Your Oil wake up call.

8 04 2017


Ted Trainer

My old mate Ted Trainer has for decades been a limits to growth advocate. Ted lectured in limits to growth and other subjects during a long teaching career at the University of New South Wales. He is author of a number of books on living in a simpler way, including the book that changed my life, Abandon Affluence…… here is his latest offering.

ALMOST NO ONE has the slightest grasp of the oil crunch that will hit them, probably within a decade. When it does it will literally mean the end of the world as we know it. Here is an outline of what recent publications are telling us. Nobody will, of course, take any notice.

It is gradually being understood that the amount of oil reserves and increases in them due to, for instance, fracking, is of little significance and that what matters is their EROI (Energy Return on Energy Invested). If you found a vast amount of oil, but to deliver a barrel of it you would need to use as much energy as there is in a barrel of oil, then there would be no point drilling the field.

When oil was first discovered the EROI in producing it was over 100/1. But Murphy (2013) estimates that by 2000 the global figure was about 30, and a decade later it was around 17. These approximate figures are widely quoted and accepted although not precise or settled.

Scarcer and difficult to produce

In other words, oil is rapidly getting scarcer and more difficult to find and produce. Thus, they are having to go to deep water sources (ER of 10 according to Murphy), and to develop unconventional sources such as tar sands (ER of 4 according to Ahmed), and shale (Murphy estimates an ER of 1.5, and Ahmed reports 2.8 for the oil and gas average.)

As a result, the capital expenditure on oil discovery, development and production is skyrocketing but achieving little or no increase in production. Heinberg and Fridley (2016) show that capital expenditure trebled in a decade, while production fell dramatically. This rapid acceleration in costs is widely noted, including by Johnson (2010) and Clarke (2017).

Why can’t we keep getting the quantities we want just by paying more for each barrel? Because the price of the oil in a barrel cannot be greater than the economic value the use of the barrel of oil creates.

Ahmed (2016) refers to a British government report that:

“…the decline in EROI has meant that an increasing amount of the energy we extract is having to be diverted back into getting new energy out, leaving less for other social investments … This means that the global economic slowdown is directly related to the declining resource quality of fossil fuels.”

Everything depends on how rapidly EROI is deteriorating. Various people, such as Hall, Ballogh and Murphy (2009), and Weisbach et al. (2013) do not think a modern society can tolerate an ER under 6 – 10. If this is so, how long have we got if the global figure has fallen from 30 to 18 in about a decade?

Several analysts claim that because of the deteriorating resource quality and rising production costs the companies must be paid $100 a barrel to survive. But oil is currently selling for c$50/barrel. Clarke details how the companies are carrying very large debt and many are going bankrupt: “The global oil industry is in deep trouble.”

Ignorance, debt bubble and catastrophic implosion

Why haven’t we noticed? Very likely for the same reason we haven’t noticed the other signs of terminal decay… because we don’t want to.

We have taken on astronomical levels of debt to keep the economy going. In 1994 the ratio of global debt to GDP was just over 2; it is now about 6, much higher than before the GFC (Global Financial Crisis), and it is continuing to climb.

Everybody knows this cannot go on for much longer. Debt is lending on the expectation that the loan will be repaid plus interest, but that can only be done if there is growth in the real economy, in the value of goods and services produced and sold …but the real economy (as distinct from the financial sector) has been stagnant or deteriorating for years.

The only way huge debt bubbles are resolved is via catastrophic implosion. A point comes where the financial sector realizes that its (recklessly speculative) loans are not going to be repaid, so they stop lending and call in bad debts … and the credit the real economy needs is cut, so the economy collapses, further reducing capacity to pay debts in a spiral of positive feedback that next time will deliver the mother of all GFCs.

There is now considerable effort going into working out the relationships between these factors, ie. deteriorating energy EROI, economic stagnation, and debt. The situation is not at all clear. Some see EROI as already being the direct and major cause of a terminal economic breakdown, others think at present more important causal factors are increasing inequality, ecological costs, aging populations and slowing productivity.

