Watching the Hurricane’s Path

8 09 2017

I can really relate to this latest article by Richard Heinberg….  I still get people saying to me “you’ve been saying this for twenty years, and look, nothing’s happened…” Yet, every day, we are one day closer to the inevitable outcome, just like watching the hurricane coming from your favourite armchair…

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heinbergIt’s an eerie experience. You’ve just heard that another hurricane has formed in the Atlantic, and that it’s headed toward land. You search for NOAA’s National Hurricane Center website so you can see the forecast path for the storm. You’re horrified at the implications, and you bookmark the site. You check in every few hours to see forecast updates. You know in general terms what’s coming—devastation for the lives of thousands, maybe millions of people. Then a few days later you begin to see the sad, shocking photos and videos of destruction.

Thanks to modern science and technology—satellites and computers—we have days of warning before a hurricane hits. That’s extremely helpful: while people can’t move their houses and all their possessions, they can board up windows, stock up on food and water, and perhaps get out of town. Huge storms are far less deadly than they would be if we didn’t have modern weather forecasting.

Science and technology have also enabled us to forecast “storms” of another kind. Using computers and data about population, energy, pollution, natural resources, and economic trends, it’s possible to generate scenarios for the future of industrial civilization. The first group of researchers to do this  in 1972, found that the “base case,” or most likely scenario, showed essentially the collapse of society: in the early-to-middle decades of the 21st century, industrial production would peak and begin to decline sharply; so would food production and (with a lag of a few years) population. For decades scientists have been updating the software and plugging in new and better data, but ever-more-powerful computers keep spitting out the same base-case scenario.

One of the factors the 1972 researchers thought would be of increasing significance was climate change. Now, 45 years later, many thousands of scientists around the world are feeding their supercomputers data on carbon emissions, carbon cycles, carbon sinks, climate sensitivity, climate feedbacks, and more. They likewise see a “hurricane” on the way: we are altering the chemistry of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans so significantly, and so quickly, that dire consequences are almost certain, if not already here. Later this century we’ll see storms, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires like none on record. Agriculture will likely be impacted severely.

Ever since I read the 1972 report on Limits to Growth, I’ve had that same eerie feeling as when looking at the charts on the NOAA website. Only the feeling is deeper, more pervasive, and (of course) long-lasting. A storm is coming. We should batten down the hatches.

But, 45 years down the line, the storm is no longer far away. In fact, the photos and videos of destruction are starting to come in. No nations have bothered to make sensible efforts to minimize the storm’s impact by reducing fossil fuel consumption, stabilizing population at 1970s levels, or reconfiguring their economy so it doesn’t require continuous growth in resource and energy usage. Why didn’t we do those sensible things, even though we had plenty of warning?

Our failure to respond has a lot to do with the long time lag. We humans are much better at dealing with immediate threats than ones years ahead. In effect, we have an internal discount rate that we apply to possible disasters, depending on their temporal proximity.

Given a long-term threat, some of us are more likely to develop complicated rationales for doing nothing. After all, averting a really big disaster may require substantial inconvenience. Getting out of the way of a hurricane might mean packing up your most treasured belongings, driving a couple of hundred miles, and trying to find a motel that’s not already overbooked (that is, if you are among the fortunate with the resources to do so).  Minimizing the threat of global overshoot might mean changing our entire economic system—from how we grow food to how we get to work and what kind of work we do. Escaping the hurricane engages our survival instincts; we don’t have time to doubt the weatherman. But given a few decades to think about it, we might come up with lots of (ultimately wrongheaded but carefully reasoned nonetheless) reasons why our current economic system is really just fine, and why global overshoot really isn’t a threat.

Those of us who aren’t so good at coming up with such rationalizations are stuck with the eerie feeling that something very bad is about to happen—maybe in Florida this weekend, maybe everywhere before long. Here’s my recommendation, based on a few decades of watching all kinds of storm charts: please pay attention to the weatherman. Stop finding reasons why you really don’t have to change or prepare. Make your way to higher ground. And be sure to help your neighbors.

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Final Warning Limits to Growth

24 11 2016

Just when I thought I knew it all regarding Limits to Growth, along comes this one year old little doco produced by DW. What I particularly liked about this one is its historical perspective on the complete lack of action during the past forty years…..

In 1972, the study ‘Limits to Growth’ warned against the impact of capitalism. Did anyone act on it? It shows that Capitalism lies at the root of problems such as overpopulation and environmental pollution, yet few seem to be aware of the connection.

After its publication in 1972, the Club of Rome’s study, “Limits to Growth,” came to epitomize a historical turning point. The book calls into question the fundamental principle of the American economic ideology of capitalism, with its insatiable pursuit of growth. However, the work did not just pillory contemporary practices. It also warned of the extremely diverse and massive consequences for all of humanity. Although there is scarcely any doubt as to the validity of the study and its 1992 successor, “Beyond the Limits,” governments worldwide have done very little to solve the major problems. Topics such as overpopulation, environmental pollution, depletion of resources, and consumption are now familiar to everyone, but few people are aware of the impact they can have in the context of exponential growth on Earth, and therefore on all of humanity. This documentary sheds light on the effect the work has had on public perceptions in the past four decades.

Date 25.11.2015 Duration 42:30 mins.





Why We Have an Oversupply of Almost Everything (Oil, labor, capital, etc.)

7 05 2015

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article called, Glut of Capital and Labor Challenge Policy Makers: Global oversupply extends beyond commodities, elevating deflation risk. To me, this is a very serious issue, quite likely signaling that we are reaching what has been called Limits to Growth, a situation modelled in 1972 in a book by that name.

What happens is that economic growth eventually runs into limits. Many people have assumed that these limits would be marked by high prices and excessive demand for goods. In my view, the issue is precisely the opposite one: Limits to growth are instead marked by low prices and inadequate demand. Common workers can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that the economy produces, because of inadequate wage growth. The price of all commodities drops, because of lower demand by workers. Furthermore, investors can no longer find investments that provide an adequate return on capital, because prices for finished goods are pulled down by the low demand of workers with inadequate wages.

Evidence Regarding the Connection Between Energy Consumption and GDP Growth

We can see the close connection between world energy consumption and world GDP using historical data.

Figure 1. World GDP in 2010$ compared (from USDA) compared to World Consumption of Energy (from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014).

This chart gives a clue regarding what is wrong with the economy. The slope of the line implies that adding one percentage point of growth in energy usage tends to add less and less GDP growth over time, as I have shown in Figure 2. This means that if we want to have, for example, a constant 4% growth in world GDP for the period 1969 to 2013, we would need to gradually increase the rate of growth in energy consumption from about 1.8% = (4.0% – 2.2%) growth in energy consumption in 1969 to 2.8% = (4.0% – 1.2%) growth in energy consumption in 2013. This need for more and more growth in energy use to produce the same amount of economic growth is taking place despite all of our efforts toward efficiency, and despite all of our efforts toward becoming more of a “service” economy, using less energy products!

