel powered civilization means abandoning civilization?"

    At least "this" kind of civilization. Due to all my reading it is clear, that when we do not find something that performs ERoEI and versatility wise like oil, gas and coal - something has to change of give.

    Most of the (financial) promises, valuations and expectations are based on the believe of a continuing BAU. BAU, as it is, needs energy - and as more people there are, which in addition want a more energy intensive lifestyle - we need more energy.

    All RE types I have read about and which are put in practice perform from their ERoEI either worse than the fossils or are intermittent (Wind, PV), not scale able to global needs (Water) and the like.

    But its not only RE - more important is the still growing global population... the leaders of the different states still calling for more babies (e.g. Germany).

    I for my part don't see the global system steering around, reducing the speed and some comforts now to live better (or not as bad) in the future.

    "I think we are in for quite some cultural shock!"

    That for sure... and more.

  3. Ugo, U R absolutely correct . I spend most weekends talking with the young students ,fellowships ,erasmus students etc in the age group 20-25 . For them life is twitter ,facebook,linkedin etc . They have no inkling about energy until I ask them for their iphone , remove the battery and then ask them to switch it on . In a world where people start banging the table because their computer is not starting "fast enough" or the movie is not downloading "fast enough" ,it will be a disaster when like u said "they cannot walk on tatami mats " . Frankly I have given up hope ,but I try to educate as many (I do not try to save anybody ,I am not Jesus),that is the best I can do :

    1. Your point is well taken Ravi, but taking out an IPhone battery? Really?

    2. My mistake should be "cellphone" instead of iphone . That is what happens when you switch from French wines to Italians ;-)

  4. Ugo - it's interesting that the examples you give in your exchange seem to be with an American reader (the clue being the vacation in Hawaii). In my experience it is the Americans who most lack the imagination of living with less available energy. I'm sure there are good reasons for this that a psychological historian (if any exist) could tell us about. In most other places in the world people are much more likely to be more ambivalent about a lack of fossil energy.

    Certainly where I live (in the UK) many people hark back to a time where we all travelled on horses and there was no ugly modernity. Hardly a week passes without a TV series coming on which features people dressed in clogs and scything their fields whilst brushing their teeth with sticks.

    Whether they will still think the same when the lights go out remains to be seen.

    1. Well, I am not American, but it is normal that the people in the colonies identify themselves with their imperial masters. It was like that at the time of the Roman Empire. After that the Osci of Southern Italy had been defeated by the Romans, the Oscan poet Quintus Ennius would proudly proclaim in Latin "Nos sumus Romani" - we are Romans!

      And I remember that the Lakota of the village near Wounded Knee had placed an American flag on top of one of their tepees.

    2. "In my experience it is the Americans who most lack the imagination of living with less available energy." -Hepp

      I think Amerikans get a really bad rap on this due to the fact the pop culture coming from here is so pervasive. To begin with, I'm not lacking in imagination and neither are the other Diners.

      I think every place that has been overrun by Industrial Culture is quite similar. When I talk to people from Europe, the mindset is generally similar. Same with Canada and Oz.

      Most people, even doomers, simply can't imagine living without the creature comforts we currently enjoy.


    3. Our relatives in Europe don't understand why we are not thrilled that their younger generation is procreating like mad. They don't understand why we don't want to travel across the ocean to see them anymore. They continue to book vacations all over Europe, and are otherwise in constant motion. They think RyanAir is the best thing that ever happened to them. They want more of everything just like any American. And they don't just have energy slaves, they have *real* slaves: Ukrainians and Romanians as live-in servants torn away from their families (used to be Filipinos)!

      I just see them as molecules in a beaker. When you apply heat (energy) they launch into a frenzy of activity. Take away the applied energy and... ???

  5. I don't think the argument is about having all the immediately-available-on-demand luxuries of modern life.

    At least mine is not.

    I am more concerned about things like how we build and run the LHC on renewables. And even more so, how we get to the point of figuring out how to build it on renewables after we have collapsed, gone through the dark age, lost most of our scientific and technological knowledge, and are trying to rebuild a civilization after that, but without having the large amounts of concentrated resources we had this time. Note that the question needs to be answered not only for the next iteration of the cycle, that will play out over the next couple thousand years (if it ever does, of course), but for each subsequent one too.

    Historical analogies are simply not convincing to me with respect to that problem.

    1. About the LHC, this is probably the easiest thing. Most modern scientific megaprojects already INCLUDE a large chunk of RE. This is true for the Square Kilometre Array (a big radiotelescope, requiring megawatts of power), there is a plan to refurbish the ALMA radiotelescope with solar panels, and several smaller telescopes already run completely on RE. This is simply due th the fact that these facilities are in remote places, and NOW it is advantageous to use RE + storage with respect to driving long power lines.

      I understand your point, however. If we fail to switch to RE fast enough, sceince will collapse and science is a prerequisite for RE's. This is a big problem.

    2. And energy is prerequisite for science.

      The LHC consumes 120MW as far as I know. Which is a lot. As in the-energy-consumption-of-a-city-with-200,000-inhabitants a lot. Sure, that can be produced by renewables. But it will have to be diverted from the overall grid, and it will have to have priority because you can't just turn it off on a windless night. Which means a lot of unhappy customers elsewhere.

      Not that we will need an LHC forever, in this particular case we may well learn eventually that there is nothing we can hope to further discover because the interesting physics is at practically inaccessible energies.

      But the general point remains because it's not just the LHC -- the scientific infrastructure is generally very energy intensive, and not at all tolerant to disruptions in power supply. Melted -80C freezers and empty LN2 tanks happen even today, and many priceless samples and specimens have been lost that way.