Whatever the actual causal mix is, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that within at best a decade deteriorating EROI is going to be a major cause of enormous disruption.

Peaking oil production, national income and resource detorioration

But there is a far more worrying aspect of your oil situation than that to do with EROI. Nafeez Ahmed has just published an extremely important analysis of the desperate and alarming situation that the Middle East oil producing countries are in, entitled Failing States, Collapsing Systems, (2016). He confronts us with the following basic points:

  • in several countries oil production has peaked, and energy return on oil production is falling; thus their oil export income is being reduced
  • in recent decades populations have exploded, due primarily to decades of abundant income from oil exports; the 1960 – 2014 multiples for Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Nigeria, Egypt, India and China have been 5.5, 4.6, 5.3, 4.2, 3.4, 3.0 and 2.1 respectively
  • there has been accelerating deterioration in land, water and food resources. If water use per capita is under 1700 m3 pa, there is water stress; the amounts for the above countries, (and the percentage fall since 1960), are Yemen 86 m3 (71% fall), Saudi Arabia 98 m3 (82% fall), Iraq 998 m3 (88% fall), Nigeria 1245 m3 (73% fall), Egypt 20 m3 (70% fall).

Climate change will make these numbers worse.

The consequences of these trends are:

  • more of the falling oil income now has to go into importing food
  • increasing amounts of oil are having to go into other domestic uses, reducing the amounts available for export to the big oil consuming countries.
  • in many of the big exporting countries these trends are likely to more or less eliminate oil exports in a decade or so, including Saudi Arabia.
  • these mostly desert countries have nothing else to earn export income from, except sand
  • falling oil income means that governments can provide less for their people, so they have to cut subsidies and raise food and energy prices
  • these conditions are producing increasing discontent with government as well as civil unrest and conflict between tribes over scarce water and land; religious and sectarian conflicts are fuelled; unemployed, desperate and hungry farmers and youth have little option but to join extremist groups such as ISIS, where at least they are fed; our media ignore the biophysical conditions generating conflicts, refugee and oppression by regimes, giving the impression that the troubles are only due to religious fanatics
  • the IMF makes the situation worse; failing states appeal for economic assistance and are confronted with the standard recipe — increased loans on top of already impossible debt, given on condition that they gear their economies to paying the loans back plus interest, imposing austerity, privatizing and selling off assets
  • local elite authoritarianism and corruption make things worse; rulers need to crack down on disruption and to force the belt tightening; the rich will not allow their privileges to be reduced in order to support reallocation of resources to mass need; the dominant capitalist ideology weighs against interfering with market forces, ie. with the freedom for the rich to develop what is most profitable to themselves.
  • thus there is a vicious positive feedback downward spiral from which it would seem there can be no escape because it is basically due to the oil running out in a context of too many people and too few land and water resources
  • there will at least be major knock-on effects on the global economy and the rich (oil consuming) countries, probably within a decade; it is quite likely that the global economy will collapse as the capacity to import oil will be greatly reduced; when the fragility of the global financial system is added (remember, debt now six times GDP), instantaneous chaotic breakdown is very likely
  • nothing can be done about this situation; it is the result of ignoring fifty years of warnings about the limits to growth.

A tightening noose

So, the noose tightens around the brainless, taken for granted ideology that drives consumer-capitalist society and that cannot be even thought about, let alone dealt with.

We are far beyond the levels of production and consumption that can be sustained or that all people could ever rise to. We haven’t noticed because the grossly unjust global economy delivers most of the world’s dwindling resource wealth to the few who live in rich countries. Well, the party is now getting close to being over.

You don’t much like this message? Have a go at proving that it’s mistaken. Nar, better to just ignore it as before.

A way out?

If the foregoing account is more or less right, then there is only one conceivable way out. That is to face up to transition to lifestyles and systems that enable a good quality of life for all on extremely low per capita resource use rates, with no interest in getting richer or pursuing economic growth.

