Energy

Collapse, you say? Part 3: Inputs and Outputs continued

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on September 29, 2020

Renewable Energy

 

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Kincardine's breakwall awash in the waves

This is the second half of a post that I cut in two because it was just too long (6000+ words). If you haven't read the first half yet, it would be a good idea to do so—what follows will make more sense that way.

That first half finished with a discussion of the problems with fossil fuels as an energy source for our civilization. It's last paragraph is repeated below. Today, we'll go on from there, looking at other inputs that are problematical for our civilization.

Energy, renewable sources

But, you may say, if fossil fuels are no good what about renewable energy sources? There are large amounts of energy available from sources like hydro, biomass, wind, solar and so forth. And they don't involve adding more CO2 to the atmosphere—even biomass is only adding CO2 that was recently taken out of the atmosphere and will be taken out again as more biomass grows. A great many people today believe that renewables can replace fossil fuels and solve both our surplus energy and climate change problems. In fact, it has become very unpopular to challenge that idea, but I am afraid I must do just that.

The problems with switching over to renewable energy sources can be divided into three areas.

  • the political will to do so
  • the economic means to do so
  • the technical feasibility of doing so

Political Will

It is clear that we will have to switch to renewable energy sources if we wish to become sustainable. But it is also clear that, as we'll see in a moment in the section on technical feasibility, renewable energy sources will not be able to support the level of growth and consumption that many of us are accustomed to, and they certainly won't be able to extend that level of prosperity to the poorer parts of the world.

For the overwhelming majority of people, lifestyle is not negotiable. And our current lifestyle demands continued growth and ever increasing prosperity—consumption, convenience, comfort and entertainment. I haven't noticed anyone rioting for the sort of austerity measures that I believe a switch away from fossil fuels would require. So, any plan that can't provide continued material progress is unlikely to be seriously considered, much less implemented. Yes, of course, I realize that we could change our lifestyle, and indeed circumstances may well force us to do so. My point is that most of us don't want to change the way we live, and will resist any attempt to get us to do so.

Plans like the "Green New Deal", which promise to create jobs and stimulate economic growth while switching over from fossil fuels to renewables, are intended to be more palatable. But there is good reason to think they are not economically or technically possible. And, if they were seriously undertaken, they might well make things worse, requiring the consumption of even more fossil fuels in the huge construction project that this switch over would require. This would mean further increases in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and would make climate change even worse, bringing about collapse even more quickly. Certainly not what the Green New Deal promises, but what it is likely to deliver.

The Economic Means

The surplus energy problem that I spoke of last time, and the resulting continued economic contraction that is going on, make it seem unlikely that we will have the wherewithal for such a major construction project in the years to come—we are looking at spending trillions of dollars building solar panels, windmills, storage facilities and an enhanced grid. Most of which will only make the surplus energy problem worse.

Technical Feasibility

For me, this is the real deciding factor. Let's consider the technical problems with renewable energy sources in general and then have a look at the issues with specific types of renewables. This will make it clear why I think a switchover to renewables is simply not doable, without drastic changes to our lifestyle.

The current fossil fuel infrastructure—coal mines, oil and gas wells, shipping, rail cars, pipelines, refineries, storage, distribution and retail facilities, and the equipment we have set up to use those fuels—is actually quite compact, owing to the concentrated nature of those fuels. They contain a lot of energy in a small, light package, and this has been the key to their success.

Renewables are more diffuse and require extensive infrastructure to gather and concentrate them to the point where they are useful. Already we are seeing what I call "energy sprawl" spreading across the countryside in the form of wind turbines and solar panels. But the amount of energy we are getting from this sprawl is tiny compared to our total energy use.

The renewable energy that is being proposed as a solution (wind and solar, mainly) comes largely in the form of electricity. Unfortunately, only about 20% of the energy we use today is used in the form of electricity. The rest is used directly in the form of refined fossil fuels to power transportation and to supply heat for industrial processes, space heating and so forth. The two biggest obstacles are electrifying heavy transportation (trucks and ships), and using renewable power to provide heat for manufacturing things like steel and concrete.

Switching over to renewables not only requires us to build huge amounts (5 times more than we currently have) of electrical generation, all of it powered by renewable energy sources, but also that we switch our transportation fleets and industrial infrastructure over to use electricity instead of fossil fuels as a power source.

This a big job that the "powers that be" don't really seem very interested in undertaking, and there are large chunks of it that we don't even know how to do as yet. I'll borrow a term from the nuclear industry here: "paper reactors". Solutions that so far only exist on paper have a tendency to take longer than predicted to implement, and cost a lot more money than expected. Time and money are two things that we don't have in great supply these days.

The power grid, which in most areas is just barely coping with peak loads, will also have to be beefed up by a factor of five to cope with the switch over to an all electric economy. But using the electricity from renewables presents some significant problems for the grid. Our civilization treats the power grid as an infinite source of energy which is available 24/7. In order to provide this, the grid needs energy sources that are "dispatchable". That is, energy sources can be turned on and off at will and ramped up and down as needed to cope with varying loads. This is usually done using a combination of coal, oil, natural gas and hydroelectricity, all of which are to some extent dispatchable.

But wind and solar are anything but dispatchable. The wind blows when it will, and there are often long periods without any wind at all over large geographic areas. The sun shines only during the day, except when there is cloud cover, and solar panels are often be covered with snow in the winter. None of these variations corresponds in any way to the normal variations in load that the grid experiences. In fact, to make even small amounts of intermittent renewable energy fit into the grid, highly dispatchable energy sources like combustion turbines (jet engines connected to generators, burning jet fuel) must be left spinning on standby, ready to compensate instantly when renewables falter.

This hardly makes the grid any "greener" at all. One solution would be to have a way of storing electrical power which could then be used to fill in when renewables let us down. Pumped storage of water is one alternative that is a mature technology. Water is pumped uphill to a reservoir when surplus power is available and then runs down hill through turbines to generate power when extra is needed. The problem is scalability—there are limited locations where reservoirs exists at the top a large change in elevation and near a supply of water. Batteries or compressed air on the scale that is needed here so far only exist on paper, and further development seems likely to run up against some fundamental physical limits.

Even if all these issues can be solved, we'd end up with a grid that is less resilient and more complex—more susceptible to failure.

It should also be noted that equipment like wind turbines, solar cells and batteries have a limited life. This poses two problems—when they wear out, they have to be replaced, and the old equipment has to been gotten rid of. Hopefully recycled, but more likely just disposed of.

A late addtion: Bev, one of my regular readers, pointed out in the comments below something that I had failed to make clear: while the energy from renewables is renewable, the equipment itself is built with largley non-renewable materials, and using up the quantity of materials we are talking about will no doubt lead to new resource depletion problems. It also takes fossil fuels to build, deliver, install, operate, maintain, repair and eventually decommision that equipment. Someday we may be able to power some of those steps with renewables, but initially and for the foreseable future, it's hard to see if there is really any net reduction in the use of fossil fuels when you look at the whole process.

And finally, even if all the technical problems could be solved, wind and solar do not have very good EROEIs, and would make our surplus energy problem even worse.

To bring this all home, let's take a look at the specific forms of renewable energy that we might turn to if we want to get off fossil fuels.

