Crash on Demand? A Response to David Holmgren

10 01 2014

My recent post on David Holmgren’s long essay regarding his belief we are in for a prolonged “Brown Tech” phase before collapse occurs has been well read according to the stats WordPress give me as part of the service they offer bloggers….  Nicole Foss, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting in late 2012, has just written another great article as a response to David’s work…….  It is well worth the read.

I’m reblogging it here for your convenience, without all the introductory stuff that has already been well covered

Nicole Foss

Nicole Foss

here.  To read it in its entirety, go here.

Nicole’s website is ALWAYS worth a visit, full of fascinating links that will keep you away from doing work in the garden for hours…!


In his recent essay, Holmgren says that he had initially been expecting a more rapid contraction in available energy, and with it a substantial fall in greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, new forms of unconventional fossil fuels have been exploited, sustaining supply for the time being, but at the cost of raising emissions, since these fuels are far more carbon intensive to produce. Holmgren understands perfectly well that unconventional fossil fuels are no answer to peak oil, given the terribly low energy profit ratio, but the temporary boost to supply has postponed the rapid contraction he, and others, had initially predicted. In addition, demand has been falling in major consuming countries as a result of the impact of financial crisis on the real economy since 2008, further easing energy supply concerns. For this reason, the Green Tech and Brown Tech scenarios, based on modest energy decline, appear more plausible to him than the Earth Steward and Lifeboat scenarios predicated upon rapid energy supply collapse. However, Green Tech would have required a major renewable energy boom sufficient to revitalize rural economies, and he recognizes that there appears to be no time for that to occur. Nor is there the collective political will to take actions to power-down or reduce emissions.

He concludes that the Brown Tech scenario appears by far the most likely, and is, in fact, already emerging. Rather than geological, biological, energetic or climate limits striking first, he suggests, in line with our view at TAE, that perturbations in the highly complex global financial system are likely to shape the future in the shorter term. As such he has become far more interested in finance, recognizing that the world has been pushed further into overshoot by throwing money at the banks, while transferring risk to the public on a massive scale, which is setting us up for a major financial reset. In combination with the climate chaos Holmgren anticipates that governments will need to assume control, moving from a market to a command economy.

Finance, Energy and Complexity

There is much I agree with here, most notably the primacy of financial collapse as a driver of short term change. The situation we find ourselves in is at such an extreme in terms of comparing the enormous overhang of virtual wealth in the form of IOUs with the actual underlying collateral that the reset could be both rapid and devastating. This could produce a number of cascading impacts on supply chains in a short space of time, as Holmgren acknowledges in citing David Korowicz’s excellent essay on the subject – Trade Off. This is likely to make governments choose to take control, but also likely to make that very difficult, and therefore very unpleasant. In some places control may win out, leading to a Brown Tech type of outcome after the dust has settled, and in others a more chaotic state may dominate, leading to more of a Lifeboat scenario. The difference may not hinge on energy supply alone, although this may well be a significant factor in some places.

It is our view at TAE that for a time energy limits are not likely to manifest, as lack of money will be the limiting factor in a major financial crisis. At the present time, with modestly increasing energy supply, the delusion of far greater increases to come, and falling demand, energy is already ceasing to be a pressing concern. As liquidity dries up, and demand falls much further as a result of both lack of purchasing power and plummeting economic activity, this will be even more the case. The perception of glut lowers prices, and this will hit the energy industry very hard due to its rapidly increasing cost base, and therefore its dependency on high prices. As prices fall and the business case disappears, much of the expensive supply will dry up, including most, if not all, of the unconventional fossil fuels currently touted as the solution.

Prices are likely to fall faster than the cost of production, leaving profit margins fatally squeezed. While money remains the limiting factor, few may worry about the energy future, but the demand collapse will lead to a supply collapse in the future due to lack of investment for a long time, the concurrent decay of existing infrastructure no one can afford to maintain, transport disruption due to a lack of letters of credit, and the impact of intentional damage inflicted by angry people. Financial crisis takes the pressure off temporarily, but a the cost of aggravating the energy shortfall, and the impact of that shortfall, in the longer term.

Producing energy from “low energy profit ratio” energy sources requires a financial system capable of providing copious amounts of affordable capital, and is dependent on the availability of cheap conventional fossil fuels in order to supply the up-front energy necessary for what are highly energy intensive processes. In energy terms, low energy profit ratio energy sources are nothing more than an extension of the current high energy profit ratio conventional fossil fuel era, which is what sustains the current level of socioeconomic complexity. The financial system is one of its most complex manifestations, and therefore one of its most vulnerable.