There is no other way to defuse the problems now threatening to eliminate us, the resource depletion, the ecological destruction, the deprivation of several billion in the Third World, the resource wars and the deterioration in our quality of life.

Such a Simpler Way is easily designed, and built…if that’s what you want to do (see: Many in voluntary simplicity, ecovillage and Transition Towns movements have moved a long way towards it. Your chances of getting through to it are very poor, but the only sensible option is to join these movements.

Is the mainstream working on the problem? Is the mainstream worried about the problem? Does the mainstream even recognize the problem? I checked the Sydney Daily Telegraph yesterday and 20 percent of the space was given to sport.


Ahmed, N. M., (2016); We Could Be Witnessing the Death of the Fossil Fuel Industry — Will It Take the Rest of the Economy Down With It?, Resilience, April, 26.

Ahmed, N. M., (2017); Failing States, Collapsing Systems, Dordrecht, Springer. Alice Friedmann’s summary is at:

Clarke, T., (2017); The end of the Oilocene; The demise of the global oil industry and the end of the global economy as we know it, Resilience, 17th Jan.

Friedmann, A., (2017); Book review of Failing states, collapsing systems biophysical triggers of political violence by Nafeez Ahme, energyskeptic January 31:

Hall, C. A. S., Balogh, S. Murphy, D. J. R., (2009); What is the minimum EROI that a sustainable society must have? Energies, 2, 25–47.

Heinberg, R., and D. Fridley, (2016); Our Renewable Future, Santa Rosa, California, Post Carbon Institute.

Johnson, C., (2010); Oil exploration costs rocket as risks rise, Industries, London, February 11.

Murphy, D. J., (2013), The implications of the declining energy return on investment of oil production; Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, December 2013.DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2013.0126

The Simpler Way website:

Weisback, D., G. Ruprecht, A. Huke, K. Cserski, S. Gottlleib and A. Hussein, (2013);Energy intensities, EROIs and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants, Energy, 52, 210- 221.

Germany’s plan for 100% electric cars may actually increase carbon emissions

7 04 2017

Image 20170215 27402 ip046y

Bjoern Wylezich / shutterstock

Dénes Csala, Lancaster University

Germany has ambitious plans for both electric cars and renewable energy. But it can’t deliver both. As things stand, Germany’s well-meaning but contradictory ambitions would actually boost emissions by an amount comparable with the present-day emissions of the entire country of Uruguay or the state of Montana.

In October 2016 the Bundesrat, the country’s upper legislative chamber, called for Germany to support a phase-out of gasoline vehicles by 2030. The resolution isn’t official government policy, but even talk of such a ban sends a strong signal towards the country’s huge car industry. So what if Germany really did go 100% electric by 2030?

To environmentalists, such a change sounds perfect. After all, road transport is responsible for a big chunk of our emissions and replacing regular petrol vehicles with electric cars is a great way to cut the carbon footprint.

But it isn’t that simple. The basic problem is that an electric car running on power generated by dirty coal or gas actually creates more emissions than a car that burns petrol. For such a switch to actually reduce net emissions, the electricity that powers those cars must be renewable. And, unless things change, Germany is unlikely to have enough green energy in time.

After all, news of the potential petrol car ban came just after the chancellor, Angela Merkel, had announced she would slow the expansion in new wind farms as too much intermittent renewable power was making the grid unstable. Meanwhile, after Fukushima, Germany has pledged to retire its entire nuclear reactor fleet by 2022.

Germany’s grid is struggling to cope with all that intermittent power.
Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH / shutterstock

In an analysis published in Nature, my colleague Harry Hoster and I have looked at how Germany’s electricity and transport policies are intertwined. They each serve the noble goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, when combined, they might actually lead to increased emissions.

We investigated what it would take for Germany to keep to its announcements and fully electrify its road transportation – and what that would mean for emissions. Our research shows that you can’t simply erase fossil fuels from both energy and transport in one go, as Germany may be about to find out.