Figure 2. Expected change in GDP growth corresponding to 1% growth in total energy, based on Figure 1 fitted line.

To make matters worse, growth in world energy supply is generally trending downward as well. (This is not just oil supply whose growth is trending downward; this is oil plus everything else, including “renewables”.)

Figure 3. Three year average percent change in world energy consumption, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014 data.

There would be no problem, if economic growth were something that we could simply walk away from with no harmful consequences. Unfortunately, we live in a world where there are only two options–win or lose. We can win in our contest against other species (especially microbes), or we can lose. Winning looks like economic growth; losing looks like financial collapse with huge loss of human population, perhaps to epidemics, because we cannot maintain our current economic system.

The symptoms of losing the game are the symptoms we are seeing today–low commodity prices (temporarily higher, but nowhere nearly high enough to maintain production), not enough good paying jobs for common workers, and lack of investment opportunities, because workers cannot afford the high prices of goods that would be required to provide adequate return on investment.

How We Have Won in Our Contest with Other Species–Early Efforts 

The “secret formula” humans have had for winning in our competition against other species has been the use of supplemental energy, adding to the energy we get from food. There is a physics reason why this approach works: total population by all species is limited by available energy supply. Providing our own external energy supply was (and still is) a great work-around for this limitation. Even in the days of hunter-gatherers, humans used three times as much energy as could be obtained through food alone (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Earliest supplementation of food energy came by burning sticks and other biomass, starting one million years ago. Using this approach, humans were able to gain an advantage over other species in several ways:

  1. We were able to cook some of our food. This made a wider range of plants and animals suitable for food and made the nutrients from these foods more easily available to our bodies.
  2. Because less energy was needed for chewing and digesting, our bodies could put energy into growing a larger brain, thus giving us an advantage over other animals.
  3. The use of cooked food freed up time for such activities as hunting and making clothes, because less time was needed for chewing.
  4. Heat from burning plant material could be used to keep warm in cold areas, thereby extending our range and increasing total human population that could be supported.
  5. Fire could be used to chase off predatory animals and hunt prey animals.

Our bodies are now adapted to the need for supplemental energy. Our teeth are smaller, and our jaws and digestive apparatus have shrunk in size, as our brain has grown. The large population of humans that are alive today could not survive without supplemental energy for many purposes, such as cooking food, heating homes, and fighting illnesses that spread when humans are in as close proximity as they are today.

Our Modern Formula For Winning the Battle Against Other Species

In my view, the formula that has allowed humans to keep winning the battle against other species is the following:

  1. Use increasing amounts of inexpensive supplemental energy to leverage human energy so that finished goods and services produced per worker rises each year.
  2. Pay for this system with debt, because (if supplemental energy costs are cheap enough), it is possible to repay the debt, plus the interest on the debt, with the additional goods and services made possible by the cheap additional energy.
  3. This system gradually becomes more complex to deal with problems that come with rising population and growing use of resources. However, if the output of goods per worker is growing rapidly enough, it should be possible to pay for the costs associated with this increased complexity, in addition to interest costs.
  4. The whole system “works” as long as the total quantity of finished goods and services rises rapidly enough that it can fund all of the following: (a) a rising standard of living for common workers so that they can afford increasing amounts of debt to buy more goods, (b) debt repayment, and interest on the debt of the system, and (c) and an increasing amount of “overhead” in the form of government services, medical care, educational services, and salaries of high paid officials (in business as well as government). This overhead is needed to deal with the increasing complexity that comes with growth.

The formula for a growing economy is now failing. The rate of economic growth is falling, partly because energy supply is slowing (Figure 3), and partly because we need more and more growth of energy supply to produce a given amount of economic growth (Figure 2). With this lowered world economic growth, the amount of goods and services being produced is not rising fast enough to support all of the functions that it needs to cover: interest payments, growing wages of common workers, and growing “overhead” of a more complex society.

Some Reasons the Economic Growth Cycle is Now Failing

Let’s look at a few areas where we are reaching obstacles to this continued growth in final goods and services. An overarching problem is diminishing returns, which is reflected in increasingly higher prices of production.

1. Energy supplies are becoming more expensive to extract.

We extract the easiest to extract energy supplies first, and as these deplete, need to use the more expensive to extract energy supplies. We hear much about “growing efficiency” but, in fact, we are becoming less efficient in the production of energy supplies.

In the US, EIA data shows that we are becoming less efficient at coal production, in terms of coal production per worker hour (Figure 5).

Figure 5. US coal production per worker, on a Btu basis based on EIA data.

With oil, growing inefficiency is shown by the steeply rising cost of oil exploration and production since 1999 (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Figure by Steve Kopits of Westwood Douglas showing trends in world oil exploration and production costs per barrel.

Thus, it is for a fairly recent period, namely the period since about 2000, that we have been encountering rising costs both for US coal and for worldwide oil extraction.

The extra workers and extra costs required for producing the same amount of energy  counteract the tendency toward growth in the rest of the economy. This occurs because the rest of the economy must produce finished products with fewer workers and less resources as a result of the extra demands on these resources by the energy sector.

2. Other materials, besides energy products, are experiencing diminishing returns. 

Other resources, such as metals and other minerals and fresh water, are also becoming increasingly expensive to extract. The issue with mineral ores is similar to that with fossil fuels. We start with a fixed amount of ores in good locations and with high mineral percentages. As we move to less desirable ores, both human labour and more energy products are required, making the extraction process less efficient.

With fresh water, the issue is likely to be a need for desalination or long distance transport, to satisfy the needs of a growing population. Workarounds again involve more human labour and more resource use, making the production of fresh water less efficient.

In both of these cases, growing inefficiency leaves the rest of the economy with less human energy and less energy products to produce the finished goods and services that the economy needs.

3. Growing pollution is taking its toll.

Instead of just producing end products, we are increasingly finding ourselves fighting pollution. While this is a benefit to society, it really is only offsetting what would otherwise be a negative. Thus, it acts like overhead, rather than producing economic growth.

From the point of view of workers having to pay for higher cost energy in order to fight pollution (say, substitution of a higher cost energy source, or paying for more pollution controls), the additional cost acts like a tax. Workers need to cut back on other expenditures to afford the pollution control workarounds. The effect is thus recessionary.

4. The amount of “overhead” to the world economy has been growing rapidly in recent years, for a number of reasons: 

  • The amount of overhead is growing because we are reaching natural barriers. For example, population per acre of arable land is growing, so we need more intensity of development to produce food for a rising population.
  • With greater population density and increased bacterial antibiotic resistance, disease transmission becomes a more of a problem.
  • Increasing education is being encouraged, whether or not there are jobs available that will make use of that education. Education that cannot be used in a productive way to produce more goods and services can be considered overhead for the economy. Educational expenses are frequently financed by debt. Repayment of this debt leads to a decrease in demand for other goods, such as new homes and vehicles.
  • We have more elderly to whom we have promised benefits, because with the benefit of better nutrition and medical care, more people are living longer.