Power from biomass, basically firewood, is a very mature technology, and it has many advantages. While it is produced only during the growing season, it can be harvested and stored for use during winter. It is quite dispatchable and its EROEI is reasonably high, depending on how far it has to be hauled from the forest to where it is going to be used. Unfortunately, it is not highly scalable, since it competes with agriculture for land at a time when we are struggling to grow enough food for the world's growing population.

Hydroelectric power is another mature technology, with good dispatchability and a high EROEI. It is somewhat seasonal and it is not very scalable since most good locations are already in use. Developing the few remaining feasible locations would mean flooding large areas of land with environmental consequences that we should likely see as unacceptable.

Wind power is quite scalable, but intermittent and not dispatchable at all. It's EROEI is in the high teens, which is borderline for our needs, and probably lower if you take storage facilities into account.

Solar power is quite scalable, but intermittent and not dispatchable at all. It's EROEI is quite low, in the mid single digits, less if storage facilities are included in your calculations.

Nuclear fission power is not really a renewable since it relies on finite supplies of fissionable fuel. If a nuclear powered economy is to keep growing, it will run out of fuel in a surprisingly short time, even if spent fuel from the current generation of reactors can be processed for use in newer reactors. Nuclear has limited dispatchability, being best suited to supply base load. It has pretty good scalability, except that it takes a long time to build new nuclear plants, and we would need a lot of them to replace fossil fuels. We must also overcome many political and safety issues before starting to build more nukes. Lastly, the EROEI of nuclear is around 9, largely due to the complexity and safety features involved, so it only makes the surplus energy problem worse.

Nuclear fusion power isn't renewable either, though it's fuel is much more common than fissionables. But it is a "paper technology"— usable fusion reactors have been "just thirty years in the future" since the middle of the twentieth century, and will likely always be so. If we did somehow find the money to finish developing this technology, it would be very expensive to build, and its EROEI would likely be very low due to its high degree of complexity.

All in all, this is not an encouraging picture. You can see why I am so doubtful about switching from fossil fuels to renewables. One the one hand we desperately need to get off fossil fuels to get climate change under control. On the other hand we desperately need fossil fuels (or the elusive "something equivalent") to supply surplus energy to maintain our growing economy and the lifestyles it enables.

I have no confidence that we will even try to address this seemingly unresolvable conflict, and that is one more reason that I am expecting collapse.

Further, as the weighted average of the EROEIs of all a civilization's energy sources declines it is not just economic growth that suffers, but also the ability to maintain infrastructure. This includes the ability to build high tech equipment, including things like solar panels and wind turbines. At some point, as our industrial civilization continues to collapse, we will find ourselves restricted to low tech renewables and unable to maintain a large scale power grid. We'll be forced to drastically reduce our consumption of energy, and to adapt our use of energy to the intermittency of the sources, rather than the other way around.

So far I have only addressed the problems with energy inputs to our civilization, but there are other inputs that also present significant challenges.

The Ecosystem, and ecosystem services

Figure 2, from my last post

The circle enclosing industrial civilization in the diagram above is misleading in that it would tend to suggest there is a boundary separating civilization from the environment, when it is really just another part of the environment. I have use a dashed line, hoping to indicated that many things flow freely between our civilization and its environment. There is a whole category of such things—inputs to our civilization—that we are absolutely dependent upon. Often referred to as "ecosystem services", these inputs are things we tend not to be aware of, in much the same way as fish are not aware of water.

They include breathable air, potable water, a reliable climate and moderate weather, arable soil, grasslands, forests and the animals living on/in them, waters and the fisheries they provide, and so on. These things are available to us free of charge and we would simply could not do without them.

It is important to understand that the ecosystem can only supply its services at a certain maximum rate—its carrying capacity. If we use those services at a higher rate, the ecosystem suffers and that carrying capacity is reduced. Many of the waste outputs of our civilization can also damage the ecosphere, again reducing its carrying capacity. And we continue to convert nature into farms, roads and cities, yet again reducing its carrying capacity.

This has created the current situation where we are temporarily in "overshoot", using more than 100% of the planet's carrying capacity. We are able to do this because there is a certain amount of stored capacity within the system. Drawing on that capacity has lulled us into a false sense of security. But rest assured, the situation is temporary and shortly the damage to the ecosphere will become obvious, and its declining ability to support us will have disastrous consequences.

To put some numbers on this, in the early 1970s when The Limits to Growth was published, we were using about 85% of the planet's carrying capacity. There was, at that point, at least hypothetically, an opportunity to put the brakes on economic growth and start living sustainably. Of course, we did not do so and now we are using around 165% of that carrying capacity. If we bring the poorer part of the world up to a standard of living similar to that of the developed nations, it would take about 500% of that carrying capacity to support the human race. Many suggest we should do exactly that, as a matter of social and economic justice.

It is hard to disagree with that, in and of itself. But long before this happens, of course, the ecosphere will have collapsed and suffered a drastic decrease in its carrying capacity.

Three factors are involved in our impact on the ecosphere: population, affluence (consumption) and technology. This can be represented by the equation I=PAT.

Population and affluence are politically sensitive subjects, so many people have focused on using technology to reduce our footprint. This is known as "decoupling", since the aim is to decouple rising population and consumption from their effects on the ecosphere, to allow growth to continue without having harmful effects. It turns out decoupling has not yet even begun and is very unlikely to ever be achieved. It is largely a myth. Here are a couple of links (1, 2), to articles that go into this in detail.

In addition to promoting myths about decoupling, those who do not wish growth to stop quibble about exactly what the planet's carrying capacity actually is and just how far into overshoot we currently are. This accomplishes nothing, since whatever that carrying capacity actually is, continued exponential growth will quickly take us past it into overshoot.

So it would seem we should do something about population and/or affluence. Population is such a hot button issue that one can hardly discuss it in polite company. Understandably so, since reducing population must involve either reducing fertility or increasing the death rate. Indeed people have been accused of being "eco-fascists" because they see the need to reduce our population, and look to the most populous areas as the first place to take action. I think "eco-fascist" is a reasonable term, since the most populous areas are also the poorest places on the planet and our impact on the ecosystem is the product of both population and affluence. In the developed world our consumption is so high that even though we have far fewer people, our impact is much larger than that of the poorer parts of the world.

Figure 3

As this chart (Figure 3) shows, the richest 10% of the planet's population does close to 60% of the consumption. The richest 20% does over 75% of it (17.6+59=76.6). So, reducing consumption in the more affluent parts of the world would be a good start to coping with our problems because it would immediately take us out of overshoot and give us some breathing room to address the damage we've been doing to the ecosystem.

Figure 4

As this revised consumption chart (Figure 4) shows, if we could reduce our consumption by 50%, it would reduce our ecological impact down to 82.5% of the planet's carrying capacity, while actually increasing the consumption level of the lowest seven deciles of the population, and only reducing the consumption levels of the top three deciles. This would seem to satisfy our yearning for social and environmental justice and significantly delay, if not prevent, collapse. But since the most affluent people, those in the tenth decile, are also in control of the situation, it seems unlikely that we'll make a serious attempt to implement that solution unless we are forced to do so by events beyond our control that bear a strong resemblance to collapse.

You may say that our population problem exists because our capacity to provide food has increased and our capacity to reproduce has responded, not the other way around. I don't disagree, but I don't think it is very useful to point that out. Deliberately cutting back on food production and letting people starve in order to reduce our impact on the ecosystem is morally repugnant. It is also not particularly effective since the poor would be effected first and they are not the major contributors to our impact on the ecosystem.

