Julian Cribb replies

30 10 2014

Dr Julian Cribb

If you haven’t read it yet or viewed the video, I recently posted an item about Dr Julian Cribb’s recent (October 2013) presentation to the Wheatbelt NRM Annual General Meeting.  It’s difficult when running a blog such as this to give someone you don’t know the right of reply, but this time Julian has taken the time to leave a reply, and as a mark of respect to him and in fairness to all opinions, I’ve decided to post it here as a proper article rather than see it lost in the thousands of comments which pepper this site.  I’m glad Julian has done this, and I fully understand his point about the difficulty of solving the world’s problem in a 30 minute talk; I haven’t managed it myself yet either!

Anyhow, some of you frequent readers might like to enter into a conversation with Julian, if he so desires here…. I personally cannot see how Julian’s assertion that ” it is going to take another 100 years or so to get the population (smoothly) back to 4-5 billion” can ever happen…  this particular subject is one I’m passionate about, so let’s hear it from you…

I also thought I had given Julian some credit for thinking about the issues we face when I wrote “I have come across more and more ‘experts’ who appear to be very well informed on the state of the multifaceted predicaments we face”.  Maybe a bit ambiguous, but…….

Over to Julian.


I think you are unfair Mike. It’s not possible to solve all the world’s problems in a 30 min talk, especially one that is specifically directed at a farming audience. But give me some credit for thinking about them, at least. As to population, read my book: the women of the world are already solving it – reducing their fertility in all regions globally. However it is going to take another 100 years or so to get the population (smoothly) back to 4-5 billion. The simple reason – that never seems to occur to rich western people who scream about population – is that part of the upward pressure is due to them living longer lives, not just to birth rates. If you want to control it, you are not only going to have to enforce family planning at gunpoint – but also impose euthanasia on the over-50s. See how much popular support you get for that.

Of course I know about the energy cliff and have heard Ian Dunlop speak wisely on the issue, as regards oil especially. But there are innumerable forms of energy available. You may have noticed my observation that the entire world’s transport fuel could be produced from an area of algae farms about a tenth the size of the Pilbara. That’s just one option. So I don’t buy the ” ‘We’ll all be rooned’ said Hanrahan” philosophy. There are viable options, especially for those who don’t simply give up.

If you want to know what I really think, here it is: humanity has the brains and the technical skills to carry us through the population and demand ‘hump’ and into a measured decline to a sustainable number. But we don’t have the governments, the economic structures or the educated society needed to achieve it.

Worst case is the Schnellnhuber scenario, or about 9-10 billion dead and a billion survivors, mainly in north Russia and Canada, by the end of the present century as a result of climate, resource and religious wars, famines, migratory conflict and disease. That’s also pretty much the CSIS worst case scenario too. Both presuppose limited use of nuclear weapons.

Personally I think there will be a few big wake-up calls well before we get to that. Like Bob Rich I think we’ll see a couple of megacities fall over, right on our iPhones. Mass killing, cannibalism, suicide, explosive emigration. If that doesn’t wake people up, then Homo don’t deserve the ‘sapiens’.

So rather than just grumble from your armchair, Hanrahan, lets start hearing some practical solutions.




16 responses

30 10 2014
Chris Harries

Very glad to read Julians commentary.

I think the algae prognosis is a bit optimistic, but at least someone is talking about non electrical energy demand. I think we’ll find the same story in relation to low ERoEI as for solar etc. Algae farms one tenth the size of the Pilbara sounds exactly like ‘there’s enough solar energy in a postage stamp size of the Sahara to power up the whole world’. But I’d love to hear demonstrated proof.

In support of Julian, there’s presently a popular, half baked focus on population issue at present. This mostly doesn’t come from a valid science / mathematics perspective but because the issue has become a convenient target for many Western people’s uneasiness about the enforced end of conspicuous consumption. “It’s all those humans that are destroying my comfortable life,” is what’s going on in their heads.

30 10 2014

> “But there are innumerable forms of energy available. You may have noticed my observation that the entire world’s transport fuel could be produced from an area of algae farms about a tenth the size of the Pilbara.”

That’s where we differ. We have studied all these forms of energy and dismiss them all as totally impractical, unscaleable, of disappointing ERoEI, or requiring massive amounts of fossil fuels to build the infrastructure.

What’s worse is that the politicians haven’t even begun to look at the problem from an ERoEI perspective. Christine Milne of the Greens has had this explained to her in detail, but either didn’t understand, or, more likely, refused to accept that she would have to dismiss solar PV as a solution after making it a centrepiece of Greens policy.

That’s why we’re doomed.

(Happy to go through it all again, Julian, if you can approach it with an open mind.)

