Richard Heinberg on Collapse

30 09 2012

The seemingly endless expansion of economic growth, the engine driving global capitalism, has died. The futile and short sighted effort to resume this expansion – an idiocy embraced by nearly all economists – means that we respond to mirages rather than reality. We waste energy into bringing back what is gone, forever. This odd twilight zone moment, in which so called experts and “systems managers” squander ever diminishing resources in an attempt to resurrect this previously expanding economic system that is now mummified, will inevitably lead to collapse. The grinding depletion of the Earth’s resources, particularly fossil fuels, along with the spectacularly accelerating pace of climate change, will, with crippling levels of debt, thrust us all into a global depression that will make any in the history of capitalism look like a picnic in the park….. And very few of us are prepared.


“Our solution is our problem,” Richard Heinberg, the author of “The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality,” recently said when he visited the Sunshine Coast. “Its name is growth. But growth is no longer economic. We are worse off because of growth. To revive growth now means more mounting debt, more pollution, more loss of biodiversity and the continued destabilisation of the climate. But we are addicted to growth. If there is no growth there are insufficient tax revenues and jobs. If there is no growth existing debt levels become unrepayable. The elites see the current economic crisis as a temporary dilemma. They are desperately trying to fix it, but this crisis signals an irreversible change for civilisation itself. We cannot avoid it. We can only decide whether we will adapt to it or not.”

Richard Heinberg, is a senior fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.  He argues that we cannot even begin to understand the true state of the global economy by the metrics we normally take for granted…. GDP, unemployment, housing, durable goods, national deficits, personal income and consumer spending.  All these measures point to severe and chronic problems anyhow, no matter how you look at them…. Rather, he says, we have to  examine the fundamental flaws that, like ticking time bombs, are enshrined within the accepted economic structure….. “U.S. household debt enabled the expansion of consumer spending during the boom years”, he says, “but consumer debt cannot continue to grow as house prices decline to realistic levels. Toxic assets litter the portfolios of the major banks, presage another global financial meltdown. The Earth’s natural resources are being exhausted. And climate change, with its extreme weather conditions, is beginning to exact a heavy economic toll on countries, including the United States and Australia, through the destruction brought about by droughts, floods, wildfires and loss of crop yields”.  It’s only a matter of time before Australia begins to feel the pinch…..

“The US government at this point exacerbates nearly every crisis the nation faces,” he said. “Policy decisions do not emerge from deliberations between the public and elected leaders. They arise from unaccountable government agencies and private interest groups. The Republican Party has taken leave of reality. It exists in hermetically sealed “ideaspheres” where climate change is a hoax and economic problems can be solved by cutting spending and taxes. The Democrats, meanwhile, offer no realistic strategy for coping with the economic unravelling or climate change.”  Sounds familiar?  Here I suggest you can interchange Democrats/Republicans with ALP/Liberals…..!

The collision course is set.

“It could implode in a few weeks, in a few months or maybe in a few years,” Richard said, “but unless radical steps are taken to restructure the economy, it will implode. And when it does the financial system will seize up far more dramatically than it did in 2008. You will go to the bank or the ATM and there will be no money. Food will be scarce and expensive. Unemployment will be rampant. And government services will break down. Living standards will plummet. ‘Austerity’ programs will become more draconian. Economic inequality will widen to create massive gaps between a tiny, oligarchic global elite and the masses. The collapse will also inevitably trigger the kind of instability and unrest, including riots, that we have seen in countries such as Greece and Spain…. The elites, who understand and deeply fear the possibility of this unravelling, have been pillaging state resources to save their corrupt, insolvent banks, militarise their police forces and rewrite legal codes to criminalise dissent.”