It has also been observed that as countries get richer, their birthrate goes down. Extrapolating current trends (including continued development in the developing nations), the UN calculates that our population will top out around 10 billion late this century and then begin to decline. They would tell you that all we have do is hang on until then and all will be well. But again, I disagree. Long before our population reaches 10 billion, especially if nothing is done to reduce our rate of consumption, the ecosystem will collapse and its carrying capacity will crash down to a level that can support only a tiny fraction of our present population. I think 10 to 20% would be an optimistic prediction.

Overuse of Fossil Water

This post is already quite a bit longer than I usually aim for, and I have only covered what I see as the most urgent input and output issues. There are many other areas that I haven't begun to cover, and which I will have to leave for another day. But there is one more input issue that I just can't leave out, and that is the depletion of fossil water.

Many of the important agricultural areas around the world rely on irrigation, and water for that irrigation is pumped out of fossil aquifers. That is, underground reservoirs that took hundreds of thousands of years to accumulate. The current rate of use is many times greater than the current rate of replenishment, and it is only a matter of time, and not much time, until they run dry.

The consequences for agriculture will seriously debilitate our civilization's ability feed us.

Summing it all up

We have seen again and again, from the start to the finish of this post, and the previous one, that resource depletion of various sorts, and depletion of the sinks into which we dispose of our wastes, seriously threaten our civilization. Any one of these issues is enough, all on its own, to compromise that civilization's ability to provide us with the necessities of life. In other words, to bring about collapse. And many of them interact in ways that just make the situation worse.

But inputs and outputs are not the whole story. The interior workings of our civilization are replete with issues that threaten its ongoing survival. Next time, we'll have a close look at some of those issues.



Links to the rest of this series of posts, Collapse, you say?

 

Collapse, you say? Part 2: Inputs and Outputs

gc2reddit-logoOff the keyboard of Irv Mills

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on September 29, 2020

Discuss this article at the Kitchen Sink inside the Diner

 

 

Waves breaking along the Lake Huron shore—and this on a relatively quiet day.  

The title of this series of posts comes from the typical reaction you get when suggesting that our civiiization might be collapsing, "Collapse you say, surely not!" In my last post I said that I am convinced it is already happening or at least will happen at some point soon. Then I went on to explain what I mean by collapse—the process by which a civilization declines in its ability to provide the necessities of life to its members, the end result being that people are forced to fend for themselves or perish.

It seems to me that this is in fact happening today—that for all but a tiny minority at the "top", things are getting continually worse. The how and why of this process is the subject of this post and the ones that follow it.

The means of production and distribution that provide us with the necessities of life in modern industrial civilization require certain inputs and produce certain outputs. Today I want to the look at the problems posed in acquiring those inputs and disposing of those outputs.

I would guess that it's clear that by inputs I mean the energy and materials required to make the things we need. But what I mean by outputs may be less clear. I am not referring to the goods that are produced from the inputs, but the waste products produced in the process and the garbage that is left over when we are done using those goods.

But why should these inputs and outputs constitute problems?

Conventional thinking has our civilization in a box, separate from our planet and its ecosphere. The inputs (energy and materials) our civilization uses come from sources that are seen as essentially infinite and the outputs (waste heat and waste materials) are discharged into sinks that are also seen as being essentially infinite in size. Given all that, no reason is seen for progress—economic growth in this context—not continuing for the foreseeable future. This way of looking at things typifies some of the blind spots of modern thinking on economics and business.

Figure 1

Figure 1 illustrates what I am talking about. As long as there were relatively few people on our planet, and they weren't consuming excessively, it's easy to see how we might have looked at things this way. But now that we are well on our way to filling up the planet—or more likely well beyond that point—this is no longer valid. And sure, many people are aware that this is a very unrealistic picture, but the people who are running things, even those who verbally acknowledge the realities, continue to act as if there are no limits built into the system. In a future post we'll look at why this is so, but for now it suffices to say that it truly is the case.

Figure 2

Figure 2 is a different diagram, which provides a more realistic depiction of things as they exist today.

First of all, our civilization exists on a finite planet, entirely within that planet's ecosphere, with no real separation from it (note the dashed border). Our inputs are taken from that finite source and our wastes are discharged back into that same finite space, used as a sink for waste heat and all our material wastes. This has some truly nasty consequences.

Inputs and outputs come in two forms: energy and materials. Energy flows from more concentrated to less concentrated forms, and regardless of where it comes from, is eventually radiated away from the planet as waste heat. Because of this, at any one level, we only get to use energy once. Materials stay around and can be reused, but generally change from more organized forms to less organized, (and less useful) forms as time passes.

For the planet itself, on the relatively short timescales we are considering, the only significant inputs and outputs are in the form of energy—sunlight in and waste heat out. This means that the planet isn't a closed system and incoming energy can be used to arrange matter into more complex forms, converting the energy used to a less concentrated form in the process. That's the good news—the rest of the news is bad.

Outputs

Let's look at outputs first, since that will make it easier to understand some of the problems with inputs. As I said, the outputs I am talking about are the wastes from processes within our society, and the garbage left over when we are done with the products of those processes. We simply throw these things away, but the trouble is that there is no such place as "away". The sinks into which we dispose of wastes are part of the very same environment where we get our inputs from, so this is much like shitting in our own nest. And in a great many cases it is not necessary at all. Many of these end products could, with relatively little effort, be fed back into the processes, and not treated as "wastes" at all.

That we haven't "circularized" our use of materials is a really bad sign. Why we continue to do this is inherent to the internal workings of our civilization and I'll go into the details of that in a future post. For now it is sufficient to understand that as long as that civilization exists in its present form, it's outputs will continue to be a problem.

There are a great many different types of pollution, but for our purposes today I'll concentrate on two particular type of waste—carbon dioxide and methane.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is produced in the burning of fossil fuels and biomass, and in the processes we use to make things like steel and concrete, essential building materials of our civilization. CO2 is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect and consequently climate change, and is also the cause of ocean acidification.

Methane (natural gas, CH4) has been touted as a replacement for coal and oil since it gives off less (but not zero) CO2 when burned. But it is an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Between the wellhead and where it is used a great deal of methane leaks into the atmosphere—probably enough to overshadow any reduction in CO2 released by burning natural gas instead of other fossil fuels. Methane is also produced during the decay of organic matter and by the digestive systems of many animals. Warming due to climate change is releasing methane currently trapped in permafrost and in methane clathrate hydrates at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, further intensifying the warming process.

Ocean acidification the lesser known evil twin of climate change, occurs when CO2 is dissolved in water. An estimated 30–40% of the carbon dioxide from human activity released into the atmosphere dissolves into oceans, rivers and lakes. Some of it reacts with the water to form carbonic acid. Some of the resulting carbonic acid molecules dissociate into a bicarbonate ion and a hydrogen ion, thus increasing ocean acidity (H+ ion concentration).

Increasing acidity is thought to have a range of potentially harmful consequences for marine organisms such as depressing metabolic rates and immune responses in some organisms and causing coral bleaching. A net decrease in the amount of carbonate ions available may make it more difficult for marine calcifying organisms, such as coral and some plankton, to form biogenic calcium carbonate, and such structures become vulnerable to dissolution. Ongoing acidification of the oceans may threaten food chains linked with the oceans.