    3. Gianni, you are more concerned with powering an obscure science experiment than maintaining human life on Earth? That's exactly how we got into this mess! Oy veh!

      Georgi says "Not that we will need an LHC forever,"


      We don't "need" it now!

      Very strange definitions of need here.

    4. How is it that we don't need it now?

      How exactly do you propose to probe that energy range?

      If you have alternative ideas, physicists would be eager to hear them.

      Or you are perhaps implying that doing particle physics is a waste of time?

    5. Doing particle physics is a *terrific* thing to do. But we are discussing an event that will cause mass starvation around the globe. I think that the 120 MW *might* be used to other ends that - I dunno - might sustain some human life?

      I get it - I really do. Physics is important. In many ways it has been the backbone of our progress as a species. But I think mass air transit would be seen by most people as more important to our civilization then the LHC and I don't see that surviving.

    6. Well, yes, that is precisely the point -- there will be competing demands for those 120 MW and more pressing needs will prevail.

      This is how civilizations lose their scientific and technological knowledge when they collapse -- its growth and maintenance is dependent on the existence of an energy surplus in the system. Accordingly, once that surplus is gone, intellectual activity decreases and knowledge is lost.

    7. "you are perhaps implying that doing particle physics is a waste of time? "

      Heaven forfend!

    8. Seriously, Georgi, the only "energy range" I am interested in "probing" is that of my larder.

      Do you folks study thermodynamics, or...? None of your experimentation has ever had a positive energy payout, and none of it ever will. It only destroys and further poisons the planet. So why are you doing it?

    9. So why are you doing it?"

      I am not. I am a biologist, not a physicist. I depend on a vast and very fragile infrastructure for my work too, but I don't build and operate HEP experiments.

      Anyway, I don't understand where the notion that they destroy and poison the plant comes from. Yes, they are expensive and energy-intensive, but in the grand scheme of things it's nothing compared to what the daily commute of hundreds of millions of people, who go to their meaningless jobs in the morning and come back home in the evening just so that the wheels of the machine of the global economy keep spinning, does.

      I am also baffled by the question why such experiments have to be done. Because we don't have a full understanding of the universe, that's why. I don't see absolutely any need for further justification.

      Finally, the reason we are even in position to understand what is happening to the world at the moment is that some 400 years ago people stopped asking the question "Why bother to do experiments?" and started doing experiments and asking questions about the world around them. But the lessons learned have penetrated only very superficially, if at all.

      A lot of people concerned about environmental issues seem to be dreaming of some sort of return to a mythical past free of the evils brought on by industrial and technological progress. This is just as much of a magical thinking as the claims of economists that infinite growth can continue indefinitely, and in the grand scheme of things, just as dangerous too.

      The step from being right for the wrong reasons to being wrong for those same wrong reasons is small and very easily made. There is in fact little in that sort of environmentalists' understanding of the world that accurately corresponds to our best understanding of reality and human nature. Especially human nature. Which means that if their dreams were to be realized, it would all still end in a disaster, just as industrial civilization will. In case anyone has forgotten, indigenous people and non-technological civilizations have been successfully wrecking their environments for millenia. The problem is not so much in industrial civilization itself, but in the evolved biological nature of Homo sapiens, which drives ecologically suicidal behavior. There can be no transition to sustainability without a sober understanding of these factors. However:

      1) Those are truths that people of the mindset I am talking about usually don't want to hear
      2) They are truths derived from the same kind of science you are dismissing.
      3) They have penetrated very little in the public consciousness because you need to know quite a bit of the science to fully understand the subject. Which means that if we were to stop doing science, even the meager understanding that exists now will disappear.

      I hope you see the problem.

    10. Giorgi, I say this with no ill will towards you at all. (I started out on a promising biology track myself, but walked away at an early age.) If you're a biologist, then you should know that every aspect of industrial civilization, including the official study of biology as it is practiced, destroys and pollutes the very thing it is studying.

      Except you don't seem to know that!

      Leave aside whether *relatively-speaking* these endeavours are any more or less destructive than running a dry-cleaner's, or a being a long-haul trucker or the CFO of a software development group.... Pretty much ALL the scientists I have ever observed do the same as any other mid-level manager: they commute to work in cars, use computers most of the time, have a lot of meetings in modern office buildings, go out to lunch, fly to conferences, etc.

      Only "we" think what "we" are doing is important. From the point of view of the planet, it's all the same destruction that occurs. It's like quibbling whether it's really rape depending on what the rapist is fantasizing about: "we" fantasize that what we do or study might "help the planet", but it cannot, does not, and will not. Ooops!

      "people, who go to their meaningless jobs in the morning and come back home in the evening just so that the wheels of the machine of the global economy keep spinning"

      But, materially speaking, you are not apart from them, don't you see?

      Where is the meaning in apprehending a certain gene mutation, say..? There IS no "meaning" to it. It may have good or bad or indifferent human consequences, but I fail to perceive any meaning in the slightest regarding any particular apprehension or lack thereof.

      (breaking this up due to mysterious character limits)

    11. Giorgi, you write, "Because we don't have a full understanding of the universe...such experiments have to be done. I don't see absolutely any need for further justification."

      This appears to be a statement which commits us to exponentially-increased spending on discovery, which exponential increase cannot materially take place.

      We'll never have "a full understanding of the universe". This is not within our perceptive capacity even if we were to —in a sort of Mao- or Khmer-Rouge-like totalitarian global hegemon—spend all our treasure on nothing else than science and soylent-green processing (no plays or music or entertainment or literature; soylent gruel for breakfast, lunch & dinner until we find The Answer, which we already know is 42).