If nations were able to respond rationally to the crisis they could forestall social collapse.  They would need to reconfigure their economies away from ceaseless growth and debt. It remains possible, at least in theory, to provide most people with the basics – food, water, housing, medical care, employment, and education. This, however, as Richard points out, would require the abandonment of nearly everything we take for granted. It would necessitate a massive cancellation of debt, along with the slashing of defence budgets.  Comprehensive regulation and restraints would have to be placed on the financial sector; and high taxes imposed on oligarchic elites and corporations in order to rid ourselves of unsustainable levels of inequality. Richard said that while such economic restructuring would not mitigate climate change and the depletion of our natural resources it would create the social stability we need to deal with the new post-growth system. But, he says, it’s doubtful such a rational policy is forthcoming. He fears that as chaos accelerates there will be an increasing push from the power elite to “cannibalise society’s resources in order to prop up megabanks and the military”

Survival will be determined locally. Communities will have to create Transition Towns to grow their own food, provide education, and self-governance, efforts that Richard said he suspects will “be discouraged at every turn, at least initially.” This process of decentralisation will”, he said, “become the economic and social trend of the 21st century.” It will be a repudiation of classic economic models such as free enterprise versus the planned economy. The restructuring will arise not through ideologies, but through the necessities of survival forced upon us all as we run out of oil and supermarket food. This will inevitably create strife as decentralisation weakens the power of the elites and the corporate state.


Archeologist Joseph Tainter, in his book “The Collapse of Complex Societies” provides a useful blueprint for how societies unravel. All of history’s major 24 civilizations have collapsed, and the patterns are strikingly similar, Tainter writes. The big difference this time though is that we will unravel at a global level. Tainter notes in his book that as societies become more complex they inevitably invest greater and greater amounts of ever diminishing resources in increasing complexity. This has always proved to be fatal.

“More complex societies are costlier to maintain than simpler ones and require higher support levels per capita,” Tainter writes. The investments needed to maintain overly complex systems become too expensive, and they yield smaller and smaller returns. “The elites”, desperately trying to maintain their own levels of consumption and preserving the system through which they have gained their power, start using repression and austerity measures to squeeze the masses harder and harder until it all collapses around them…… This collapse universally leaves behind decentralised and autonomous pockets of human communities.

Richard believes this is our fate. The quality of our lives will utterly depend on the quality of our communities. If community structures remain strong, we will be able to endure. If they are weak we will succumb to the bleakness. It is important that such structures be set in place before the onset of the crisis, he believes. This means getting to “know your neighbours.” It means setting up seed banks and farmers’ markets. It means establishing local currencies, creating clothing exchanges, establishing cooperative housing, growing gardens, raising chickens and buying local. It is the matrix of neighbours, family and friends, Richard says, that will provide “our refuge and our opportunity to build anew.”

“The inevitable decline in resources to support societal complexity will generate forces that will break up existing economic and governmental power structures. Localism will soon be our fate. It will also be our strategy for survival. Learning practical skills, becoming more self-sufficient, forming bonds of trust with our neighbours will determine the quality of our lives and the lives of our children.”

To see long excerpts from Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth” and Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” click here and here.

Deny this…..

26 09 2012

A new video produced by independent videographer Peter Sinclair for The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media explains what expert scientists now find to be the lowest extent of Arctic sea ice in recorded history.

Is it fair to call climate denial a form of treason?

25 09 2012


Just the other day, the US Congress passed the Waxman-Markey climate-change bill. In political terms, it was something I never thought would happen in my lifetime…..

But it was hardly unanimous, 212 representatives voted no. Most of those who rejected the bill did so because they reject the whole idea that we, as in humanity, have to do something about greenhouse emissions.

All this denialism is, in my opinion, nothing short of a form of treason — treason against the planet.  Even treason against civilisation.

To appreciate the irresponsibility or immorality of climate-change denial, you need to realise what a grim turn has taken place in the latest climate research.


Fact is, the Earth is changing faster than even pessimists like me expected: ice caps are shrinking at an accelerating pace, and arid zones are spreading at a terrifying rate – who would ever have thought the Amazon could turn into a desert?  According to several recent studies, catastrophe — a rise in temperature so huge as to verge on the unthinkable — can no longer be considered just a possibility. Instead, such a catastrophe would be the most likely outcome if we do nothing to alter our present course.