Less energy, more electricity

It’s certainly true that replacing internal combustion vehicles with electric ones would overnight lead to a huge reduction in Germany’s energy needs. This is because electric cars are far more efficient. When petrol is burned, just 30% or less of the energy released is actually used to move the car forwards – the rest goes into exhaust heat, water pumps and other inefficiencies. Electric cars do lose some energy through recharging their batteries, but overall at least 75% goes into actual movement.

Each year, German vehicles burn around 572 terawatt-hour (TWh)‘s worth of liquid fuels. Based on the above efficiency savings, a fully electrified road transport sector would use around 229 TWh. So Germany would use less energy overall (as petrol is a source of energy) but it would need an astonishing amount of new renewable or nuclear generation.

And there is another issue: Germany also plans to phase out its nuclear power plants, ideally by 2022, but 2030 at the latest. This creates a further void of 92TWh to be filled.

Adding up the extra renewable electricity needed to power millions of cars, and that required to replace nuclear plants, gives us a total of 321 TWh of new generation required by 2030. That’s equivalent to dozens of massive new power stations.

Even if renewable energy expands at the maximum rate allowed by Germany’s latest plan, it will still only cover around 63 TWh of what’s required. Hydro, geothermal and biomass don’t suffer from the same intermittency problems as wind or solar, yet the country is already close to its potential in all three.

This therefore means the rest of the gap – an enormous 258 TWh – will have to be filled by coal or natural gas. That is the the current total electricity consumption of Spain, or ten Irelands.

Germany could choose to fill the gap entirely with coal or gas plants. However, relying entirely on coal would lead to further annual emissions of 260 million tonnes of carbon dioxide while gas alone would mean 131m tonnes.

By comparison, German road transport currently emits around 156m tonnes of CO2, largely from car exhausts. Therefore, unless the electricity shortfall is filled almost entirely with new natural gas plants, Germany could switch to 100% electric cars and it would still end up with a net increase in emissions.

The above chart shows a more realistic scenario where half of the necessary electricity for electric cars would come from new gas plants and half from new coal plants. We have assumed both coal and gas would become 25% more efficient. In this relatively likely scenario, the emissions of the road transportation sector actually increase by 20%, or 32 million tonnes of CO2 (comparable to Uruguay or Montana’s annual emissions).

If Germany really does want a substantial reduction in vehicle emissions, its energy and transport policies must work in sync. Instead of capping new solar plants or wind farms, it should delay the nuclear phase-out and focus on getting better at predicting electricity demand and storing renewable energy.

Dénes Csala, Lecturer in Energy Storage Systems Dynamics, Lancaster University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Healthy soil is the real key to feeding the world

6 04 2017

Image 20170329 8557 1q1xe1z
Planting a diverse blend of crops and cover crops, and not tilling, helps promote soil health.
Catherine Ulitsky, USDA/Flickr, CC BY

David R. Montgomery, University of Washington

One of the biggest modern myths about agriculture is that organic farming is inherently sustainable. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily. After all, soil erosion from chemical-free tilled fields undermined the Roman Empire and other ancient societies around the world. Other agricultural myths hinder recognizing the potential to restore degraded soils to feed the world using fewer agrochemicals.

When I embarked on a six-month trip to visit farms around the world to research my forthcoming book, “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” the innovative farmers I met showed me that regenerative farming practices can restore the world’s agricultural soils. In both the developed and developing worlds, these farmers rapidly rebuilt the fertility of their degraded soil, which then allowed them to maintain high yields using far less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

Their experiences, and the results that I saw on their farms in North and South Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ghana and Costa Rica, offer compelling evidence that the key to sustaining highly productive agriculture lies in rebuilding healthy, fertile soil. This journey also led me to question three pillars of conventional wisdom about today’s industrialized agrochemical agriculture: that it feeds the world, is a more efficient way to produce food and will be necessary to feed the future.