      A number of scientists may be compelled to that degree in their search of "the truth", but they will never "get there".. so what is, realistically speaking, the portion of life energy that "we" are interested in committing to the discovery venture...? ...seeing as the amount required is now closing in on its asymptote? Used to be that gentleman scholars would tinker at home and, with a modest investment, come up with interesting and valuable insights. Now to make the same amount of "progress" requires billions. Along with Peak Oil, we've passed Peak Science, in my opinion.

      Giorgi,you say, "..the reason we are even in position to understand what is happening to the world at the moment is that some 400 years ago people stopped asking the question 'Why bother to do experiments?' and started doing experiments and asking questions about the world around them."

      Indeed! The warming effects of burning fossil fuels was noted by a succession of scientists from the 19th century onward, and we have spent more than a century and a half studiously ignoring them. This is why I argue about larger forces. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink, goes an old folk saying. At many times along our path of fossil-fuel exploitation, alarm bells were raised. 19th-century scientists with neither modern credentials nor a modern budget did the math and penned the proverbial "writing on the wall".

      Most people think, erroneously, that Answers to Questions will lead to Solutions to Problems. But that's just not how things actually work.

      You seem to understand this when you write, "The problem is not so much in industrial civilization itself, but in the evolved biological nature of Homo sapiens, which drives ecologically suicidal behavior."

      But then you come in with the obligatory hopium: "There can be no transition to sustainability without a sober understanding of these factors."

    12. Finally, you write, "A lot of people concerned about environmental issues seem to be dreaming of some sort of return to a mythical past free of the evils brought on by industrial and technological progress. This is just as much of a magical thinking as the claims of economists that infinite growth can continue indefinitely, and in the grand scheme of things, just as dangerous too."


      You write, "..if we were to stop doing science, even the meager understanding that exists now will disappear."

      Ok.. AND?

      Scientific understanding has done absolutely nothing to alter humanity's course towards collapse. (Please correct me if I am wrong.) I don't see Dennis Meadows, for example, agitating for more research, and for good reason: it's clearly pointless.
      People will end up burning the furniture whether they know *why* they are doing it or not.

      If understanding doesn't make our lives better, lack of understanding can hardly make them worse.

  6. Dear Ugo,

    I can certainly imagine me, as an individual, or among a small group living with much less. You're right- 200 short years ago all people were running around on horseback and no one had electricity. It's not all that long ago. (And I'm an American!)

    My concern is around the population expansion that's been enabled by fossil fuels and thier high EROEI. The difference between now and 200 years ago is that the basic infrastructure for supporting 7+ billion people is reliant on FF. Agriculture, distribution, sanitation, health services. These are much more important than I-phones or tatami mats- these are the fundamentals supporting the very life of this enlarged population.

    Can you expand on how these fundamental elements of life can be weaned off FF's without losing a large portion of the population? And if we do rapidly lose a large portion of the world population, can you imagine this happening in a way that doesn't disrupt or destroy civlization itself? I'm genuinely curious to learn more about your perspective.

    Thank you!

    1. This is a question directed to everyone, but on the subject that Froggman mentions. There's a lot of talk about over-population and there have been for decades, yet some information points to population growth being on the verge of stagnating. So what is the truth? There have been various reports in recent years about dropping fertility rates world-wide:

      A quick search on this topic will bring up many references. If true, this of course does not mean that we can turn things around due to population growth slowing down, BUT at least it tells us there is some kind of natural homeostasis working behind the scenes - and knowing the (updated) facts would help us focus on the important factors without always referring to population growth as the problem - the problem is that regardless, we are over-consuming and not managing resources and have built our civilisation on finite energy supplies - not very wise at all.

      It would be great to get some clarification in this.


    2. Hi,

      what is stagnating is the birth rates worldwide, this is true. But it is also true, that despite that, the world population will grow for some decades yet because the "peak" of birth rate generations get older while in most places on earth low birth generations are at an old age today, so there are much lesser deaths than births.

      In western Europe and China the birth rate bulges allready reached the top of the "age pyramid" and so those countries populations stagnate.

      See this TED talk of Hans Rosling for a very comprehensible explanation:

    3. Alonger video about population growth by Habns Rosling that explains the "grown up fill up" effect can be found here:

    4. Very informative presentation, than you. It puts everything in perspective - and the main problem too - those who live beyond their means - relative to the rest of the world - will have to forfeit some of their privileges - and the question is, what is the likelihood of that happening?

    5. @Jean-Jaques. Population is on the verge of reversing its trends of growth. But the system is complex and it will adapt to changes in a complex way. Food supply, fossil fuel supply, and global warming are dancing together and following an arabesque-like path that will strongly impact population trends. How exactly, we can't say right now, but population growth will soon cease to be something to be worried about.

