It’s all happening. Still.

10 02 2016

While working on those entangled branches for the past few days, I listen to podcasts on the ute radio that I’ve downloaded over the past 12 to 18 months.  It suddenly hit me that the three people whose work I follow and respect the most are women’s. I can’t help wondering why this is.  Could women be actually cleverer than men?  Are they most able to think into the future?

Susan Krumdieck is the engineer with more degrees than a thermometer plus a PhD, Nicole Foss whom I think can match Susan’s pedigree but has additional expertise in economic matters, and Gail Tverberg, the actuary with the uncanny ability to analyse what’s going on and explain it in a way most people should understand…… the only male standout for me is Chris Martenson, though I think his website is too much about how to stay rich in the collapse rather than how to survive it….

A couple of days ago, not one but two really good articles landed in my news feed commenting on how the collapse of the price of oil is going to cause mayhem this year, and is a clear sign of diminishing returns.  One was by Gail, the other quoted her….

Nicole has written a long article which was published in three parts over at the Automatic earth, I highly recommend it.  Nicole’s article being almost book length, I will leave it to you to follow the link and read it yourself.  Gail’s article, for me, begins with…:

the effects of not having enough energy flows may spread more widely than the individual plant or animal that weakens and dies. If the reason a plant dies is because the plant is part of a forest that over time has grown so dense that the plants in the understory cannot get enough light, then there may be a bigger problem. The dying plant material may accumulate to the point of encouraging forest fires. Such a forest fire may burn a fairly wide area of the forest. Thus, the indirect result may be to put to an end a portion of the forest ecosystem itself.

How should we expect an economy to behave over time? The pattern of energy dissipated over the life cycle of a dissipative system will vary, depending on the particular system. In the examples I gave, the pattern seems to somewhat follow what Ugo Bardi calls a Seneca Cliff.

Figure 1. Seneca Cliff by Ugo Bardi

The Seneca Cliff pattern is so-named because long ago, Lucius Seneca wrote:

It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.

This is doubly interesting, for me at least, because it appears that oil, and energy production generally, may be acting just like the above cliff….

Figure 6 shows that the FSU’s consumption of energy products started falling precipitously in 1991, the year of the collapse–very much a Seneca Cliff type of decline.

Figure 5. Former Soviet Union energy consumption by source, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy Data 2015.

Gail explains how so many believe the wrong views of how the economy works..

The Standard Wrong Belief about the Physics of Energy and the Economy

There is a standard wrong belief about the physics of energy and the economy; it is the belief we can somehow train the economy to get along without much energy.

In this wrong view, the only physics that is truly relevant is the thermodynamics of oil fields and other types of energy deposits. All of these fields deplete if exploited over time. Furthermore, we know that there are a finite number of these fields. Thus, based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the amount of free energy we will have available in the future will tend to be less than today. This tendency will especially be true after the date when “peak oil” production is reached.

According to this wrong view of energy and the economy, all we need to do is design an economy that uses less energy. We can supposedly do this by increasing efficiency, and by changing the nature of the economy to use a greater proportion of services. If we also add renewables (even if they are expensive) the economy should be able to get along fine with very much less energy.

These wrong views are amazingly widespread. They seem to underlie the widespread hope that the world can reduce its fossil fuel use by 80% between now and 2050 without badly disturbing the economy. The book 2052: A Forecast for the Next 40 Years by Jorgen Randers seems to reflect these views. Even the “Stabilized World Model” presented in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth by Meadows et al. seems to be based on naive assumptions about how much reduction in energy consumption is possible without causing the economy to collapse.

It’s exactly what George Monbiot either can’t understand, or refuses to see….

So there must be another story.

A monster called ‘diminishing returns’

There is, and it’s a rather grim energy fairy tale. This one shows how the world’s economy depends on the quality of energy burned, and not the amount of money spent. When economies spend cheap oil, GDP rises; when they switch to costly and unconventional stuff, growth comes to a screeching halt.

In this unfolding story, cheap credit played a big role. It allowed an industry to carelessly borrow trillions to chase ultra-expensive and risky resources such as bitumen and shale oil.

