Book review of Failing states, collapsing systems biophysical triggers of political violence by Nafeez Ahmed

6 06 2017

I have written at length about the collapse of Egypt over the years, and Syria too. I’ve also discussed Nafeez Ahmed’s views on the unraveling now happening in the Middle East, and my most recent item here from the Doomstead Diner has attracted a lot of attention….. including from Alice Friedemann who pointed out to me that she has published an extensive review of Ahmed’s new book “Failing states, collapsing systems biophysical triggers of political violence”. It’s a long read (the references alone are almost as long as the article and would keep you busy for weeks!), but I was totally riveted by it and felt the compulsion to republish it here as it needs to be read as widely as possible. In fact, this review is so good, you may not need to buy the book……. as I’ve been saying for a very long time now, 2020 is when things start to get really ugly, all the way to 2030, by which time it’s likely the state of the world will be unrecognisable.

The overview of biophysical factors table below is alone really telling……

If after reading this latest piece you are not convinced collapse is indeed underway, then there’s no hope for you….!

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alice_friedemann[ In this post I summarize the sections of Nafeez’s book about the biophysical factors that bring nations down (i.e. climate change drought & water scarcity, declining revenues after peak oil, etc.) The Media tend to focus exclusively on economic and political factors.

My book review is divided into 3 parts: 

  • Why states collapse for reasons other than economic and political
  • How BioPhysical factors contribute to systemic collapse in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia Egypt, Nigeria
  • Predictions of when collapse will begin in Middle East, India, China, Europe, Russia, North America

In my opinion, war is inevitable in the Middle East where over half of oil reserves exist.  Oil is life itself.  If war happens,  collapse of the Middle East, India, and China could happen well before 2030.  If nuclear weapons are used, most nations collapse from the nuclear winter and ozone depletion that would follow.   Indonesia blew up their oil refineries to keep Japan from getting oil in WWII. If Middle Eastern governments or terrorists do the same after they’re attacked, that brings on the energy crisis sooner.  Although this would leave some high EROI oil in the ground, the energy to rebuild refineries, pipelines, oil rigs, roads, and other infrastructure would lower the EROI considerably.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Ahmed, Nafeez. 2017. Failing States, Collapsing Systems BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence. Springer.

1) Why states collapse for reasons other than economic and political

Since the 2008 financial crash, there’s been an unprecedented outbreak of social protest: Occupy in the US and Western Europe, the Arab Spring, and civil unrest from Greece to Ukraine, China to Thailand, Brazil to Turkey, and elsewhere. Sometimes civil unrest has resulted in government collapse or even wars, as in Iraq-Syria and Ukraine- Crimea. The media and experts blame it on poor government, usually ignoring the real reasons because all they know is politics and economics.

In the Middle East, experts should also talk about geology.  Oil-producing nations like Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Nigeria, and Iraq have all reached peak oil and declining government revenues after that force rulers to raise the prices of food and oil.  This region was already short on water, and now climate change (from fossil fuels) is making matters much worse with drought and heat waves causing even greater water scarcity, which in turn lowers agricultural production.  Many of these nations have some of the highest rates of population growth on earth at a time when resources essential to life itself are declining.

The few nations still producing much of the oil – Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. are about to join the club and stop exporting oil so they can provide for their domestic population.

Ahmed points out that “because these and other factors are so nested and interconnected, even small perturbations and random occurrences in one can amplify effects on other parts of the system, sometimes in a feedback process that continues.  If thresholds are reached, these tipping points can re-order the whole system”.  These ecological and geological factors result in social disorder, which makes it even harder for government to do anything, such as putting more money into water and food production infrastructure, which accelerates climate change and energy decline impacts, which leads to even more violence at an accelerating rate until state failure.

2) How BioPhysical factors contribute to systemic collapse in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia Egypt, Nigeria

 

Table 1. Overview of biophysical factors (water scarcity, peak oil, population) for nations Ahmed discusses in this book

The UN defines a region as not having water scarcity above 1700 cubic meters per capita (green).  Water stressed nations have 1000 to 1700 cubic meters per capita (yellow).  Water scarcity is 500-1000 per capita (orange) and absolute water scarcity 0-500 (red).  Countries already experiencing water stress or far worse include Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Syria, Yemen, India, China, and parts of the United States. Many, though not all, of these countries are experiencing protracted conflicts or civil unrest (Patrick 2015).

SYRIA

The media portray warfare in Syria as due to the extreme repression of President Bashar al-Assad and the support he receives from Russia.  Although there has been awareness that climate change drought played a role in causing conflict, there is no recognition that peak oil was one of the main factors.

Here’s a quick summary of how peak oil and consequent declining revenues from oil production, rising energy and food prices, drought, water scarcity, and population growth led to social unrest, violence, terrorism and war.

It shouldn’t be surprising that peak oil in 1996 triggered the tragic events we see today.  After all, the main source of Syrian revenue came from their production of 610,000 barrels per day (bpd).  By 2010 oil production had declined by half. Falling revenues caused Syria to seek help from the IMF by 2001, and the onerous market reform policies required resulted in higher unemployment and poverty, especially in rural Sunni regions, while at the same time enriching and corrupting ruling minority Alawite private and military elites.

In 2008 the government had to triple oil prices resulting in higher food prices. Food prices rose even more due to the global price of wheat doubling in 2010-2011. On top of that, the 2007-2010 drought was the worst on record, causing widespread crop failures. This forced mass migrations of farming families to cities (Agrimoney 2012; Kelley et al. 2015). The drought wouldn’t have been so bad if half the water hadn’t been wasted and overused previously from 2002 to 2008 (Worth 2010). All of these violence-creating events were worsened by one of the highest birth rates growth on earth, 2.4%.  Most of the additional 80,000 people added in 2011 were born in the hardest-hit drought areas (Sands 2011).

Rinse and repeat.  Social unrest and violence led to war, oil production dropped further, so there is even less money to end unrest with subsidized food and energy or more employment, aid farmers, and build desalination plants.

Syria, once able to feed its people, now depends on 4 million tonnes of grain imports at a time when revenues continue to drop.  Syrian oil production didn’t really take off until 1968 when there were 6.4 million people.  Since oil revenues allowed their population to explode, another 13.6 million have been born.

IRAQ

Like Syria, Iraq’s agricultural production has been reduced by heat, drought, heavy rain, water scarcity, rapid population growth, and the inability of government to import food and provide goods and services as oil revenues decline.  ISIS has worsened matters and filled in the gaps of state-level failure.  Peak oil is likely by 2025.  Or sooner given the ongoing war, lack of investment to keep existing production flowing, and low oil prices (Dipaola 2016).

YEMEN 

Like Syria, Iraq, and Iran, Yemen has long faced serious water scarcity issues. The country is consuming water far faster than it is being replenished, an issue that has been identified by numerous experts as playing a key background role in driving local inter-tribal and sectarian conflicts (Patrick 2015).

Yemen is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. In 2012, the average Yemeni had access to just 140 cubic meters of water a year for all uses and just three years later a catastrophic 86 m3, far below the 1000 m3 level minimum requirement standards.    Cities often only have sporadic access to running water— every other week or so.  Sanaa could become the first capital in the world to run out of water (IRIN 2012).

Yemen reached peak oil production in 2001, declining from 450,000 barrels per day (bpd) to 100,000 bpd in 2014, and will be zero by 2017 (Boucek 2009).   This has led to a drastic decline in Yemen’s oil exports, which has eaten into government revenues, 75% of which had depended on oil exports. Oil revenues also account for 90% of the government’s foreign exchange reserves. The decline in post-peak Yemen state revenues has reduced the government’s capacity to sustain even basic social investments. When the oil runs out … the capacity to sustain a viable state-structure will completely collapse.

Yemen has 25 million people and an exorbitantly high growth rate and predicted to double by 2050. In 2014 experts warned that within the next decade, these demographic trends would demolish the government’s ability to meet the population’s basic needs in education, health and other essential public services. This is already happening to over 15 million people (Qaed 2014).  Over half the Yemeni population lives below the poverty line, and unemployment is at 40% (60% of young people).

To cope, too many people have turned to growing qat (a mild narcotic) on 40% of Yemen’s irrigated land, increasing water use to 3.9 billion cubic meters (bcm), but the renewable water supply is just 2.5 bcm. The 1.4 bcm shortfall is made up by pumping water from underground water reserves that are starting to run dry.

Energy, overpopulation, drought, water scarcity, poverty, and a government unable to do much of anything without oil revenue is in a downward loop of social tensions, local conflicts and even mass displacements.  This in turn adds to the dynamics of the wider sectarian and political conflicts between the government, the Houthis, southern separatists and al-Qaeda affiliated militants.

Violence undermines food security, feeding back into the downward spiraling loop.  Making matters worse is that rain-fed agriculture has dropped by about 30% since 1970, making Yemen ever more food import dependent at a time when revenues are shrinking. The country now imports over 85% of its food, including 90% of its wheat and all of its rice (World Bank 2014). Most Yemenis are hungry because they can’t afford to buy food, which also rises in price when global prices rise.  The rate of chronic malnutrition as high as 58%, second only to Afghanistan (Arashi 2013).

Epidemic levels of government corruption, mismanagement and incompetence, have meant that what little revenue the government receives ends up in Swiss bank accounts.  With revenues plummeting in the wake of the collapse of its oil industry, the government has been forced to slash subsidies while cranking up fuel and diesel prices. This has, in turn, cranked up prices of water, meat, fruits, vegetables and spices, leading to fuel and food riots (Mawry 2015).

Is Saudi Arabia Next?

Summary: Within the next decade, Saudi Arabia will become especially vulnerable to the downward feedback loop of peak oil.  The most likely date for peak oil is 2028 (Ebrahimi 2015). But because the Saudi exports have been going down since 2005 at 1.4% a year as their own population rises and consumes more and more, world exports could end as soon as 2031 (Brown and Foucher 2008).

Saudi revenues will decline to zero, so the Saudis will be less able to buy their way out of food shortages.  Their own food production will drop as well from drought and water scarcity — the kingdom is one of the most water scarce in the world, at 98 m³ per inhabitant per year.

Most water comes from groundwater, 57% of which is non-renewable, and 88% of it goes to agriculture. Desalination plants produce 70% of the kingdom’s domestic water supplies. But desalination is very energy intensive, accounting for more than half of domestic oil consumption. As oil exports run down, along with state revenues, while domestic consumption increases, the kingdom’s ability to use desalination to meet its water needs will decrease (Patrick 2015; Odhiambo 2016).

According to the Export Land Model (ELM) created by Texas petroleum geologist Jeffrey J Brown and Dr. Sam Foucher, the key issue is the timing of when there will be no more exports because the domestic population of oil producing nations is using it all for domestic consumption.   Brown and Foucher showed that the tipping point to watch out for is when an oil producer can no longer increase the quantity of oil sales abroad because of the need to meet rising domestic energy demand.

Saudi Arabia is the region’s largest energy consumer. Domestic demand has increased 7.5% over the last 5 years, mainly due to population growth. Saudi population may grow from 29 million people now to 37 million by 2030, using ever more oil and therefore less available for export.

Declining Saudi peak oil exports will affect every nation on earth that imports Saudi oil, especially top customers China, Japan, the United States, South Korea, and India.  As Saudi oil declines, there will be few other places oil for importing nations to turn to, since other exporting nations will also be using their oil domestically.

A report by Citigroup predicted net exports would plummet to zero in the next 15 years. This means that 80% of money from oil sales the Saudi state depends on are trending downward, eventually terminally (Daya 2016). In this case, the peak oil production date could happen well before 2028, as well as violent social unrest, since so far, Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, and its unique ability to maintain generous subsidies for oil, housing, food and other consumer items, has kept civil unrest at bay. Energy subsidies alone make up about a fifth of Saudi’s gross domestic product. But as revenues are increasingly strained by decreasing exports after peak oil, the kingdom will need to slash subsidies (Peel 2013).  Even now a quarter of the Saudi’s live in poverty, and unemployment is 12%, especially young people who have a 30% unemployment level. [Saudi Arabia recently started taxing fuel at the bowsers]

Saudi Arabia is experiencing climate change as temperatures rise in the interior and far less rainfall occurs in the north.  By 2040, local average temperatures are expected to increase by as much as 4 °C at the same time rain levels are falling, resulting in more extreme weather events like the 2010 Jeddah flooding when a year of rain fell in 4 hours.  The combination could dramatically impact agricultural productivity, which is already facing challenges from overgrazing and unsustainable industrial agricultural practices leading to accelerated desertification (Chowdhury 2013).

80% of Saudi Arabia’s food requirements are purchased through heavily subsidized imports.  Without the protection of oil revenue subsidies, and potential rises in the global prices of food (Taha 2014), the Saudi population would be heavily impacted. But with net oil revenues declining to zero—potentially within just 15 years—Saudi Arabia’s capacity to finance continued food imports will be in question.

EGYPT

Like Syria, Egypt has had increasing problems paying for food, goods, and services after peak oil in 1993 while at the same time population keeps growing.   Worse yet, there are no oil revenues at all, because since 2010 the population has been using more oil than what is produced and has had to import oil, with no oil revenues to pay for food, goods, and services.  Two-thirds of Egypt’s oil reserves have likely been depleted and oil produced now is declining at 3.4% a year.

Nor are there revenues coming from natural gas sales made up for the loss of oil revenues.  Over the past decade domestic use nearly doubled to consumption of nearly all the production (Kirkpatrick 2013a).

The Egyptian population since 2000 has grown 21% to 88 million people and isn’t slowing down, with 20 million more expected over the next 10 years.  A quarter are children half of them living in poverty and unemployed  (EI 2012) at the same time the elites have grown wealthier from IMF and World Bank policies.

In the 1960s there were 2800 cubic meters of water per capita, now just 660 – well below the international standard of water poverty of 1000 per person (Sarant 2013).   Water scarcity and population growth lave led to tens of thousands of hectares of farmland to be abandoned.  There is some water that can be obtained, but most farmers can’t afford the price of diesel fuel to power pumps  (Kirkpatrick 2013b)

Egypt was self-sufficient in food production in the 1960s but now imports 70% of its food (Saleh 2013). One of the many reasons Mubarak fell was the doubling of wheat prices in 2011 since half of Egypt’s people depend on food rations.  But the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood party and their leader Morsi couldn’t alleviate declining government revenues due to the biophysical realities of food, water, and energy shortages either.  Morsi desperately tried to get a $4.8 billion IMF loan by slashing energy subsidies and raising sales taxes, but the economic crisis made it hard to make the payments and wheat imports dropped to a third of what was imported a year ago.

This led to Morsi being ousted by army chief Abdul Fateh el-Sisi in a coup.  Like his predecessors, El-Sisi has also been unable to meet IMF demands for increased hydrocarbon production and has resorted to unprecedented levels of brutal force to crush protests. He has also rationed electricity, which led to key industries cutting production, leading to further economic losses, declining exports and foreign reserves.  Without more money, energy companies can’t be paid, so energy production continues to drop, and debt goes up, reducing the value of Egyptian currency and higher costs for imports and shortages of energy for industrial production. Egypt’s energy and economy find themselves caught in an amplifying feedback loop (Barron 2016).

How Boko Haram arose in Nigeria

Nigeria’s climate change has led to water and land shortages from desertification, which in turn has led to illness, hunger, and unemployment followed by conflict (Sayne 2011).