(Thanks to Wikipedia for the last two paragraphs.)

These are food chains that we sit at the top of, with many people, especially in poorer nations, relying heavily on seafood for protein.

Climate change has been in the news a lot lately, with a wide range of people expressing concern about its negative effects on our future. If, despite this, you are still a doubter or denier, you're in the wrong place on the internet, and need not bother leaving any comments. In my experience, if you scratch a climate change denier, you will find beneath the surface a rich person who is worried about losing their privilege.

So, climate change is real and it is driven by increases in greenhouse gases (CO2 and CH4 among others) in the atmosphere which cause the planet to retain more of the sun's heat. It has also been called "global warming", since it causes the overall average temperature of the planet to going up. The high latitudes in particular are already experiencing temperature increases. Eventually this is going to cause enough melting of glaciers to make for a significant increase in sea level.

In the meantime, climate change is also causing more frequent and heavier storms, which combined with even small increases in sea level, are causing a lot of damage along the oceans' shores. Such storms are also causing more frequent and serious flooding of many rivers.

Climate change is also intensifying droughts in many other areas, and in some of those areas this is leading to wild fires.

How does all this tie into collapse?

Storm surges, high winds, river flooding and wild fires are doing a great deal of damage to human settlements, at a time when our economy is struggling and the added cost of rebuilding can scarcely be afforded. Especially since we tend to rebuild in the same areas, leaving rebuilt settlements just as exposed as they were before.

The effects of climate change on agriculture are even more serious. In the ten or so millennia since we started practicing agriculture the climate on this planet has been particularly friendly to that endeavour. Farmers have been able to count on reliable temperatures and rainfall. This is now starting to change and as the rate of that change picks up over the coming decades, it is going to be very challenging to adapt to. This at a time when we are struggling to keep up to the demands of a growing and ever more affluent population for food and when there is little left in the way of wilderness to expand our farms into.

Even if climate change was the only problem we faced, it is serious enough to place the continued survival of our species into question. We are facing, to quote Jem Bendell, "inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction."

The threat of climate change is serious enough that most people who worry about such things at all are concentrating on it alone. Unfortunately, they are largely ignoring looming problems with the inputs required by our civilization.

Inputs

The problem with inputs is "resource depletion". We live on a finite planet and we can really access only a small part of it—the lower part of the atmosphere, the oceans and a few thousand feet at the top of the crust. Within that volume, there are finite supplies of the resources that we rely on.

Several problems result from the way we access and use those resources.

We generally access the lowest hanging fruit first. This means that the most convenient, easily accessible and highest quality resources get used up first. That makes sense as far as it goes, but it means as time goes by we are forced to use less easily accessible and lower quality resources. This takes more energy and more complex equipment, and is more costly.

Many of the resources we rely on are non-renewable—there is a finite amount of them on this planet, and "they" aren't making any more. Further, we use them in very wasteful ways. It is important to be aware here that, even at best, there is always some irreducible waste in our use of any resource, but currently we tend to make things, use them once and throw them "away". This means that depletion of many resources is happening thousands of times more quickly than it really needs to, and as I said in the section on outputs, that waste is accumulating in the environment.

Some of the resources we use are renewable, but the processes by which they are renewed work at a limited rate. We are using many of these so called renewable resources at greater than their replacement rate, and so they too are becoming depleted.

Conventional economists will tell you that when a resource starts to get rare, its price goes up, encouraging the development of substitutes. This is true to some limited extent, but many of the most critical resources simply have no viable substitutes. Not unless we are willing to make significant and unwelcome changes to the way we live.

At this point, we should look at some specific resources and the unique problems each of them presents.

Energy, Fossil fuels

Despite what conventional economists would tell you, energy (not money) is actually the keystone resource for our economy. Nothing happens inside our civilization without energy as an input and degraded energy (waste heat) as an output. Money functions as a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value, all of which is very useful, but energy is what makes the economy function and grow. About 80% of that energy currently comes from fossil fuels (primarily coal, oil and natural gas). The remaining 20% comes from sources that we can only access using equipment that is both made using fossil fuels and powered by them.

So, our civilization is utterly dependent on having a cheap and abundant supply of fossil fuels. "Peak Oil" enthusiasts have been saying for decades now that we'll soon run out of oil and things will come to a grinding halt. In fact, though, there are still large quantities of hydrocarbons to be found in the earth's crust, so you might ask, "What's the problem?"

Well, there are two problems with continuing to burn fossil fuels.

One is the consequences for the climate of burning hydrocarbons and releasing ever larger amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is a very serious problem, for which we are having trouble finding and implementing any sort of solution.

The other problem, I'll be calling it "the surplus energy problem", is in many ways more complex and more serious.

Because we use various forms of technology to access energy, many people think that technology makes energy, and with improved technology we can always make more energy. Or, in this case, access the difficult to access hydrocarbons that currently remain in the ground. But in fact, the opposite is true—technology uses energy and won't work without it.

The energy that remains after we've powered the processes used to acquire that energy is referred to as "surplus energy." For instance, the technology used to drill oil wells and pump crude oil out of the ground uses energy. Back in the day, it used to take the energy equivalent of about one barrel of oil to get 100 barrels of oil out of the ground, leaving a surplus energy equivalent to 99 barrels of oil. This is usually expressed as "Energy Returned on Energy Invested" (EROEI), in this case 100/1, giving an EROEI of 100. Another way of looking at this is to talk about the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE). In this case that would be 1/100, or 1%. Note that both these numbers are just bare numbers without units, and most significantly without a dollar sign in front of them. The "money cost" of energy is another thing entirely and since it is influenced by speculation on future supply and by fluctuations in demand (as we have seen in 2020 during the pandemic) it is not a reliable indicator of the actual cost of energy in energy terms, or the future availability of energy.

Conventional oil discoveries have not been keeping up with depletion for some time and our use of conventional oil actually peaked in the last few years. So we have been forced to switch to lower quality and more difficult to access sources. Conventional oil today has an EROEI ranging from 10 to 30. Tight oil and gas (from fracking), heavy oil and the "dilbit" (diluted bitumen) made from tar sands all have EROEIs less than 5, or ECoEs of 20% or greater.

"So what?" you might say. As long as the net amount of energy available is sufficient to power our civilization, what's the problem? Well, it's not just the amount of energy available from any particular source that really counts, but the EROEI. Or more precisely the weighted average of the EROEIs of all the various energy sources an economy uses. That number needs to be around 15 or more to keep that economy growing.

When the average EROEI goes below 15, growth slows and eventually stops and it becomes difficult to raise enough capital to even maintain existing infrastructure. Why our civilization needs to grow is a topic for another day, but it certainly does. This is what most people are missing about energy. Yes, a country can use debt to finance access to low EROEI energy resources in order to keep the economy going. But only for a while, until its economy contracts to the point where things begin to fall apart. This is certainly the case in the US. Fracking has made sufficient energy available, at what seems like a reasonable dollar price, but the real economy is mysteriously contracting, and debt is continually growing. Both economists and politicians, while putting on a brave face, are hard pressed to do anything about it, because they don't understand the surplus energy problem.