    6. Thank you Mr Bardi for your reply and a very thought-provoking article. In your first two paragraphs you describe exactly the problem in relation to how people respond to the idea that they must or will have to change. I fully agree that this (all of this) is primarily a psychological problem (a psychological block). Like everything else in the complex system (as you have described in some of your previous posts and re Tainter) this aspect is very complex and there are very few psychoanalysts around today who can or will delve into it on a deep level.
      I'm not a qualified expert, but this element of the problem interests me the most (and I have some experience with Jungian and other psychology).
      I would speculate that:
      A few factors in the human psyche can be identified as being at the root of the problem. A combination of cognitive biases and dissonance and human will(s) play a big part - wich also translates into motivation, or the lack of it. For example, we have the well known concepts of the'will to pleasure' (Frued), the 'will to power'{Nietzsche) , the 'will to meaning' (Frankl) and of course the will to survival (the strongest at a base level) - and there are probably others. In my opinion there is such another type of will which can be described as 'a will to avoid(ing) responsibility'. This might sound simplistic, but in fact it goes very deep and it can be tested. This 'will (to avoid responsibility)' becomes especially strong in affluent and fully automated (machines, technology and all related systems) civilisations like we have today in the developed world. This type of society induces a kind of avoidance strategy where there is a competition for avoiding responsibility - in order to have the easiest, most care-free life(-style) possible. In other words a civilisation that becomes so automated and organised leads to a loss or motivation to do anything else. A type of loss of self-agency is the result - and strong resistance to "having (to have) more agency" (responsibility) accompanies this.
      Having all responsibilities "outsourced" becomes an objective - for example everything in the developed world is (already) taken care of on our behalf - there are service providers, government departments, corporations, organisation, politicians, economists, (so-called) academics, etc, etc, etc who take care of it all, with some minimal or no involvement on our part - (sure, we complain, but not because WE want to do something about it - we want "them" - those we outsourcing our responsibility to - to do something about it - as long as it does not negatively affect our comfort levels [this is how the thinking goes]).

    7. Continued...

      Within this fully organised and automated hive, there's not much we have to do practically speaking - or WANT to do. Here I'm not talking about a small minority (like the type of people who post here and are genuinely concerned), but the general developed-world population.
      People generally believe that we are here "to be happy" and to "achieve happiness" - whatever that means and that generally means having as much as possible pleasure, stimulation, entertainment and... lack of responsibility or accountability - the latter two combined are considered as "the ultimate freedom" (subconsciously that is).
      Not having to be responsible or accountable is of course completely unrealistic and unsustainable, but it is experienced as "freedom" and that's what most people in the (post)modern world really want. And they will strongly resist anyone who tries to convince them that "they should be more responsible" - sure, generally they will agree with the idea, but in reality very few people are prepared to take the lead on this. Very, very few.
      So the more affluent societies become the more the Will to Pleasure features - along with this we have a "will to avoiding responsibility" which generally is not very strong in poorer, less automated societies. Happiness is not something poor people have time to obsess or chase after as a priority in life - the will to survive and the will to meaning feature much more for them.
      Of course, the will to power features very strongly in affluent societies and this is one of the things that bring happiness (to the ego). So, there is the matter of "giving up power" (dominance) when it comes to expecting richer nations to reduce their consumption. The will to power features more in some societies or nations than others and it features very highly in affluent groups who already have it - and combined with a Will to avoiding responsibility (in reality) to anyone else, the likelihood of ("moving to socialism" as most people would interpret having to consume less, seems to be)very remote.

    8. Continued...

      Unlike the Japanese who could not have imagined the world that they experienced after the (that) event, because there was no way to know it would happen, we (in the developed world at least) are walking into our own crisis with eyes wide open, but refusing to see or hear or listen (for more than 5 seconds). And THAT to me is: The Will to Avoiding Responsibility - which is so strong that it could cause or demise - but it also has its own built in survival mechanism - avoiding responsibility is mostly subconscious/unconscious and few people would actually admit to it or identify it.
      I also agree with Dr Louis Arnoux's comment further down. Elsewhere on this thread someone mentioned that the human psyche is very adaptable and that there have been many different human psyches depending on the era or age, etc.
      I fully agree - and our current psyche is holding on with all its might to the old paradigm, but when it is finally forced to shift, it will potentially do so quite swiftly, but not without a push.
      I'm just touching on a few points here, but there are other factors too - in relation to taking more responsibility, for example (without being specific) there is a large portion of society that would naturally resist responsibility more than the other portion...
      Technology as a religion also plays a very big role ("it will save the day" - and therefore no-one can blaspheme against it),
      which I'm discussing along with some of these issues in a series I'm writing if anyone is interested:

      To conclude, my feeling is also that population growth might not be the ultimate problem and so I appreciate your comment above. It would very much depend on which continent and in which region we are wrt resources, BUT the psychological aspect CAN and most probably is the most important one of all. We will all have to start thinking differently and adjust our priorities - for survival-sake - and that is a psychological matter - basically we have to become more responsible.
      Maybe one last point to make: Animals have instinct/s in relation to how the adapt to their habitat. Humans don't have instinct, they have will and choice and reasoning skills and the capacity to learn on an intellectual level - and all these are meant to compensate for instincts. The downside to not having instinct is that humans do not instinctively sense that the environment is being damaged to the extent it won't support us indefinitely - the instinctive link to the planet and biosphere is missing - and that's the weak link - also in relation to resources - no instinctual ability to limit consumption.

    9. I am mulling over your thesis that 'a will to avoid responsibility' is an outcome in affluent and automated societies. The problem of adjudicating responsibility both within and without do seem to be particularly gnarly in our society, I can't speak historically though. I have struggled with being very responsible within my own value system and then learned something about over-responsibility and treating that in my framework. Frustrations arise matching up to societal expectations and behaviours on both counts. Your thesis/observation seems to fit .

  7. @ Georgi Marinov - "LHC"? Large Hadron Collider?

    1. Yes. But don't pick on the LHC and its particulars, I am just using it as an especially large, expensive and shiny example of a more general phenomenon.