5. We are reaching debt limits.

As economic growth has slowed, we have been adding more and more debt, to try to mitigate the problem. This additional debt becomes a problem in many ways: (a) without cheap energy to leverage human labour, there are not many productive investments that can be made; (b) the addition of more debt leads to a need for more interest payments; and (c) at some point debt ratios become overwhelmingly high.

At least part of the slowdown in economic growth that we are seeing today is coming from a slowdown in the growth of debt. Without debt growth, it is hard to keep commodity prices high enough. Investment in new manufacturing plants is also affected by low growth in debt.

Reasons for Confusion in Understanding Our Current Predicament

1. Not understanding that all of the symptoms we are seeing today are manifestations of the same underlying “illness”. 

Most analysts think that the economy has stubbed its toe and has a headache, rather than recognizing that it has a serious underlying illness.

2. Academia is focused way too narrowly, and tied too closely to what has been written before. 

Academics, because of their need to write papers, focus on what previous papers have said. Unfortunately, previous papers have not understood the nature of our problem. Academics have developed models based on our situation when we were away from limits. The issues we are facing cover such diverse subjects as physics, geology, and finance. It is hard for academics to become knowledgeable in many areas at once.

3. Models that seemed to work before are no longer appropriate.

We take models like the familiar supply and demand model of economists and assume that they represent everlasting truths.

Figure 7. (Source Wikipedia). The price P of a product is determined by a balance between production at each price (supply S) and the desires of those with purchasing power at each price (demand D). The diagram shows a positive shift in demand from D1 to D2, resulting in an increase in price (P) and quantity sold (Q) of the product.

Unfortunately, as we get close to limits, things change. Both wage levels and debt levels have an impact on demand; the quantity goods available is also affected by diminishing returns. The model that worked in the past may be totally inappropriate now.

Even a complex model like the climate change model being used by the IPCC is likely to be affected by financial limits. If near-term financial limits are to be expected, IPCC’s estimate of future carbon from fuels is likely to be too high. At a minimum, the findings of the IPCC need to be framed differently: climate change may be one of a number of problems facing those people who manage to survive a financial crash.

4. Too much wishful thinking.

Everyone would like to present a positive result, especially when grants are being given for academic research will support some favourable finding.

A favourite form of wishful thinking is believing that higher costs of energy products will not be a problem. Higher cost energy products, whether they are renewable or not, are a problem for many reasons:

  • They represent growing inefficiency in the economy. With growing inefficiency, we produce fewer finished goods and services per worker, not more.
  • Countries using more of the higher cost types of energy become less competitive in the world market, and because of this, may develop financial problems. The countries most affected by the Great Recession were countries using a high percentage of oil in their energy mix.
  • The amount workers have available to spend is limited. If a worker has $100 to spend on energy supply, he can buy 100 times as much in energy supplies priced at $1 as he can energy supplies priced at $100. This same principle works even if the cost difference is much lower–say $3.50 gallon vs. $3.00 gallon.

5. Too much faith in, “We pay each other’s wages.”

There is a common belief that growing inefficiency is OK; the wages we pay for unneeded education will work its way through the system as more wages for other workers.

Unfortunately, the real secret to economic growth is not paying each other’s wages; it is growing output of finished products per worker through increased use of cheap energy (and perhaps technology, to make this cheap energy useful).

Increased overhead for the system is not helpful.

6.  An “upside down” peak oil story.

Most people in the peak oil community believe what economists say about supply and demand–namely, that oil prices will rise if there is a supply problem. They have not realized that in a networked economy, wages and prices are tightly linked. The way limits apply is not necessarily the way we expect. Limits may come through a lack of good paying jobs, and because of this lack of jobs, inability to purchase products containing oil.

The connection between energy and jobs is clear. Good jobs require the use of energy, such as electricity and oil; lack of good-paying jobs is likely to be a manifestation of an inadequate supply of cheap energy. Also, high paying jobs are what allow rising buying power, and thus keep demand high. Thus, oil limits may appear as a demand problem, with low oil prices, rather than as a high oil price problem.

In my opinion, what we are seeing now is a manifestation of peak oil. It is just happening in an upside down way relative to what most were expecting.

Conclusion

One way of viewing our problem today is as a crisis of affordability. Young people cannot afford to start families or buy new homes because of a combination of the high cost of higher education (leading to debt), the high cost of fuel-efficient new cars (again leading to debt), the high cost of resale homes, and the relatively low wages paid to young workers. Even older workers often have an affordability problem. Many have found their wages stagnating or falling at the same time that the cost of healthcare, cars, electricity, and (until recently) oil rises. A recent Gallop Survey showed an increasing share of workers categorize themselves as “working class” rather than “middle class.”

It is this affordability crisis that is bringing the system down. Without adequate wages, the amount of debt that can be added to the system lags as well. It becomes impossible to keep prices of commodities up at a high enough level to encourage production of these commodities. Return on investment tends to be low for the same reason. Most researchers have not recognized these problems, because they are narrowly focused and assume that models that worked in the past will continue to work today.





Limits to growth on ‘Mainstream Media’

14 02 2015

KerrynBeach photo ed

Dr Kerryn Higgs

I know not everyone would consider the ABC ‘Mainstream Media’, but all the same, the subject of Limits to growth and that evil Club of Rome crowd appearing there feels like some sort of breakthrough…..  you can listen to the podcast at the above link, or read the transcript below if you prefer……

Australian writer Dr Kerryn Higgs (a Tasmanian no less…) has written a book called Collision Course – Endless Growth On A Finite Planet, in which she examines how society’s commitment to growth has marginalized scientific findings on the limit of growth, calling them bogus predictions of imminent doom.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: Growth or no growth? You may have heard Dick Smith on Breakfast a couple of weeks ago saying that unlimited growth is impossible and we must do something else. But what? There is, of course, a way of improving what we do more efficiently and stopping waste. Peter Newman from Perth gave an example on Late Night Live late last year: If we used trains instead of trucks for freight, it would halve the costs and save many, many lives. We don’t do it because we always do what we’ve always done. Kerryn Higgs, who’s with the University of Tasmania, has just brought out a book called Collision Course – Endless Growth on a Finite Planet, published by MIT Press and she has recently been appointed a Fellow of the International Centre of the Club of Rome.

Kerryn Higgs: I came across The Limits to Growth quite by accident in 1972, just when it was published. It was commissioned by the Club of Rome and written by a team of researchers at MIT, led by Donella and Dennis Meadows. The book changed the way I thought about Nature, people, history, everything. It persuaded me that physics matters, and that the idea of ever-expanding economic growth is a delusion. Up to then, I was a mainstream humanities person, history being my main discipline, and writing my passion. I did grow up in the countryside and loved the natural world, but I had no real intuition of an impending environmental crisis. And here was this little book suggesting that if we carried on with our exponential expansion, our system would collapse at some point in the middle of the 21st century.