Researchers at M.I.T., who were previously predicting a temperature rise of a little more than 2 degrees C by the end of this century, are now predicting a rise of nearly 5 degrees C. Why? Globally, greenhouse gas emissions are rising much faster than expected; mitigating factors, like absorption of CO2 by the oceans, are turning out to be far weaker than hoped; there’s also growing evidence that climate change is self-reinforcing — that rising temperatures will cause arctic tundra to thaw, releasing even more CO2 into our atmosphere……

Temperature increases such as predicted by M.I.T. researchers (and others) would disrupt our lives and, horror of horror, our economy. By the end of this century Tasmania may well have the climate of Northern NSW!  Across the country extreme (and deadly) heat waves — the kind that historically occur only once in a generation — could become annual or worse. How can anyone justify failing to act?

Dissenting opinion-makers and politicians, one would hope, base their dissent on hard work and hard thinking — and if they had studied the issue properly, consulted with appropriate experts and then concluded that the overwhelming scientific opinion was misguided — they could at least claim to be acting responsibly.  But these people show no sign of being interested in the truth. They don’t like the political and policy implications of AGW, so they’ve decided to not believe in it — and they’ll use any argument, no matter how disreputable the source, to feed their denial.

In the US, Representative Paul Broun of Georgia apparently said while arguing against passing the Waxman-Markey climate-change bill that climate change is nothing but a “hoax”.  “Perpetrated out of the scientific community.” A crazy conspiracy theory, and by now you all know what I think of such conspiracies….  To believe that global warming is a hoax, you have to justify an enormous cabal consisting of thousands of scientists — one so powerful, it has managed to create false records on everything from global temperatures to Arctic sea ice shrinkage….

Yet Mr. Broun’s declaration was met with applause, I read in the New York Times….  and we have plenty of such deniers in our midst, not least Queensland’s new Moron in Chief, Campbell Newman….

Is it fair to call climate denial a form of treason?  Yes, it is — and that’s why it’s unforgivable.

Yet politicians like Newman are choosing, wilfully, to ignore that threat, placing future generations in grave danger, simply because it’s in their political interest to pretend that there’s nothing to worry about. If that’s not betrayal, I don’t know what is.

Come the day Climate Change becomes so obviously a catastrophe for everyone, will those responsible for disallowing change at every turn be tried for treason, in Nuremberg style trials?  There may well be a lot of angry people baying for blood when the environment we rely on for survival all goes pear shaped.

The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER…

23 09 2012

WARNING:  Strong language……

Mystery of the disappearing bees might be solved

22 09 2012

Were it a Sci Fi novel, this plot would be slammed for being too far-fetched – thriving colonies vanish overnight without leaving a trace, the remains of the victims never to be found.  Except in this case, it’s not fiction; it’s happening to fully one third of beehives, more than a million colonies each and every year. Seemingly healthy communities fly off never to return. The queen bee, the ‘mother’ of the hive is abandoned to starve and die…..

Thousands of scientists have been on this case for at least 15 years, trying to establish why honey bees are disappearing everywhere in such alarming numbers.  “This is the biggest general threat to our food supply,” says Kevin Hackett, the national Program Leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s bee and pollination program.

Until quite recently, the evidence was inconclusive on the reasons for the mysterious “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) that threatens the very future of beekeeping worldwide. Three new studies, however, point an accusing finger at a culprit that many have suspected for quite a while, pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

Australian Commercial Beekeepers I’ve spoken to can remember cleaning moths from truck windscreens when moving bees and chasing honey flows. On some warm nights the moths would get so bad, that they would have to pull over and clean the screen to see out of it……  but where are the moths now…?

Research published last month in the prestigious journal Science shows that neonics are absorbed by plants’ vascular system, which then contaminate the pollen and nectar that bees come into contact with on their rounds. Neonics are a nerve poison which disorient their insect victims and apparently damage the bees’ homing ability, which might account for their mysterious failure to make it home to the hive….