      In addition to all their other advantages, fossil fuels also have another one -- they're quite low-tech. Renewables, on the other hand, tend to be more complicated. So is nuclear power. You can dislodge a lump of coal from a coal seem outcrop with a simple shovel, light it on fire, and it will burn and keep you warm. Solar panels and wind turbines require a large and complex mining and industrial infrastructure to build, maintain and operate.

      Over the last few hundred years, we have had these three things feeding on each other:

      1) advancement of scientific knowledge
      2) advancement of technological capabilities
      3) the increase in the energy intensity of society.

      Better scientific understanding means more advanced technology. More advanced technology helps create better scientific instruments, and thus more advanced scientific knowledge. Both of these things enable increased rate of exploitation of energy resources. And technological tools and scientific instrumentation use up a lot of energy.

      In principle, the cycle can be maintained with renewables, but it is not at all clear that is also true in practice. It is certainly less likely that it can be restarted without abundant low-tech fossil fuels in some distant moment in the future when the expertise we have now will have been lost. Again, in principle it is possble. But when you add human behavior to the picture, it becomes a lot more doubtful.

    2. The answer to this is massive rollout of state-sponsored Hempseed biodiesel/plastic. Good enough for Rudolf Diesel and Henry Ford!
      Wind-to-ammonia, algae to fuel, and compulsory solar thermally heated hot water also offer encouraging future power-sources'n'savings.
      On the flipside, fracking, nuclear and big methane release may be the death of the habitat/inhabitants.
      State prizes for innovative

    3. @ Georgi

      Perhaps, but the San Bushmen (the oldest living human tribe in the world) will continue to survive without science or technology or energy (except for fire and oil from animal skins and fats). So science and technology and advanced energy is overrated when it comes to basic survival if you are prepared to live from the earth like indigenous peoples do til this day.

      In that sense they are much more advanced than us - they will survive without "civilisation" and they will do so in relative harmony (they will share limited resources as a matter of survival). We won't. We will most probably fight each other for resources to maintain our comforts...

      How civilised are we really when the chips are down? Considering we have dropped our values and community orientation. It's (already) everyone for themselves. Everything is automated as in being is ready supply, but as soon as anything we really rely on become scarce (in a short period of time), panic and hysteria will set in almost immediately and since we have no real concept of sharing and supporting each other so that we can survive... one can only imagine how fast things will unravel.

  8. But, we do have choices: accept it and make the best of it, or fight it and have it forced upon us. And we can choose to accept it now when we have more options, or later. But yes, nonrenewable resources will by definition run out, the only ways we can avoid that is if our usage or the population goes to zero, which is another choice we can make.

  9. Dr. Bardi
    I have made two posts on Gail Tverberg's site which attempt to get people to think outside the box by using Nick Lane's book, The Vital Question. The idea is to make the discussion more 'objective' by using the examples from the biological history of life and how life has adapted in terms of energy and information. And to increase the reader involvement by encouraging the reader to use analogical reasoning. To early to tell if this will work as a device to promote discussion, but I offer it for what it is worth. The posts are too long to graciously copy and paste here. They are in the July 6 and July 25th posts by Gail. A little scrolling will find them.

    Don Stewart

    1. Don, there are 474 comments on Gail's post of July 25th! Can you repost your comment(s) here?

    2. Ugo
      Here is one recent post. You will get the idea. Try to use evolutionary issues which don't have a high ratio of emotion attached to them to illuminate our problems...Don Stewart

      A little more on Lane and why I think that following his arguments is a good thing for a human to do at this stage in our crisis.

      On page 207 Lane considers the problem of ‘introns’, the ‘junk DNA’ which is abundant in we eukaryotes but scarce in bacteria and archaea:
      ‘The second reason for an early intron proliferation is the low strength of selection acting against it. In part, this is precisely because a small population of sickly cells is less competitive than a heaving population of healthy cells. But the first eukaryotes should also have had an unprecedented tolerance for intron invasion. After all, their source was the endosymbiont, the future mitochondria, which are an energetic boon as well as a genetic cost. Introns are a cost to bacteria because they are an energetic and genetic burden; small cells with less DNA replicate faster than large cells with more DNA than they need. Bacteria streamline their genomes to a minimum compatible with survival. In contrast, eukaryotes exhibit extreme genomic asymmetry: they are free to expand their nuclear genomes precisely because their endosymbiont genomes shrink. Nothing is planned about the expansion of the host cell genome; it is simply that increased genome size is not penalised by selection in the same way as it is in bacteria. This limited penalty enables eukaryotes to accumulate thousands more genes, through all kinds of duplications and recombination, but also to tolerate a far heavier load of genetic parasites. The two must inevitably go hand in hand. Eukaryotic genomes became overrun with introns because, from an energetic point of view, they could be.’

      Exercise for the student. Write a paper describing the parallels between the early evolution of the eurkaryotes and the first couple of hundred years of the evolution of Fossil Energy Man. Also describe what you think is likely to happen to Fossil Energy Man as fossil energy experiences a Seneca Cliff.

    3. Second half of post:
      On page 213, Lane considers sex:
      ‘Sex was considered the ‘queen’ of biological problems in the 20th century, but we now have a good appreciation of why it helps, at least in relation to strict asexual reproduction (cloning). Sex breaks up rigid combinations of genes, allowing natural selection to ‘see’ individual genes, to parse all our qualities one by one. That helps in fending off debilitating parasites, as well as adapting to changing environments, and maintaining necessary variation in a population.’

      Lane points out that asexual populations tend to become extinct.