Although galloping economic growth already seemed normal to most younger people living in the developed world in 1972, the growth that took off after WW2 was not normal. It is absolutely unprecedented in all of history. Nothing like it has ever occurred before: large and rapidly growing populations, accelerating industrialisation, expanding production of every kind. All new. The Meadows team found that we could avoid collapse if we slowed down the physical expansion of the economy. But this would mean two very difficult changes— slowing human population growth and slowing the entire cycle of physical production from material extraction through to the disposal of waste. The book was persuasive to me and I expected its message to have an impact on human affairs. But as the years rolled by, it seemed there was very little—and then, even less. In fact, I gradually became aware that most people thought “the Club of Rome got it wrong” and scorned the book as an ignorant tract from “doomsters”, an especially common view among economists. I want to point out, though, that recent research from Melbourne University’s Graham Turner, shows that the Meadows team did not get it wrong. Their projections for what would happen if we carried on business as usual tally almost exactly with what has actually occurred in the 40 years since 1972.

But while scientists from Rachel Carson onwards sounded alarm about numerous problems associated with growth, this was not the case in our govern­ments, bureaucracies, and in public debate, where economic growth was gradually being entrenched as the central objective of collective human effort. This really puzzled me.

How come the Club of Rome got such a terrible press?

How did scientists lose credibility? When I was young, science was almost a god. A few decades later, scientists were being flippantly brushed aside.

How did economists displace scientists as the crucial policy advisers and the architects of public debate, setting the criteria for policy decisions?

How did economic growth become accepted as the only solution to virtually all social problems—unemployment, debt and even the environmental damage growth was causing?

And how did ever-increasing income and consumption become the meaning of life, at least for us in the rich world? It was not the meaning of life when I was young.

Answering these questions took me back through human history. A few developments were especially decisive.

Around 1900, the modern corporation emerged. Over just a decade or two, many of the current transnationals came into being in the US (with names like Coca Cola, Alcoa and DuPont). International Harvester amalgamated 85% of US farm machinery into one corporation in just a few years. Adam Smith’s free enterprise economy was being transformed into something very different. A process of perpetual consolidation followed and by now, frighteningly few corporations control the majority of world trade and revenue, giving them colossal power. The new corporations of the early 20th century banded together into industry associations and business councils like the immensely influential US Chamber of Commerce, which was formed out of local chambers from across the country in 1912. These organisations exploited the newly emerging Public Relations industry, launching a barrage of private enterprise propaganda, uninterrupted for more than a century, and still very healthy today. Peabody coal, for example, recently signed up one of the world’s PR giants, Burson-Marsteller, for a PR campaign to convince leaders that coal is the solution to poverty.

Back in 1910 universal suffrage threatened the customary dominance of the business classes, and PR was an excellent solution. If workers were going to vote, they’d need the right advice. No-one expressed it better than Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, who is credited with founding the PR industry. Bernays was candid:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the… masses is an important element in democratic society (he wrote). Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism … constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country… It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.

PR became an essential tool for business to consolidate its power right through the century, culminating in the 1970s project to “litter the world with free market think tanks”. By 2013, there were nearly 7,000 of these, all over the world; the vast majority were conservative, free market advocates, many on the libertarian fringe, and financed by big business. They cultivate a studied appearance of independence, though one think tank vice-president came clean. “There is no such thing as a disinterested think tanker,” he said. “Somebody always builds the tank, and it’s usually not Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.” Funding think tanks is always about “shaping and reshaping the climate of public opinion”.

Nonetheless, the claim to independence has been so successful that most think tanks have tax-free charity status and their staff constantly feature in the media as if they were independent and peer-reviewed experts.

Another decisive development was the “bigger pie” strategy. Straight after World War 2, governments took on a new role of fostering growth. The emphasis increasingly fell on baking a bigger pie, so the slices could get bigger but the pie would not have to be divided up any more equitably. Growth could function as an alternative to fairness. Thorny problems like world poverty were designated growth problems and leaders in the decolonising world often embraced a growth-oriented version of development, a version that rarely helped their poor majorities. Growth allowed the privileged to maintain and even extend their opulence, while professing to be saving the world from poverty. It’s frequently claimed that growth is lifting millions out of poverty. But, apart from China, this is not really the case. China has indeed decreased the numbers of its extreme poor, though this has been achieved with disastrous environmental decline and increasing inequality.

Meanwhile, progress is patchy elsewhere. After 70 years of economic growth, with the world economy now 8 to 10 times bigger than it was in 1950, there are still 2 and a half billion people living on less than $2 a day, more than a third of the people on earth, and about the same number as in 1981. Growth has not been shared. Underlying the popularity of growth, there’s a great clash of values between mainstream economics and the physical sciences.

Economists see the human economy as the primary system—odd when you consider that the planet’s been here for about 4.6 billion years, and life for something like 3.8 billion.  The human era is less than a whisker on this timescale, but for economists Nature is just the extractive sector of their primary system, the economy. For scientists and ecological economists, the primary system is the planet – and it’s self-evidently finite. The human economy with its immense material extraction and vast waste, exists entirely within the earth system. Self-evident as these boundaries might seem, they remain invisible or contested in mainstream economics and are of little concern to politicians or citizens in most countries. Hardly a news bulletin goes by without stories of growth expected, growth threatened, or growth achieved. Growth is the watchword of both major parties here and around the world and remains the accepted solution to poverty, pollution and debt.

And yet, however necessary growth is to our current economic arrangements, and however desirable from the point of view of our expectations of material well-being and comfort, it’s hardly a practical aim if it’s based on a misperception of reality.

While we assume that a high and increasing level of material consumption is normal and desirable, we ignore the peculiarity of our times and the encroaching threats to us and our planet.

We are well into dangerous territory in three areas:

Firstly, species are going extinct 100 to 1000 times faster than the background rate.

Secondly, the nitrogen cycle is completely disrupted. In nature, nitrogen is largely inert in our atmosphere. Today, mainly through making fertiliser, nitrogen is flooding through our rivers, groundwater and continental shelves, fuelling algal blooms that lead to dead zones and fish kills.

And thirdly we are on the way to a very hot planet. Unless we change rapidly in the extremely near future, we risk an increase of 4 degrees Centigrade by 2100. So far, an increase of less than 1 degree is melting the West Antarctic icesheet, glaciers nearly everywhere and even the massive Greenland icecap.

Meanwhile, the rate of carbon dioxide and methane emissions continues to rise. In fact, right through the decade it took to write my book, I was staggered as these emissions defied all protocols and agreements, and rose faster and faster every year, setting a new record in 2013. Four degrees may be a bridge too far, and yet our culture is cheerfully crossing it.