Perhaps the Boko Haram wouldn’t have arisen, if the Maitatsine sect in northern Nigeria hadn’t been hit so hard by ecological disasters.  To survive they fanned out to search for food, water, shelter, and work (Sanders 2013).  Niger and Chad refugees from drought and floods also became Boko Haram foot soldiers, some 200,000 displaced farmers and herdsmen.

In northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is from, about 70% of the population subsists on less than a dollar a day. As noted by David Francis, one of the first western reporters to cover Boko Haram: “Most of the foot soldiers of Boko Haram aren’t Muslim fanatics; they’re poor kids who were turned against their corrupt country by a charismatic leader” (Francis 2014)

The Nigerian military sees a correlation between regional climatic events, and an upsurge in extremist violence: “It has become a pattern; we saw it happen in 2006; it happened again in 2008 and in 2010. President Obasanjo had to deploy the military in 2006 to Yobe State, Borno State and Katsina State. These are some of the states bordering Niger Republic and today they are the hotbeds of the Boko Haram” (Mayah 201).

Drought caused desertification is decreasing food production, in turn leading to “economic decline; population displacement and disruption of legitimized authoritative institutions and social relations.” The net effect was an acceleration of the attractiveness of groups like “Boko Haram and other forms of Jihadi ideology,” resulting in escalating “herder-farmer clashes emanating from the north since 1980s” (Onyia 2015).

The rapid spread of Boko Haram also coincided with Lake Chad’s shrinking from 25,000 square km in 1963 to less than 2500 square km today, mainly due to climate change. At this rate, Lake Chad is will dry up in 20 years, and has already caused millions of people to lose their livelihoods.

The government has exacerbated problems by cutting fuel subsidies, which led to fuel shortages, angering the public who engaged in civil unrest  (Omisore 2014).

A senior Shell official said that crude oil production decline rates are as high as 15–20%.  But Nigeria doesn’t have the money to explore to find more oil to offset this high decline rate. Nigeria’s petroleum resources department said that Nigeria had reached a plateau of production in the Niger Delta and were already going down (Ahmed 2014).

About $15 billion of investment is required just to maintain current production levels and compensate for a natural decline in production of about 250,000 b/d each year. A 2011 study by two Nigerian scholars concluded that “there is an imminent decline in Nigeria’s oil reserve since peaking could have occurred or just about to occur (Akuru and Okoro 2011). A 2013 report backs this up, finding that Nigeria’s crude oil production has decreased since its peak in 2005, largely due to the impact of internal conflicts, leading to the withdrawal of oil companies and lack of investments. Since then production has fluctuated along a plateau. The UK Department for International Development report noted that new offshore fields might bring additional oil on-stream, surpassing the 2005 peak—but also noted that rising domestic demand “at some point in the future may cut into the amount of oil available for export” (Hall et al. 2014).

POPULATION. With Nigeria’s population expected to rise from 160 to 250 million by 2025 and oil accounting for some 96% of export revenue as well as 75% of government revenue, the state has resorted to harsh austerity measures. Sharp reductions in public spending, power cuts, fuel shortages and conditional new loans will probably widen economic inequalities and further stoke the grievances that feed groups like Boko Haram in the North. With domestic oil production decline undermining Nigeria’s oil export revenues and consequent fuel subsidy cuts, the public grows poorer and increases the number of young men more likely to join Islamist terrorist groups.

3) Predictions of when collapse will begin in Middle East, India, China, Europe, Russia, North America

When will  Middle-East oil producing nations fail?

Ahmed says that so far after peak oil production, Middle-Eastern economies have declined as revenues declined, leading to systemic state-failure in roughly 15 years, more or less, depending on how hard hit a nation was by additional (climate-change) factors such as drought, water scarcity, food prices, and overpopulation.

Saudi Arabia, and much of the rest of Arabian Gulf peninsula, may experience state-failure well within 10 to 20 years. If forecasts of Saudi oil depletion are remotely accurate, then by 2030 the country will simply not exist as we know it. Coupled with the accelerating impacts of climate-induced water scarcity, the Kingdom is bound to begin experiencing systemic state-failure at most within 20 years, and probably much earlier.

Marin Katusa, chief energy strategist at Casey Research, reports that “many Middle Eastern countries may stop exporting oil and gas altogether within the next few years, while some already have” (Katusa 2016). Oil analysts at Lux Research estimate that OPEC oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 70%. True OPEC reserves could be as low as 429 billion barrels, which could mean a global net export crunch as early as 2020 (Lazenby 2016).

The period from 2020 to 2030 will see Middle East oil exporters experiencing a systemic convergence of energy and food crises.

When will India & China collapse?

India and China are widely assumed to be the next superpowers, but at this stage of energy and resource depletion, can’t possibly mimic the exponential growth of the Western world.

India, South Asia, and China face enormous ecological challenges Irregularities in the pattern of monsoon rains and drought are likely to lower food production and increase water scarcity, while higher temperatures will increase the range of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and become prevalent year-round (DCDC 2013). As sea levels rise, millions of people will be displaced permanently.

These impacts will unravel regional political and economic order well within 20 years and manifest at first as civil unrest.  Depending on how the Indian and Chinese states respond, it is likely that these outbreaks of domestic disorder will become more organized, and will eventually undermine state territorial integrity before 2030.  Near-term growth will further undermine environmental health and deplete resources, making these nations even more vulnerable to climate and food crises.

European and Russian collapse timeframe

Within Europe, resource depletion has meant that the European Union as a whole has become increasingly dependent on energy imports from Russia, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. Yet exports from these regions will become tighter as major oil producers approach production limits.

The geopolitical turmoil that has unfolded in Ukraine provides a compelling indication that such processes are rapidly moving from the periphery of the global system into the core. For the most part, the Euro-Atlantic core—traditionally representing the most powerful sections of the world system—has insulated itself from global crisis convergence impacts by diversifying energy supply sources. However, there is only so much that diversification can achieve when the total energetic and economic quality of global hydrocarbon resource production is declining.

Post-2030–2045

Faced with these converging crises, the Euro-Atlantic core will continue to see the creation of cheap debt-money through quantitative easing as an immediate solution to generate emergency funds to stabilize the financial system and shore-up ailing industries. This will likely play out in one of these business-as-usual scenarios:

  1. The lower resource quality (EROI) of the global energy system may act as a fundamental geophysical ceiling on the capacity of the economy to grow. It may act as an invisible brake on growth in demand, so fossil fuel prices would remain at chronically low levels, endangering the profitability of the fossil fuel industries. This would lead to an acceleration of the demise of the fossil fuel industries, which could lead to debt-defaults across industries in the financial system. Declining hydrocarbon energy production would cause a self-reinforcing recessionary economic process. This would escalate vulnerability to water, food and energy crises and hugely strain the capacity of European and American states to deliver goods and services to even their own populations, and other nations dependent as much on importing food as they are oil.
  2. Scarcity of net exports on the world market may raise oil prices and provide some sectors of ailing fossil fuel industries to be profitable again. But previous slashing of investments and cutbacks in exploration will mean that only the most powerful sections of the industry would be able to capitalize on this, which means production is unlikely to return to former high levels. Price spikes would trigger economic recession, causing a drop in demand, while lower production levels would exacerbate the economy’s inability to grow substantially, if at all. In effect, the global economy would likely still experience a self-reinforcing recessionary economic process.

In both scenarios, escalating economic crises are likely to invite the Euro-Atlantic core to respond by using debt-money to shore-up as much of the existing core financial and energy industries as possible. Prices spikes and shortages in water, food and energy would be experienced by general populations as a dramatic lowering of purchasing power, leading to an overall decrease in quality of life, an increase in poverty, and a heightening of inequality. This would undermine their internal cohesion, giving rise to new divisive, nationalist and xenophobic movements, and lead states into a tightening spiral of militarization to police domestic order. As instability in the Middle East and elsewhere intensifies, manifesting in further unrest, political violence and terrorist activity, states will also be drawn increasingly into short- sighted military solutions. In particular, scarcity of net oil exports on the world market will heighten geopolitical and military competition to control and/or access the world’s remaining hydrocarbon energy resources. With the Middle East still holding the vast bulk of the world’s reserves, the region will remain a central flashpoint for such competition, even as major producers such as Saudi Arabia approach systemic state-failure due to reaching inevitable production declines.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that as we near 2045, the European and American projects will face escalating internal challenges to their internal territorial integrity, increasing the risk of systemic state-failure. Likewise, after 2030, Europe, India, China (and other Asian nations) will begin to experience symptoms of systemic state-failure.

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Your Oil wake up call.

8 04 2017

tedtrainer

Ted Trainer

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

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

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

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

Scarcer and difficult to produce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignorance, debt bubble and catastrophic implosion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peaking oil production, national income and resource detorioration

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

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

Climate change will make these numbers worse.

The consequences of these trends are:

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

A tightening noose

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

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

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

A way out?

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

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

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

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

References:

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

Ahmed, N. M., (2017); Failing States, Collapsing Systems, Dordrecht, Springer. Alice Friedmann’s summary is at: http://energyskeptic.com/2017/book-review-of-failing-states-collapsing-systems-biophysical-triggers-of-political-violence-by-nafeez-ahmed/

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

Friedmann, A., (2017); Book review of Failing states, collapsing systems biophysical triggers of political violence by Nafeez Ahme, energyskeptic January 31: http://energyskeptic.com/2017/book-review-of-failing-states-collapsing-systems-biophysical-triggers-of-political-violence-by-nafeez-ahmed/

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

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

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

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

The Simpler Way website: http://thesimplerway.info/

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





The end of the Middle East

14 03 2017

I have to say, I am seriously chuffed that Nafeez Ahmed is calling it, as I have been for years now…. In a lengthy but well worth reading article in the Middle East Eye, Nafeez explains the convoluted reasons why we have the current turmoil in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. He doesn’t mention Egypt – yet – but to be fair, the article’s focus in on Mosul and the implications of the disaster unfolding there……

It never ceases to amaze me how Egypt has managed to stay off the news radar. Maybe the populace is too starved to revolt again….

After oil, rice and medicines, sugar has run out in Egypt, as the country has announced a devaluation of 48% of its currency. In Egypt, about 68 million of the total 92 million people receive food subsidized by the State through small consumer stores run by the Ministry of supply and internal trade. After shortages of oil, rice and milk, and even medicines, now sugar scarcity has hit the country. Nearly three quarters of the population completely rely on the government stores for their basic needs.

Egypt produces 2 million tons of sugar a year but has to import 3 million to face domestic demand. However imports have become too expensive.  The country is expected to receive a loan of 12 billion dollars (11 billion euros) from the International monetary Fund (IMF) to tackle its food scarcity. The price for sugar in supermarkets and black markets are skyrocketing as well, with a kilogram costing around 15 pounds. If available, one could get sugar from subsidized government stores for 0.50 euros per kilo.

Nafeez goes into great and interesting detail re the dismaying shenanigans going on in nafeezIraq and Syria at the moment. I’ll leave it to you to go through what he wrote on the Middle East Eye site on those issues, but what struck me as relevant to what this blog is about is how well they correlate with my own thoughts here…..:

Among my findings is that IS was born in the crucible of a long-term process of ecological crisis. Iraq and Syria are both experiencing worsening water scarcity. A string of scientific studies has shown that a decade-long drought cycle in Syria, dramatically intensified by climate change, caused hundreds and thousands of mostly Sunni farmers in the south to lose their livelihoods as crops failed. They moved into the coastal cities, and the capital, dominated by Assad’s Alawite clan. 

Meanwhile, Syrian state revenues were in terminal decline because the country’s conventional oil production peaked in 1996. Net oil exports gradually declined, and with them so did the clout of the Syrian treasury. In the years before the 2011 uprising, Assad slashed domestic subsidies for food and fuel.

While Iraqi oil production has much better prospects, since 2001 production levels have consistently remained well below even the lower-range projections of the industry, mostly because of geopolitical and economic complications. This weakened economic growth, and consequently, weakened the state’s capacity to meet the needs of ordinary Iraqis.

Drought conditions in both Iraq and Syria became entrenched, exacerbating agricultural failures and eroding the living standards of farmers. Sectarian tensions simmered. Globally, a series of climate disasters in major food basket regions drove global price spikes. The combination made life economically intolerable for large swathes of the Iraqi and Syrian populations.

Outside powers – the US, Russia, the Gulf states, Turkey and Iran – all saw the escalating Syrian crisis as a potential opportunity for themselves. As the ensuing Syrian uprising erupted into a full-blown clash between the Assad regime and the people, the interference of these powers radicalised the conflict, hijacked Sunni and Shia groups on the ground, and accelerated the de-facto collapse of Syria as we once knew it.  

AND…..

Meanwhile, across the porous border in Iraq, drought conditions were also worsening. As I write in Failing States, Collapsing Systems, there has been a surprising correlation between the rapid territorial expansion of IS, and the exacerbation of local drought conditions. And these conditions of deepening water scarcity are projected to intensify in coming years and decades.

An Iraqi man walks past a canoe siting on dry, cracked earth in the Chibayish marshes near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah in 2015 (AFP)

The discernable pattern here forms the basis of my model: biophysical processes generate interconnected environmental, energy, economic and food crises – what I call earth system disruption (ESD). ESD, in turn, undermines the capacity of regional states like Iraq and Syria to deliver basic goods and services to their populations. I call this human system destabilisation (HSD).

As states like Iraq and Syria begin to fail as HSD accelerates, those responding – whether they be the Iraqi and Syrian governments, outside powers, militant groups or civil society actors – don’t understand that the breakdowns happening at the levels of state and infrastructure are being driven by deeper systemic ESD processes. Instead, the focus is always on the symptom: and therefore the reaction almost always fails entirely to even begin to address earth system sisruption.

So Bashar al-Assad, rather than recognising the uprising against his regime as a signifier of a deeper systemic shift – symptomatic of a point-of-no-return driven by bigger environmental and energy crises – chose to crackdown on his narrow conception of the problem: angry people.

Even more importantly, Nafeez also agrees with my predictions regarding Saudi Arabia…

The Gulf states are next in line. Collectively, the major oil producers might have far less oil than they claim on their books. Oil analysts at Lux Research estimate that OPEC oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 70 percent. The upshot is that major producers like Saudi Arabia could begin facing serious challenges in sustaining the high levels of production they are used to within the next decade.

Another clear example of exaggeration is in natural gas reserves. Griffiths argues that “resource abundance is not equivalent to an abundance of exploitable energy”.

While the region holds substantial amounts of natural gas, underinvestment due to subsidies, unattractive investment terms, and “challenging extraction conditions” have meant that Middle East producers are “not only unable to monetise their reserves for export, but more fundamentally unable to utilise their reserves to meet domestic energy demands”. 

Starting to sound familiar..? We are doing the exact same thing here in Australia…. It’s becoming ever more clear that Limits to Growth equates to scraping the bottom of the barrel, and the scraping sounds are getting louder by the day.

And oil depletion is only one dimension of the ESD processes at stake. The other is the environmental consequence of exploiting oil.

Over the next three decades, even if climate change is stabilised at an average rise of 2 degrees Celsius, the Max Planck Institute forecasts that the Middle East and North Africa will still face prolonged heatwaves and dust storms that could render much of the region “uninhabitable”. These processes could destroy much of the region’s agricultural potential.

Nafeez finishes with a somewhat hopeful few paragraphs.

Broken models

While some of these climate processes are locked in, their impacts on human systems are not. The old order in the Middle East is, unmistakably, breaking down. It will never return.

But it is not – yet – too late for East and West to see what is actually happening and act now to transition into the inevitable future after fossil fuels.