As we saw in the section on "Outputs", there are pressing reasons not to continue burning fossil fuels. But even if that were not the case, it would not be possible to continue running a growth based industrial civilization on the low EROEI fossil energy sources now available to us. For this reason alone, collapse seems like a sure thing to me, and I would say it has been underway since oil production in the continental U.S. peaked in the early 1970s.

But, you may say, what about renewable energy sources? Like non-conventional fossil fuels there are large amounts of energy available from sources like hydro, biomass, wind, solar and so forth. A great many people today believe that renewables can replace fossil fuels and solve both our surplus energy and climate change problems. In fact it has become very unpopular to challenge that idea, but I am afraid I must do just that.

This post ened up at over 6000 words long, enough to try the patience of even my most loyal readers. So I have split it in two at this point, leaving the second half for my next post, which will pick up from here and cover renewable energy sources, ecosystem services and fossil water.



Links to the rest of this series of posts, Collapse, you say?

 

Electrical Resilience

gc2reddit-logoOff the microphones & cameras of Irv Mills, K-Dog, Cam, Lucid Dreams & RE

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Published on The Doomstead Diner  June 28, 2020

Discuss this Video at the Energy Table inside the Diner

 

This is a LOOOONNNG one folks.  I suggest watching/listening in short segmnts over the course of the week.  It is also not strictly about electricity.  Many other Collapse Topics were chewed on by the Diner Kollapsniks during this discussion.

Herd Immunity For Thee, Daily Tests For Me


From the keyboard of Surly1
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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on May 19, 2020

"There is no genius there, only a damaged human being playing havoc with our lives."

 ― Jay Rosen  


The Trump Administration has decided to embrace the herd immunity strategy as a means to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Oh, they haven't told you. There was no formal announcement– nothing so honest. The same stratagem once presented as an option to Boris Johnson as a means for the UK to deal with the raging infection, then rejected as altogether too expensive in terms of human lives and strain to the NHS, has been embraced by the Trump administration as policy. Superseding their own previous public guidance, Trump has exhorted state governors to "open up" their states, and encouraged armed gaggles of low-T cosplayers to take to the streets to demonstrate for their own impending illness and demise.

Meanwhile, in the last weeks, a Trump valet and a spokesperson for Mike Pence were diagnosed as Covid-19 positive. Trump's primary concern was messaging: the idea that the notion of Covid-19 stalks the White House would undercut his message that the outbreak is waning and states should begin reopening. Re-election is job one, and re-opening the country is the foundation upon which that effort will be built.

Even though you still can't get a test after several months, the White House has been deploying rapid-result tests for the virus, including testing members of the press corps. Thus, testing for me but none for thee.

Thousands are dying each week, the economy is cratering, and the jackal in charge has no idea what he is doing. All that matters is his impending re-election campaign, and it doesn't really matter how many thousands of muppets have to shoveled into the incinerator to achieve that.

And Trumpsuckers love him for it. Quoted in The Guardian, here's Lee Snover, a Republican party chair a key Pennsylvania swing county, who lost her father to Covid-19, and whose husband was hospitalized with the disease:

“It spread through my entire family,” Snover said.

Trump stands accused of driving up the coronavirus death toll by downplaying the public health threat and urging the country to “reopen” too quickly. But Snover does not see the president as having failed her family.

“I don’t think people give him enough credit,” she said. “If you think about what a businessman he was, and how much he loved that booming economy, do you know how hard it was for him to shut the country down? That was hard. So I give him credit for that.”

At times it has appeared that the pandemic, which has already taken at least 90,000 lives in the United States and wreaked havoc with the economy, would also destroy support for Trump, and his chances for reelection. But interviews with longtime Trump supporters in Northampton county indicate the extraordinary durability of backing for the president among his base.

Trump has punted responsibility to state governors, saying they are "on their own." He has abdicated the roles of leadership, planning and unified purchasing that might be the useful functions of the federal government, while retaining the right to second guess any decision they make. 

Trump makes much of the fact that the US had administered the most tests (11.5M as of this writing), but only a little over three percent of the total population. We learned this week that, despite swaths of the country shutting down for two months, the U.S. is barely further along in terms of testing, and experts say that there's no realistic way to return to normal without doubling or tripling the number of tests administered every day.

So why are we not further along? Where are the tests? They went to Jared:

Kushner, it turns out, is reportedly one of the people directly responsible for the country's extreme delays in rolling out tests when the outbreak started. That's according to the Financial Times, which recently published a deep-dive into the Trump administration's chaotic and denial-plagued coronavirus response. One of Donald Trump's confidants, who's regularly in touch with the president, put the blame squarely on Kushner, saying, "Jared had been arguing that testing too many people, or ordering too many ventilators, would spook the markets and so we just shouldn’t do it. That advice worked far more powerfully on [Trump] than what the scientists were saying. He thinks they always exaggerate."

So if you are one of the numerous Americans who still can't get a Covid test, thank the smooth-cheeked porcelain-doll Dauphin and Trump scion. Jared's fecklessness is given proper shrift in an article by George Packer in the June Atlantic that details how this country's wan response to the pandemic has revealed a beggar nation in utter chaos:

Like a wanton boy throwing matches in a parched field, Trump began to immolate what was left of national civic life. He never even pretended to be president of the whole country, but pitted us against one another along lines of race, sex, religion, citizenship, education, region, and—every day of his presidency—political party. His main tool of governance was to lie. A third of the country locked itself in a hall of mirrors that it believed to be reality; a third drove itself mad with the effort to hold on to the idea of knowable truth; and a third gave up even trying…

And the "purest embodiment of political nihilism is not Trump himself but Jared the "Disruptor:".

In his short lifetime, Kushner has been fraudulently promoted as both a meritocrat and a populist. He was born into a moneyed real-estate family the month Ronald Reagan entered the Oval Office, in 1981—a princeling of the second Gilded Age. Despite Jared’s mediocre academic record, he was admitted to Harvard after his father, Charles, pledged a $2.5 million donation to the university. Father helped son with $10 million in loans for a start in the family business, then Jared continued his elite education at the law and business schools of NYU, where his father had contributed $3 million. Jared repaid his father’s support with fierce loyalty when Charles was sentenced to two years in federal prison in 2005 for trying to resolve a family legal quarrel by entrapping his sister’s husband with a prostitute and videotaping the encounter.

Imagine that Thanksgiving dinner.

So when his father-in-law became president, Kushner quickly gained power in an administration that raised amateurism, nepotism, and corruption to governing principles. As long as he busied himself with Middle East peace, his feckless meddling didn’t matter to most Americans. But since he became an influential adviser to Trump on the coronavirus pandemic, the result has been mass death.

In his first week on the job, in mid-March, Kushner co-authored the worst Oval Office speech in memory, interrupted the vital work of other officials, may have compromised security protocols, flirted with conflicts of interest and violations of federal law, and made fatuous promises that quickly turned to dust. “The federal government is not designed to solve all our problems,” he said, explaining how he would tap his corporate connections to create drive-through testing sites. They never materialized. He was convinced by corporate leaders that Trump should not use presidential authority to compel industries to manufacture ventilators—then Kushner’s own attempt to negotiate a deal with General Motors fell through. With no loss of faith in himself, he blamed shortages of necessary equipment and gear on incompetent state governors.

To watch this pale, slim-suited dilettante breeze into the middle of a deadly crisis, dispensing business-school jargon to cloud the massive failure of his father-in-law’s administration, is to see the collapse of a whole approach to governing.