I started out as a student of human history and ended up studying the intersection between human history and natural history. Humans have had local effects for thousands of years but on a global scale, the collision is new. Humans were a flea on the face of the earth for most of our history and it’s probably true to say this is the very first time one species—ours—has taken over the entire planetary system for its own sole use. In human-focused terms, this may seem perfectly reasonable. In planetary terms, it’s weird and completely impractical.

While our best agricultural land, last remnants of white box woodland and the Great Barrier Reef are put at risk for the extraction of gas and coal, which we should aim to stop burning anyway if we want a liveable world, it seems that only citizen revolt is left to counter it.

Let’s hope we succeed.

The ground of our being is at stake.

Robyn Williams: Kerryn Higgs. She’s with the University of Tasmania and her book, published by MIT Press, is called Collision Course – Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. Kerryn has recently been appointed a Fellow of the International Centre of the Club of Rome. Next week I shall introduce the proud Professor who’s just moved into that crumpled brown paper bag designed by Frank Gehry for the University of Technology, Sydney: Roy Green on innovation in Australia and what’s not right.  





West Antarctic ice shelf collapse past the point of no return…

26 12 2014

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

Another guest post from our resident Climate Scientist, Mark Cochrane who has been too busy this year to write much for us… never good news of course, but it’s imperative we stay abreast of the news as the future unfolds.

Two papers now show that the collapse of the Western Antarctic ice sheet is a foregone conclusion. No matter what we do, that ice (equal to 4 m of sea level rise) is going to melt. We can accelerate the rate but we cannot slow it. It isn’t being melted from above, it is being lifted from below, allowing the ice to flow into the sea. There are no remaining impediments (e.g. ridges or mountains) to keep the ice sheet from collapsing completely, so the dominoes are falling whether we like it or not.

One study (Rignot et al. 2014 in Geophysical Research Letters) focused on the observed melting over the last few decades, while the other based their conclusions on computer modeling of the future decay of the ice sheet (Joughlin et al. 2014 Science). Having scientists confirm the same findings using different methods provides confidence that, although the timeline may change a bit, the main results are likely correct. Both studies put the minimum time for this collapse at 200 years, with the maximum time for the collapse being 500 or 900 years, respectively. Best case is a doubling of rates of sea level rise….

While having 200+ years until complete collapse may not sound like an urgent problem, it is. If the West Antarctic ice sheet collapse is certain then most if not all of Greenland will be right on its heels and even portions of the larger East Antarctic ice sheet will be pouring into the oceans. What this means is that not only will sea levels continue to rise, they will continue to rise at increasing rates. Most of humanity lives near the coastlines. We have bequeathed future generations with a legacy of ever shifting shorelines. Many of the world’s largest cities will either have to be abandoned, moved, or protected with massive sea walls that will rapidly become obsolescent as sea levels keep rising. Most goods are shipped by sea meaning that port cities are key. It should be interesting to see how we keep retrofitting docks around the world.

Where is all of this leading us? We have now reached 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. Why is that important?

this level has not been seen on Earth for 3-5 million years, a period called the Pliocene. At that time, global average temperatures were 3 or 4C higher than today’s and 8C warmer at the poles. Reef corals suffered a major extinction while forests grew up to the northern edge of the Arctic Ocean, a region which is today bare tundra. (link)

Since we have no way of removing significant amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, this is the future that we have programmed into the Earth’s climate system. For those looking for future beach-front property, sea levels were 40 m higher than today. It will take hundreds, if not thousands, of years for all of this to play out so don’t move quite yet! The wildcard in our future will be the weather we experience. CO2 is now rising at about 75 times anything in the geological record so no one really knows what we will experience but chances are that it will not be a good experience in most places. ‘Climate’ is average weather (at least 30 years), meaning that seasons and weather patterns should be roughly stable or bounded over that time period. However, we are now changing the climate continuously so that trying to define ‘average’ weather over several decades doesn’t really make sense anymore than it would to buy your kid’s clothes based on their average height between ages 5 and 15.





Laughing all the way to the cliff……

23 05 2014

Pope Benedict is quoted as having written “The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefiting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger”.  This prompted in me memories of my youth when we were promised so much technology, none of us would have to ever work, because technology would replace labour, giving us limitless leisure time.

So what happened?

Money got in the way.  Sure, robots can build cars.  Yes, gigantic combine harvesters can cut thousands of acres of wheat (and it’s only a matter of time before they do this without a driver, like the mining industry is introducing driverless Tonka Trucks).  Even ‘checkout chicks’ are being replaced with infuriating self checkout lanes……. Then we have those even more infuriating robotic answering services which Jim Kunstler recently had this to say about:

Robot phone answering systems also allowed corporations to off-load the cost of doing business onto their customers, mostly in the form of wasting vast amounts of their customers’ time. Included in the off-load was the cost of paying receptionists (as telephone answerers used to be quaintly called) and all their medical and retirement benefits — just another manifestation of the vanishing middle class, by the way, since a lot of women used to be employed that way (let’s skip the gender equality side-bar for now). After a while, the added privilege of companies being able to evade responsibility for their actions hugely outweighed the cost-saving advantage of firing some lower level employees.

Trouble is, robots don’t buy cars, harvesters don’t buy bread, and computers don’t buy groceries……  Money buys those things.  So the providers of money had no choice but to keep us all enslaved using ‘Labour Productivity’ to ensure ‘we’ could earn the money to buy the stuff made by the technology that displaced our jobs.

The result is that today’s largest sector of the economy is the financial one.  For at least twenty years, we have been encouraged – dare I say browbeaten? – to borrow ever more money to buy stuff we don’t need and which won’t last, to impress people we don’t know or care about, creating mountains of waste and oceans of plastic……

Remember those..?

Speaking of plastic, I reckon it all started with credit cards.  I remember getting my first Bankcard in the late seventies.  What an innovation that was.  How primitive they were compared to the current ‘paywave’ technology!  The card had to be put in a machine that used the raised characters on the card to make carbon copies of your details, then you had to sign the form, all in triplicate…  can you imagine the fuss such a thing would cause in a modern supermarket queue?

I can’t remember what my credit limit was back then, but it wasn’t thousands of dollars, I’m sure of that.  And you wouldn’t pull it out for any old transaction, because you were still paid in cash back then……!  Yes dear reader, cash…  The paymaster would come to your desk with a tray full of brown envelopes with real money in them and a pay statement.  One of those envelopes had your name on it, and you had to sign a form saying you’d received it, and you counted your cash (including the coins!) to make sure no one had made an error.  But when computers came along, all those people lost their jobs, nobody was needed to count your money anymore.

I know I’m showing my age now.  And feeling all nostalgic about the good old days when petrol cost fifty cents a gallon, when the Club of Rome had only just published its Limits to Growth Report, and everyone just decided to ignore it, because 2020 was so far into the future, it would be someone else’s problem.

We all thought we were laughing all the way to the bank back then……  but little did we know we were in fact laughing all the way to the cliff.