The battle for Mosul cannot defeat the insurgency, because it is part of a process of human system destabilisation. That process offers no fundamental way of addressing the processes of earth system disruption chipping away at the ground beneath our feet.

The only way to respond meaningfully is to begin to see the crisis for what it is, to look beyond the dynamics of the symptoms of the crisis – the sectarianism, the insurgency, the fighting – and to address the deeper issues. That requires thinking about the world differently, reorienting our mental models of security and prosperity in a way that captures the way human societies are embedded in environmental systems – and responding accordingly.

At that point, perhaps, we might realise that we’re fighting the wrong war, and that as a result, no one is capable of winning.

The way the current crop of morons in charge is behaving, I feel far less hopeful that someone will see the light. There aren’t even worthwhile alternatives to vote for at the moment…  If anything, they are all getting worse at ‘leading the world’ (I of course use the term loosely..), not better. Nor is the media helping, focusing on politics rather than the biophysical issues discussed here.

 





The End of the Oilocene

19 02 2017

The Oilocene, if that term ever catches on, will have only lasted 150 years. Which must be the quickest blink in terms of geological eras…… This article was lifted from feasta.org but unfortunately I can’t give writing credits as I could not find the author’s name anywhere. The data showing we’ll be quickly out of viable oil is stacking up at an increasing rate.

Steven Kopits from Douglas-Westwood (whose work I published here three years ago almost to the day) said the productivity of new capital spending has fallen by a factor of five since 2000. “The vast majority of public oil and gas companies require oil prices of over $100 to achieve positive free cash flow under current capex and dividend programs. Nearly half of the industry needs more than $120,” he said”.

And if you don’t finish reading this admittedly long article, do not exit this blog without first taking THIS on board…….:

What people do not realise is that it takes oil to extract, refine, produce and deliver oil to the end user. The Hills Group calculates that in 2012, the average energy required by the oil production chain had risen so much that it was then equal to the energy contained in the oil delivered to the economy. In other words “In 2012 the oil industry production chain in total used 50% of all the energy contained in the oil delivered to the consumer”. This is trending rapidly to reach 100% early in the next decade.

So there you go…… as I posted earlier this year, do we have five years left…….?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

End of the “Oilocene”: The Demise of the Global Oil Industry and of the Global Economic System as we know it.

(A pdf version of this paper is here. Please refer to my presentation for supporting images and comments. )

In 1981 I was sitting on an eroded barren hillside in India, where less than 100 years previously there had been dense forest with tigers. It was now effectively a desert and I was watching villagers scavenging for twigs for fuelwood and pondering their future, thinking about rapidly increasing human population and equally rapid degradation of the global environment. I had recently devoured a copy of The Limits to Growth (LTG) published in 1972, and here it was playing out in front of me. Their Business as Usual (BAU) scenario showed that global economic growth would be over between 2010 -2020; and today 45 years later, that prediction is inexorably becoming true. Since 2008 any semblance of growth has been fuelled by astronomically greater quantities of debt; and all other indicators of overshoot are flashing red.

clarke1

One of the main factors limiting growth was regarded by the authors of LTG as energy; specifically oil. By mid 1970’s surprisingly, enough was known about accessible oil reserves that not a huge amount has since been added to what is known as reserves of conventional oil. Conventional oil is (or was) the high quality, high net energy, low water content, easy to get stuff. Its multi-decade increasing rate in production came to an end around 2005 (as predicted many years earlier by Campbell and Laherre in 1998). The rate of production peaked in 2011 and has since been in decline (IEA 2016).

clarke2

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is the pre-eminent global forecaster of oil production and demand. Recently it admitted that its oil production forecasts were based on economic projections rather than geology or cost; ie on the assumption that supply will always meet projected demand.
In its latest annual forecast however (New Policies Scenario 2016) the IEA has also admitted for the first time a future in which total global “all liquids” oil production could start to fall within the next few years.

clarke3

As Kjell Aklett of Upsala University Global Energy Research Group comments (06-12-16), “In figure 3.16 the IEA shows for the first time what will happen if its unrealistic wishful thinking does not become reality during the next 10 years. Peak Oil will occur even if oil from fracked tight sources, oil sands, and other (unconventional) sources are included”.

In fact – this IEA image clearly shows that the total global rate of production of “all hydrocarbon liquids” could start falling anytime from now on; and this should in itself raise a huge red flag for the Irish Government.

Furthermore, it raises a number of vital questions which are the core subject of this post.
Reserves of conventional “easy” oil have mostly been used up. How likely is it that remaining reserves will be produced at the rate projected? Rapidly diminishing reserves of conventional oil are now increasingly being supplemented by the difficult stuff that Kjell Aklett mentions; including conventional from deep water, polar and other inaccessible regions, very heavy bituminous and high sulphur oil; natural gas liquids and other xtl’s, plus other “unconventional oil” including tar sands and shale oil.

How much will it cost to produce all these various types? How much energy will be required, and crucially how much energy will be left over for use by the economy?

The global industrial economy runs on oil.

Oil is the vital and crucial link in virtually every production chain in the global industrial world economy partly because it supplies over 96% of global transport energy – with no significant non-oil dependent alternative in sight.

clarke4

Our industrial food production system uses over 10 calories of oil energy to plough, plant, fertilise, harvest, transport, refine, package, store/refrigerate, and deliver 1 calorie of food to the consumer; and imagine trying to build infrastructure; roads, schools, hospitals, industrial facilities, cities, railways, airports without oil, let alone maintain them.

Surprisingly perhaps, oil is also crucial to production of all other forms of energy including renewables. We cannot mine and distribute coal or even drill for gas and install pipelines and gas distribution networks without lots of oil; and you certainly cannot make a nuclear power station or build a hydroelectric dam without oil. But even solar panels, wind and biomass energy are also totally dependent on oil to extract and produce the raw materials; oil is directly or indirectly used in their manufacture (steel, glass, copper, fibreglass/GRP, concrete) and finally to distribute the product to the end user, and install and maintain it.

So it’s not surprising that excluding hydro and nuclear (which mostly require phenomenal amounts of oil to implement), renewables still only constitute about 3% of world energy (BP Energy Outlook 2016). This figure speaks entirely for itself. I am a renewable energy consultant and promoter, but I am also a realist; in practice the world runs on oil.

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The economy, Global GDP and oil are therefore mutually dependent and have enjoyed a tightly linked dance over the decades as shown in the following images. Note the connection between oil, total energy, oil price and GDP (clues for later).

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Click on image to enlarge

Rising cost of oil production

Since 2005 when the rate of production of conventional oil slowed and peaked, production costs have been rising more rapidly. By 2013, oil industry costs were approaching the level of the global oil price which was more than $100/barrel at that time; and industry insiders were saying that the oil industry was finding it difficult to break even.

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Click on image to enlarge

A good example of the time was the following article which is worth quoting in full in the light of the price of oil at the time (~$100/bbl), and the average 2016 sustained low oil price of ~$50/bbl.

Oil and gas company debt soars to danger levels to cover shortfall in cash By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. Telegraph. 11 Aug 2014

“The world’s leading oil and gas companies are taking on debt and selling assets on an unprecedented scale to cover a shortfall in cash, calling into question the long-term viability of large parts of the industry. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) said a review of 127 companies across the globe found that they had increased net debt by $106bn in the year to March, in order to cover the surging costs of machinery and exploration, while still paying generous dividends at the same time. They also sold off a net $73bn of assets.

The EIA said revenues from oil and gas sales have reached a plateau since 2011, stagnating at $568bn over the last year as oil hovers near $100 a barrel. Yet costs have continued to rise relentlessly. Companies have exhausted the low-hanging fruit and are being forced to explore fields in ever more difficult regions.

The EIA said the shortfall between cash earnings from operations and expenditure — mostly CAPEX and dividends — has widened from $18bn in 2010 to $110bn during the past three years. Companies appear to have been borrowing heavily both to keep dividends steady and to buy back their own shares, spending an average of $39bn on repurchases since 2011”.

In another article (my highlights) he wrote

“The major companies are struggling to find viable reserves, forcing them to take on ever more leverage to explore in marginal basins, often gambling that much higher prices in the future will come to the rescue. Global output of conventional oil peaked in 2005 despite huge investment. The cumulative blitz on exploration and production over the past six years has been $5.4 trillion, yet little has come of it. Not a single large project has come on stream at a break-even cost below $80 a barrel for almost three years.

Steven Kopits from Douglas-Westwood said the productivity of new capital spending has fallen by a factor of five since 2000. “The vast majority of public oil and gas companies require oil prices of over $100 to achieve positive free cash flow under current capex and dividend programmes. Nearly half of the industry needs more than $120,” he said”.

The following images give a good idea of the trend and breakdown in costs of oil production. Getting it out of the ground is just for starters. The images show just how expensive it is becoming to produce – and how far from breakeven the current oil price is.

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Click on image to enlarge

It is important to note that the “breakeven cost” is much less than the oil price required to sustain the industry into the future (business as usual).

The following images show that the many different types of oil have (obviously) vastly different production costs. Note the relatively small proportion of conventional reserves (much of it already used), and the substantially higher production cost of all other types of oil. Note also the apt title and date of the Deutsche Bank analysis – production costs have risen substantially since then.

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The global oil industry is in deep trouble

You do not need to be an economist to see that the average 2016 price of oil ~ $50/bbl was substantially lower than just the breakeven price of all but a small proportion of global oil reserves. Even before the oil price collapse of 2014-5, the global oil industry was in deep trouble. Debts are rising quickly, and balance sheets are increasingly RED. Earlier this year 2016, Deloitte warned that 35% of oil majors were in danger of bankruptcy, with another 30% to follow in 2017.

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Click on image to enlarge

In addition to the oil majors, shrinking oil revenues in oil-producing countries are playing havoc with national economies. Virtually every oil producing country in the world requires a much higher oil price to balance its budget – some of them vastly so (eg Venezuela). Their economies have been designed around oil, which for many of them is their largest source of income. Even Saudi Arabia, the biggest global oil producer with the biggest conventional oil reserves is quickly using up its sovereign wealth fund.

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It appears that not a single significant oil-producing country is balancing its budget. Their debts and deficits grow bigger by the day. Everyone is praying for higher oil prices. Who are they kidding? The average BAU oil price going forward for business as usual for the whole global oil industry probably needs to be well over $100/bbl; and the world economy is on its knees even at the present low oil price. Why is this? The indicators all spell huge trouble ahead. Could there be another fundamental oil/energy/financial mechanism operating here?

The Root Cause

The cause is not surprising. All the various new types of oil and a good deal of the conventional stuff that remains require far more energy to produce.

In 2015, The Hills Group (US Oil Engineers) published “Depletion – A Determination of the Worlds Petroleum Reserve”. It is meticulously researched and re-worked with trends double checked against published data. It follows on from the Hills Group 2013 work that accurately predicted the approaching oil price collapse after 2014 (which no-one else did) and calculated that the average oil price of 2016 would be ~$50/bbl. They claim theirs is the most accurate oil price indicator ever produced, with >96% accuracy with published past data. The Hills Group work has somewhat clarified my understanding of the core issues and I will try to summarise two crucial points as follows.

Oil can only be useful as an energy source if the energy contained in the product (ie transport fuel) is greater than the energy required to extract, refine and deliver the fuel to the end user.

If you electrolyse water, the hydrogen gas produced (when mixed with air and ignited), will explode with a bang (be careful doing this at home!). The hydrogen contained in the world’s water is an enormous potential energy source and contains infinitely more energy (as hydrogen) than humans could ever need. The problem is that it takes far more energy to produce a given amount of hydrogen from water than is available by combusting it. Oil is rapidly going the same way. Only a small proportion of what remains of conventional oil resources can provide an energy surplus for use as a fuel. All the other types of oil require more energy to produce and deliver as fuel to the end user (taking into account the whole oil production chain), than is contained in the fuel itself.

What people do not realise is that it takes oil to extract, refine, produce and deliver oil to the end user. The Hills Group calculates that in 2012, the average energy required by the oil production chain had risen so much that it was then equal to the energy contained in the oil delivered to the economy. In other words “In 2012 the oil industry production chain in total used 50% of all the energy contained in the oil delivered to the consumer”. This is trending rapidly to reach 100% early in the next decade.

At this point – no matter how much oil is left (a lot) and in whatever form (many), oil will be of no use as an energy source for transport fuels, since it will on average require more energy to extract, refine and deliver to the end-user, than the oil itself contains.

Because oil reserves are of decreasing quality and oil is getting more difficult and expensive to produce and transform into transport fuels; the amount of energy required by the whole oil production chain (the global oil industry) is rapidly increasing; leaving less and less left over for the rest of the economy.

In this context and relative to the IEA graph shown earlier, there is a big difference between annual gross oil production, and the amount of energy left in the product available for work as fuel. Whilst total global oil (all liquids) production currently appears to be still growing slowly, the energy required by the global oil industry is growing faster, and the net energy available for work by the end user is decreasing rapidly. This is illustrated by the following figure (Louis Arnoux 2016).

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The price of oil cannot exceed the value of the economic activity generated from the amount of energy available to end-users per barrel.

The rapid decline in oil-energy available to the economy is one of the key reasons for the equally rapid rise in global debt.

The global industrial world economy depends on oil as its prime energy source. Increasing growth of the world economy during the oil age has been exactly matched by oil production and use, but as Louis’ image shows, over the last forty years the amount of net energy delivered by the oil industry to the economy has been decreasing.

As a result, the economic value of a barrel of oil is falling fast. “In 1975 one dollar could have bought, on average, 42,348 BTU; by 2010 a dollar would only have bought 6,946 BTU” (The Hills Group 2015).

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This has caused a parallel reduction in real economic activity. I say “real” because today the financial world accounts for about 40% of global GDP, and I would like to remind economists and bankers that you cannot eat 0000’s on a computer screen, or use them to put food on the table, heat your house, or make something useful. GDP as an indicator of the global economy is an illusion. If you deduct financial services and account for debt, the real world economy is contracting fast.

To compensate, and continue the fallacy of endless economic growth, we have simply borrowed and borrowed, and borrowed. Huge amounts of additional debt are now required to sustain the “Growth Illusion”.

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In 2012 the decreasing ability of oil to power the economy intersected with the increasing cost of oil production at a point The Hills Group refers to as the maximum affordable consumer price (just over $100/bbl) and they calculated that the price of oil must fall soon afterwards. In 2014 much to everyone’s surprise (IEA, EIA, World Bank, Wall St Oil futures etc) the price of oil fell to where it is now. This is clearly illustrated by The Hills Group’s petroleum price curve of 2013 which correctly calculated that the 2016 average price of oil would be ~$50/bbl (Depletion – The Fate of the Oil Age 2013).

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In their detailed 2015 study The Hills Group writes (Depletion – A determination of the world’s petroleum reserve 2015);

“To determine the affordability range it is first observed that the price of a unit of petroleum cannot exceed the value of the economic activity (generated by the net energy) it supplies to the end consumer. (Since 2012) more of the energy from petroleum was being committed to the production of petroleum than was delivered to the consumer. This precipitated the 2014 price decline that reduced prices by 50%. The energy delivered to the end consumer will continue to decline and the end consumer maximum affordability will decline with it.

Dr Louis Arnoux explains this as follows: “In 1900 the Global Industrial World received 61% of the gross energy in a barrel of oil. In 2016 this is down to 7%. The global industrial world is being forced to contract because it is being starved of net energy from oil” (Louis Arnoux 2016).