But for those of us who live out here in flyover country, it's back to normal. Open the beaches, open the bars, open the barber shops, and second wave be damned.


Writing in Pressthink, journalism observer Jay Rosen gets it exactly correct– Trump's plan is to have no plan:

The plan is to have no plan, to let daily deaths between one and three thousand become a normal thing, and then to create massive confusion about who is responsible— by telling the governors they’re in charge without doing what only the federal government can do, by fighting with the press when it shows up to be briefed, by fixing blame for the virus on China or some other foreign element, and by “flooding the zone with shit,” Steve Bannon’s phrase for overwhelming the system with disinformation, distraction, and denial, which boosts what economists call “search costs” for reliable intelligence.

Stated another way, the plan is to default on public problem solving,and then prevent the public from understanding the consequences of that default. To succeed this will require one of the biggest propaganda and freedom of information fights in U.S. history, the execution of which will, I think, consume the president’s re-election campaign. So much has already been made public that the standard script for a White House cover up (worse than the crime…) won’t apply. Instead, everything will ride on the manufacture of confusion. The press won’t be able to “expose” the plot because it will all happen in stark daylight. The facts will be known, and simultaneously they will be inconceivable

Not only is the plan to have no plan, but to question the objective reporting og events. Part of the non-plan to "prevent the public from understanding the consequences of that default" is to question the numbers. Last week Deborah Birx loudly said that 'there is nothing from the CDC that I can trust' in a White House coronavirus task force meeting. Hers was the first sortie in a wholesale assault on the methodolgy used by the CDC and others in tabulating the death toll. How long before Hannity, Limbaugh and the other attack dogs of the right join in the attack?

The truth seems to be that Birx and others fear that the CDC's data-tracking system was inflating coronavirus statistics like death rates and case numbers. Recent research indicates that COVID-19 deaths have been severely undercounted, both in the US and around the world, particularly in the early stages of the pandemic. Texas reported its highest single-day increase in new COVID-19 cases as restaurants, salons, and cinemas open to the public, And in other early-opening states, GOP Governors are actively cooking the books in their respective states. 

Even now, if you are one of the ghouls who checks the daily totals (and I am), a gap has opened up between the statistics reported by the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering, and the Worldometers web site. After tracking together for the last several months, the Johns Hopkins numbers are running behind the Worldometers numbers. Whether this is a momentary anomaly or represents a symptom of a greater discrepancy, I cannot tell.


How about the costs? Meanwhile, New coronavirus cases in Germany almost tripled within 24 hours — less than a week after the country started reopening — as it considers an 'emergency brake' to reinstate harsher lockdowns. We are also told thst Texas is showing a spike in cases. Hard to tell what is happening in the New Confederacy, as Governors and state Health departments slow-walk the numbers and play statistical games to change the subject. But time will tell; it always does.


banksy 07-flower-thrower-wallpaperSurly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, screeds and spittle-flecked invective here and elsewhere. He lives a quiet domestic existence in Southeastern Virginia with his wife Contrary. Descended from a long line of people to whom one could never tell anything, all opinions are his and his alone, because he paid full retail for everything he has managed to learn.

Panic at the Costco


That-Was-The-Week-That-W-That-Was-The-Week-473964gc2smFrom the keyboard of Surly1
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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on March 15, 2020

 “Who needs four horsemen when one will do just fine?”  ― Charlotte Hale, Westworld  

 


There are two schools of thought as to the consequences of the current coronavirus pandemic:

1) This is the BIG ONE.  The US is still in "no data, no problem" mode. Ten days behind Italy. Watch for a near-vertical spike when testing begins and denial ends.

2) This is NOT the BIG ONE. While the "infectabliity" factor oif the disease is ten times greater than the flu, its lethality is relatively low, aside from the elderly, the sicks, and the poors. Making the disease a gift to the capitalists by way of reducing overhead. "Buy the fucking dip, 'cuz nothing matters."

Most of us who frequents sites like Doomstead Diner would agree that whether you’ve been personally touched by coronavirus or not, one is well-advised to  be prepared with essentials to weather an interruption of several weeks in business-as-usual (BAU.) But many people do not, and have neither the interest nor means to prepare for much except tomorrow.. Homeland Security’s emergency and disaster prep site, ready.gov, suggests: “Store a two-week supply of water and food,”  Prepper types think in terms of months– two, six, 12 months. The site also advises checks of any prescription drugs to ensure a continuous supply and a refill of nonprescription drugs, which is Prepping 101.

So with my son-in-law arriving and our household down to its last sixpack of TP, I decided to make a Costco run– one of the most desperate actions of my life. It was absolutely shithook berserkers. I had no idea I was about to take my life in my hands until an overweight woman on a motorized shopping cart decided that I was an unnecessary obstacle between her and the tinned chicken. I escaped with my skin intact, but a couple of old folks left in my wake may have be hurt.

I didn't look back.

When people fail to develop a plan about what they actually need in advance, a natural response is to snap up things they don’t need and will never use as a hedge against future uncertainty. So there is a great deal of unplanned panic buying.  Costco is crowded on weekends, and I had been there amidst crowds, but had never seen it as crowded as March 13. Many cleaning supplies were also completely plundered and not on offer. There is also sheer price gouging opportunism, as you'll see below.

Now I have a better idea why.

After six weeks of denial, dithering and deception, Fat Orange has found that you can't bully, intimidate or gull a novel coronavirus as easily as, say, a US Senator.

In the absence of clear leadership frorm an administration who views the pandemic as a distraction from its re-election marketing message, the states have taken the lead. We've decided to Cancel Everything. The effort is to limit exposures, meaning avoiding crowds and preventing the sort of spike in exposures and sicknesses that overwhelms hospitals and health care systems, as in Italy. "Social distancing" is the new watchword, and it overlays perfectly with my preferred lifestyle, which is heavy on "leave me the fuck alone."

Here's a reasonably complete list of Coronavirus closures: List of events, sports, and more canceled amid COVID-19 fears. Even NASCAR postponed a couple of events, which may sink in with the doorknob-lickers.

Covid-19 is everywhere. It will be everywhere it has not yet reached. As a "novel" virus, we have no built-in "herd immunity." And it will change our lives in ways we cannot predict.


How did it come to this?

The approach of the Trump regime to date has been, "no data, no problem." Trump's approach from jump has been to minimize the problem, mock the sufferers, game the numbers, and blame Obama. (If you'd like to check that assertion, someone already has: A Complete List of Trump’s Attempts to Play Down Coronavirus. You're welcome.) You are quite correct to note that any lead time the US may have had has been squandered in fecklessness. Countries from Singapore to South Korea are managing to test large portions of their populations, but in the US we've administered 11,000+ and turned away God knows how many more.


The other day, I heard the governor of Ohio say they probably had 100,000 active cases working in that state alone. Today, the Ohio Department of Health believes 100,000 Ohioans are carrying coronavirus, confirmeing that. In Virginia, within a week we've gone from two reported cases to 45 reported cases and one death.  There is even a case now in RE's Alaska, The Last Great Frontier.

For his part, Trump tells a nation terrified of coronavirus that none of this is his fault. At a news conference last week, Trump lied, insulted reporters, and explicitly refused to take responsibility for his own actions when directly asked.