Everything, and I mean everything today is about money.  Nobody ever does anything anymore unless there’s money to be made.  They’ll even do useless things, unsustainable things, unethical things, immoral things, unbelievably stupid things….. just for the money.  Even the government’s onto it.  If there’s money to be made, they’ll throw the poor, the sick, the elderly, anybody who can’t grow the money pile, onto the shit heap we call the economy.  What are they thinking?  How can greed take over like this?  How on Earth did the Australian people get sucked in by the lies this current government were proliferating before the election?  And then elect the worst government in all of human history?  Well, alright, Hitler was worse…….  but just give these bastards a chance to catch up.

Yes, you’ve worked it out……  I despair.  See you on the edge of the cliff.

PS.  Did anyone else see this momentous piece of news about tight oil in California?  I haven’t laughed so hard in a very long time…..

In 2011, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the US Department of Energy commissioned INTEK Inc., a Virginia-based consulting firm, to estimate how much oil might be recoverable from California’s vast Monterey Shale formation. Production of tight oil was soaring in North Dakota and Texas, and small, risk-friendly drilling companies were making salivating noises (within earshot of potential investors) about the potential for an even bigger bonanza in the Golden State.

INTEK obliged with a somewhat opaque report (apparently based on oil company investor presentations) suggesting that the Monterey might yield 15.4 billion barrels—64 percent of the total estimated tight oil reserves of the lower 48 states. The EIA published this number as its own, and the University of Southern California then went on to use the 15.4 billion barrel figure as the basis for an economic study, claiming that California could look forward to 2.8 million additional jobs by 2020 and $24.6 billion per year in additional tax revenues if the Monterey reserves were “developed” (i.e., liquidated as quickly as possible).
 
We at Post Carbon Institute took a skeptical view of both the EIA/INTEK and USC reports. In 2013, PCI Fellow David Hughes produced an in-depth study (and a report co-published by PCI and Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy) that examined the geology of the Monterey Shale and the status of current oil production projects there. Hughes found that the Monterey differs in several key respects from tight oil deposits in North Dakota and Texas, and that currently producing hydrofractured wells in the formation show much lower productivity than assumed in the EIA/INTEK report. Hughes concluded that “Californians would be well advised to avoid thinking of the Monterey Shale as a panacea for the State’s economic and energy concerns.”
 
On May 21 the Los Angeles Times reported that “Federal energy authorities have slashed by 96% the estimated amount of recoverable oil buried in California’s vast Monterey Shale deposits, deflating its potential as a national ‘black gold mine’ of petroleum.” The EIA had already downgraded its technically recoverable reserves estimate for the Monterey from 15.4 to 13.7 billion barrels; now it was reducing the number to a paltry 0.6 billion barrels.




Mineral resources and the limits to growth

29 09 2013

I thought long and hard about reproducing this remarkable article here…….  It’s rather longer than anything I

Ugo Bardi

Ugo Bardi

usually put up, and I was concerned about copyright, but found nothing on the original website where this was published that says I can’t do it…… and I expect no one at resilience.org objects to ensuring the spread of this important message.

Five years ago, I published a very short item on roughly the same concept.  But I’m no Ugo Bardi…..  So make yourself a good cuppa your favourite poison, and enjoy….

 

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So, ladies and gentleman, let me start with this recent book of mine. It is titled “The Plundered Planet.”  You can surely notice that it is not titled “The Developed Planet” or “The Improved Planet.”  Myself and the co-authors of the book chose to emphasize the concept of “Plundering”; of the fact that we are exploiting the resources of our planet as if they were free for us for the taking; that is, without thinking of the consequences.   And the main consequence, with which we are concerned here is called “depletion,” even though we have to keep in mind the problem of pollution as well.

Now, there have been many studies on the question of depletion, but “The Plundered Planet” has a specific origin, and I can show it to you. Here it is.

It is the rather famous study that was published in 1972 with the title “The Limits to Growth”.  It was one of the first studies that attempted to quantify depletion and its effects on the world’s economic system.  It was a complex study based on the best available data at the time and that used the most sophisticated computers available to study how the interaction of various factors would affect parameters such as industrial production, agricultural production, population and the like.  Here are the main results of the 1972 study, the run that was called the “base case” (or “standard run”).  The calculations were redone in 2004, finding similar results.  

As you can see, the results were not exactly pleasant to behold.  In 1972, the study saw a slowdown of the world’s main economic parameters that would take place within the first two decades of the 21st century.  I am sure that you are comparing, in your minds, these curves with the present economic situation and you may wonder whether these old calculations may be turning out to be incredibly good.  But I would also like to say that these curves are not – and never were – meant to be taken as specific predictions.  No one can predict the future, what we can do is to study tendencies and where these tendencies are leading us.  So, the main result of the Limits to Growth study was to show that the economic system was headed towards a collapse at some moment in the future owing to the combined effect of depletion, pollution, and overpopulation.  Maybe the economic problems we are seeing nowadays are a prelude to the collapse seen by this model, maybe not – maybe the predicted collapse is still far away in the future.  We can’t say right now. 

In any case, the results of the study can be seen at least worrisome.  And a reasonable reaction when the book came out in 1972 would have been to study the problem in greater depth – nobody wants the economy to collapse, of course.  But, as you surely know, the Limits to Growth study was not well received.  It was strongly criticized, accused of having made “mistakes” of all kinds and at times to be part of a worldwide conspiracy to take control of the world and to exterminate most of humankind.  Of course, most of this criticism had political origins.  It was mostly a gut reaction: people didn’t like these results and sought to find ways to demonstrate that the model was wrong (or the data, or the approach, or something else).  If they couldn’t do that, they resorted to demonizing the authors – that’s nothing now; I described it in a book of mine “Revisiting the limits to growth“.

Nevertheless, there was a basic criticism of the “Limits” study that made sense.  Why should one believe in this model?  What are exactly the factors that generate the expected collapse?  Here, I must say, the answer often given in the early times by the authors and by their supporters wasn’t so good.  What the creators of the models said was that the model made sense according to their views and they could show a scheme that was this (from the 1972 Italian edition of the book):

Now, I don’t know what do you think of it; to me it looks more or less like the map of the subway of Tokyo, complete with signs in kanji characters.  Not easy to navigate, to say the least.  So, why did the authors create this spaghetti model?  What was the logic in it?  It turns out that the Limits to Growth model has an internal logic and that it can be explained in thermodynamic terms.  However, it takes some work to describe the whole story.  So, let me start with the ultimate origin of these models:

If you have studied engineering, you surely recognize this object.  It is called a “governor” and it is a device developed in 19th century to regulate the speed of steam engines.  It turns with the engine, and the arms open or close depending on speed.  In so doing, the governor closes or opens the valve that sends steam into the engine.  It is interesting because it is the first self-regulating device of this kind and, at its time, it generated a lot of interest.  James Clerk Maxwell himself studied the behaviour of the governor and, in 1868, he came up with a set of equations describing it. Here is a page from his original article

I am showing you these equations just to let you note how these systems can be described by a set of correlated differential equations.  It is an approach that is still used and today we can solve this kind of equations in real time and control much more complex systems than steam engines.  For instance, drones.