Myth 1: Large-scale agriculture feeds the world today

According to a recent U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report, family farms produce over three-quarters of the world’s food. The FAO also estimates that almost three-quarters of all farms worldwide are smaller than one hectare – about 2.5 acres, or the size of a typical city block.

Enter a caption

A Ugandan farmer transports bananas to market. Most food consumed in the developing world is grown on small family farms.
Svetlana Edmeades/IFPRI/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Only about 1 percent of Americans are farmers today. Yet most of the world’s farmers work the land to feed themselves and their families. So while conventional industrialized agriculture feeds the developed world, most of the world’s farmers work small family farms. A 2016 Environmental Working Group report found that almost 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports went to developed countries with few hungry people.

Of course the world needs commercial agriculture, unless we all want to live on and work our own farms. But are large industrial farms really the best, let alone the only, way forward? This question leads us to a second myth.

Myth 2: Large farms are more efficient

Many high-volume industrial processes exhibit efficiencies at large scale that decrease inputs per unit of production. The more widgets you make, the more efficiently you can make each one. But agriculture is different. A 1989 National Research Council study concluded that “well-managed alternative farming systems nearly always use less synthetic chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics per unit of production than conventional farms.”

And while mechanization can provide cost and labor efficiencies on large farms, bigger farms do not necessarily produce more food. According to a 1992 agricultural census report, small, diversified farms produce more than twice as much food per acre than large farms do.

Even the World Bank endorses small farms as the way to increase agricultural output in developing nations where food security remains a pressing issue. While large farms excel at producing a lot of a particular crop – like corn or wheat – small diversified farms produce more food and more kinds of food per hectare overall.

Myth 3: Conventional farming is necessary to feed the world

We’ve all heard proponents of conventional agriculture claim that organic farming is a recipe for global starvation because it produces lower yields. The most extensive yield comparison to date, a 2015 meta-analysis of 115 studies, found that organic production averaged almost 20 percent less than conventionally grown crops, a finding similar to those of prior studies.

But the study went a step further, comparing crop yields on conventional farms to those on organic farms where cover crops were planted and crops were rotated to build soil health. These techniques shrank the yield gap to below 10 percent.

The authors concluded that the actual gap may be much smaller, as they found “evidence of bias in the meta-dataset toward studies reporting higher conventional yields.” In other words, the basis for claims that organic agriculture can’t feed the world depend as much on specific farming methods as on the type of farm.

Cover crops planted on wheat fields in The Dalles, Oregon.
Garrett Duyck, NRCS/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Consider too that about a quarter of all food produced worldwide is never eaten. Each year the United States alone throws out 133 billion pounds of food, more than enough to feed the nearly 50 million Americans who regularly face hunger. So even taken at face value, the oft-cited yield gap between conventional and organic farming is smaller than the amount of food we routinely throw away.

Building healthy soil

Conventional farming practices that degrade soil health undermine humanity’s ability to continue feeding everyone over the long run. Regenerative practices like those used on the farms and ranches I visited show that we can readily improve soil fertility on both large farms in the U.S. and on small subsistence farms in the tropics.

I no longer see debates about the future of agriculture as simply conventional versus organic. In my view, we’ve oversimplified the complexity of the land and underutilized the ingenuity of farmers. I now see adopting farming practices that build soil health as the key to a stable and resilient agriculture. And the farmers I visited had cracked this code, adapting no-till methods, cover cropping and complex rotations to their particular soil, environmental and socioeconomic conditions.

Whether they were organic or still used some fertilizers and pesticides, the farms I visited that adopted this transformational suite of practices all reported harvests that consistently matched or exceeded those from neighboring conventional farms after a short transition period. Another message was as simple as it was clear: Farmers who restored their soil used fewer inputs to produce higher yields, which translated into higher profits.