.At one point, Trump was asked about the admission of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that our lag in testing was “a failing.” And he was asked if he takes responsibility for this failure.

Trump’s response: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

The president claimed that “we were given a set of circumstances and we were given rules and regulations and specifications from a different time,” and this existing legal infrastructure “wasn’t meant for this kind of event with the kind of numbers that we’re talking about.”

It’s an astonishing claim, and it’s astonishing because Trump has spent the better part of his term dismantling the federal government’s pandemic fighting infrastructure.


And why can't you find your bleach, wipes, and cleaning supplies? The Hand Sanitizer You Can't Find Is In This Putz's Garage. Because someone decided to make a market out of your misery.  "Retail arbitrage" has created individuals who have found in this global panic a route to becoming real jerks, inspired by news of the potential for over 1 million American deaths to turn a handsome profit.

The current pandemic isn’t one specific person’s fault, but there are individuals who have found in this global panic a route to becoming a real jerk.

Chief among them is Tennessee’s Matt Colvin who, with the aid of his brother Noah, was inspired by news of the potential for over 1 million American deaths to turn a handsome profit.

The retired Air Force technical sergeant is the new face of price gouging, thanks to a profile in Saturday’s New York Times. Beginning March 1st, Colvin, whose primary income is reselling collected goods on sites like Amazon, hit the road and bought as much hand sanitizer as he could find. For a while, the money was rolling in. But when his prices soared, Amazon, eBay and other marketplaces rightly shut him and his fellow panic profiteers down. He estimates he now has 17,700 bottles of the virus-killing ooze, as well as hand wipes and all the other highly sought after materials you can’t find in a store right now. The cleaning products are collecting dust.

This is the kind of behavior you get when so-called "conventional morality" is replaced by worship of the free market. "Retail arbitrage" sounds so much classier than "rapacious price gouging" and "disaster capitalism."

Karma, your table is ready. 


#StayTheFuckHome
A Movement to Stop the COVID-19 Pandemic

The absence of Federal leadership and the resultant blamestorming has failed us in preventing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Slow reactions, public appeasement policies, and an urge to stabilize the economy to preserve re-election prospects (to say nothing of the need to impose "message discipline" via Mike Pence on the experts) are keeping them from taking the measures it takes to protect millions from this disease. It is time for us, and up to us, as citizens to take action now and do our part to "flatten the curve" and fight COVID-19.

Putting it bluntly: #Stay The Fuck Home! Wash your hands frequently! And stay away from Costco.

Stay safe.


banksy 07-flower-thrower-wallpaperSurly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, screeds and spittle-flecked invective here and elsewhere. He lives a quiet domestic existence in Southeastern Virginia with his wife Contrary. Descended from a long line of people to whom one could never tell anything, all opinions are his and his alone, because he paid full retail for everything he has managed to learn.

Life After Oil

youtube-Logo-4gc2reddit-logoOff the keyboard  of K-Dog

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on March 9, 2020

Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

Life After Oil

France has collapsologues and Pablo Servigne is one. Pablo is an agricultural engineer with a Doctorate in Science. For the past decade Pablo has worked with Barricade in Liège Belgium. Leaving academics to do what he can Pablo is facilitating the transition away from oil. Barricade is about a new way forward. Pablo knows academics by itself can’t make the new world. Nothing by itself can.

In this video Pablo talks about the end of oil and European agriculture.  I discovered Pablo by exploring what is happening with collapse in France.  The video is in French which I don't understand  but I do have enough familiarity with the language so that with the help of Google Translate I was able to summarize Pablo's talk for you.  It is a very good talk much like a TED talk or a good interview by Sam Mitchell.  I wanted to know if there were any perspectives I was not aware of in the French collapse tribe.  I'm glad I watched it for I did learn a thing or two.  The visuals in Pablo's talk are very good and I enjoyed watching them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I viewed the barricade website through Google Translate to read it. Without translate all I’d get are pings of understanding with big gaps in between. Looking at the webpage I forget for a minute the translation step and I ponder the twisted grammar thinking I’m reading bad writing. Then I remember in French the writing is likely pretty good. I fix the English.

"Developing as a place of collective emancipation and alternatives since 1976 in the Pierreuse district of Liège Belgium. Barricade is a synthesis of a variety of social cultural and economic experiments. Lying at an intersection of social economy and education Barricade demands self management which values cultural and social purpose over profit."

I made it better but the automatic translation is not so horrible. I encourage you to visit barricade. Open both links, Google Translate and Barricade. Select the French to English translation in Google.  After you make your selection. cut and paste the url from the address bar of Barricade into the (from) side of Google Translate. Then click the url shown in the right panel, the (to) side. You should then see barricade translated to English.

Now that you can explore barricade on your own I’ll return to Pablo and his hour long video. I watched the whole thing and after I was done I put the French transcript through google translate. The resulting English transcript unlike the clean barricade translation was not bad writing. It was horrible writing. But a good student of collapse I am and I was able to make sense of things.

I could with hours of effort make a good accurate translation. Already two hours into the effort I know I don’t want to do it. I might if it were paid work but I don’t have a feeding bowl in my sidebar that people can send me dog biscuits in.  A days work making an accurate translation I can't do.

Instead I will describe the video and encourage you to watch it.  It may be the same effort, but for me , more enjoyable.

The video starts out with Pablo explaining he was an ethnologist studying ants but that he has become instead an advocate for the transition movement.

Pablo is on a mission to explain the fast dance of science to everybody and Pablo wants the public to prepare for a future without oil. Fast dance was probably a Google translation artifact but I’ll keep the cybernetic contribution. I like it. Pablo is the name and education is his game.

Pablo became interested in what agriculture would be like post peroleum compared to what agriculture is like now. Just the sort of thing an agricultural engineer would think of, and a valuable perspective as we will soon be expecting the earth to feed ten billion people.

Knowing that crop yields depended on oil based pesticides and modern agricultural machinery uses copious amounts of oil with which to operate, Pablo became aware of of Wes Jackson at the Land Institute about 2008 and in 2013 Yves Cochet introduced a important report to the European Parliament concerning catastrophe and resilience.

Resilience is related to sustainability but it is not the same thing. Sustainability is resistance to change. Asking how well a society can respond to change is a different question than asking how well a society can resist change. Resilience is a refinement of the sustainability concept.

Establishing himself as knowledgeable, Pablo shows us pictures of families. Mali or Chad, Bolivia, Mexico Germany and the US. In front of these families a weeks worth of food is shown. The difference between the photos is striking. The industrialized countries have food which is produced industrially and the less industrialized countries all have food that is locally sourced. Americans at the apex of the industrial food pyramid use huge amounts of petroleum to grow, process package and transport food over large distances. American food cannot exist without large quantities of plastic used for single use packaging.  With a loss of fossil fuels industrial countries have little food security and Americans have none.  The point of the photo montage is to show that less industrialized countries produce food without using oil.

A series of slides then shows industrial agriculture and the energy intensive distribution system need to move industrial products. To make industrial distribution work huge amount of petroleum natural gas and electricity must be used. Petroleum is a very dense way to store energy and Pablo asserts that a human would have to work four years to produce the same energy provided by one tank of gas in a car. A barrel of oil has the equivalent of 12 and one half years of human work. 500 slaves would be needed to produce the energy equivalent that a single person uses in an industrial society every day.