You see here that a drone can be controlled so perfectly that it can hold a glass without spilling the content. And you can have drones playing table tennis with each other and much more.  Of course they are also machines designed for killing people, but let’s not go into that.  The point is that if you can solve a set of differential equations, you can describe – and also control – the behaviour of quite complex systems.

The work of Maxwell so impressed Norbert Wiener, that it led him to develop the concept of “cybernetics”

We don’t use so much the term cybernetics today.  But the ideas that started from the governor study by Maxwell were extremely fecund and gave rise to a whole new field of science.  When you use these equations for controlling mechanical system, you use the term “control theory.”  But when you use the equations for study the behaviour of socio-economic systems, you use the term “system dynamics”

System dynamics is something that was developed mainly by Jay Wright Forrester in the 1950s and 1960s, when there started to exist computers powerful enough to solve sets of coupled differential equations in reasonable times.  That generated a lot of studies, including “The Limits to Growth” of 1972 and today the field is alive and well in many areas.

A point I think is important to make is that these equations describe real world systems and real world systems must obey the laws of thermodynamics.  So, system dynamics must be consistent with thermodynamics. It does.  Let me show you a common example of a system described by system dynamics: practitioners in this field are fond of using a bathub as an example:

On the right you have a representation of the real system, a bathtub partly filled with water.  On the left, its representation using system dynamics.  These models are called “stock and flow”, because you use boxes to represent stocks (the quantity of water in the tub) and you use double edged arrows to indicate flows.  The little butterfly like things indicate valves and single edged arrows indicate relationship.

Note that I used a graphic convention that I like to use for my “mind sized” models.  That is, I have stocks flowing “down”, following the dissipation of thermodynamic potential.  In this case what moves the model is the gravitational potential; it is what makes water flow down, of course.  Ultimately, the process is driven by an increase in entropy and I usually ask to my students where is that entropy increases in this system.  They usually can’t give the right answer.  It is not that easy, indeed – I leave that to you as a little exercise

The model on the left is not simply a drawing of box and arrows, it is made with a software called “Vensim” which actually turns the model “alive” by building the equations and solving them in real time.  And, as you may imagine, it is not so difficult to make a model that describes a bathtub being filled from one side and emptied from the other. But, of course, you can do much more with these models.  So, let me show a model made with Vensim that describes the operation of a governor and of the steam engine.

Before we go on, let me introduce a disclaimer.  This is just a model that I put together for this presentation. It seems to work, in the sense that it describes a behaviour that I think is correct for a governor (you can see the results plotted inside the boxes).  But it doesn’t claim to be a complete model and surely not the only possible way to make a system dynamics model of a governor.  This said, you can give a look to it and notice a few things.  The main one is that we have two “stocks” of energy: one for the large wheel of the steam energy, the other for the small wheel which is the governor.  In order to provide some visual sense of this difference in size, I made the two boxes of different size, but that doesn’t change the equations underlying the model.  Note the “feedback”, the arrows that connect flows and stock sizes.  The concept of feedback is fundamental in these models.

Of course, this is also a model that is compatible with thermodynamics.  Only, in this case we don’t have a gravitational potential that moves the system, but a potential based on temperature differences.  The steam engine works because you have this temperature difference and you know the work of Carnot and the others who described it.  So, I used the same convention here as before; thermodynamic potential are dissipated going “down” in the model’s graphical representation

Now, let me show you another simple model, the simplest version I can think of a model that describes the exploitation of non renewable resources:

It is, again, a model based on thermodynamics and, this time, driven by chemical potentials.  The idea is that the “resources” stock as a high chemical potential in the sense that it may be thought as, for instance, crude oil, which spontaneously combines with oxygen to create energy.  This energy is used by human beings to create what I can call “capital” – the sum of everything you can do with oil; from industries to bureaucracies.

On the right, you can see the results that the model provides in terms of the behaviour as a function of time of the stock of the resources, their production, and the capital stock.  You may easily notice how similar these curves are to those provided by the more complex model of “The Limits to Growth.”  So, we are probably doing something right, even with this simple model.

But the point is that the model works!  When you apply it to real world cases, you see that its results can fit the historical data.  Let me show you an example:

This is the case of whaling in 19th century, when whale oil was used as fuel for lamps, before it became common to use kerosene.  I am showing you this image because it is the first attempt I made to use the model and I was surprised to see that it worked – and it worked remarkably well.  You see, here you have two stocks: one is whales, the other is the capital of the whaling industry that can be measured by means of a proxy that is the total tonnage of the whaling fleet.  And, as I said, the model describes very well how the industry grew on the profit of killing whales, but they killed way too many of them.  Whales are, of course, a renewable resource; in principle.  But, of course, if too many whales are killed, then they don’t have enough time to reproduce and they behave as a non-renewable resource.  Biologists have determined that at the end of this fishing cycle, there were only about 50 females of the species being hunted at that time.  Non renewable, indeed!

So, that is, of course, one of the several cases where we found that the model can work.  Together with my co-workers, we found that it can work also for petroleum extraction, as we describe in a paper published in 2009 (Bardi and Lavacchi).  But let me skip that – the important thing is that the model works in some cases but, as you would expect, not in all. And that is good – because what you don’t want is a “fit-all” model that doesn’t tell you anything about the system you are studying.  Let’s say that the model reproduces what’s called the “Hubbert model” of resource exploitation, which is a purely empirical model that was proposed more than 50 years ago and that remains a basic one in this kind of studies: it is the model that proposes that extraction goes through a “bell-shaped” curve and that the peak of the curve, the “Hubbert peak” is the origin of the concept of “peak oil” which you’ve surely heard about.  Here is the original Hubbert model and you see that it has described reasonably well the production of crude oil in the 48 US lower states.

Now, let’s move on a little.  What I have presented to you is a very simple model that reproduces some of the key elements of the model used for “The Limits to Growth” study but it is of course a very simplified version.  You may have noted that the curves for industrial production of the Limits to Growth tend to be skewed forward and this simple model can’t reproduce that.  So, we must move one step forward and let me show you how it can be done while maintaining the basic idea of a “thermodynamic cascade” that goes from higher potentials to lower potentials.  Here is what I’ve called the “Seneca model”


You see that I added a third stock to the system.   In this case I called it “pollution”; but you might also call it, for instance, “bureaucracy” or may be even “war”.  It is any stock that draws resource from the “Capital” (aka, “the economy”) stock.  And the result is that the capital stock and production collapse rather rapidly; this is what I called “the Seneca effect”; from the roman philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca who noted that “Fortune is slow, but ruin is rapid”.

For this model, I can’t show you specific historical cases – we are still working on this idea, but it is not easy to make quantitative fittings because the model is complicated.  But there are cases of simple systems where you see this specific behaviour, highly forward skewed curves – caviar fishing is an example.  But let’s not go there right now.