This is reflected in the slowing down of global economic growth and the huge increase in total global debt.

Without noticing it, in 2012 the world entered “Emergency Red Alert”

In the following image, Dr Arnoux has reworked Hills Group petroleum price curve showing the impending collapse of thermodynamically driven oil prices – and the end of the oil age as we know it. This analysis is more than amply reinforced by the dire financial straits of the global oil industry, and the parlous state of the global economy and financial system.

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Oil is a finite resource which is subject to the same physical laws as many other commodities. The debate about peak oil has been clouded by the fact that oil consists of many different kinds of hydrocarbons; each of which has its own extraction profile. But conventional oil is the only category of oil that can be extracted with a whole production chain energy surplus. Production of this commodity (conventional oil) has undoubtedly peaked and is now declining. The amount of energy (and cost) required by the global oil industry to produce and deliver much of the remainder of conventional reserves and the many alternative categories of oil to the consumer, is rapidly increasing; and we are equally rapidly heading toward the day when we have used up those reserves of oil which will deliver an energy surplus (taking into account the whole production chain from extraction to delivery of the end product as fuel to the consumer).

The Global Oil Industry is one of the most advanced and efficient in the world and further efficiency gains will be minor compared to the scale of the problem, which is essentially one of oil depletion thermodynamics.

Humans are very good at propping up the unsustainable and this often results in a fast and unexpected collapse (eg Joseph Tainter: The collapse of complex societies). An example of this is the Seneca Curve/Cliff which appears to me to be an often-repeated defining trait of humanity. Our oil/financial system is a perfect illustration.

Debt is being used to extend the unsustainable and it looks as though we are headed for the “Mother of all Seneca Curves” which I have illustrated below:

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Because oil is the primary energy resource upon which all other energy sources depend, it is almost certain that a contraction in oil production would be reflected in a parallel reduction in other energy systems; as illustrated rather dramatically in this image by Gail Tverberg (the timing is slightly premature – but probably not by much).

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Energy and Money

Fundamental to all energy and economic systems is money. Debt is being used to prop up a contracting oil energy system, and the scale of money created as debt over the last few decades to compensate is truly phenomenal; amounting to hundreds of trillions (excluding “extra-terrestrial” amounts of “financials”), rising exponentially faster. This amount of debt, can never ever be repaid. The on-going contraction of the oil/energy system will exacerbate this trend until the financial system collapses. There is nothing anyone can do about it no matter how much money is printed, NIRP, ZIRP you name it – all the indicators are flashing red. The panacea of indefinite money printing will soon hit the thermodynamic energy wall of reality.

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The effects we currently observe such as exponential growth in debt (US Debt alone almost doubled from $10 trillion to nearly $20 trillion during Obama’s tenure), and the financial problems of oil majors and oil producing countries, are clear indicators of the imminent contraction in existing global energy and financial systems.

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The coming failure of the global economic system will be a systemic failure. I say “systemic” because for the last 150 years up till now there has always been cheap and abundant oil to power recovery from previous busts. This era is over. Cheap and abundant oil will not be available for recovery from the next crunch, and the world will need to adopt a completely different economic and financial model.

The Economics “profession”

Economists would have us believe it’s just another turn of the credit cycle. This dismal non-science is in the main the lapdog of the establishment, the global financial and corporate interests. They have engineered the “science” to support the myth of perpetual growth to suit the needs of their pay-masters, the financial institutions, corporations and governments (who pay their salaries, fund the universities and research, etc). They have steadfastly ignored all ecological and resource issues and trends and warnings such as LTG, and portrayed themselves as the pre-eminent arbiters of human enterprise. By vehemently supporting the status quo, they of all groups, I hold primarily responsible for the appalling situation the planet faces; the destruction of the natural world, and many other threats to the global environment and its ability to sustain civilisation as we know it.

I have news for the “Economics Profession”. The perpetual growth fantasy financial system based on unlimited cheap energy is now coming to an end. From the planet’s point of view – it simply couldn’t be soon enough. This will mark the end of what I call the “Oilocene”. Human activities are having such an effect on the planet that the present age has been classified by geologists as a new geological era “The Anthropocene”. But although humans had already made a significant impact on natural systems, the Anthropocene has largely been defined by the relatively recent discovery and use of liquid fossil energy reserves amounting to millions of years of stored solar energy. Unlimited cheap oil has fuelled exponential growth in human systems to the point that many of these are now greater than natural planetary ones.
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This cannot be sustained without huge amounts of cheap net oil energy, so we are inescapably headed for “the great deceleration”. The situation is very like the fate of the Titanic which I have outlined in my presentation. Of the few who had the courage to face the economic wind of perpetual growth, I salute the authors of LTG and the memory of Richard Douthwaite (The Growth Illusion 1992), and all at FEASTA who are working hard to warn a deaf Ireland of what is to come and why – and have very sensibly been preparing for it! We will all need a lot of courage and resilience to face what is coming down the line.

Ireland has a very short time available to prepare for hard times.

There are many things we could do here to soften the impact if the problem was understood for what it is. FEASTA publications such as the Before The Wells Run Dry and Fleeing Vesuvius; and David Korowicz’s works such as The Tipping Point and of course, The Hills Group 2015 publicationDepletion – a determination of the worlds petroleum reserve , and very many other references, provide background material and should be required urgent reading for all policy makers.

The pre-eminent challenge is energy for transport and agriculture. We could switch to use of compressed natural gas (CNG) as the urgent default transport/motive fuel in the short term since petrol and diesel engines can be converted to dual-fuel use with CNG; supplemented rapidly by biogas (since we are lucky enough to have plenty of agricultural land and water compared to many countries).

We could urgently switch to an organic high labour input agriculture concentrating on local self-sufficiency eliminating chemical inputs such as fertilisers pesticides and herbicides (as Cuba did after the fall of the Soviet Union). We could outlaw the use of oil for heating and switch to biomass.

We could penalise high electricity use and aim to massively cut consumption so that electricity can be supplied by completely renewable means – preserving our natural gas for transport fuel and the rapid transition from oil. The Grid could be urgently reconfigured to enable 100% use of renewable electricity within a few years. We could concentrate on local production of food, goods and services to reduce transport needs.

These measures would create a lot of jobs and improve the balance of payments. They have already been proposed in one form or another by FEASTA over the last 15 years.

Ireland has made a start, but it is insignificant compared to the scale and timescale of the challenge ahead as illustrated by the next image (SEAI: Energy in Ireland – Key Statistics 2015). We urgently need to shrink the oil portion to a small fraction of current use.

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Current fossil energy use is very wasteful. By reducing waste and increasing efficiency we can use less. For instance, a large amount of the energy used as transport fuels and for electricity generation is lost to atmosphere as waste heat. New technological solutions include a global initiative to mount an affordable emergency response called nGeni that is solely based on well-known and proven technology components, integrated in a novel way, with a business and financial model enabling it to tap into over €5 trillion/year of funds currently wasted globally as waste heat. This has potential for Ireland, and will be outlined in a subsequent post.

To finance all the changes we need to implement, quickly (and hopefully before the full impact of the oil/financial catastrophe really kicks in), we could for instance create something like a massive multibillion “National Sustainability and Renewable Energy Bond”. Virtually all renewables provide a better (often substantially better) return on investment compared to bank savings, government bonds, etc; especially in the age of zero and negative interest rate policies ZIRP, NIRP etc.

We may need to think about managing this during a contraction in the economy and financial system which could occur at any time. We certainly could do with a new clever breed of “Ecological Economists” to plan for the end of the old system and its replacement by a sustainable new one. There is no shortage of ideas. The disappearance of trillions of fake money and the shrinking of national and local tax income which currently funds the existing system and its social programmes will be a huge challenge to social stability in Ireland and all over the world.

It’s now “Emergency Red Alert”. If we delay, we won’t have the energy or the money to implement even a portion of what is required. We need to drag our politicians and policy makers kicking and screaming to the table, to make them understand the dire nature of the predicament and challenge them to open their eyes to the increasingly obvious, and to take action. We can thank The Hills Group for elucidating so clearly the root causes of the problem, but the indicators of systemic collapse have for many years been frantically jumping up and down, waving at us and shouting LOOK AT ME! Meanwhile the majority of blinkered clueless economists that advise business and government and who plan our future, look the other way.

In 1972 “The Limits to Growth” warned of the consequences of growing reliance on the finite resource called “oil” and of the suicidal economics mantra of endless growth. The challenge Ireland will soon face is managing a fast economic and energy contraction and implementing sustainability on a massive scale whilst maintaining social cohesion. Whatever the outcome (managed or chaotic contraction), we will soon all have to live with a lot less energy and physical resources. That in itself might not necessarily be such a bad thing provided the burden is shared. “Modern citizens today use more energy and physical resources in a month than our great-grandparents used during their whole lifetime” (John Thackera; “From Oil Age to Soil Age”, Doors to Perception; Dec 2016). Were they less happy than us?

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Powerpoint presentation

Featured image: used motor oil. Source: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/stain-1507366





Some excitement at the Fanny Farm…..

18 09 2016

It’s raining. Quite a bit actually, for this neck of the woods, 8mm so far today, and it’s only mid afternoon. What else is a blogger to do in this sort of weather but…. blog!  The green manure crop is doing well, and should be plainly visible by the time Glenda arrives here next weekend…..

On Friday, I drove my French wwoofer to Buckland, a whole 130km away. I did this because she agreed to pay me her bus fare towards my petrol costs, and I wanted to see the permaculture property she was moving to. It also meant she’d only have to spend an hour and a half in my ute as opposed to four hours in buses… Then on the way back, I could conveniently pick up two IBC’s (which stands for the enigmatic intermediate bulk container) and are basically 1000L plastic cubes inside a metal cage for holding, in my case, water. Then while driving back through Hobart, I was able to pick up a second dipole circuit breaker for the power station, and a new pump for filling above mentioned IBC’s from the dam….

Paul, who owns and runs the Tiger Hill property I took Laureen to, took the time to show me around…. What I found fascinating was the way some permies take on challenges, just because they can! Paul, it turns out, comes from a heavy machinery driving background, working in mines. Not the sort of bloke one would expect to turn into a permaculture greenie, but there you go…..

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Over the past five years, Paul has concentrated on earthworks, which this place really needs, as it’s normally dry as a bone, with only 300mm of annual rainfall. Not that this was evident on my visit, Tiger Hill had just been blessed with 65mm of rain just the day before, and there was water everywhere, which clearly demonstrated the efficacy of his swales….

His biggest issue, as far as I was concerned, is the prolific wildlife. The grass looked like it had been mown to within an inch of its life, and there were wallaby scats everywhere….. and I mean, everywhere! This means his extensive garden – he sometimes has as many as 12 wwoofers working there – has to be entirely covered with poly pipe hoops and netting… and because he still has no animals of his own yet because he apparently flies in and out of Tasmania frequently, most of his efforts go to feeding the wildlife, except for the netted bits. He compensates for the lack of animal manures by having more composting toilets 20160917_153649than I cared to count, he is indeed big in humanure!

The reason I bought another dipole circuit breaker for the power station is that I have moved the freezer into the container. Everything is now switched on and operational, but the freezer alone is not enough to load up the batteries, so I have put a breaker on each string of panels so I can switch one off when there’s an overabundance of sun…. this not being the case today, both strings generated barely enough to cover the 1.3kWh that the freezer consumed in the past 24 hours.

Mind you, the freezer probably worked extra hard after being moved, and later filled with (almost) a whole lamb purchased from next door.

Soon, I will also have my new pump hooked up to fill one of those ICB’s so that I can water the crops that will be planted in the new poly tunnel. Which leads me to the excitement…….

I recently found a two inch poly pipe going under the road, from the apple orchard to the base of the dam wall. The dam has a 100mm sewer plastic pipe going through it, with this weird S bend glued to the pipe, which has a garden variety tap attached to it, and I mean literally. I’ve been using this water for the chooks, and filling bathtubs whenever I’ve been agisting other people’s animals on our land. The whole setup, I thought, was very dodgy, but I was about to find out how dodgy very soon.

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I unloaded one of the IBC’s next to the pipe outlet in the orchard; this will be very handy come the day I have ducks and geese in there, which need copious amounts of water.

I then fed a garden hose through the pipe, and pulled it out the other end to connect to the tap where the dam water comes out….. There’s a lot of friction in a twenty metre long garden hose, and not that much water pressure when the outlet of said hose is only a couple of metres below the dam water level…. the result was a mere trickle coming out the hose.

Dissatisfied with the flow rate, I went back to the tap to make sure it had been turned on properly……. and the whole end of the dodgy connection simply fell off the pipe! The S bend and the sewer pipes are made of different plastics, and gluing them together was never going to work. I could throttle whoever did this…!

To say I had a brain meltdown is an understatement. I tried to push it back on, but the non existent pressure suddenly made its presence felt, and there was no way I was going to fix this on my own. Terror set in… visions of an empty dam upon Glenda’s arrival next weekend clouded all the thinking I was still capable of, and I rang my trusty neighbour for help. Except his phone was flat! So I drove over to find him, which wasn’t easy without the spectacles I discarded after being sprayed with water from head to toe!

Matt understandingly jumped in my ute, and as he, unlike me, was thinking clearly, came up with a plan that I can now report worked to perfection. I guided the fittings into position, and while I was sprayed with water, he levered them into place against the pressure with a crowbar…… a few self tapping screws to replace the glue that failed, and voila, problem solved.20160918_152700

I wish I had taken photos of the gushing water….. it must have been coming out at easily twenty litres a second, but I sort of had my hands full at the time, and I can only show you what the repaired outlet looks like. Which reminds me, I must put some screws into the other end that didn’t fall off, before it does! Then I can get rid of that ridiculous tap, replace it with a proper valve, and put a bit of one inch poly pipe on it instead of that useless garden hose…. the IBC did eventually fill up, but it is very very slow.

Having calmed down, I then started wondering how long it would have actually taken to drain my 10 million litre pond at twenty litres a second…… and it turns out, it would be about three weeks! All that panic and adrenaline for absolutely nothing….. after fixing the problem, Matt and I walked up the dam wall to inspect the damage…… and you couldn’t even tell it had happened, even after a good thirty minute flush.

Life is full of little lessons, and you learn them one at a time.





Some reflections on the Twilight of the Oil Age (part III)

21 07 2016

Guest post by Louis Arnoux, republished from Ugo Bardi’s excellent blog

Part I

Part 3 – Standing slightly past the edge of the cliff

The Tooth Fairy Syndrome that I discussed in Part 2 is, in my view, the fundamental reason why those holding onto BAU will grab every piece of information that can possibly, superficially, back up their ideology and twist it to suit their viewa, generating much confusion in the process.  It is also probably fair to say that the advocates of various versions of“energy transition” are not immune to this kind of syndrome when they remain oblivious to the issues explored in Parts 1 and 2.  Is it possible to go beyond such confusion?

The need to move away from ideology

The impact of the Tooth Fairy Syndrome is all the more felt in the main media and among politicians – with the end result that so many lay people (and many experts) end up highly confused about what to think and do about energy matters.  Notably, we often encounter articles advocating, even sensationalising, various energy transition technologies or instead seeking to rubbish them by highlighting what they present as problematic issues without any depth of analysis.  For example, a 2013 article from the Daily Mail was highlighted in recent discussions among energy experts as a case in point.[1]  The UK is indeed installing large numbers of subsidized, costly diesel generators to be used as back-up at times of low electricity supplies from wind turbines. This article presented this policy as very problematic but failed to set things in perspective about what such issues say about the challenges of any energy transition.