No matter how one looks at it, we can be certain that agriculture will soon face another revolution. For agriculture today runs on abundant, cheap oil for fuel and to make fertilizer – and our supply of cheap oil will not last forever. There are already enough people on the planet that we have less than a year’s supply of food for the global population on hand at any one time. This simple fact has critical implications for society.

So how do we speed the adoption of a more resilient agriculture? Creating demonstration farms would help, as would carrying out system-scale research to evaluate what works best to adapt specific practices to general principles in different settings.

We also need to reframe our agricultural policies and subsidies. It makes no sense to continue incentivizing conventional practices that degrade soil fertility. We must begin supporting and rewarding farmers who adopt regenerative practices.

Once we see through myths of modern agriculture, practices that build soil health become the lens through which to assess strategies for feeding us all over the long haul. Why am I so confident that regenerative farming practices can prove both productive and economical? The farmers I met showed me they already are.

David R. Montgomery, Professor of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Cob Oven saga revisited……

4 04 2017

Sometimes, life’s twists and turns really surprise me…  A few days after his arrival, I was showing my Sicilian wwoofer pictures of Mon Abri, and specifically the cob oven another Italian wwoofer and I built there, almost three years ago now…… To my amazement, Vincent enthusiastically exclaimed he wanted to build one here too! Now, I had planned to build one, but where the house will be built, and not until it was built…… Discussing it further with Glenda, however, encouraged me to take the bull by the horns and try again…

I did say at the time that I was looking forward to putting the gained experience into building another slightly larger one in Tasmania when we finally get there…. just not this soon. My last effort was built on a one metre square block base, and this was the limiting factor for its size. It was adequate, but a slightly larger size would have been better. So what to build the base with for this one?

Digging up the house site revealed dozens of large to very large Dolerite floaters, the rock that gives the local clay its characteristic ochre colour. Of course they are all at the house site, a good 350 metres from where the new oven would go near the shed. And I needed sand, and bricks, and……… loads of hard work.  Good thing Vincent is young and fit and energetic… it was after all his idea…!

20170326_143117It was decided to build a 1.2m diameter base with rocks from the house site. Vincent and I managed to lift most of them onto the ute, but two of them were totally out of the question, with one I now realise that must have weighed close on 300kg…! They were chained up, and dragged with the trusty 4WD, very slowly in low range first gear. The biggest of the two was actually shaking the car as it was dragged along, and as it turned out to be the second big rock, it had to be lifted on top of the first one….

We tried levering it with crowbars and ramps, to no avail. It was one big heavy sucker..! Then I came up with the idea that if we could get it at least upright, we might be able to push it atop the first one with the ute’s towbar by reversing against it. trouble was, the 2WD was just wheel spinning, while the 4WD’s towbar was too high and just slipped above the rock, even lifting the two rear wheels clean off the ground…. until I came up with the idea of removing the tongue off the car, and putting it back in upside down!

To Vincent’s amazement, it worked…. he had given up all hope, I could tell. One good 20170328_101515thing about getting older is that you’ve solved lots of problems over your life, and this was just another problem solving issue…… I told Vincent that if the Egyptians could build pyramids, we could build a pizza oven base!

As you can see from the pics, these stones are very round, and not exactly ideal for building something that should resemble a dry wall. That we managed to get as good a result as we did was actually pretty amazing. The top wasn’t level of course, so it was capped with a concrete wedge platform, that also held all the rocks on top together. I don’t think they’re going anywhere soon…..

Related image

Steve Harrison’s Bourry Box

While all this was going on, I’d been searching for bricks, and even found ‘free’ ones in Geeveston on Gumtree. But the woman getting rid of her bricks gave me the run around re picking them up for days, and while searching for more, I actually hit the jackpot, finding 600 refractory bricks for $1.50 each. I wasn’t keen on spending that much money, but I had seen brand new fire bricks in Hobart for $6.95 each, and as we are planning to build Glenda a Bourry Box wood fired kiln in the future that will require way more than 600 bricks, we decided to not look a gift horse in the mouth, and bought them.