What I would like to say is that you can move onward with this idea of cascading thermodynamic potentials and build up something that may be considered as a simplified version of the five main stocks taken into account in the “Limits to Growth” calculations.  Here it is

Now, another disclaimer: I am not saying that this model is equivalent to that of the Limits to Growth, nor that it is the only way to arrange stocks and flows in order to produce similar results to the one obtained by the Limits to Growth model.  It is here just to show to you the logic of the model.  And I think you can agree, now, that there is one.  The “Limits” model is not just randomly arranged spaghetti, it is something that has a deep logic based on thermodynamics.  It describes the dissipation of a cascade of thermodynamic potentials.

In the end, all these model, no matter how you arrange their elements, tend to generate similar basic results: the bell shaped curve; the one that Hubbert had already proposed in 1956

The curve may be skewed forward or not, but that changes little on the fact that the downside slope is not so pleasant for those who live it.

Don’t expect this curve to be a physical law; after all it depend on human choices and human choices may be changed.  But, in normal conditions, human beings tend to follow rather predictable patterns, for instance exploiting the “easy” resources (those which are at the highest thermodynamic potential) and then move down to the more difficult ones.  That generates the curve.

Now, I could show you many examples of the tendency of real world systems to follow the bell shape curve.  Let me show you just one; a recent graph recently made by Jean Laherrere.

These are data for the world’s oil production.  As you can see, there are irregularities and oscillations.  But note how, from 2004 to 2013, we have been following the curve: we move on a predictable path.  Already in 2004 we could have predicted what would have been today’s oil production.  But, of course, there are other elements in this system.  In the figure on the right, you can see also the appearance of the so-called “non-conventional” oil resources, which are following their own curve and which are keeping the production of combustible liquids (a concept slightly different from that of “crude oil) rather stable or slightly increasing.  But, you see, the picture is clear and the predictive ability of these models is rather good even though, of course, approximate.

Now, there is another important point I’d like to make.  You see, these models are ultimately based on thermodynamics and there is an embedded thermodynamic parameter in the models that is called EROI (or ERoEI) which is the energy return for the energy invested. It is basically the decline in this parameter that makes, for instance, the extraction of oil gradually producing less energy and, ultimately, becoming pointless when the value of the ERoEI goes below one.  Let me show you an illustration of this concept:

You see?  The data you usually read for petroleum production are just that: how much petroleum is being produced in terms of volume.  There is already a problem with the fact that not all petroleums are the same in the sense of energy per unit volume, but the real question is the NET energy you get by subtracting the energy invested from the energy produced.  And that, as you see, goes down rapidly as you move to more expensive and difficult resources.  For EROEIs under about 20, the problem is significant and below about 10 it becomes serious.  And, as you see, there are many energy resources that have this kind of low EROEI.  So, don’t get impressed by the fact that oil production continues, slowly, to grow.  Net energy is the problem and many things that are happening today in the world seem to be related to the fact that we are producing less and less net energy.  In other words, we are paying more to produce the same.  This appears in terms of high prices in the world market.

Here is an illustration of how prices and production have varied during the past decades from the blog “Early Warning” kept by Stuart Staniford.

And you see that, although we are able to manage a slightly growing production, we can do so only at increasingly high prices.  This is an effect of increasing energy investments in extracting difficult resources – energy costs money, after all.

So, let me show you some data for resources that are not petroleum.  Of course, in this case you can’t speak in terms of ERoEI; because you are not producing energy.  But the problem is the same, since you are using fossil fuels to produce most of the commodities that enter the industrial system, and that is valid also for agriculture. Here are some data.

Food production worldwide is still increasing, but the high costs of fossil fuels are causing this increase in prices.  And that’s a big problem because we all know that the food demand is highly inelastic – in plain words you need to eat or you die.  Several recent events in the world, such as wars and revolutions in North Africa and Middle East have been related to these increases in food prices.

Now, let me go to the general question of mineral production.  Here, we have the same behaviour: most mineral commodities are still growing in terms of extracted quantities, as you can see here (from a paper by Krausmann et al, 2009 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2009.05.007)

These data go up to 2005 – more recent data show signs of plateauing production, but we don’t see clear evidence of a peak, yet. This is bad, because we are creating a climate disaster. As you see from the most recent data, CO2 are still increasing in a nearly exponential manner

 

But the system is clearly under strain. Here are some data relative to the average price index for aluminium, copper, gold, iron ore, lead, nickel, silver, tin and zinc (adapted from a graphic reported by Bertram et al., Resource Policy, 36(2011)315)

So, you see, there has been this remarkable “bump” in the prices of everything and that correlates well with what I was arguing before: energy costs more and, at the same time, energy requirements are increasing because of ore depletion.  At present, we are still able to keep production stable or even slowly increasing, but this is costing society tremendous sacrifices in terms of reducing social services, health care, pensions and all the rest.  And, in addition, we risk destroying the planetary ecosystem because of climate change.

Now I can summarize what I’ve been saying and get to the take-home point which, I think can be expressed in a single sentence “Mining takes energy

Of course, many people say that we are so smart that we can invent new ways of mining that don’t require so much energy.  Fine, but look at that giant wheel, above, used to extract coal in the mine of Garzweiler in Germany.  Think of how much energy you need to make that wheel; do you think you could use an i-pad, instead?

In the end, energy is the key of everything and if we want to keep mining, and we need to keep mining, we need to be able to keep producing energy.  And we need to obtain that energy without fossil fuels. That’s the concept of the “Energy Transition”

Here, I use the German term “Energiewende” which stands for “Energy Transition”. And I have also slightly modified the words by Stanley Jevons, he was talking about coal, but the general concept of energy is the same.  We need to go through the transition, otherwise, as Jevons said long ago, we’ll be forced to return to the “laborious poverty” of older times.

That doesn’t mean that the times of low cost mineral commodities will ever return but we should be able to maintain a reasonable flux of mineral commodities into the industrial system and keep it going.  But we’ll have to adapt to less opulent and wasteful life as the society of “developed” countries has been accustomed to so far.  I think it is not impossible, if we don’t ask too much:

h/t ms. Ruza Jankovich – the car shown here is an old Fiat “500” that was produced in the 1960s and it would move people around without the need of SUVs

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Acknowledgement:

The Club of Rome team

Daphne Davies
Ian Johnson
Linda Schenk
Alexander Stefes
Joséphine von Mitschke-Collande
Karl Wagner

And the coauthors of the book “Plundering the Planet”

Philippe Bihouix
Colin Campbell
Stefano Caporali
Partick Dery
Luis De Souza
Michael Dittmar
Ian Dunlop
Toufic El Asmar
Rolf Jakobi
Jutta Gutberlet
Rui Rosa
Iorg Schindler
Emilia Suomalainen
Marco Pagani
Karl Wagner
Werner Zittel

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