In New Zealand, where I lived close to half of my life before a return to my dear Provence (De reditu suo mode, as a wink to an earlier post by Ugo) about 73% of electricity is deemed renewable (with hydro 60%, geothermal 10%, wind 3%, PVs about 0.1%); the balance being generated from gas and coal.  There is a policy to achieve 90% renewables by 2025. Now, with that mix we have had for many years something like what the UK is building, with a number of distributed generators for emergency back-up without this being a major issue.  The main differences I see with the UK are that (1) in NZ we have only about 5M people living in an area about half that of France (i.e. the chief issue is a matter of renewable production per head of population) and (2) the system is mostly hydro, hence embodying a large amount of energy storage, that Kiwi “sparkies” have learned to manage very well.  It ensues that a few diesel or gas generators are not a big deal there.  By contrast, the UK in my view faces a very big challenge to go “green”.

The above example illustrates the need to extricate ourselves from ideology and look carefully into systems specifics when considering such matters as the potential of various technologies, like wind turbine, PVs, EVs, and so on, as well as capacity factors and EROI levels in the context of going 100% renewable.  All too often, vital issues keep being sidestepped by both BAU and non-BAU parties; while ignoring them often leads to erroneous “solutions” and even dangerous ones.  So as a conclusion of this three-part series focused on “enquiring into the appropriateness of the question”, here are some of the fundamental issues that I see in front of us (the list is not exhaustive):

“Apocalypse now”

At least since the early 1970s and the Meadows’ work, we have known that the globalised industrial world (GIW) is on a self-destructive path, aka BAU (Business as usual). We now know that we are living through the tail end of this process, the end of the Oil Age, precipitating what I have called the Oil Fizzle Dragon-King, Seneca style, that is, after a slow, relatively smooth climb (aka “economic growth”) we are at the beginning of an abrupt fall down a thermodynamic cliff.

The chief issue is whole system change. This means thinking in whole systems terms where the thermodynamics of complex systems operating far from equilibrium is the key.  In terms of epistemology and methods, this requires what in anthropology is called the “hermeneutic circle”: moving repeatedly from the particulars, the details, to the whole system, improving our understanding of the whole and from this going back to the particulars, improving our understanding of them, going back to considering the whole, and so on.  Whole system replacement, i.e. going 100% renewable, requires a huge energy embodiment, a kind of “primitive accumulation” (as a wink to Marx) that presently, under the prevailing paradigm and technology set, is not feasible.  Having the “Energy Hand” in mind (Figure 5), where does this required energy may come from in a context of sharp decline of net energy from oil and Red Queen effect, and concerning renewable, inverse Red Queen/cannibalisation effects?  As another example of the importance of whole system thinking, Axel Kleidon has raised the question of the viability of very large-scale wind versus direct solar.[2]

Solely considering the performances and cost of this or that alternative energy technology won’t suffice.  Short of addressing the complexities of whole system replacement, the situation we are in is some kind of “Apocalypse now”.  The chief challenge I see is thus how to shift safely, with minimal loss of life (substantial loss of life there will be; this has become unavoidable), from fossil-BAU (and thus accessorily nuclear) to 100% sustainable, which means essentially, in one form or another, a direct solar-based society.

We currently have some 17 TW of power installed globally (mostly fossil with some nuclear), i.e. about 2.3kW/head, but with some 4 billion people who at best are grossly energy stressed, many who have no access to electricity at all and only limited transport, in a context of an efficiency of global energy systems in the order of 12%.[3]  To address the Oil Fizzle Dragon-King and the Perfect Storm that it is in the process of whipping up, I consider that we need to move to 4kW/head for the whole population (assuming it levels off at some 8 billion people instead of the currently expected 11 billions), plus some 10TW additional to address climate change and other ecological energy related issues, hence about 50TW, 100% direct solar based, for the whole spectrum of energy uses including transport; preferably over 20 years.  Standing where we now are, slightly past the edge of the thermodynamic cliff, this is my understanding of what’s required.

In other words, going “green” and surviving it (i.e. avoiding the inverse Red Queen effect) means increasing our Energy Hand from 17 TW to 50 TW (as a rough order of magnitude), with efficiencies shifting from 12% to over 80%.

To elaborate this further, I stress it again, currently the 17 TW do not even suffice to cater for the whole 7.3 billion global population and by a wide margin.  Going “green” with the current “renewable” technology mix and related paradigm would mean devoting a substantial amount of those 17 TW to the “primitive accumulation” of the “green” system.  It should be clear that under this predicament something would have to give, i.e. some of us would get even more energy stressed, and die, or as the Chinese and Indians have been doing for a while we would use much more of remaining fossil resources but then this would accelerate global warming and many other nasties. Alternatively we may face up to changing paradigm so as to rapidly steer away from global EROIs below 10:1 and global energy efficiency around 12%.  This is the usual “can’t have one’s cake and eat it” situation writ large.

Put in an other way, when looking at whole societal system replacement one must look at the whole of what’s required to make the system work, including people and their own energy requirements – this is fundamentally a matter of system boundary definitions related to problem definition (in David Bhom’s sense).   We can illustrate this by considering the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).  As a thought experiment, remove oil (the media have reported that KSA’s Crown Prince has seen the writing on some wall re the near end of the oil bonanza).  This brings the KSA population from some 27M down to some 2M, i.e. some 25M people are currently required to keep oil flowing at some 10M bbl/day (including numerous Filipino domestics, medics, lawyers, and so on) plus about three times that population overseas to supply what the 25M require to keep the oil flowing…

Globally, I estimate very roughly that some 1.5 billion people, directly related to oil production, processing distribution and transport matters did require oil at above $100/bbl for their livelihood (including the Filipino domestics).  I call them the Oil People. [4]  Most of them currently are unhappy and struggle; their “demand” for goods and services has dropped considerably since 2014.

So all in all, whole system replacement (on a “do or die” mode) requires considering whole production chain networks from mining the ores, through making the metals, cement, etc., to making the machines, to using them to produce the stuff we require to go 100% sustainable, as well as the energy requirements of not only the Oil People but the full compendium of the Energy People involved, both the “fossil” ones and the “green” ones; while meanwhile we need to keep existing fossil-based energy systems going as much as possible.  Very roughly the Energy People are probably in the order of 3 billion people (and it is not easy to convert a substantial proportion of the “fossil” ones to “green”, including their own related energy requirements – this too has a significant energy cost).  This is where Figure 2, with the interplay of Red Queen and the inverse Red Queen, comes in.

Figure 2

redqueen
In my view at this whole system level we do have a major problem.  Given the very short time window constraint, we can’t afford to get it wrong in terms of how to possibly getting out of there – we have hardly enough time to have one go at it.

Remaining time frame

Indeed, under the sway of the Tooth Fairy (see Part 2) and an increasingly asthmatic Red Queen, we no longer have 35 years, (say up to around 2050).  We have at best 10 years, not to debate and agonise but to actually do, with the next three years being key.  The thermodynamics on this, summarised in Part 1, is rock hard.  This timeframe, combined with the Oil Pearl Harbor challenge and the inverse Red Queen constraints, means in my view that none of the current“doings” renewable-wise can cut it.  In fact much of these stand to make matters worse – I refer here to current interactions between efforts at going green largely within the prevailing paradigm and die hard BAU efforts at keeping fossils going, as perhaps exemplified in the current UK policies discussed earlier.

Weak links

Notwithstanding its apparent power, the GIW is in fact extremely fragile.  It embodies a number of very weak links in its networks.  I have highlighted the oil issue, an issue that defines the overall time frame for dealing with “Apocalypse now”.  In addition to that and to climate change, there are a few other challenges that have been variously put forward by a range of researchers in recent years, such as fresh water availability, massive soil degradation, trace pollutants, degradation of life in oceans (about 99% of life is aquatic), staple food threats (e.g. black stem rust, wheat blast, ground level ozone, etc.), loss of biodiversity and 6th mass extinction, all the way to Joseph Tainter’s work concerning the links between energy flows, power (in TW), complexity and overshoot to collapse.[5]

These weak links are currently in the process of breaking or are about to break, the breaks forming a self-reinforcing avalanche (SOC) or Perfect Storm.  All have the same key timeframe of about 10 years as an order of magnitude for acting.  All require a fair “whack” of energy as a prerequisite to handling them (the “whack” being a flexible and elastic unit of something substantial that usually one does not have).

It’s all burnt up

carbonbudget

Figure 6 – Carbon all burnt

Recent research shows that sensitivity to climate forcing has been substantially underestimated, meaning that we must expect much more warming in the longer term than touted so far.[6]  This further exacerbates what we already knew, namely that there is no such thing as a “carbon budget” of fossils the GIW could still burn, and no way of staying below the highly political and misleading 2oC COP21 objective (Figure 6).[7]

The 350ppm CO2 equivalent advocated by Hansen et al. is a safe estimate – a boundary crossed in the late 1980s, some 28 years ago.  So the reality is that we can’t escape actually extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, somehow, if we want to avoid trying to survive in a few mosquito infested areas of the far north and south, while some 80% of the planet becomes non-habitable in the longer run.  Direct Air Capture of atmospheric CO2 (DAC) is something that also requires a fair “whack” of energy, hence the additional 10TW I consider is required to get out of trouble.

Cognitive failure

eroei

Figure 7 – EROI cognitive failure

The “Brexit” saga is perhaps the latest large-scale demonstration of cognitive failure in a very long series.  That is to say, the failure on the part of decision-making elites to make use of available knowledge, experience, and expertise to tackle effectively challenges within the timeframe required to do so.

Cognitive failure is probably most blatant, but largely remaining unseen, concerning energy, the Oil Fizzle DK and matters of energy returns on energy investments (EROI or EROEI).  What we can observe is a triple failure of BAU, but also of most current “green” alternatives (Figure 7): (1) the BAU development trajectory since the 1950s failed; (2) there has been a failure to take heed of over 40 years of warnings; and (3) there has been a failure to develop viable alternatives.

However, although I am critical of aspects of recent evaluations of the feasibility of going 100% renewable,[8] I do think it remains feasible with existing knowledge, no “blue sky” required, i.e. to reach in the order of 50TW 100% solar I outlined earlier, but I also think that a crash on the cliff side of the Seneca is no longer avoidable.  In other words I consider that it remains possible to partly retrieve the situation while the GIW crashes so long as enough people do realise that one can’t change paradigm on the down side as one may do on the upside of a Seneca, which presently our elites, in full blown cognitive failure mode, don’t understand.

To illustrate this matter further and highlight why I consider that production EROIs well above 30:1 are necessary to get us out of trouble consider Figure 8.

freelunch

Figure 8 – The necessity of very high EROIs

This is expanded from similar attempts by Jessica Lambert et al., to perhaps highlights what sliding down the thermodynamic cliff entails.  Charles Hall has shown that a production EROI of 10:1 corresponds roughly to an end-user EROI of 3.3:1 and is the bare minimum for an industrial society to function.[9]  In sociological terms, for 10:1 think of North Korea.  As shown on Figure 7, currently I know of no alternative, either unconventional fossils based, nuclear or “green” technologies with production EROIs (i.e. equivalent to the well head EROI for oil) above 20:1; most remain below 10:1.  I do think it feasible to go back above 30:1, in 100% sustainable fashion, but not along prevalent modes of technology development, social organisation, and decision-making.

The hard questions

So prevailing cognitive failure brings us back to Bohm’s “enquiry into the appropriateness of the question”.  In conclusion of a 2011 paper, Joseph Tainter raised four questions that, in my view, squarely address such an enquiry (Figure 9).[10] To date those four questions remain unanswered by both tenants of BAU and advocates of going 100% renewable.

We are in an unprecedented situation.  As stressed by Tainter, no previous civilisation has ever managed to survive the kind of predicament we are in.  However, the people living in those civilisations were mostly rural and had a safety net, in that their energy source was 100% solar, photosynthesis for food, fibre and timber – they always could keep going even though it may have been under harsh conditions.  We no longer have such a safety net; our entire food systems are almost completely dependent on that net energy from oil that is in the process of dropping to the floor and our food supply systems cannot cope without it.

Figure 9 – Four questions

perfectstorm2

Figure 10 summarises how, in my view, Tainter’s four questions, his analyses and mine combine to define the unique situation we are in.  If we are to avoid sliding all the way down the thermodynamic cliff, we must shift to a new “energy pool”.  In this respect, dealing with the SOC-like Perfect Storm while carrying out such a shift both excludes “shrinking”our energy base (as many “greens” would have it) and necessitates abandoning the present highly wasteful energy use paradigm – hence the shift from 17TW fossil to 50TW 100% solar-based and with over 80% useful uses of energy that I advocated earlier, over a 20 to 30 years timeframe.

Figure 10 – Ready to jumping into a new energy pool?

specialtimes

 

Figure 10 highlights that humankind has been through a number of such shifts over the last 6 million years or so.  Each shift has entailed:

(1) a nexus of revolutionary innovations encompassing thermodynamics and related techniques,

(2) social innovation (à la Cornelius Castoriadis’ imaginary institution of society) and

(3) innovations concerning the human psyche, i.e. how we think, decide and act.

Our predicament, as we have just begun to slide down the fossil fuels thermodynamic cliff, similarly requires such a nexus if we are to succeed at a new “energy pool shift”.  Just focusing on thermodynamics and technology won’t suffice.  The kind of paradigm change I keep referring to integrates technology, social innovations and innovation concerning the human psyche about ways of avoiding cognitive failure.  This is a lot to ask, however it is necessary to address Tainter’s questions.

This challenge is a measure of the huge selection pressure humankind managed to place itself under.  Presently, I see a lot going on very creatively in all these three intimately related domains.  Maybe we will succeed in making the jump over the cliff?

Bio: Dr Louis Arnoux is a scientist, engineer and entrepreneur committed to the development of sustainable ways of living and doing business.  His profile is available on Google+ at: https://plus.google.com/u/0/115895160299982053493/about/p/pub

[1] Dellingpole, James, 2013, “The dirty secret of Britain’s power madness: Polluting diesel generators built in secret by foreign companies to kick in when there’s no wind for turbines – and other insane but true eco-scandals”, in The Daily Mail, 13 July.

[2] As another example, Axel Kleidon has shown that extracting energy from wind (as well as from waves and ocean currents) on any large scale would have the effect of reducing overall free energy usable by humankind (free in the thermodynamic sense, due to the high entropy levels that these technologies do generate, and as opposed to the direct harvesting of solar energy through photosynthesis, photovoltaics and thermal solar, that instead do increase the total free energy available to humankind) – see Kleidon, Axel, 2012, How does the earth system generate and maintain thermodynamic disequilibrium and what does it imply for the future of the planet?, Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, published in Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society A,  370, doi: 10.1098/rsta.2011.0316.

[3] E.g. Murray and King, Nature, 2012.

[4] This label is a wink to the Sea People who got embroiled in the abrupt end of the Bronze Age some 3,200 years ago, in that same part of the world currently bitterly embroiled in atrocious fighting and terrorism, aka MENA.

[5] Tainter, Joseph, 1988, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press; Tainter, Joseph A., 1996, “Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies”, in Getting Down to Earth: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics, Island Press, and Tainter, Joseph A. and Crumley, Carole, “Climate, Complexity and Problem Solving in the Roman Empire” (p. 63), in Costanza, Robert, Graumlich, Lisa J., and Steffen, Will, editors, 2007, Sustainability or Collapse, an Integrated History and Future of People on Earth, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, U.K., in cooperation with Dahlem University Press.