      ‘the benefits of sex are greatest when the mutation rate is high, selection pressure is strong, and there is a lot of variation in a population…the only way to ensure that a genome has all the genes it needs, in full working order, is to retain all of them, and to recombine them regularly across the entire genome. That can’t be achieved by lateral gene transfer–it needs sex, ‘total sex’, involving recombination across the whole genome…Only sex could accumulate genes that worked and be rid of those that didn’t. This tendency to pick up new genes and DNA by sex and recombinations easily accounts for the swelling of early eukaryotic genomes. Accumulating genes in this way must have solved the problems of genetic instability, while the energetic advantages of having mitochondria meant that, unlike bacteria, there was no energetic penalty.’

      Exercise for the student. Write a paper describing how Fossil Energy Man invented an economy which began with promiscuous sexual recombination but morphed into a rigid system variously described as Globalization or Obama’s Unipolar World or Maggie Thatcher’s There Is No Alternative. Describe whether you agree with David Stockman and Charles Hugh Smith that the accumulation of parasites in the economy parallels the proliferation of parasites in the eukaryotic genome, with particular attention to the role of energy in shielding the parasites from natural selection. Conclude your paper with recommendations, covering at least the spectrum from the anarchism of Dmitry Orlov and Toby Hemenway to the ‘BAU at any cost’ of Obama and Gail Tverberg and the IMF and the World Bank and the Central Banks.

      Don Stewart

  10. I guess I had a different experience.
    A lot of people that I found saying "renewable won't work" was luddites that, from the perspective of oil depletion, they hope the civilization to collapse as a whole and force the humanity to a (for them) utopian agrarian society.

    I see this very, very unrealistic. First, because I think that renewable could move a different kind of society. Second, because if it isn't enough energy for all, it's more probable huge wars and a lot of deaths and later a more advanced society (more energy per capita), or simple extintion than this utopian nonsense. We was in the past a agrarian civilization and it was very hard. If the people have to choose between more people and worse life or less people and better life, they will choose the second for sure.

    1. Except that we WON'T choose. At least here in the US, if you suggest that maybe people shouldn't fly to Hawaii now, or won't be able to in ten years because of climate change and fossil fuel depletion, the usual response is hostility, outrage, or fingers in ears. If you suggest that getting through the next century in decent shape would be a lot easier with much lower human numbers, and that we might achieve this without premature deaths if each woman was limited to one child, the reaction is the same. 35 years ago when there was first talk of a conversion to renewable energy (and recycling materials, etc) it would have been possible to make a gentle, relatively easy conversion. Now there is no time left, because of climate change--averting catastrophic climate change requires wrenching change--and people STILL don't want to talk about it. We live in a global culture of fantasy and selfishness.

    2. @MW Yes. Making a single dimension choice is relatively easy, even if the dependencies are multi dimensional and even if it is required en masse (eg Brexit) Making a multi dimensioned choice path even with a single dimensioned dependency (eg catastrophe) appears impossible? even for an individual very difficult it seems.

    3. Yes, Mary. When I was in public elementary school in the US, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, zero-population-growth was something that was taught in the curriculum! Can't imagine that happening now.

      My belief is that we are subject to forces far beyond our control.

  11. when we think of abandoning fossil fuels

    The history of the last half century has shown that we will never abandon fossil fuels. We will continue carrying on as usual, regardless of their impact on climate, until fossil fuels abandon us.

    And though I have worked in the field of renewable energy most of my adult life and have great fondness for most renewable technologies, I sincerely doubt that the global market economy will make any kind of successful transition to any of them. It is far more likely that, rather than shrink gracefully, our global market economy will simply collapse and take all food supply chains with it.

    It won't be "culture shock" that will affect most of us in the developed world; it will be the "shock" of starving to death.

  12. The problem with this argument that I see is our politicians will do absolutely everything possible to keep business as usual going for as long as possible. A drastic drop in energy like that is tantamount to the end of Neoliberal Capitalism and they will fight that tooth and nail.

    This is from just today

  13. I am as concerned about the future as Georgi. I think the human race has only one chance to transcend our planet and ourselves and that is based on the slow accumulation of fossil fuels over geological ages.

    There is at least one renewable energy sources that *might* be able to replace or displace fossil fuels. It has an energy payback time of around three months and a EROEI of better than 100. It's discussed on power satellite economics. I think anyone can read the group and it is easy to join.

  14. I regularly write the sort of comments you're talking about to many blogs, but I don't do it because I refuse to accept that BAU is over. I do it to try and wake people up to the reality of fossil fuel depletion and the fact that we can't have the sort of society we have now, on renewables. We will have some sort of society, to be sure, but as you say, we are in for a huge cultural shock. All I want to do by making such blog comments is to make just one person rethink their position on BAU and renewables and if they change another mind and that mind changes another mind.....and so on. I see very few people face to face (they tune out, anyway), but I can comment to a lot of blogs.

  15. The problem is the use of the word 'replace', which implies that RE can take over the function of FF with minimal or no disruption to our way of life ie a continuation of BAU. Anyone thinking on this issue for a few minutes will see the impossibility of it. Going from a world run by energy dense, concentrated and easily accessible fuel supplies to a dispersed, low density source, primarily sunlight, is for sure a STEP BACK, not forward, in terms of lifestyle.

    The challenges we face in making the transition are explored in detail in this excellent book:

    As I've said before, the more pertinent question is, can we make the inevitable transition without suffering a catastrophic collapse?

  16. I have been engaged with a similar argument with Gail Tverberg and her Commntariat over the last couple of weeks. They simply can't imagine a future that doesn't include on demand electricity.

    The hyothesis is, no grid, no fossil fuels, everybody dies. You can't propose ANY solution, hell even postulating a massive die off of population below 1B doesn't satisfy them. EVERYBODY MUST DIE!