When you load things like bricks, one or two or three at a time on a ute, you don’t really think about the weight of it all…. I assumed they weighed in at maybe 2kg each, so 600 would be under the vehicle’s load limit of 1.3 tonnes. As it was, there weren’t 600 there, only 530. As we drove off, the car was making horrible scraping sounds that made me think “oops….. maybe we overdid it?” I hadn’t checked the tyre pressures before loading, which is something I normally always do… the mudflaps were scraping on the road, and the tyres we bulging ominously. I drove the 10km to Huonville very slowly, and at the first garage put a pressure gauge on the tyres, only to discover they were not that far 20170330_183738down; even at the maximum recommended 65psi, they were still bulging. Feeling really bad about this didn’t help either it turns out…. so we just kept going, covering the next 25km home, very slowly, without blowing a tyre, which was my greatest concern.

When we got home, I weighed one brick, and it turned out to be 3.5kg……. Ute one had just carried 1.8 tonnes of bricks 35km! Tough old thing is all I can say. And I think we were lucky too…..

I then basically went about rebuilding the last oven, only with a base 700mm in diameter20170402_134034 instead of 600. It doesn’t sound like much difference, but never forget volumes are in dimensions cubed, and even 10% bigger equals 33% larger volume, which pretty well means 33% more of everything, like clay and sand! Miraculously, just enough of the bricks I bought had already been shaped as wedges; they weren’t perfectly sized, but they would do, and I could skip the ugly brick cutting exercise except for the three keystones.

One thing I did differently this time was cementing the bricks together rather than use cob. Using cob made the last arch way too wobbly, cement made it stiff as a Roman arch.

20170403_081107Vincent, being the typical young, enthusiastic, and impatient young man he was assured me when we started we could finish the whole thing before he left……. I couldn’t stop laughing! The last one took me nine years I reminded him, and we’ve already lost two days waiting for free bricks. Just picking up the fire bricks took half a day, and a couple of hours to unload them… Nothing ever goes according to plan, there’s no need to get impatient over this….

But you have to give it to him, on his last day, when he was catching the 10 o’clock bus to Hobart, he got up at 6AM to help me make the sand mould. We even used up what cob was left to reach one third the way up said mould. At 9AM, he quit, and got himself ready for the rest of his life, but he left having learned quite a bit more than he had anticipated I think. I just love teaching young people these skills…..

So far so good, the first layer of cob is on, and cracking as it should in readiness for keying in the second layer. We’re supposed to have a dry week now, and if all things go well, I may even have it finished before my appointment with the digger that will excavate the house footings on Easter Saturday….


So far so good……..

Second Cider Season

4 04 2017

It’s hard to believe I’m on my second apple harvest…. nor can I believe how different this year’s is from last. I guess having a record dry winter followed by a record wet one should be a clue, but I was never expecting a total loss from the Pink Lady crop…

fareast2Seeing Matt next door harvesting apples, and having this keen as mustard Sicilian wwoofer chomping at the bit to get things done here, I decided to drive the 4WD over to the ‘Far East’, where last year I had my very best apples, all borne out of total neglect. I only seem to go there once a year to pick apples!

Having the 4WD this year meant I was able to reverse down the steepest bit of land on fareastthe block all the way to the bottom, knowing I’d be able to drive back out again. I didn’t do this last year because I had zero confidence I would be able to get back up the hill with a 2WD ute, and as a result, those apples were never harvested…. it’s a long uphill slog when you’re carrying maybe 30 or 40kg of apples.

With all the winter rain we’ve had, the Blackberries have been doing overtime, and picking apples down there literally means drawing blood..! But the Fannies were just amazing, by far the best ones on the whole property.