An energy industry laden with toxic debt is now earning less money than what it costs to shovel bitumen or frack shale. And this kind of debt is not going to end well for financial markets. Or for ordinary people.

But the darkest character in this fairy tale is the monster called diminishing returns.

On a diet of cheap oil, the world financial system grew on energy surpluses like a wildfire dines on trees in a forest.

But no more. The cheap stuff is gone, and companies are now frantically fracking North Dakota at a cost of $60 a barrel or mining northern Alberta’s heavy bitumen at costs as high as $80 a barrel. With oil at $30 a barrel, many companies are, as respected Houston analyst Art Berman recently put it, “losing their asses.”

Diminishing returns explain why. Imagine a 20-year-old vehicle that now costs more money to maintain than it does to drive. Every time the owner pours more cash and energy into the clunker, the benefits and rewards keep shrinking. An old car can be a treadmill into poverty.

In a 2014 paper for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, David Murphy, an energy expert at St. Lawrence University, chronicles what diminishing returns really mean in energy terms.

For every barrel of energy invested in global oil production, 17 are now extracted and turned into wealth. (Nearly 100 years ago, one barrel of investment yielded 100 barrels more, a cornucopia that built the global economy.)

But the industry must now drill deeper and deeper into ugly reservoirs and then fracture them apart to capture molecules of gas or oil. As a consequence, U.S. oil production yields only 11 barrels for every barrel invested, and that number is fast declining. Ultra-heavy bitumen and other unconventional hydrocarbons capture returns of less than 10 and in many cases as low as three.

Energy resources that deliver such paltry returns are civilization shrinkers. They cannibalize other resources and offer no energy surplus.

Enjoy your homework…… I’ve got things to do to escape this predicament!

Peak fossil fuel won’t stop climate change – but it could help

26 02 2015

The Conversation

Peak fossil fuel means it’s unlikely the worst climate scenario will come to pass. Gary Ellem explains.

What happens to coal in China will play a big role in deciding which climate road we’re all on. Han Jun Zeng/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Fossil fuels are ultimately a finite resource – the definition of non-renewable energy. Burning of these fuels – coal, oil and gas – is the main driver of climate change. So could the peak of fossil fuels help mitigate warming?

The short answer is maybe … but perhaps not how you might think.

In a paper published this month in the journal Fuel, my colleagues and I suggest that limits to fossil fuel availability might take climate Armageddon off the table, although we will still need to keep some fossil fuels in the ground for the best chance of keeping warming below 2C.

But more importantly, the peak of Chinese coal use is changing the face of global alternative energy industry development, and is soon likely to impact on international positioning for a low-emissions future.

Now for the long answer.

Predicting climate change

Predicting future climate change is dogged by two fundamental uncertainties: the dosage of greenhouse gas that human civilisation will add to the atmosphere, and how Earth’s climate and feedback systems will respond to it.

In the absence of a crystal ball for the future of emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has adopted a scenario-based approach which highlights four representative concentration pathways (or RCPs). These are named after how much extra heating they add to the earth (in watts per square metre).

The relationship between emissions, and temperature projections. IPCC
Click to enlarge

From these scenarios the IPCC has developed temperature scenarios. So the RCP2.6 scenario is expected to restrict climate change to below 2C, whereas RCP8.5 represents catastrophic climate change of around 4C by the end of this century, rising to perhaps 8C in the ensuing centuries.

Fossil fuels forecast

The key thing to note here is that the emissions scenarios are demand-focused scenarios that have been developed to reflect possibilities for potential fossil fuel consumption. They explore a range of scenarios that include increasing global population and living standards, as well as the possible impact of new alternative energy technologies and global emissions-reduction agreements.

Instead of examining demand scenarios for fossil fuels, our work has focused on supply constraints to future fossil fuel production. Our work is not a forecast of future fossil fuel production and consumption, but rather seeks to determine the upper bounds of the geological resource and how it might be brought to market using normal supply and demand interactions.

We developed three projections based on different estimates of these Ultimately Recoverable Resources (URR). URR is the proportion of total fossil fuel resources that can be viably extracted now, and in the future (this accounts for some resources that are technologically inaccessible now becoming extractable in the future). The low case used the most pessimistic literature resource availability estimates, whereas the high case used the most optimistic estimates.