Another study published in the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science and Technology journal implicated neonic-containing dust emanating into the air at sowing time with “lethal effects compatible with colony losses phenomena observed by beekeepers.”

Purdue University entomologists observed bees at infected hives “exhibiting tremors, uncoordinated movement and convulsions”, all signs of severe insecticide poisoning….  And yet another study conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health actually managed to re-create CCD in several honeybee hives simply by administering small doses of the popular neonic imidacloprid.

Almond Monoculture

But scientists also believe that exposure to pesticides is but one factor that has led to the decline of honey bees….  The destruction and fragmentation of bee habitats, as a result of development and the spread of monoculture agriculture (you should see the thousands of acres of almonds that bee keepers get paid to pollinate in California..), deprives pollinators of the diversity they requirein their natural food supply.  The planting of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops – many of which now contain toxic insecticides within their genetic structure – may also be responsible for poisoning bees and weakening their immune systems.

Each spring, millions of bee hives are trucked to the Central Valley of California and other agricultural areas to replace the wild pollinators, which have mostly disappeared in many parts of the US. These bees are fed high-fructose corn syrup instead of their own nutritious honey.  Plus, in an effort to boost productivity, queens are artificially inseminated, which has led to the disturbing decline in bee genetic diversity.  Bees are also dusted with poisons to control mites and other parasites that are flourishing in the overcrowded industrial colonies.

In 1923, Rudolph Steiner, the famous German founder of biodynamic agriculture, predicted that within a hundred years artificial industrial techniques used to breed honey bees would lead to the species’ collapse. His prophecy was right on target!  How many more prophecies “right on target” do we need before we come to our senses…?

Bees have been likened to ‘the canaries in the coal mine’. Their disappearance is nature’s way of telling us that conditions in the world around us are going pear shaped….  Bees won’t survive for long if we don’t change industrial breeding practices and remove poisons from their environment.  A massive pollinator die-off would destroy world food supplies, devastating ecosystems that depend on them in the process…. The loss of bees rivals climate change in its impact on life on earth.

This is a disaster that need not happen.  Germany and France have already banned pesticides that have been implicated in CCD.  We still have time to save the bees by working with nature rather than against it (not Permaculture principles again..!), according to environmentalist and author Bill McKibben:

“Past a certain point, we can’t make nature conform to our industrial model. The collapse of beehives is a warning – and the cleverness of a few beekeepers in figuring out how to work with bees not as masters but as partners offers a clear-eyed kind of hope for many of our ecological dilemmas.”


Bee-harming pesticides banned in Europe. EU member states vote ushers in continent-wide suspension of neonicotinoid pesticides

Playing with Fire

10 09 2012

I haven’t mentioned it here before, but my other half took up Ceramics a few years ago, doing a Certificate IV at the local TAFE in Noosa.  She’s so good at it, Glenda never ceases to amaze me…..

In 2010, she won the Student Travelling Scholarship to improve her skills; the basis of her submission, apart from the extraordinary pots she made for the competition, was sustainability.  The craft/art of pottery I now realise takes humungous amounts of energy to fire the work.  Because Glenda usually uses the TAFE college’s kilns to fire her work, we are not aware of the cost of a firing, it’s included in her fees.  But the other day we used someone else’s kiln in a desperate effort to finish the work she was preparing for her current (and small) exhibition in Gympie.  Ian said it would cost $15 in electricity.  Which to me proves how cheap electricity still is.  Doing the sums, that’s around 70 kWh of electrical energy, what we use here in ONE MONTH!  Now you know why she’s looking at avenues for doing this less unsustainably….

When Glenda prepared her submission for the scholarship, she started looking for other practitioners of “sustainable pottery”…… and only found one.  His name is Steve Harrison.  Occasionally, one is lucky to meet someone truly extraordinary.  Steve is one such person.  Unlike me, he is a perfectionist, and everything he turns his hand to is exquisite….. from the extension he built onto the old school where he and his wife Janine live, to the work he creates, often from scratch as he makes his own glazes, and even porcelain.  He only uses local materials, and is dead keen on wood firing, as he believes, like me, that fossil fuels are over used and climate tipping points are probably with us already.