Vincent (the wwoofer) who surprised me with his knowledge of horticultural issues was pondering why this is so, but we’ll never know I guess. It’s just amazing how these apples were almost not affected with black spot – a normal by product of wet conditions which absolutely everyone down here is complaining about – nor the dreaded coddling moths. Maybe it’s the soil, maybe it’s the better drainage from the steepness (though Matt reckons he has the same problems up the back of his block, and it’s even steeper) maybe it’s even the presence of so much Blackberry? Black spot is after all the result of monoculture….

Most Pink Lady trees didn’t even have apples on them, and those that did….. well look for yourself and see the total disaster…..


…. and the Pink Ladies was staggering…


The difference between the Geeveston Fannies









Because Matt’s crop is also badly affected – he said to me that one single black spot equals 100% infection – he’s decided to go into juice production for selling at markets. So we 20170401_120022struck a deal. We would juice our apples for cider, in exchange for roughly half a bin of apples. Which is all I had to give him anyway! Black spot may affect the appearance of the apples for shops, but they are just as nice to eat, skin and all, especially when you know they’ve never been sprayed with poisons! It’s simply amazing how people will buy poisoned apples that look perfect, but not organic poison free imperfect apples that are just delicious…… and of course black spot is invisible in apple juice!20170401_120414

So the following weekend, we drove the 450kg of apples we’d collected next door, and started juicing

Fanny juice has this amazing golden glow to it, and it’s the nicest apple juice you’re ever likely to taste…… because you won’t find any anywhere in the shops for starters! It’s such a pity that in the fermenting process, all that colour disappears from the resulting cider.

Vincent and I went home with 120 litres of juice in fermenters, which should last me until next year’s harvest, as I’m still drinking last season’s cider. And very nice it has turned out too.



An idiot’s guide to the ERoEI of tar sands

31 03 2017

I know about the environmental issues surrounding tar sands of course, but the rampant destruction producing crude from tar sands entails never ceases to blow me away.. I had little clue about the complete energy inefficiency of the process. If we include shale and oil/tar sands in our peak oil calculations, the notion that we’ve hit 50% of reserves becomes moot…… we’ve more likely hit something like 2.5% capacity. If we assume sweet crude ERoEI to be ~20, then tar sands is 3 at best…… The process for refining tar sands goes something like the following…:

Dig a pit around 100m deep, and you’ll hit tar sands, or as the Canadians like to call it, oil sands. Mix with water and separate the oil. There’s a lot of Sulfur in tar sands, and we don’t like Sulfur. So we take CH4, strip the carbon off, and bubble the hydrogen through the tar sand slop. This will form H2S. Precipitate the elemental sulfur in an ice bath, release the hydrogen into the atmosphere, waste natural gas and throw the Hydrogen away, and you get all of this goodness…….:

Sulfur Stockpile

No, I’m not kidding you, those huge yellow blocks are made of pretty well pure Sulfur…… and those dotty things, they’re cars and trucks….. Apparently there’s a glut of Sulfur in the market, so that it just sits there in all its inimitable yellowness, unwanted…….. Piles upon growing piles of Sulfur cakes.

The above process is of course over-simplified, but that doesn’t alter the fact that its completely insane. The size of the Athabascan tar sands hellhole is equivalent to Saudi Arabia’s oil field before it was pilfered. The government of Alberta thinks it can push production beyond 3 million barrels per day. Hard to imagine a world in which we’re not reliant on oil when we keep finding ever more idiotic ways to extract it. Oh except that stuff by now must surely be making an energy loss…….

It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

19 03 2017

This talk was given at a local TEDx event, produced independently of the TED Conferences. Our “psychological immune system” lets us feel truly happy even when things don’t go as planned.

Daniel Gilbert’s first TED talk has been seen by more than 8 million people and remains one of the most popular of all time.

Daniel Gilbert is the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He has won numerous awards for his research and teaching, including the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution to Psychology. In 2008 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

His 2007 book, Stumbling on Happiness, spent 6 months on the New York Times bestseller list, has being translated into 30 languages, and was awarded the Royal Society’s General Book Prize for best science book of the year.