30 10 2014

tell him from me mike, he or no one will or is ever going to solve any problem let alone problems whilst ever they come from the wrong angle, 1st they should make sure common sense is in play and it makes sense

30 10 2014

I think your guesstimation of Algael fuel is highly optimistic…

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have found that nearly 14 percent of land in the continental United States, or roughly the combined area of Texas and New Mexico, could be used for converting algae to transportation fuels.

In 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that for algae fuel to replace all the petroleum fuel in the U.S., it would require about 30,000 square kilometers of land, or about half the land area of South Carolina. Therefore, this finding illustrates the potential of algae-based fuels, and for that matter, the potential any alternative energy source that requires vast amounts of land.


Tom Murphy has this to say on the subject….:

“If we start with 6% efficient algae, and imagine that we could convert 50% of the stored energy into a useful form (including the energy cost of processing), then a desert location receiving an annual average insolation of 250 W/m² would produce the equivalent of 7.5 W/m² of useful energy. We would require a square about 425 km on a side, which is about the same land area as North Dakota.

The numbers for algae are certainly more favorable than for traditional (proven) biofuel sources. But keep in mind that we don’t see a clear path yet to squeeze useful juice from algae at appropriate scales/efficiencies. Much of the talk is around genetic engineering to make the algae excrete something useful in quantity. I need not repeat my case for non-complacency regarding this prospect. Also, anyone who has failed at aquarium maintenance (everyone who has tried?) knows how pernicious algae can be at clogging the plumbing and sticking to tube walls, etc. So they should also be working on genetically engineered teflon-coated algae. By that time I’ll also be able to enjoy that three-headed goat!”


31 10 2014

“But we don’t have the governments, the economic structures or the educated society needed to achieve it.”

If we don’t have it then who does? Martians? We are the governments. We are the educators and designers of all our systems. What exactly is this man saying? If only we were not us then we could do it?

31 10 2014

Well, we don’t expect the chimpanzees to be able to do it – they are just not mentally equipped to appreciate the problem. So why do you expect the humans to be able to do it?

Suzuki says in Wisdom of the Elders that the early humans understood and cared for the earth, but some of them must have had that “plunder the earth” mentality, and swept all the elders away. Now, we couldn’t go back to a hunter/gatherer lifestyle in balance with the earth unless there is a massive die-off.

31 10 2014
Julian Cribb (@JulianCribb)

There are many ways to grow algae, and not all involve land. Some involve the sea or else v intensive systems (eg AlgaeTech – in shipping containers which require a fraction of the area). There are 76,000 species of algae to choose from, some of which yield up to 70% pure oil (absolutely no need for GM at this stage – simply select the best strains). If you’ve failed at aquarium maintenance, then you’ll also know how incredibly resilient and hard to kill these micro plants can be – that’s important under climate change (when our grain crops are going to take a hammering). The issue, as you correctly state, is energy in for energy out. In this case the energy in is used to (a) separate the algae from the water and (b) the oil from the dry matter. In both cases organisations such as CSIRO think it is feasible to generate a sufficient energy surplus. We’ll never know till we try – so why give up on the basis of a theory only? After all, there is no obvious theoretical way for humans to fly – yet we managed to. It’s not the argument, its the defeatism I deplore.

31 10 2014
Chris Harries

Agree with Julian that nothing should be off the table. We may yet be surprised by some technologies.

Also agree that there’s a necessary philosophical debate about civilisations’s limits. If the Club of Rome was correct then we have to talk about ‘defeatism’, because it predicted an inevitable collapse of industrial society as we know it. (Trying to stop it is as futile as trying to stop ripe apples from falling off an apple tree.)

Let’s not use the world collapse though, because it’s tainted in everybody’s minds with an Armageddon image. ‘The End’.

Now…. if the Club of Rome was incorrect, then we optimistically go ahead and do everything possible to sustain the society that we have, and don’t mention the ‘collapse’ scenario.

As far as I can see, most deep green thinkers straddle both of these courses in their own minds, accepting that there will be a post-collapse society that will have needs. Most outwardly also put an optimistic foot forward because that is deemed to be more empowering than is facing up to hard reality.

There are a few of us who believe that overstating optimistic futures lulls society into a false sense of security, as if the human condition is not all that serious and can be fixed up with a bit of tinkering. I’m partly in this league because, as an environmental educator, I see it every day.

I think this philosophical fault line ought to be sensibly debated on blogs like this without seeing the need to jump down anybody’s throats.

31 10 2014
1 11 2014

I know this is only a pilot plant, but……

“Muradel CEO and University of Adelaide Associate Professor David Lewis said if the demonstration plant was successfully scaled to a commercial plant, it would produce 500,000 barrels of refinable green crude a year by 2019 – providing enough petrol and diesel to fuel 30,000 vehicles for a year.”