Steve had 3 kW of PV installed years before it became a fad, and the whole studio is made of mud bricks.  They too also cook on a wood stove!  Read all about it here, just click on the sustainability tab of his website.  In fact, click everything …..  you will find it all fascinating.  Glenda was so excited to find these two, I remember her telling me “they drive slowly like you do to save petrol!”

To cut to the chase, Glenda and I spent three days with Steve and his wife, soaking up all the stuff we had to learn, not least me who knew almost nothing about ceramics.  Steve makes his money not from Pottery so much as building kilns….. his favourite is the Bourry Box (invented by a Frenchman) which is a large brick structure capable of firing large pieces, or lots of small ones.  We are certainly not at this stage yet, though I’m really keen to build one one day, especially if we do make it to Tassie where firewood is abundant.  It was also the visit to Tassie following on from Steve’s studio that convinced me we had to move.  Glenda went to a wood firing convention in Deloraine, the whole island is teeming with like minded people!

Steve introduced me to the pedal bin kiln….  I could not believe that it was possible to do this stuff in a rubbish bin…!  The $300 kiln.  Now that’s right up my alley…!

I found a never used stainless steel Freedom Furniture 50L pedal bin on eBay someone didn’t want for half its brand new price, gutted it, and installed special ceramic fibre insulation inside it with ceramic “buttons” Glenda made at TAFE and special nickel wire that won’t melt at well over 1000 degrees.  I bought a 1200mm long piece of 100mm stainless steel flue from the local BBQ Galore store, cut and drilled all the appropriate holes, and presto (well it took me a year actually… no one procrastinates as well as me!) we had a kiln.  The dearest part was the pyrometer which has to be connected to a multimeter to gauge temperature.  More about this later…..

Conventional firings take hours and hours, which is why kilns use so much energy (kiloWatts x hours = kiloWatthours – kWh)  but what we did here is a Japanese technique called RAKU, which involves quickly heating the pottery to about 1100°C, and then rapidly smothering the artwork in sawdust.  Here’s a quick demo…

My kiln’s a lot smaller than that one, one has to start somewhere…

This is shortly after starting the fire.  The flue is just starting to discolour (the bin did not at all, so effective is the insulation).  The pyrometer is the bit sticking out the side, which you can see is connected to my multimeter

In this close up, the fire is building up.  You can clearly see the insulation at the right hand side of the aperture where I insert the wood.  The two bolts support a fire brick which Glenda’s work is sitting on.  Also visible are two of the “staples” I made of that special nickel wire to hold the insulation against the bin wall.

The pyrometer is a thermocouple; that is, two wires of dissimilar metals welded at the end exposed to the heat, which generates an electric current, measured in milliVolts.  Attach a multimeter to it, and you can convert the voltage to degrees C.  Theoretically!  I downloaded a conversion table, but it soon became clear that the table in my laptop had no similarity whatsoever with the readings my meter was giving me…!  At 1000°C, the voltage was supposed to be 4.8mV, but my meter was soon reading well over 10, and by the time the glazing melted (by visually looking inside the kiln!) it read 36mV……  so it’s back to the drawing board with that one, I need another chart…

The amazing thing is how it only took about one kilo of wood to get the kiln to over 1000°C……  that’s under 3 kilo of CO2 emissions.

Regardless of flying blind with the temperature, Glenda was ecstatic with the results which we reduced in an old stainless sink with spectacular flames as the sawdust caught alight.

It’s all hanging in the gallery in Gympie now, we’re both exhausted, but Glenda’s thrilled to bits, what more could you ask?

Charting Australia’s Peak Oil decline

8 09 2012

This is a guest post by my friend Dave Kimble of who is much better than me with spreadsheets!

The original article was sourced from

The Australian Government makes following the progress of Australia’s Peak Oil decline very difficult.