[6] See for example Armour, Kyle, 2016, “Climate sensitivity on the rise”, www.nature.com/natureclimatechange, 27 June.

[7] For a good overview, see Spratt, David, 2016, Climate Reality Check, March.

[8] For example, Jacobson, Mark M. and Delucchi, Mark A., 2009, “A path to Sustainability by 2030”, in Scientific American, November.

[9] Hall, Charles A. S. and Klitgaard, Kent A., 2012, Energy and the Wealth of Nations, Springer; Hall, Charles A. S., Balogh, Stephen, and Murphy, David J. R., 2009, “What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?” inEnergies, 2, 25-47; doi:10.3390/en20100025. See also Murphy, David J., 2014, “The implications of the declining energy return on investment of oil production” in Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society A, 372: 20130126,http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2013.0126.

[10] Joseph Tainter, 2011, “Energy, complexity, and sustainability: A historical perspective”, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, Elsevier





The Extreme Implausibility of Ecomodernism.

20 07 2016

Another essay by Ted Trainer.

tedtrainer

Ted Trainer

16.3.2016

Abstract: “Ecomodernism” is a recently coined term for that central element in mainstream Enlightenment culture previously well-described as “Tech-fix faith”. The largely taken for granted assumption has been that by accelerating modern technologies high living standards can be achieved for all, while resolving resource and ecological problems.  The following argument is that ecomodernism falls far short of having a substantial, persuasive or convincing case in its support. It stands as a contradiction of the now voluminous “limits to growth” literature, but it does not attempt to offer a case against the limits thesis. Elements in the limits case will be referred to below but the main line of argument will be to do with the reasons why achievement of the reductions and “decouplings” assumed by ecomodernism is extremely implausible. The conservative social and political implications are noted before briefly arguing that the solution to global problems must be sought via The Simpler Way.

What is ecomodernism?.

The 32 page Ecomodernist Manifesto (2015), by 18 authors, is a clear and emphatic restatement of the common belief that technical advance within the existing social structure can or will solve global problems, and there is therefore no need for radical change in directions, systems, values or lifestyles. Thus the fundamental commitment to ever more affluent “living standards”, capital intensive systems, technical sophistication and constantly rising levels of consumption and GDP is sound, and indeed necessary as it is the only way to enable the future technical advance that it is believed will solve global problems. This will enable human demands to be met while resource and ecological impacts on nature are reduced, thus making it possible to set more of nature aside to thrive. Modern agriculture for instance will producer more from less land, enabling more to be returned to nature and freeing Third World people from backbreaking work while moving into urban living.  Thus the fundamental assumption frequently asserted is that economic growth can be “decoupled” from the environment.

These kinds of visions would obviously require vastly increased quantities of energy but renewable sources are judged not to be capable of providing these, so it is no surprise to find late in the document that it is being assumed that nuclear reactors are going to do the job, nor that the pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute champions the Manifesto.

Unfortunately the Manifesto is little more than a claim.  It provides almost no supporting case apart from giving some examples where technical advance has improved human welfare at reduced resource or ecological impact. It does not deal with the many reasons for thinking that technical advance cannot do what the ecomodernists are assuming it can do.  Above all it does not provide grounds for thinking that that resource demand and ecological damage can be sufficiently decoupled from economic growth. When one of the authors was asked for the supporting case reference was made to the 106 page document Nature Unbounded by Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenberger, (2015.) However this document too is essentially a statement of claims and faith and can hardly be said to present a case that those claims can be realized.

The following discussion is mainly intended to show how implausible and unsubstantiated the general “tech-fix” and decoupling claims are, and that they are contrary to existing evidence.  Most if not all critical discussions of ecomodernism and of left modernization theorists such as Phillips (2015), e.g., by Hopkins (2015), Caradonna et al., 2015, Crist, (2015) and Smaje, (2015a, 2015b), have been impressionistic and “philosophical”. In contrast, the following analysis focuses on numerical considerations which establish the enormity of the ecomodernist claims. When estimates and actual numbers to do with resource demands, resource bases, and ecological impacts are attended to it becomes clear that the task for technical advance set by the ecomodernists is implausible in the extreme.

The basic limits to growth thesis.

The “limits to growth” thesis is that with respect to many factors crucial to planetary sustainability affluent-industrial-consumer society is grossly unsustainable. It has already greatly exceeded important limits. Levels of production and consumption are far beyond those that could be kept up for long or extended to all people.  Present consumption levels are achieved because resource and ecological “stocks” are being depleted much faster than they can regenerate.

But the unsustainable present levels of production, consumption, resource use and environmental impact only begin to define of the problem.  What is overwhelmingly crucial is the universal obsession with continual, never ending economic growth, i.e., with increasing production and consumption, incomes and GDP as much as possible and without limit.  The most important criticism of the ecomodernist position is its failure to grasp the magnitude of the task it confronts when the present overshoot is combined with the commitment to growth.  The main concern in the following discussion is with quantities and multiples, to show how huge and implausible ecomodernist achievements and decouplings would have to be.

The magnitude of the task.

It is the extent of the overshoot that is crucial and not generally appreciated. This is the issue which the ecomodernists fail to deal with and it only takes a glance at the numbers to see how implausible their pronouncements are in relation to the task they set themselves. Their main literature makes no attempt to carry out quantitative examinations of crucial resources and ecological issues with a view to showing that the apparent limits can be overcome.

Let us look at the overall picture revealed when some simple numerical aggregates and estimates are combined.  The normal expectation is for around 3% p.a. growth in GDP, meaning that by 2050 the total amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be about three times as great as at present. World population is expected to be around 10 billion by 2050.  At present world  $GDP per capita is around $13,000, and the US figure is around $55,000. Thus if we take the ecomodernist vision to imply that by 2050 all people will be living as Americans will be living then, total world output would have to be around 3 x 10/7 x 55,000/13,000 = 18 times as great as it is now.  If the assumptions are extended to 2100 the multiple would be in the region of 80.

However, even the present global level of producing and consuming has an unsustainable level of impact.  The world Wildlife Fund’s “Footprint” measure (2015) indicates that the general overshoot is around 1.5 times a sustainable rate.  (For some factors, notably greenhouse gas emissions, the multiple is far higher.) This indicates that the target for the ecomodernist has to be to reduce overall resource use and ecological impact per unit of output by a factor of around 27 by 2050, and in the region of 120 by 2100. In other words, by 2050 technical advance will have to have reduced the resource demand and environmental impact per unit of output to under 4% of their present levels.

The consideration of required multiples shows the inadequacy of the earlier pronouncements and expectations of the well-known tech-fix optimist Amory Lovins who enthused about the possibility of “Factor Four” or better reductions in materials and energy uses per unit of GDP.  (Von Weisacker and Lovins, 1997, and Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, 1999).If there is a commitment to constant, limitless increase in economic output then the reductions in resource use and environmental damage that can be achieved by such technical advance are soon likely to be overwhelmed.  For instance if use and impact rates per unit of GDP were cut by one-third, but 3% p.a. growth in total output continued, then in about 17 years the resource demands and impacts would be back up to as high as they were before the cuts, and would be twice as great in another 23 years.

This issue of multiples is at the core of the limits and decoupling issues. If ecomodernists wish to be taken seriously they must provide a numerical case showing that in all the relevant domains the degree of decoupling that can be achieved is likely to be of the magnitude that would be required.  There appears to be no ecomodernist text which even attempts to do this.  At best their case refers to a few instances where impressive decoupling has taken place.

Note also the importance here of the Leibig “law of the minimum.” It does not matter how spectacular various technical gains can be if there remains one crucial area where they can’t be made on the required scale.  Plants for instance might have available all the nutrients they need except for one required in minute quantities but if it is not available there will be little or no growth.  High-tech systems often depend heavily on tiny quantities of “mineral vitamins”, notably rare earths which are extremely scarce.

The typically faulty national accounting.

An easily overlooked factor is that in general measures and indices of rich world resource and ecological performance greatly misrepresent and underestimate the seriousness of the situation, because they do not include the large volumes of energy, materials and ecological impact embodied in imported goods.  Rich countries now do not carry out much manufacturing but import most of the goods they consume from Third World plantations and factories.  The implications for resource depletion and ecological impact have only recently begun to be studied. (Weidmann, et al., 2014, 2015, Lenzen, et al., 2012, Wiebe, et al,

2012, Dittrich, et al., 2014, Schütz, et al., 2004.)

An example is given by the conventional measure of CO2 emissions. Australia’s 550 MtCO2e/y equates to a per capita rate of around 25 t/y, which is about the highest in the world. But this does not include the emissions in Third World countries generated by the production of goods imported into Australia.  For Australia and for the UK this amount is actually about as great as the emissions within the country.  (Clark, 2011, Australian Government Climate Change Authority, 2013.)

In addition Australia’s “prosperity” is largely achieved by exporting coal, oil and gas and these contain about three times as much carbon as all the energy used within Australia.  It could be argued therefore that the country’s contribution to the greenhouse gas problem more or less corresponds to five times the official and usually quoted 25 t/pp/y.  The IPCC estimates that by 2050 global emissions must be cut to about 0.3 t/pp/y. (IPCC, 2014.)  This is around one-three hundredth of the amount Australia is now responsible for. Again the centrality of the above magnitude point is evident; how aware are tech-fix optimists of the need for reductions of such proportions?

Assessing the validity of the general “tech-fix” thesis.

Firstly attention will be given to some overall numerical considerations which show the extreme implausibility of the general tech-fix claim, such as the gulf between current “decoupling” achievements and the far higher levels that ecomodernism would require. But that does not take into account the fact that it is going to take increasing effort just to maintain current achievements, for instance as ore grades deteriorate. This what the limits to growth analysis makes clear.  The added significance of this will be discussed later via brief examination of some domains such as energy scarcity, declining ore grades, and deteriorating ecological conditions.

How impressive have the overall gains been?

It is commonly assumed that in general rapid, large or continuous technical gains are being routinely made in crucial areas such as energy efficiency, and will continue if not accelerate.  As a generalisation this belief is quite challengeable. Ayres (2009) notes that for many decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of production of electricity and fuels, electric motors, ammonia and iron and steel production. His Fig. 4.21a shows no increase in the overall energy efficiency of the US economy since 1960.  He reports that the efficiency of electrical devices in general has actually changed little in a century (2009) “…the energy efficiency of transportation probably peaked around 1960.” This has been partly due to greater use of accessories since then. Ayres notes that reports tend to publicise selected isolated spectacular technical advances and this is misleading regarding long term average trends across whole industries or economies. Mackay (2008) reports that little gain can be expected for air transport.  Huebner’s historical study (2005) found that the rate at which major technical advances have been made (per capita of world population) is declining.  He says that for the US the peak was actually in 1916.

Decoupling can be regarded as much the same as productivity growth and this has been in long term decline since the 1970s. Even the advent of computerisation has had a surprisingly small effect, a phenomenon now labelled the “Productivity Paradox.”

The historical record suggests that at best productivity gains have been modest. It is important not to focus on national measures such as “Domestic Materials Consumption” as these do not take into account materials in imported goods.  Thus the OECD (2015) claims that materials used within its countries has fallen 45% per dollar of GDP, but this figure does not take into account materials embodied in imported goods. When they are included rich countries typically show very low or worsening ratios. The commonly available global GDP (deflated) and energy use figures between 1980 and 2008 reveals only a 0.4% p.a. rise in GDP per unit of energy consumed.   Hattfield-Dodds et al. (2015) say that the efficiency of materials use has been improving at c. 1.5% p.a., but they give no evidence for this and other sources indicate that the figure is too high. Weidmann et al. (2014) show that when materials embodied in imports are taken into account rich countries have not improved their resource productivity in recent years. They say “…for the past two decades global amounts of iron ore and bauxite extractions have risen faster than global GDP.” “… resource productivity…has fallen in developed nations.” “There has been no improvement whatsoever with respect to improving the economic efficiency of metal ore use.”

The fact that the “energy intensity” of rich world economies, i.e., ratio of GDP to gross energy used within the country has declined is often seen as evidence of decoupling but this is misleading. It does not take into account the above issue of failure to include energy embodied in imports. Possibly more important is the long term process of “fuel switching”, i.e., moving to forms of energy which are of “higher quality” and enable more work per unit. For instance a unit of energy in the form of gas enables more value to be created than a unit in the form of coal, because gas is more easily transported, switched on and off, or converted from one function to another, etc. (Stern and Cleveland, 2004, p. 33, Cleveland et al., 1984, Kaufmann, 2004,  Office of Technology Assessments, 1990, Berndt, 1990, Schurr and Netschurt, 1960.)

Giljum et al. (2014, p. 324) report only a 0.9% p.a. improvement in the dollar value extracted from the use of each unit of minerals between 1980 and 2009, and that over the 10 years before the GFC there was no improvement. “…not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.” They note that the figures would have been worse had the production of much rich world consumption not been outsourced to the Third World. Their Fig. 2, shows that over the period 1980 to 2009 the rate at which the world decoupled materials use from GDP growth was only one third of that which would have achieved an “absolute” decoupling, i.e., growth of GDP without any increase in materials use.

Diederan’s account (2009) of the productivity of minerals discovery effort is even more pessimistic. Between 1980 and 2008 the annual major deposit discovery rate fell from 13 to less than 1, while discovery expenditure went from about $1.5 billion p.a. to $7 billion p.a., meaning the productivity expenditure fell by a factor in the vicinity of around 100, which is an annual decline of around 40% p.a. Recent petroleum figures are similar; in the last decade or so discovery expenditure more or less trebled but the discovery rate has not increased.

A recent paper in Nature by a group of 18 scientists at the high-prestige Australian CSIRO (Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015) argued that decoupling could eliminate any need to worry about limits to growth at least to 2050. The article contained no support for the assumption that the required rate of decoupling was achievable and when it was sought (through personal communication) reference was made to the paper by Schandl et al. (2015.)  However that paper contained the following surprising statements, “ … there is a very high coupling of energy use to economic growth, meaning that an increase in GDP drives a proportional increase in energy use.”  (They say the EIA, 2012, agrees.) “Our results show that while relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none would lead to an absolute reduction in energy or materials footprint.” In all three of their scenarios “…energy use continues to be strongly coupled with economic activity…”

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural Economics (ABARE, 2008) reports that the energy efficiency of energy-intensive industries is likely to improve by only 0.5% p.a. in future, and of non-energy-intensive industries by 0.2% p.a. In other words it would take 140 years for the energy efficiency of the intensive industries to double the amount of value they derive from a unit of energy.

Alexander (2014) concludes his review of decoupling by saying, ”… decades of extraordinary technological development have resulted in increased, not reduced, environmental impacts.”  Smil (2014) concludes that even in the richest countries absolute dematerialization is not taking place. Alvarez found that for Europe, Spain and the US GDP increased 74% in 20 years, but materials use actually increased 85%. (Latouche, 2014.) Similar conclusions re stagnant or declining materials use productivity etc. are arrived at by Aadrianse, 1997, Dettrich et al., (2014), Schutz, Bringezu and Moll, (2004), Warr, (2004), Berndt, (undated), and Victor (2008, pp. 55-56).