Australia consumes nearly double that, A DAY…. so we need a scheme 700 times that big before it can restore business as usual, and I guess it would cost 7 billion dollars.

There is one other problem. By 2019, will there still be any economy, or any oil for that matter, to put such a project together? You may think I’m ‘defeatist’ Julian, but in fact I am a realist….

Don’t forget that growing this scheme beyond 2019 will be very difficult….. this is what Limits to Growth is all about.

Then there is one other thing……. let’s say you are right and the world somehow manages to replace failing crude oil with sustainable ‘green crude’ (I love it!!), WHAT will it be used for?

Will it be used to power forest cutting chainsaws? Will it be used to fuel fighter jets and aircraft carriers? Or fishing trawlers?

It was the misallocation of (at the time) seemingly limitless fuel that put us into the mess we are in now…. and I realise that much of what we did with this ever growing amount of cheap energy dense crude was good for humanity – even if almost none of it was sustainable – but unless we have a paradigm shift in the way we use energy, then I’d actually rather prefer you were wrong……

1 11 2014
Dr Bob Rich

I agree with you, Mike, on the time scale. My estimate for global collapse of one of several possible kinds (most probable, climate change) was about 1017 when I looked at the situation in January, 2012. I see no reason to extend that, since it has been business as usual since.

So, Julian, I think you may have mis-remembered my forecast. It is that, with luck, some highland people will survive.

This is not “defeatism,” but forecasting current trends, including those the IPCC is not yet in a position to incorporate. Like probably all those on this blog, I am working hard for a miracle.

One thing none of the above comments have considered is, what happens if we solve all the current technical problems including CO2, resource depletion, water overuse, etc. etc.? Unless we also change from the insanity of the current global culture, then we have simply made new limits, to be exceeded a little later. We would buy time, but not security. You cannot have infinite expansion in a finite world. For this reason, one of the worst things that could happen is a free or very cheap source of energy, such as cold fusion, or extremely efficient algae giving us petroleum from a briefcase.

We would simply exceed other limits, with more rapidity.

What is needed is to change the problem, which is a culture that inevitably needs growth. There is a recipe for this, and it is ancient: encourage and foster those aspects of personality and behaviour that lead to empathy, decency, compassion, cooperation. Discourage those aspects that lead to greed and conflict.

I know. Jesus didn’t manage it. Gandhi was assassinated for having recommended it as the solution to the Indian civil war. But working for this miracle is our only chance.


1 11 2014
Chris Harries

On the issue of optimism-versus-pessimism, Professor David Orr gave a very stimulating talk in Hobart last night to a packed audience. At one point he said “anyone who is optimistic about the future, knowing what we know about climate change and the immense forces behind it, would have to be utterly nuts. There’s no tecky solution that can solve things.” But he said we still need to hold on to some hope and just do things that are right.

This is from a very wise wise man of immense intellectual calibre, who has spent his life doing wonderful things with boundless energy. His town revitalisation project in America’s rust belt is absolutely admirable, but the professor openly and honestly concedes that he has no solution to the impending chaos that looms. All we can do is feel our way forward.

I really appreciate his unusual candour, especially his refutation of false optimism. This is a threshold we all have to get through. Once out the other side it’s actually easier to know what to do.

1 11 2014
Dr Bob Rich

Thanks for this. That’s basically what I just said above.

3 11 2014

In spite of how dire our situation has become (a new scientific paper or natural disaster almost daily) tons of people are still running around looking for a way to green industrial society. It cannot be done – ever. Our choice is turn it off or go extinct. As it is there is going to be a major die back and maybe worse. Even the big oil companies and the world bank are predicting 4-6 C rise this century. Almost none of our crops can survive that and we have triggered dozens of self reinforcing feed backs which cannot be turned off. All this energy put in to techno-fixes is just denial of a different sort.

3 11 2014
Chris Harries

Thanks Apneaman, interesting thing is the rapidly growing numbers of people who accept this fate of civilisation. We’re reluctant to because we’re told that it’s important to remain positive… this has become the meme of our times. Yet, if you ask most environmental folk (even those who foster green solutions) how they truly believe the future will pan out, most of them have a very bleak internal sense about that. Try it.

The delusion we’re talking about is mostly in what we say and sell, rather than in what we really believe.

Where I agree with Julian, is that just proclaiming loudly and repeatedly that the end is nigh, without any other follow up is like firing a shot across the bow of society, but we need to take the conversation further. I don’t mean in projecting false optimism, but with regard to how should we strategise according to the reality that we face.

3 11 2014

I absolutely agree with you there Chris….. I like to think I have been doing this for years, but for the few who read and comment here, the silence is deafening….

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