We also included a “best guess” estimate by choosing country-level resource values that we considered most likely. We then compared the resulting emissions profiles for the three upper bounds to the published IPCC emissions scenarios, as shown in the figure below.

Our projections for fossil fuel supply (black) matched with emissions scenarios (colours). RCP8.5 is the worst, RCP2.6 the best. Gary Ellem
Click to enlarge

In comparison to the published emissions scenarios, we found that it was very unlikely that enough fossil fuels could be brought to market to deliver the RCP8.5 scenario and we would recommend that this be removed from the IPCC scenarios in future assessment reports.

Mining out the optimistic fossil fuel supply base could perhaps deliver the RCP6 scenario, however, our best guess limit to fossil fuel availability caps the upper limit of emissions exposure to the RCP4.5 scenario (roughly equivalent to a median estimate of 2C warming).

But even under the low resource availability scenario, it will be necessary to leave some fossil fuels untapped if we are to meet the conditions for the RCP2.6 scenario or lower (to have more than a 90% chance of avoiding 2C temperature rise).

To sum up, our supply side assessment suggests that even if the climate Armageddon of the RPC8.5 scenario were desirable, it is unlikely that enough new fossil fuel resources could be discovered in time and brought to market to deliver it. To be clear, there is still much to worry about with the RPC4.5 and RPC6 scenarios which are still possible at the limits of likely fossil fuel resources.

So a simple reflection on global fossil fuel limitation won’t save us … but nations don’t face peak fuels at the same time. A country-level analysis of peak fuels suggests the possibility of a very different future.

How China could shake the world

As part of our assessment we looked closely at the fossil fuel production projections for four countries including China, Canada, the United States and Australia. Of these, China is by far the most intriguing.

China has little in the way of oil and gas resources and so has established its remarkable industrial growth on exploiting its substantial coal resources. Our projections indicate that the rapid expansion in Chinese coal mining is rapidly depleting this resource, with Chinese peak coal imminent in the mid-2020s under even the high fossil fuel scenario, as seen in the projections below.

Various scenarios for China’s fossil fuel supply. Gary Ellem
Click to enlarge

China is well aware of this and is currently scrambling to cap coal consumption and develop alternative energy projects and industries. Its leaders understand that the alternative energy sector is really an advanced manufacturing sector, and have moved to position themselves strategically as the world leader in solar, wind, hydro, battery and nuclear technology construction and manufacturing.

As fossil fuels start to fail China as a path to economic and energy security, China will join other regions in a similar position, such as the European Union nations, which have largely depleted their fossil fuel reserves.

For these nations focused on alternative energy investment for energy and economic security, global action on climate change is strategically aligned with their industrial strength. We can therefore expect them to pressure for increasing global action as a method of improving their strategic global trading position. We may see the beginnings of this transition at this year’s international climate talks in Paris this year, but it will take a few more years for the Chinese shift to play out as they exploit the remainder of their coal resource and gain confidence in the ability of their alternative energy sector to scale.

The question then becomes “can the USA manufacturing sector afford to be out of these global alternative energy markets?”. Our guess is “no” and a global tipping point will have been reached in the alternative energy switch.

This is perhaps the most profound way that peak fuels may contribute to a low-emissions future.

Open source gives new life to old Windows XP machines

8 04 2014

I’ve been using Linux for over twelve years now….  may even be 14, but can’t remember.  In 2000, I gave a Peak Oil Powerpoint presentation to a packed hall in Brisbane as part of my Greens Party campaign.  In the audience was my (now) mate Doug who introduced himself, asking why someone like me, obviously anti establishment, was still using windoze….. The rest, as they say, is history.  He came to our house, installed OpenSuse on my computer, and I’ve certainly never looked back.  I’ve since switched to Ubuntu…. as has my wife who is not exactly computer literate.  She finds it easy to use.  So when this article turned up on The Conversation, I thought it fitting to share it with you, especially if you are about to be dumped on by Micro$oft…..

The Conversation


As the sun sets on Microsoft’s support for Windows XP this may be a great time to think about trying out a Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) operating system for your still-working PC.