Once the financial system has the accident that is clearly coming, we will be looking at a substantial fall in societal complexity, but that fall in complexity will eliminate the possibility of engaging in such highly complex activities as fracking, horizontal drilling, exploiting the deep offshore or producing solar photovoltaic panels and inverters. “Low energy profit ratio” energy sources cannot by themselves maintain a level of socioeconomic complexity necessary to produce them, hence they will never be a meaningful energy source.

This is true of both unconventional fossil fuels and renewable power generation. The development of low energy profit ratio energy sources rests largely on Ponzi dynamics, and Ponzi schemes tend to come to an abrupt end.

Once this becomes clear, the gradual fall in supply is likely to morph into a rapid one. As the ability to project power at a distance depends on energy supply, and that may be compromised, perhaps within a decade, maintaining any kind of large scale command economy may not be possible for that long. However, consolidating access to a falling energy supply at the political centre under a command scenario, at the expense of the population at large, may sustain that centre for somewhat longer.

Seen through an energy profit ratio and complexity lens, a Green Tech scenario appears increasingly implausible. Green Tech – the use of technology to capture renewable energy and convert it into a concentrated form capable of doing work – is critically dependent on the fossil fuel economy to build and maintain its infrastructure, and also to maintain the level of socioeconomic complexity necessary for it, and the machinery it is meant to run, to function. A renewable energy distant future is certainly likely, but not a technological one. One can have green or tech, but ultimately not both.

Scale, Hierarchy and ‘Functional Stupidity’:

A substantial point of agreement between Holmgren’s work and ours here at TAE is that the scale Brown Tech would operate on in a constrained future would be national rather than international. There are many who worry about One World Government under a fascist model. This may have been the trajectory we have been on taken to its logical conclusion, but if crisis is indeed proximate, then we are very unlikely to reach this point. We have likened layers of political control to trophic levels in an ecosystem, as all political structures concentrate wealth at the centre at the expense of the periphery which they ‘feed upon’:

The number of levels of predation a natural system can support depends essentially on the amount of energy available at the level of primary production and the amount of energy required to harvest it. More richly endowed areas will be able to support -more- complex food webs with many levels of predation. The ocean has been able to support more levels of predation than the land, as it requires less energy to cover large distances, and primary production has been plentiful. A predator such as the tuna fish is the equivalent, in food chain terms, of a hypothetical land predator that would have eaten primarily lions. On land, ecosystems cannot support that high a level predator, as much more energy is required to harvest less plentiful energy sources.

If one thinks of political structures in similar terms, one can see that the available energy, in many forms, is a key driver of how complex and wide-ranging spheres of political control can become. Ancient imperiums achieved a great deal with energy in the forms of wood, grain and slaves from their respective peripheries. Today, we have achieved a much more all-encompassing degree of global integration thanks to the energy subsidy inherent in fossil fuels. Without this supply of energy (in fact without being able to constantly increase this supply to match population growth), the structures we have built cannot be maintained.

The international level of governance is comparable to a top level predator. When the energy supply at the base of the pyramid is reduced, and the energy required to obtain it increases, as will inevitably be the case in this era of sharply falling energy profit ratios, the system will lose the ability to support as many layers of ‘predation’. We are very likely to lose at least the top level, if not more levels on the way down as energy descent continues. A national level of Brown Tech may last for a while, but as energy descent continues, so will the diminution of the scale and complexity at which society can operate.

Living on an energy income, supplemented with limited storage in the form of grain or firewood or water stored high in the landscape, and also limited ability to physically leverage effort with slavery or the use of draft animals, does not provide the same range of possibilities as living on our energy inheritance has done. Without fossil fuels, the technology of the ancient world (Rome for instance) is probably the most that an imperial degree of energy concentration can provide. Greater concentration is possible when a wide geographical area comes under a single political hegemony and feeds a single political centre at a high level of political organization. Lower levels of political organization (ie during the inter-regnem in between successive imperiums) would provide for less resource concentration and therefore would sustain a lower level of socioeconomic complexity and ‘technology’.

Energy is not the only factor determining effective organizational scale, however. The functionality of the financial system is a major determinant of the integrity of supply chains, and hence social stability. Societal trust is vital, and can be extremely ephemeral. The more disruptive a future of limits to growth, across a range of parameters, the further downward through Holmgren’s nested scenarios we are likely to go.

In building scenarios, I would add rapid versus gradual financial crisis as a separate parameter. Personally, I believe a rapid financial crash combined with an initially slow, but then increasingly rapid fall in energy supply is the most likely scenario. Financial crisis can cause many of the effects Holmgren discusses in his scenario work in relation to energy and climate impacts.