    To me this is counter intuitive, lower the population by enough, then there are plenty of resources. With a low enough population, you could use land to grow biofuels like alcohol and bidiesel, and still have enough for food for yourselves and the animals you use for labor.

    I got another screed on this coming out next Sunday, "Surfing the Negative Waves".

    It is becoming more difficult to do this all the time Ugo. Nihilism & Misanthropy are Metastisizing.


  17. Hi Ugo,

    Thanks for this. I think this side of the matter is very important. And it's not only cultural. We are in for psychological upheaval through the deepest aspects of the human psyche. Few researchers have ventured in this delicate domain. An example is Greer, John Michael, 2013, Not the future we ordered, Peak Oil, Psychology and the Myth of Progress, Karnac. In my view he is somewhat light on the psychoanalytic side, however, in the main the diagnosis is correct: it's going to be more and worse than tough at the deepest psychological level for billions of people wholly unprepared for what is happening.

    At the beginning of his book he points out the "taboo" (unseen, unheard) character of many prior historical crises and then draws the focus on our present predicament with oil: "… a reality that would shortly become the focus of explosive controversy and dramatic social change remained unmentioned and unmentionable among those who were in the closest contact with it" (page 1).

    It's clear to me that the changes we must now expect will be as profound as the changes Julian Jaynes (and others since) studied that took place at the time of the abrupt collapse of the Bronze Age in the eastern mediterranean and up to about 700BC. It was a dark period. Tooth Fairies die hard. It is very likely that people in, say, 2050 will be profoundly other than people now, not just different but other, in how their minds function. Important changes can happen that rapidly, as Pascal Quignar has shown for example concerning Roman society over the last 50 years before the advent of Christianity (Quignard, Pascal, 1994, Le Sexe et l’Effroi, Gallimard, Paris, translated as Sex and Terror, 2012, Seagull Books).

    So well done! I find the Japanese example very apt.

  18. Very interesting discussion so far. One perspective I would like to add, variegating on Oatleg's point, and based on what we know about fossil fuel availability: the question is not one of forced scarcity if we don't go to renewables fast enough vs. planned scarcity if we go to renewables. Humans collectively, if given a choice are very likely to pursue the third way to continue BAU as far as possible resulting in extreme and irreversible damage to the climate. This is the prisoner's dilemma most of us force ourselves to play everyday - if I don't take that vacation to Hawaii someone else will and perhaps the opportunities to their offspring will be greater. This is why in our paper we argue for ensuring sufficient supply of RE fast enough. Unfortunately, the option of a planned power down is, in my mind, too unlikely. The Japanese did not have a choice in accepting the new world - our civilization, still barely does as fossils continue to be available so they will continue to burn unless we offer something almost equally good. Adjustments will need to come but we cannot rely on them coming proactively.

    Call me a techno-optimist but I don't think there is another viable alternative.


  19. "lower the population by enough"---5 little words

    When Europe was hit by the black death in the mid 1300s, roughly 1 in three died (give or take)
    That was in a time when there was ignorance about the cause of most deaths---usually you had upset god in some way, so it was retribution., based on the logic that if one died and another didn't, divine intervention must be the reason. The plague catastrophe barely dented the upward rise in population.

    Now we know what causes people to die, and while the suggestion that most of us are going to have to die to preserve the human race is perfectly logical, it might present a few problems when it comes to volunteers.

    If we do not get many volunteers, that means involuntary death. (which it almost always is of course), how exactly is the population to be "lowered by enough"?---and who decides that enough is enough---somebody has to.

    We have certain options:
    A pandemic arises...and with our current knowledge we can stop it in its tracks. Or do we pull the plug on the pharmaceutical industry and let nature take its course?

    Or do we bring in a law to say no one over a certain age gets any assistance to live whatsoever?
    Or babies born unfit in some respect are allowed to die?

    I could go on--but you get my drift here.

    Given that we might have only 20 years of BAU left (personally I put it at much less---but let's be generous here), we somehow have to lose not just six billion people from our global lifeboat, but an extra 2 billion scheduled to be here by 2040/50
    That's a lot of bodies to dispose of, considering that our current global death rate is around 60 million a year, and the birth rate is 80 m.
    Once the population has reduced to 1 bn, it has to stay there. My babymaking days are over (my vet has seen to that), but how will that be arranged for everybody else?
    Options again:
    Birth restriction/enforced contraception
    Ban sex altogether.
    Mandatory euthanasia at a certain age/infirmity.
    (don’t laugh---it has to be one or all of those)----and you can be sure that there will be no shortage of enforcers.

    We should rid ourselves of the delusion that we can recreate a 21st c economy with the population of pre-1800, bearing in mind the trauma that will be caused by the death of eight people out of every 9 of us. We all live on the supportive skills of others. In 1800 90% of people were involved in food production, now its 2%. Should farmers be exempt from the cull?
    Fantasise as much as you like about BAU lite---but we all gotta eat, and food production is the most highly skilled business there is.

    If we are going to produce “biofuels” then they have to have a function. If we’re all farming/food producing, (using horses etc) there won’t be time to produce engines/vehicles in which to burn that fuel. Not “negative waves” --but ploughing with a horse(s) will produce about 1 /50th that of a tractor, hence you have to put in 50 times more work-hours to get the same amount of food.
    While we might nod in agreement about “lowering the population by enough” we have to face the reality of it.

    In 200 years, when our population will have resolved itself to some kind of workable level of 1 bn or less, they will regard us with as much concern as we do to the victims of the plague of the middle ages, no doubt seeing us as deluded people who thought fuel burning prosperity was forever.