This is especially the case when older hardware cannot run newer versions of Windows (such as 7, 8 or 8.1). Your only other option then is to either dispose of the old XP machine or it keep running and face potential security threats.

But many software developers, both hobbyists and professionals alike, have contributed to a growing body of FOSS programs that now numbers in the tens of thousands. These software programs are licensed for anyone to freely download and use.

To simplify the downloading and installing, collections of these many software components, called “distributions”, are available ready for users to download and start using straight away.

Go Linux

Many of these distributions are based on the Linux kernel, which is highly regarded due to its robustness, performance, security, broad support and low cost.

Linux has become the dominant operating system for internet sites, powering Google, Facebook, YouTube and many others. It is also the dominant operating system powering Android phones and tablets, televisions, home routers and many other devices.


If your machine can run Windows XP then it can probably run a Linux OS too. Flickr/Antony Pranata , CC BY-NC-ND
Click to enlarge


Over the years, Linux-based distributions have become more and more popular and any machine capable of running Windows XP is a good candidate for running a Linux distribution such as:

That’s just to name a few – there are many more available.

Anything Windows can do Linux can do … mostly


Firefox is one of many alternative browsers to Internet Explorer. Mozilla, CC BY
Click to enlarge


These package together a suite of standard programs which enable you to do the types of things you would do in Windows XP, such as search the web, send and receive emails, edit and print documents.

For the most part the user interface and experience is very similar to what you would have experienced in Windows XP and typical alternatives to Microsoft software include:

More software options are available too with many included in the Free Software Directory.

Easy to install

In the early days installing and running Linux on a computer required considerable technical abilities but over the years this has become a lot simpler. Users can now install and configure the system desktop by following a few onscreen prompts without the need for any technical command-line interaction.

But before trying out any new operating system software, it is very important to backup your files to external media such as a USB device, and also to test that your backup works.

To install a new operating system you need to create a bootable USB device, CD-ROM, or DVD of the distribution you would like to give a go. Instructions on how to do this are available on the website of each distribution. Once you have this you simply restart the computer and during the first few seconds of the computer turning on you instruct the computer to boot off the media you created.

Try out the “live” Linux system for a while without installing it on your computer. When you are happy with what you see, there is normally an icon on the desktop that you can use to install the operating system onto your hard disk. Click on the icon and follow the instructions.

You then have the option of installing it either alongside your existing operating system, or overwriting the old system with the new.


Once you get your Linux system up and running it’s just as easy as a Windows XP setup. Flickr/Simon Law, CC BY-NC-SA
Click to enlarge


Once installed, updates and bug fixes of the operating system and the software you run are easily downloaded and incorporated into your system, much the same as they were with your use of Windows XP.

Linux has long been extensively used for servers and so security has always been a key part of its design. Known security issues would normally be quickly fixed and updates made available and there are far fewer viruses or cyberthreats.

Although there are a large number of FOSS games available you may not be able run your favourite Windows game on Linux. There are some ways around this, such as Play on Linux, which lets you run some Windows games on Linux but the latest blockbuster games will probably not work.

What about help?

If you are worried about support then there is a large community of users for Linux in Australia and around the world. Many local user groups exist, such as the Canberra Linux User Group, which has monthly meetings held at the ANU.

Linux Australia has a list of other local Linux user groups. They are generally friendly and happy to help out new comers to Linux. There are also numerous online forums which provide help for working through problems.

So when Windows XP support ends rather than throwing out that old box give Linux a go – you may be pleasantly surprised!

A Century of Challenge

12 02 2012

We had the great privilege the other night of seeing Nicole Foss from Canada present her Century of Challenge lecture….  and what a polished performance!  Over 1 1/2 hours of stumble free oration, without a single second of emotional  drama, all factual, all presented in a way anyone could understand.  Even for someone as knowledgeable as I am, there wasn’t one second of boredom!  At the end, she got a deserving standing ovation….

Nicole Foss at the Big Pineapple, Nambour

My heartfelt thanks to the Transition Nambour folks who organised this, great job guys…. and the attendance was amazing, I estimate at least 300 people turned up, her biggest audience ever according to Nicole…!