These sources and figures indicate the lack of support for the ecomodernists’ optimism. It was seen above that they are assuming that in 35 years time there can be massive absolute decoupling, i.e., that energy, materials and ecological demand associated with $1 of GDP can be reduced by a factor of around 27. But even if the 1.5% p.a. rate Hattfield-Dodds et al. say has been the recent achievement for materials use could be maintained the reduction would only be around a factor of 1.7, and various sources noted above say that their assumed rate is incorrect. There appears to be no ecomodernist literature that even attempts to provide good reason to think a general absolute decoupling is possible, let alone on the required scale.

The overlooked role of energy in productivity growth and decoupling.

Discussions of technical advance and economic growth have generally failed to focus on the significance of increased energy use. Previously productivity has been analysed only in terms of labour and capital “factors of production”, but it is now being recognized that in general greater output etc. has been achieved primarily through increased use of energy (and switching to fuels of higher “quality”, such as from coal and gas to electricity.)  Agriculture is a realm where technical advance has been predominantly a matter of increased energy use. Over the last half century productivity measured in terms of yields per ha or per worker have risen dramatically, but these have been mostly due to even greater increases in the amount of energy being poured into agriculture, on the farm, in the production of machinery, in the transport, pesticide, fertilizer, irrigation, packaging and marketing sectors, and in getting the food from the supermarket to the front door, and then dealing with the waste food and packaging. Less than 2% of the US workforce is now on farms, but agriculture accounts for around 17% of all energy used (not including several of the factors listed above.) Similarly the “Green Revolution” has depended largely on ways that involve greater energy use.

Ayres, et al., (2013), Ayres, Ayres and Warr (2002) and Ayres and Vouroudis (2013) are among those beginning to stress the significance of energy in productivity, and pointing to the likelihood of increased energy problems in future and thus declining productivity. Murillo-Zamorano, (2005, p. 72) says  “…our results show a clear relationship between energy consumption and productivity growth.” Berndt (1990) finds that technical advance accounts for only half the efficiency gains in US electricity generation. These findings caution against undue optimism regarding what pure technical advance can achieve independently from increased energy inputs; in general its significance for productivity gains appears not to have been as great as has been commonly assumed.

The productivity trend associated with this centrally important factor, energy, is itself in serious decline, evident in long term data on EROI ratios. Several decades ago the expenditure of the energy in one barrel of oil could produce 30 barrels of oil, but now the ratio is around 18 and falling. The ratio of petroleum energy discovered to energy required has fallen from 1000/1 in 1919 to 5/1 in 2006. (Murphy, 2010.) Murphy and others suspect  that an industrialised society cannot be maintained on a general energy ratio under about 10. (Hall, Lambert and Balough, 2014.)

The changing components of GDP.

Over recent decades there has been a marked increase in the proportion of rich nation GDP that is made up of “financial” services. These stand for “production” that takes the form of key strokes moving electrons around.  A great deal of it is wild speculation, making risky loans and making computer driven micro-second switches “investments”. These operations deliver massive increases in income to banks and managers, and these have significantly contributed to GDP figures. It could be argued that this domain should not be included in estimates of productivity because it misleadingly inflates the numerator in the output/labour ratio.

When output per worker in the production of “real” goods and services such as food and vehicles, or aged care is considered very different impressions can be gained.  For instance Kowalski (2011) reports that between 1960 and 2010 world cereal production increased 250%, but nitrogen fertilizer use in cereal production increased 750%, and land area used increased 40%. This aligns with the above evidence on steeply falling productivity of various inputs for ores and energy. It is therefore desirable to avoid analysing productivity, the “energy intensity” of an economy, and decoupling achievements in relation to the GDP measure.

Factors limiting the benefits from a technical advance.

There are several factors which typically determine the gains a technical advance actually enables are well below those that seem possible at first.  Engineers and economists make the following distinctions.

“Technical potential”  refers to what could be achieved if the technology could be fully applied with no regard to cost or other problems.

Economic (or ecological) potential”.  This is usually much less than the technical potential because to achieve all the gains that are technically possible would cost too much.  For instance some The Worldwide Fund for Nature quotes Smeets and Faiij (2007) as finding that it would be technically possible for the world’s forests to produce another 64 EJ/y of biomass energy p.a., but they say that the ecologically tolerable potential is only 8 EJ/y.

What are the net gains?  Enthusiastic claims about a technical advance typically focus on the gains and not the costs which should be subtracted to give a net value.  For instance the energy needed to keep buildings warm can be reduced markedly, but it costs a considerable amount of energy to do this, in the electricity needed to run the air-conditioning and heat pumps, and in the energy embodied in the insulation and triple glazing. There are also knock-on effects.  The Green Revolution doubled food yields, but only by introducing crops that required high energy inputs in the form of expensive fertlilzer, seeds and irrigation, and created social costs to do with the disruption of peasant communities.

  • What is socially/politically possible?  There are limits set by what people will accept.  It would be technically possible for many more people in any city to get to work by public transport, but large numbers would not give up the convenience of their cars even if they saved money doing so.
  • The Jeavons or “rebound” effect.  There is a strong tendency for savings made possible by a technical advance to be spent on consuming more of the thing saved, or something else.

Thus it is important to recognise that initial claims usually refer to “technical potential”, but significantly lower savings etc. are likely in the real world.

Now add the worsening limits.

The discussion so far has only dealt with decoupling achievements to date, but the difficulties involved in those achievements are in general likely to have been much less severe than those ahead, as there is continued deterioration in ore grades, forests, soils, chemical pollution, water supplies etc.  It is important now to consider briefly some of these domains, to see how they will make the task for the ecomodernist increasingly difficult.

Before looking at some specific areas the general “low hanging fruit” effect should be mentioned.  When effort is put into dealing with problems, recycling, conserving, increasing efficiency etc. the early achievements might be spectacular but as the easiest options are used up progress typically becomes more difficult and slow. This is so even when there are no problems of dwindling resource availability.

                        Minerals.

The grades of several ores being mined are falling and production costs have increased considerably since 1985. Topp (2008) reports that the productivity for Australian mining has declined 24% between 2000 and 2007. While reserve estimates can be misleading as they only state quantities miners have found to date, and they often increase over time, there is considerable concern about the depletion rate.

Dierderen (2009) says that continuation of current consumption rates will mean that we will have much less than 50 years left of cheap and abundant access to metal minerals, and that it will take exponentially more energy and minerals input to grow or even sustain the current extraction rate of metal minerals. He expects copper, nickel, molybdenum and cobalt to peak before 2035. Deideren’s conclusion is indeed, as his title says, sobering; “The peak in primary production of most metals may be reached no later than halfway through the 2020s.” (p. 23.) “Without timely implementation of mitigation strategies, the world will soon run out of all kinds of affordable mass products and services.”  Such as… “cheap mass-produced consumer electronics like mobile phones, flat screen TVs and personal computers, for lack of various scarce metals (amongst others indium and tantalum). Also, large-scale conversion towards more sustainable forms of energy production, energy conversion and energy storage would be slowed down by a lack of sufficient platinum-group metals, rare-earth metals and scarce metals like gallium. This includes large-scale application of high-efficiency solar cells and fuel cells and large-scale electrification of land-based transport.” Deideren points out that Gallium, Germanium, Indium and Tellurium are crucial for renewable technologies but are by-products currently available in low quantity from the mining of other minerals.  If the latter peak so will the availability of the former.

Scarcities in one domain often have knock-on and negative feedback effects in others.  Diederan says, “The most striking (and perhaps ironic) consequence of a shortage of metal elements is its disastrous effect on global mining and primary production of fossil fuels and minerals: these activities require huge amounts of main and ancillary equipment and consumables (e.g. barium for barite based drilling mud)”. (p. 9.)

The ecomodernist’s response must be to advocate mining poorer grade ores, but this means dealing with marked increases in energy and environmental costs.

  • The quantity of rock that has to be dug up increases. For ores at half the initial grade the quantity doubles, and so does the energy needed to dig, transport and crush it.
  • Poorer ores require finer grinding and more chemical reagents to release mineral components, meaning greater energy demand and waste treatment.
  • Meanwhile the easiest deposits to access are being depleted so it takes more energy to find, get to, and work the newer ones. They tend to be further away, deeper, and smaller.
  • Processing rich ores can be chemically quite different to processing poor ores. Only a very small proportion of any mineral existing in the earth’s crust has been concentrated by natural processes into ore deposits, between .001% and .01%, and the rest exists in common rock, mostly in silicates which are more energy-intensive to process than oxides and sulphides.  To extract a metal from its richest occurrence in common rock would take 10 to 100 times as much energy as to extract if from the poorest ore deposit. To extract a unit of copper from the richest common rocks would require about 1000 times as much energy per kg as is required to process ores used today.

Now consider the minerals situation in relation to the multiples issue. At present only a few countries are using most of the planet’s minerals production.  For instance the per capita consumption of iron ore for the ten top consuming countries is actually around 90 times the figure for all other countries combined. (Weidmann et al., 2013.) How long would mineral supply hold up, at what cost, if 9 – 10 people billion were to try to rise to rich world “living standards”? How likely is it that in view of current ore grade depletion rates and the miniscule decoupling achievement for minerals, the global amount of producing and consuming could multiply by 27, or 120, while the absolute amount of minerals consumed declined markedly?

The ecomodernist cannot hope to deal with the minerals problem without assuming very large scale adoption of nuclear energy, which they are willing to do.

Climate.

Most climate scientists now seem to accept the approach put forward by Meinshausen et al., (2009), and followed by the IPCC (2013) in analyzing in terms of a budget, an amount of carbon release that must not be exceeded if the 2 degree target is to be met.  They estimate that to have a 67% chance of keeping global temperature rise below this the amount of CO2e that can be released between 2000 and 2050 is 1,700 billion tonnes. By 2012 emissions accounted for 36% of this amount, meaning that if the present emission rate is kept up the budget would have been used up by 2033.  Given the seriousness of the possible consequences many regard a 67% chance as being too low and a2 degree rise as too high. (Anderson and Bows, 2008, and Hansen, 2008.)  For an 80% chance the budget limit would be 1,370 billion tonnes.

Few would say there is any possibility of eliminating emissions by 2033. Many emissions come from sources that would be difficult to control or reduce, such as carbon electrodes in the electric production of steel and aluminium. Only about 40% of US emissions come from power generation. Thus power station Carbon Capture and Storage technology cannot solve the problem.

Even the IPCC’s most optimistic emissions reduction scenario, RCP 2.6, could be achieved only if as yet non-existent technology will be able to take 1 billion tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere every year through the last few decades of this century. (IPCC, 2014.)

Ecomodernists mostly regard the climate problem as solvable by the intensive adoption of nuclear energy. However even the most rapid build conceivable could not achieve the Meinschausen et al. target.

Urbanisation.

About half the world’s people now live in cities, and the ecomodernist strongly advocates increasing this markedly, on the grounds that intensification of settlement will enable freeing more space for nature.  This is an area where knock-on effects are significant. Urban living involves many high resource and ecological costs, including having to move in vast amounts of energy, goods, services and workers, to maintain elaborate infrastructures including those to lift water and people living in high-rise apartments, having to move out all “wastes”, having to provide artificial light, heating, cooling, air purification, having to build freeways, bridges, railways, airports, container terminals, and having to staff complex systems with expensive highly trained professionals and specialists.  Little or none of this dollar, energy, resource or ecological cost has to be met when people live in villages (See on Simpler Way settlements below).

The frequent superficiality and invalidity of the Manifesto’s case is illustrated by the following statement. “Cities occupy just 1 to 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet are home to nearly 4 billion people. As such, cities both drive and symbolize the decoupling of humanity from nature, performing far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs…” This statement overlooks the vast areas needed to produce and transport food etc. into the relatively small urban areas. If four billion were to live as San Franciscans do now, with a footprint over 7 ha per person, the total global footprint would be almost 30 billion ha, 200% of the Earth’s surface, not 1- 3%. (WWF, 2014.) Urbanisation does not  “decouple humanity from nature”.

Biological resources and impacts.

Perhaps the most worrying limits being encountered are not to do with minerals or energy but involve the deterioration of biological resources and environmental systems. The life support systems of the planet, the natural resources and processes on which all life on earth depends, are being so seriously damaged that the World Wildlife Fund claims there has been a 30% deterioration since about 1970. Steffen et al., (2015) state much the same situation. A brief reference to a number of impacts is appropriate here to again indicate the magnitude of present problems and their rate of growth.

Biodiversity loss.

Species are being driven to extinction at such an increasing rate that it is claimed the sixth holocaust of biodiversity loss has begun. The rate has been estimated at 114 times the natural background rate. (Ceballos, et al., 2015, Kolbert, 2014.) The numbers or mass of big animals has declined dramatically. “… vertebrate species populations across the globe are, on average, about half the size they were 40 years ago.” (Carrington, 2014.) The mass of big animals in the sea is only 10% of what it was some decades ago. The biomass of corals on the Great Barrier Reef is only half what it was about three decade ago. By the end of the 20th century half the wetlands and one third of coral reefs had been lost. (Washington, 2014.)

Disruption of the nitrogen cycle.

Humans are releasing about as much nitrogen via artificial production, especially for agriculture, as nature releases. This has been identified as one of the nine most serious threats to the biosphere by the Planetary Boundaries Project. (Rockstrom and Raeworth, 2014.)

The increasing toxicity of the environment.

Large volumes of artificially produced chemicals are entering ecosystems disrupting and poisoning them.  This includes the plastics concentrating in the oceans and killing marine life.

Water.

Serious water shortages are impacting in about 80 countries. More than half the world’s people live in countries where water tables are falling. Over 175 million Indians and 130 million Chinese are fed by crops watered by pumps running at unsustainable rates. (Brown, 2011, p. 58.) Access to water will probably be the major source of conflict in the world in coming years. About 480 million people are fed by food produced from water pumped from underground. The water tables are falling fast and the petrol to run the pumps might not be available soon. In Australia overuse of water has led to serious problems, such as salinity in the Murray-Darling system. By 2050 the volume of water in these rivers might be cut to half the present amount, as the greenhouse problem impacts.

Fish.

Nearly all fisheries are being over-fished and the global fish catch is likely to go down from here on.  The mass of big fish in the oceans, such as shark and tuna, is now only 10% of what it was some decades ago. Ecomodernists assume that aquaculture will solve the fish supply problem. It is not clear what they think the farmed fish will be fed on.

Oceans.

Among the most worrying effects is the increasing acidification of the seas, dissolving the shells of many ocean animals, including the krill which are at the base of major ocean food chains.  This effect plus the heating of the oceans is seriously damaging corals.  The coral life on the Great Barrier Reef is down 30% on its original level, and there is a good chance the whole reef will be lost in forty years. (Hoegh-Guldberg, 2015.)

Food, land, agriculture.

Food supply will have to double to provide for the expected 2050 world population, and it is increasingly unlikely that this can be done. Food production increase trends are only around 60% of the rate of increase needed. (Ray, et al., 2013.) Food prices and shortages are already serious problems, causing riots in some countries.  If all people we will soon have on earth had an American diet we would need 5 billion ha of cropland, but there are only 1.4 billion ha on the planet and that area is likely to reduce as ecosystems deteriorate, water supply declines, salinity and erosion continue, population numbers and pressures to produce increase, land is used for new settlements and to produce more meat and bio-fuels, and as global warming has a number of negative effects on food production.