    1. antonio zecca italyJuly 28, 2016 at 7:37 AM

      Norman Pagett: why you did not mention war and similar "recipes" among the possible ways of lowering the population? Seems to me that wars are the most probable answer.
      Antonio Zecca

    2. Antonio, wars never come even close to 1 in 3 death rate.
      "Over 60 million people were killed, which was about 3% of the 1940 world population (est. 2.3 billion). The tables below give a detailed country-by-country count of human losses. World War II fatality statistics vary, with estimates of total dead ranging from 50 million to more than 80 million." (Wikipedia)

    3. Yes, wars have been less and less lethal, percentage-wise, over the course of the modern era. I have been warned recently about biological agents which (in their Strangelovian fashion) have a certain elegance, and it is doubtless that there are people in the US government crazy enough to unleash such weapons of mass destruction, if they don't decide on global nuclear war as an alternative.

      No sort of population reduction will mitigate the dire problem of the to-be-abandoned nuclear power plants, though. Rather, that drama will be precipitated.

  20. How will the second generation of "renewables" be made without the fossil fuel supply system and the global industrial infrastructure? How about replacing parts for these devices - fans, mother boards (inverters)? Will we dedicate specific devices and process for this replacing? The control necessary to make this happen will be draconian.
    It is time to stop calling these devices renewable or green or sustainable. It is not only misleading, it creates a technofantasy about the future. A horse is renewable in its way; an oak tree but a solar energy collecting devices is not renewable or green or sustainable without additional energy and resource.

  21. It is comforting to prefer the noise of delusional magical thinking and pretending that the system of perpetual growth can work forever; that some variant of business as usual can persist. There is just too much tied up with it and any unraveling would be far too chaotic and unpredictable. Wrapping our heads around the eventualities of global warming; of overshoot; of the desecration of world wildlife; of the acidification of the oceans; of the poisoning of pollinators stymies.

    A world no longer powered by fossil fuels, no matter what incarnation, is almost inconceivable and for many terrifying. . It is indeed traumatic for what it might (probably) means not just for us but for our love ones, children, grandchildren. Our hearts break. We want to fix it. So we do more technology and more ultimate harm.

    We are slowly technogizing ourselves into extinction. Technology is seductive. Is it the power? Is it the comfort? Or is it some internal particularly human attribute that drives it? Technology surrounds us and becomes part of our story and myths. Technology tantalizes the human mind to make, combine, invent. There are always unintended consequences with technology. It effects how we experience the world in time and space. It affects how we feel the world. If all the externalities were included in the prices and cost to nature, we would be very, very wary of technology.

    I think we have moved from technology in the service of religion (pyramids and gothic cathedrals) to religion and culture in the service of technology. It isn't a deity that will save humanity but in the eyes of many - it will be technology.

    We will do more of the same, business as usual until there are no more holes in the ground to dig, no more water above and below to contaminate, no humans to wage slave, no other lifeforms to eliminate. Yes, we are building Trojan horses in our hearts, minds and spirits. It will be elitist and entitlement and hubris – it will end with both a bang and a whimper.

  22. We have a perfect storm coming. Energy to power a civilisation that has been constructed to function on a finite energy source is just one facet. Vaclav
    Smil in 'Enriching the Earth' estimates that without the 'fixed' nitrogen
    supplied by the Haber-Bosch process (which relies on methane as the feedstock
    and fossil fuels as the energy source),the maximum human population that can be supported on the land area now used for food production is around three billion. David Pimental's energy analysis in 'Food.Energy and Society' shows
    that when production,processing and transportation are included,around ten calories of energy (supplied by fossil fuels) are required for each calorie
    of food energy consumed by humans. In effect,industrial agriculture is a system for converting fossil fuels into food.
    Informed estimates of the rate of soil erosion on the land used for food production (cultivated and grazed) are around 25 billion tons per year.
    Informed estimates of the rate of soil formation on that same area are around
    2.6 billion tons per year. We are all dependent on that fragile,rapidly depleting resource for our survival. George Monbiot's last posting gives
    an estimate of one hundred harvests remaining for Britain's agricultural
    Then we have the behemoth of climate disruption.
    The Oceans are on track to being an unproductive,Jellyfish -dominated ecosystem.(see 'Stung' by Gershwin).All on a planet where resources are becoming increasingly scarce,pollution and chemical contamination of ecosystems becoming increasingly serious,biodiversity and natural ecosystem
    loss at horrendous levels,and the human population still INCREASING by 80
    million each year.
    All occurring in a civilisation built on a foundation of myths.

  23. I will try to post the link I included again. If it doesn't work,the article is worth reading and is titled 'Population,Resources and the Faith-Based Economy'
    written recently by Paul Ehrlich.

  24. Human society is very diverse and is also characterized by,different levels of economic and social "development" and knowledge and "civilization" in different places. Eventually either gradually or suddenly there will have to be adjustments or radical changes to the several complex interactive systems (energy, food and etc etc.) that make up its functioning including also the demographic system and its distribution. I don't think it is possible to predict in advance how these complex systems and the human actors who operate and comprise them will adjust or react in real time to the evolving situation and to what they know, or dont know, or think they know. But I think the society of 2116 will differ from the society of 2016 much more than the society of 2016 now differs from the one of 1916. But the above Is mostly obvious. What else to say with much certainty? Not much in my opinion. We singly and collectively will continue to make plans based on what we think we understand and hope that we are right and get the results we wished for. I also think it Is better to live one's life as an optimist than as a pessimist. Naturally terribile things can and do happen.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)