The future belongs to the adaptable

To say we are in deep shit is an understatement.  I cannot understand how the morons in charge of running the world cannot at this late stage come out and say it; it is really beyond me… as Nicole said, they can kick the can down the road some more but they are running out of road.  Greece will default, no ifs no buts, it’s only a matter of time, it could easily happen this week.  It is mathematically impossible for Greece (or any other European country to repay its debts – it’s as clear as 1 + 1 = 2..)  Portugal will be next, and Ireland, Spain and Italy will follow suit.  The Euro, and the Eurozone, are finished.  And as the dominoes fall over one by one, the greatest depression will begin.  And make no mistake, Australia is not immune, globalisation has made sure of that.

Are you ready?  The future will have two kinds of people in it: the adaptable, and the rest.  Those who watch Days of our Lives, and those who listen to the likes of Nicole (and Chris Martenson, and James Howard Kunstler, and and and many other prophets all over the internet).

If you are in debt, it’s time to get out.  Nicole predicts that property values could easily fall to what they were in the 1970’s, that is to just 10% of their current bubble value.

Architecture of a housing bubble

Canada and Australia have much in common….  largely untouched by the GFC, with an economy that relies on abundant resources the rest of the world wants.  As long as they have money to pay for it.  China’s housing bubble is even worse than ours.  They have entire cities, all brand new, that are uninhabited…..  poor Chinese have no hope of ever buying apartments there, China’s capitalists are way past the stage they can recover their investments, or repay their debts.  When this bubble bursts, just watch the demand for our resources fall off a cliff.  But they keep saying “this time it’s different”.  It’s different alright… this time the depression will be global.

Here, our banks are raising their interest rates, even though the Federal Reserve is lowering the cash rate.  This is a very bad sign in my opinion.  Australian banks have to raise an important proportion of their funding from overseas and the deep crisis in Europe means that the cost of borrowing money in those international markets has risen to levels not seen since the GFC. The RBA cannot influence the price of money internationally.

Just think about what this means… anyone worried about not being able to meet their commitments may decide to sell.  As  more and more houses hit the market, there are fewer and fewer buyers, worried that if they borrow, their interest rates may rise and sink them too.  So prices fall.  As prices fall, more people stake out sale signs on the footpath, worried that their investment is going pear shaped.  So prices fall some more…

Eventually, many people end up owing more than their properties are worth, called being “underwater” in the US.  It has happened before, in the 1930’s great depression.  My mother in law’s parents lost everything like this at the time.  Don’t think it can’t happen again.

As Nicole pointed out, all this depressing stuff occurred at a time resources were plentiful, and cheap.  There were no excuses for growth to not occur, except that it is money that oils the cogs of the economy, and without money, everything grinds to a halt….

Now imagine what happens when, after much deleveraging, this idiotic system tries to put the pedal to the metal again only to discover the energy to do it with is no longer there.  As one last item to depress you, here is a little something I found on the internet the other day.  It is a spreadsheet from a government website

See those red numbers at the bottom…..  that’s our depletion rate.  TWENTY SIX POINT SIX PERCENT PER ANNUM!  Still don’t believe we’ll run out of oil before 2020…?

Table 1A. Petroleum Production, Australia

Crude Oil Condensate Total Crude Oil and Condensate
megalitres megalitres 000 bbls / day
2008-09 20,106 7,680 27,785 479
2009-10 17,497 8,896 26,393 455
2010-11 13,231 8,426 21,657 373

November 2010 1,196 704 1,900 398
December 2010 1,101 725 1,826 371
January 2011 851 721 1,572 319
February 2011 840 590 1,431 321
March 2011 1,027 640 1,667 338
April 2011 995 675 1,670 350
May 2011 1,036 661 1,696 344
June 2011 843 661 1,504 315
July 2011 793 661 1,454 295
August 2011 989 709 1,698 345
September 2011 1,071 581 1,652 346
October 2011 1,122 632 1,754 356
November 2011 1,127 668 1,795 376
December 2011 1,182 658 1,839 373
Percentage change on year-to-date

Fiscal -17.8 -12.7 -15.9


-10.2 -20.9