Burn, (2015) and Vidal (2010) both report the rate of food producing land loss at 30 million ha p.a. Vidal says, “…the implications are terrifying”, and he believes major food shortages are threatening. Pimentel says one third of all cropland has been lost in the last 40 years. China might be the worse case, losing 600 square miles p.a. in the 1950 – 1970 period, but by 2000 the rate had risen to 1,400 square miles p.a.  For 50 years about 500 villages have had to be abandoned every year due to incoming sand from the expanding deserts. If the estimates by Burn and Vidal are correct then more than 1 billion ha of cropland will have been lost by 2050, which is two-thirds of all cropland in use today.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto devotes considerable attention to the issue of future food production, using it as an example of the wonders technical advance can bring, including liberating peasants from backbreaking work. It is claimed that advances in modern agriculture will enable production of far more food on far less land, enabling much land to go back to nature. There is no recognition of the fact that modern agriculture is grossly unsustainable, on many dimensions.  It is extremely energy intensive, involving large scale machinery, international transport, energy-intensive inputs of fertilizer and pesticides, packaging, warehousing, freezing, dumping of less than perfect fruit and vegetables, serious soil damage through acidification and compaction, carbon loss and erosion, the energy-costly throwing away of nutrients in animal manures, the destruction of small scale farming and rural communities, the loss of the precious heritage that is genetic diversity … and the loss of food nutrient and taste quality (most evident in the plastic tomato.)

On all these dimensions peasant and home gardening and other elements in local agriculture such as ”edible landscapes”, community gardens and commons are superior. The one area where modern agriculture scores better is to do with labour costs, but that is due to the use of all that energy-intensive machinery. Ecomodernists do not seem to realize what a fundamental challenge is set for them by the well-established “inverse productivity relationship”, i.e., the fact that small scale food producers achieve higher yields per ha. (Smaje, 2015a, 2015b.) They are able to almost completely avoid food packaging, advertising and transport costs, to recycle all nutrients to local soils, benefit from overlaps and multiple functions (e.g., geese weed orchards, ducks eat snails, kitchen scraps feed poultry…) Possibly most importantly, local food production systems maximize the provision of livelihoods and are fundamental elements in resilient and sustainable communities.

Again a daunting challenge is set for the ecomodernist. Presumably the far higher yields from far less land will involve energy intensive high-rise greenhouses, water desalinisation, aquaculture, near 100% phosphorus and other nutrient recycling, elimination of nitrogen run-off, restoration of soil carbon levels, synthetic meat, and extensive global transport and packaging systems. Again numerical analyses aimed at showing what the energy, materials  and dollar budgets would be, or that the goals can be met, are not offered. In addition a glance at the tech fix vision for future food supply reveals the many knock on effects that would multiply problems in many other areas, most obviously energy, infrastructure and water provision and the associated demand for materials.

A glance at the energy implications for beef production should again establish the magnitude point. To produce one kg of beef take can take 20,000 litres of water, and it can take 4 kWh to desalinize 1 liter of water. Again it is evident that there would have to be very large scale commitment to nuclear energy.

            Summarising the biological resource situation.

The environmental problem is essentially due to the huge and unsustainable volumes of producing and consuming taking place.  Vast quantities of resources are being extracted from nature and vast quantities of wastes are being dumped back into nature. Present flows are grossly unsustainable but the ecomodernist believes the basic commitment to ever-increasing “living standards” that is creating the problems can and should continue, while population multiplies by 1.5, resources dwindle, and consumption multiplies perhaps by eight by 2100.

The energy implications.

In all the fields discussed it is evident that the ecomodernist vision would have to involve a very large increase in energy production and consumption, including for processing lower grade ores, producing much more food from much less land, desalinisation of water, dealing with greatly increased amounts of industrial waste (especially mining waste), and constructing urban infrastructures. The “no-limits-to-growth” scenario for Australia 2050 put forward by Hattfield-Dodds et al. concludes that present energy use would have to multiply by 2.7, more than most if not all other projections, and their scenarios do not take into account the energy needed to deal with any of the knock-on effects discussed above. (And their conclusion is based on a highly implausible rate of decoupling materials use from GDP growth, i.e., up to 4.5% p.a.)

If 9 billion people were to live on the per capita amount of energy Americans now average, world energy consumption in 2050 would be around x5 (for the US to world average ratio) x10/7 (for population growth) times the present 550 EJ p.a., i.e., around 3,930 EJ. Let us assume it is all to come from nuclear reactors, that technical advance cuts one-third off the energy needed to do everything, but that moving to poorer ores, desalinisation etc. and converting to (inefficient) hydrogen supply for many storage and transport functions counterbalance that gain.  The nuclear generating capacity needed would be around 450 times as great as at present.

Conclusions re the significance of the limits to growth.

This brief reference to themes within the general “limits to growth” account makes it clear that the baseline on which ecomodernist visions must build is not given by presentconditions. As Steffen et al. (2015) stress the baseline is one of not just deteriorating conditions, but accelerating deterioration. It is as if the ecomodernists are claiming that their A380 can be got to climb at a 60 degree angle, which is far steeper than it has ever done before, but at present it is in an alarming and accelerating decline with just about all its systems in trouble and some apparently beyond repair. The problem is the wild party on board, passengers and crew dancing around a bonfire and throwing bottles at the instruments, getting more drunk by the minute. A few passengers are saying the party should stop, but no one is listening, not even the pilots. The ecomodernist’s problem is not just about producing far more metals, it is about producing far more as grades decline, it is not just about producing much more food, it is about producing much more despite the fact that problems to do with water availability, soils, the nitrogen cycle, acidification, and carbon loss are getting worse.  It can be argued that on many separate fronts halting the deteriorating trends is now unlikely to be achieved. Yet the ecomodernist wants us to believe that the curves can be made to cease falling and to rise dramatically, without abandoning the quests for affluence and growth which are responsible for their deterioration.  Stopping the party is not thought to warrant consideration.

            The implications for centralisation, control and power.

The ecomodernist vision would have to involve vast, technically sophisticated, expert-run, bureaucratized and centralized global systems, most obviously for the control of the nuclear sector, e.g., to prevent access to weapons grade material. Both corporate and governmental agencies would have to be very large in scale, and relations between the corporate sector and top levels of government would set problems to do with openness, public accountability, democratic control, and corruption. Most production would be from a relatively few gigantic and automated mines, factories, feed lots, mega-greenhouses and plantations compressed into the relatively few best sites.  How this would provide jobs and livelihoods to perhaps 6 billion Third world poor would need to be explained. The provision of large amounts of capital would probably become much more centralised and problematic than it has been in the GFC era.

A “development” model focused on these massive, centralized, expert-dependent and capital intensive systems is not obviously going to improve the already severe problem of global inequality. Mega corporations will run the automated vertical farms and desal plants, assisted by governments who in the past have had no difficulty legislating to clear the locals out of the way, as when Third World governments enable GDP-raising palm oil plantations, logging, big dams and aquaculture. Thus Smaje regards ecomodernism as a new enclosure movement.

Morgan (2012) and Korrowicz (2012) provide disturbing accounts of the fragility and lack of resilience of highly integrated and complex systems. Tainter, (1988), draws attention to the way increasing system complexity leads towards negative synergisms and breakdown. For instance where two roads cross in a village no infrastructure might be needed but in a city multi-million dollar flyovers can be required. As Rome’s road system grew the effort needed just to maintain them grew towards taking up all road building capacity. Among the chief virtues of the small and local path are its robustness, redundancy and resilience, the capacity for simple repairs to simple systems, as well as its capacity to provide livelihoods to large numbers of people.

Above all the ecomodernist vision stands for the rejection of any suggestion that the economy needs altering, let alone scrapping, or that rampant-consumer culture needs to be replaced.  The problems are defined as purely technical. If minerals are becoming scare the solution is not to reduce use of them but to increase production of them. Thus there is no need to think about giving up consumerism, economic growth, the market system or the capitalist system. Radical thought and action need not be considered. Smaje describes it as “neoliberalism with a green veneer.” These messages are as consoling to the present working class and the precariat as they are to the capitalist class.

The mistaken “uni-dimensional” assumption.

Frequently evident in ecomodernist thinking is the way that development, emancipation, technology, progress, comfort, the elimination of disease and hunger are seen to lie along the one path that runs from primitive through peasant worlds to the present and the future.  At the modern end of the dimension there is material abundance, science and high technology, the market economy, freedom from backbreaking work, complex civilization with high educational standards and sophisticated culture. It is taken for granted that your choice is only about where you are on that dimension. Third World “development” can only be about moving up the dimension to greater capital investment, involvement in the global market, trade, GDP and consumer society. Thus they see localism and small is beautiful as “going back”, and condemning billions to continued hardship and deprivation.  Opposition to their advocacy of more modernism is met with, “…well, what period in history do you want to go back to?”

This world-view fails to grasp several things.  The first is the possibility that there might be more than one path; the Zapatista’s do not want to follow our path.  Another is that we  might opt for other end points than the one modernization is taking us to.  A third is that we might deliberately select desirable development goals rather than just accept where modernization takes us, and on some dimensions we might choose not to develop any further.  Ecomodernism has no concept of sufficiency or good enough; Smaje sees how it endorses being incessantly driven to strive for bigger and better, and he notes the spiritual costs. Many ecovillages are developed enough.

Possibly most important, it is conceivable that we could opt for a combination of elements from different points on the path. For instance there is no reason why we cannot have both sophisticated modern medicine and the kind of supportive community that humans have enjoyed for millennia, and have both technically astounding aircraft along with small, cheap, humble, fireproof, home made and beautiful mud brick houses, and have modern genetics along with neighbourhood poultry co-ops. Long ago humans had worked out how to make excellent and quite good enough houses, strawberries, dinners and friendships. We could opt for stable, relaxed, convivial and sufficient ways in some domains while exploring better ways in others, but ecomodernists see only two options; going forward or backward. They seem to have no interest in which elements in modernism are worthwhile and which of them should be dumped. The Frankfurt School saw some of them leading to Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

The inability to think in other than uni-dimensional terms is most tragic with respect to Third World “development”.  Conventional-capitalist development theory can only promise a “growth and trickle down” path, which if it continues would take many decades to lift all to tolerable conditions while the rich rise to the stratosphere, but which cannot continue if the limits to growth analysis of the global situation is correct. Yet The Simpler Way might quickly lift all to satisfactory conditions using mostly traditional technologies and negligible capital. (Trainer, 2012, 2013a, 2013b, Leahy, 2009.)

In his critique of Phillips (2014) Smaje (2015b) sees the Faustian bargain here, the readiness to suffer, indeed embrace, the relentless discontent, struggle, disruption and insecurity that modernism involves, without realizing that we might opt to take the benefits of modernism while dumping the disadvantages and designing ways of life that provide security, stability, a relaxed pace and a high quality of life for all.

A radically alternative vision; The Simpler Way.

Until the last decade or so there was no alternative to the dominant implicit ecomodernist world view, but now significant challenges have emerged, most evidently in the overlapping Eco-village, Degrowth, Transition Towns and localism movements. The fundamental beginning point for these is acceptance of the “limits to growth” case that levels of production, consumption, resource use and ecological impact are extremely unsustainable and that the resulting global problems cannot be solved unless there are dramatic reductions.  The core Simpler Way vision claim is that these reductions can be made while significantly improving the quality of life, even in the richest countries, but not without radical change in systems and lifestyles.  Following is a brief indication of some of the main elements in this vision. (For the detailed account see Trainer, 2011.)

The basic settlement form is the small scale town or suburb, restructured to be a highly self-sufficient local economy running mostly on local resources and requiring a minimal amount of resources and goods to be imported from further afield.  State and national governments would still exist but with relatively few functions. There would be extensive development of local commons such as community watersheds, forests, edible landscapes, workshops and windmills etc. and cooperatives would provide many goods and services. Extensive use could be made of high tech systems but mostly relatively low technologies would be used in small firms and farms, especially earth building, hand tool craft production, Permaculture, community gardening and commons. Leisure committees would maintain leisure rich communities, and other committees would manage orchards, woodlots, agricultural research, and the welfare of disabled, teenage, aged and other groups. Local economies would dramatically reduce the need for vehicles and transport, enabling conversion of many roads to community food production.

These settlements would have to be self-governing via thoroughly participatory procedures, including town meetings and referenda. Citizens are the only ones who can understand local conditions, problems and needs, and they would have to work out the best policies for the town and to own the decisions arrived at. Centralised states could not govern them at all effectively, especially given the much diminished resources that will be available to states.  More importantly the town would not meet its own needs well unless its citizens had a strong sense of empowerment and control and responsibility for their own affairs.

Systems, procedures and the overriding ethos would have to be predominantly cooperative and collective, given the recognition that individual welfare would depend heavily on how well the town was functioning. It would not be likely to thrive unless there was an atmosphere of inclusion and care, solidarity and responsibility.

An entirely new kind of economy would be needed, one that did not grow, rationally geared productive capacity to social need, had per capita levels of production, consumption, resource use and GDP far below current levels, was under public control, and was not driven by market forces, profit or competition. However, there might also be a large sector made up of privately owned small firms and farms, producing to sell in local markets, but operating under careful guidelines set by the town to ensure optimum benefit for the town. The transition period would essentially be about slowly establishing those enterprises, infrastructures, cooperatives, commons and institutions (Economy B) whereby the town developed its capacity to make sure that what needs doing is done, within the exiting mainly fee enterprise system (Economy A.) Over time experience would indicate the best balance between the two, and whether there was any need for the market sector.

There would be many free” goods from the commons, a large non-cash sector involving sharing, giving, helping and voluntary working bees, and almost no finance sector. Small public banks with elected boards would hold savings and arrange loans for maintenance or restructuring.  Some people might pay all their tax by extra contributions to the community working bees. Communities would ensure that there was no unemployment or poverty, no isolation or exclusion, all felt secure, and that all had a livelihood, a worthwhile and valued contribution to make to the town. Because the goal would be material lifestyles that were frugal but sufficient, involving for instance small and very low cost earth built houses, on average people might need to work for money only two days a week. It can be argued that the quality of life would be higher than it is for most people in rich countries today. Lest these ideas seem fanciful, they describe the ways many thousands now live in ecovillages and Transition Towns.

Beyond the town or suburban level there would be regional and national economies, and larger cities containing universities, steel works, and large scale production, e.g., of railway equipment, but their activities would be greatly reduced, and re oriented to provisioning the local economies. There would be little international trade or travel. The termination of the present vast expenditure on wasteful production would enable the amount spent on socially useful R and to be significantly increased.

A detailed analysis of an Australian suburban geography (Trainer, 2016) concludes that technically it would be relatively easy to carry out the very large reductions and restructurings indicated, possibly cutting in energy and dollar costs by around 90%.

It is obvious that the Simpler Way vision could not be realised unless there was enormous “cultural” change, especially away from competitive, acquisitive, maximising individualism and towards frugality, collectivism, sufficiency and responsible citizenship. Fortunately there is now increasing recognition that pursuing ever greater material wealth and GDP is not a promising path to greater human welfare. In a zero-growth settlement there could be no concern with the accumulation of wealth; all would have to be content with stable and secure circumstances, to enjoy non-material life satisfactions, and to be aware that their “welfare” depended not on their individual monetary wealth but on public wealth, i.e., on their town’s infrastructures, systems, edible landscapes, free concerts, working bees, committees, leisure resources, solidarity and morale.

Thus from The Simpler Way perspective the solution to global problems is not a technical issue; it is a value issue. We have all the technology we need to create admirable societies and idyllic lives. But this can’t be done if growth and affluence remain the overriding goals.

At present there would seem to be little chance that a transition to The Simpler Way will be achieved, but that is not central here; the issue is whether this vision or that of the ecomodernist makes more sense.

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