Prior to 2006, oil production data was published in ABARE’s “Australian Mineral Statistics”, which came out quarterly, and accumulated the quarters onto financial year annual boundaries, (July-June) , which differs from the normal international convention of calendar years. Moreover the figures were published in PDF format, with a numerical format having a space instead of a comma to denote thousands, making it very difficult to convert to Excel format in order to chart the figures.

Then in 2006 they revised the method of collecting data, and back-dated the revised data set, meaning there was a “wrong” set and a “right” set of data.

Then in 2010, ABARE was relieved of the responsibility of publishing the data, which was taken on by the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism (RET) (Tourism ? Yes, that’s right). They now publish “Australian Petroleum Statistics”, which is monthly and in Excel spreadsheet format.

You can find it by going to where you will see the current year’s monthly reports.

EDIT by Mike:  that URL no longer works, just checked.  I got data there myself some months ago, then recently found the page taken down.  They really don’t want us to know what’s going on…….

Previous years’ data can be accessed from the left-hand panel. (Don’t bother with trying to find it with the SEARCH facility, because it is not indexed in there.) Within the report itself, look for Table 1A, and focus on columns A and B.

These figures only go back to 2003, so there is no consistent data set covering the history of the oil industry in Australia. You can get annual figures going back to 1965 from BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, but their definition of “oil” has changed to include Crude Oil plus Condensate plus NGPLs (including LPG) plus ethanol plus biodiesel, so that figure is much higher (64% or so in 2011) due to Australia’s booming gas fields.

So to see the progress of Australia’s Peak Oil decline in a chart, you have to download 9 spreadsheets and extract the monthly data on Crude Oil, and paste it into a new “history” spreadsheet to chart it. You can then accumulate the monthly data to calendar years.

And to extend the data set back to before 2003 to see the peak in 2000, you must also download the relevant PDFs from ABARE, go through the laborious convertion process on the quarterly data, and accumulate them to calendar years.

One wonders whether there is a better data set that the Government uses, or whether they just want to avoid thinking about Peak Oil altogether by simply not having the data in a useful form.

But fear not, I have done all the hard work for you.
Here is the monthly oil production using RET data in the form of a chart:

The monthly numbers are very jittery, which leads me to think that data reporting/collection is not very good.

By accumulating over a longer period, this irons out the effects of “late returns”, maintenance and weather effects.
And here is the data complied from both ABARE and RET accumulated to calendar years:
(The figure for December 2011 hasn’t been published yet, so that is estimated by averaging)

As you can see, in 2011 we only produced 36% of what we produced in 2000, and the fall off rate for 2008-11 has been particularly rapid, averaging 12% per year, and accelerating.
The reduction from 2010 to 2011 has been a staggering 24.1%.

In the face of this decline, to suggest that “a higher oil price will bring more oil to market” is complete nonsense.

Self-sufficiency ?

The international oil refining industry is ultra-competitive and causes some odd things to happen. Instead of our refineries using our oil as feedstock, we export a lot of our oil because it is “light sweet crude” and attracts high prices, and we import “heavy sour crude” which is cheaper, and mix it with our Condensate (from gas wells) to produce some of our petrol and diesel and other fuels. We also import a lot of refined petrol and diesel, and export some to Pacific island nations (our little empire).

In the 12 months to November 2011, we exported 18,136 MegaLitres of crude+condensate, and imported 31,055 MegaLitres of crude.
We also imported 3,085 ML of automotive gasoline, and 10,143 ML of diesel, plus other varieties as well.
Our chief crude oil suppliers are : United Arab Emirates, Congo, Nigeria and Malaysia. We even get some from Russia.
Most of our imported petrol comes from Singapore, and most of our imported diesel comes from Singapore, South Korea and Japan.

Given this dependency on world petroleum trade, any disruption to that trade would see us floundering, along with the rest of the world. It is a puzzle, therefore, why we are itching for a fight with Syria and Iran, that would probably set the Middle East alight. My guess is that it is all a bluff, if not, they (western governments) must be so desperate that they are prepared to risk everything rather than give up their power and privileges.

Dave Kimble