The 500 slave analogy goes back to the Post Carbon Institute and Richard Heinberg. It is a common comparison and it makes a valid and important point. Oil was allowed to create and fill an irreplaceable human environmental niche and nothing can substitute for oil when oil is gone. Oil has become a part of every aspect of modern life. Plastics medicine textiles, every aspect of modern life uses oil.  As the price of oil changes the price of food in an industrial society changes with it.

Pablo shows a set of graphs that have curves which show oil discoveries, projected discoveries anticipated demand, and anticipated oil production. The graphs clearly show production of oil will not meet demand in a few years and also that if oil could be supplied to meet demand an environmental catastrophe is certain. Oil reserves are enough to provide ten degrees worth of global warming. The energy needed to acquire and process oil always increases because easy to get at oil is pumped out first. As time goes by oil becomes more and more of a geologic challenge to acquire and becomes scarce. The amount of energy used to get the same amount of oil increases along with the geologic challenge. The Energy Returned On Energy Invested or EROEI goes down as time passes and oil is used up.

When oil was first pumped the EROEI was about 100 to one. As easy to get at oil was used up EROI dropped and a EROEI of thirty to one became common. Falling EROEI becomes important when EROEI falls below twenty as fracked oil will do. The ratio becomes important when a significant part of acquired energy must be used up just to get the energy.

Substitutes for oil where it can be replaced by by electricity means windmills or solar panels.  Hydro power by itself can’t provide enough energy. Both solar panels and windmills require raw materials which are difficult to find in needed quantities. Current windmill technology uses rare earth metals to make magnets strong enough for electric generators. Without rare earth metals the cost and complexity of windmills would increase. The supply of rare earth elements is not big enough to make as many windmills as the world needs to replace petroleum.

To keep global warming below two degrees we need 15 times the concrete that we have for windmills and 90 times the aluminum that we have. Finding the right kind of sand to make concrete with is already a problem. To keep the probability of a 2 degree C temperature rise below 50%, forty times the number of windmills we now have should be built before 2028. One decade to produce forty times the windmills we have now is difficult.

Renewable energy can’t scale up to replace oil and the industrial food system of Europe could begin to fail in ten or 15 years when there won't be enough cheap oil to maintain food production. Not paying attention to this issue is crazy stupid because it takes time and effort to transition food production from oil to a resilient system.  It is not an easy thing to do.

The 2013 report and trans-disciplinary discussions with experts resulted in Pablo writing a book about transitioning European food production away from oil. The European food system depends on oil and there will be an end to it. This will result in the end of the European food system unless it is changed.

For 10 or 12 thousand years the earth had an unusually stable climate. Temperature varied not so much allowing sedentary agriculture to develop. Analysis of previous climates in the fossil record shows temperature stability for so long a period has been very unusual.

The anthropocene moving temperature out of a stable range is like Europe driving to the supermarket in a car that has an an empty gas tank and then crashing into the wall of the supermarket when brakes fail.  Brakes failing because atmospheric CO2 and methane are on a fast rise. All the air in the atmosphere put together in a sphere would make a ball only about 800 miles wide. All the oceans put together in a ball would make an even smaller ball only a little more than half as wide as what the atmosphere ball is. There is not a lot of air and water to pollute and billions of people share the work of polluting the air and water.  The job is getting done.

Extending a car analogy the steering wheel can’t turn. The decision was made to adapt the internal combustion engine to provide all of societies needs. Everything was set up to support that decision. Manufacturing and finance evolved to support internal combustion and now changing manufacturing and finance systems to support new ways of food production is difficult. People who benefit from the existing system as it is resist it being changed at all. Politics resist the change.

Pablo shows a slide of his book ‘Comment Tout Peut S'effondrer’ (How everything can fall apart).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Collapse will happen when basic needs can’t be provided to a majority of people at reasonable cost. In the French media and intellectual space collapse is not seriously considered. Pablo’s book shows everything is connected. It is a multidisciplinary study of collapse.

 

Everything is connected and a shortage of just about everything will soon be our reality. A slide with 36 graphs which show that the extraction rate of all kinds of raw materials has resulted in ‘La grande acceleration’. Oil facilitated extraction and use of just about everything  causing exponential rates of extraction that can’t be sustained. Everything is connected and being depleted. Modern life consist of complex interconnected systems and study of these systems shows the more interconnected systems are the more catastrophic are their failures. Initially interconnected systems stand up to external disturbance well but the same interconnections which make them initially stable accelerate collapse when tipping points are crossed. (The Seneca cliff failure mode described by Ugo Bardi) Less interconnected systems resist initial disturbance less well but as they fail, they fail more gracefully. Our systems are highly interconnected becoming more interconnected all the time. When our systems fail they will fail with a domino effect.  One failure leading to another. A cascade of system failure.

The Meadows report to the club of Rome in 1972 was a first attempt at predicting our future using numerical analysis computers and systems theory. It predicted system collapse in the first part of the 21st century. Since the report was released history has bore out the model predictions. Agreement on how well is moot.  The model predicts a collapse at about 2030. Once that collapse starts how well data tracked getting up to the collapse won’t matter. Feedbacks will dictate the particular ways collapse manifests once it starts.

Meadows and the club of Rome considered alternate scenarios. Birth control, energy efficient technologies, increases in food production, etc. Many possible future were tested and in only one case was a resilient scenario realized.

By employing all possible know solutions to the exponential growth problem; collapse is avoided if changes begin soon enough. In the model changes had to have already been started by now. The Meadows model that succeeded had changes which began in the 1970’s and 80’s.

When existing arrangements fail and collapse happens new stability with a lower quality of life may result. Arrangements made to prevent collapse could help return to a higher quality of life but unless some such arrangements are made now a rise to a higher basin of stability can’t happen.There is a strong mathematical basis for this conclusion. BAU or business as usual will not allow a possibility of recovery.

Pollution, deforestation and the elimination of the biosphere is an accelerating process. A point approaches where thresholds could be crossed resulting in rapid system collapse. If trends continue the biosphere will lose its ability to feed humans and the Earth will enter a new phase of mass extinction. All life on Earth will effectively die. People as well, in a complete or near complete extinction event. Feedbacks like methane release in the arctic will accelerate global warming acceleration if tipping points are crossed.

The earth oscillated between inter-glacial and glacial periods during the Holocene. Under those conditions humans evolved. Emissions from fossil fuels are now making a hothouse earth on which humans can’t live. If emissions from fossil fuels are not curtailed there will be areas of the earth that will become fatal for people to live on. Areas where hot humid tropical air will actually kill you. A planetary threshold could be crossed and the whole earth becomes too hot for people for thousands of years. If melting permafrost leads to a feedback loop of ever released methane, a methane bomb of feedback could explode.

Besides the methane bomb 15 other positive feedbacks have been identified that cause the earth to warm faster as the earth warms because they feed on themselves. Two or three of these feedbacks are easily triggered. Our situation is like a person in a canoe heading for the edge of a waterfall and we only have so much time to start paddling to the shore and safety or we go over the edge falling to ruin. 2 degrees C of temperature rise has been identified as a critical temperature. Crossing it may cause global warming to spike in uncontrollable intensity.

Collapse can come in two forms. Collapse of the biosphere where all life on earth dies is a more serious collapse than the collapse of hyper-complex industrial economy by itself. We are not in a situation we can ask engineers to fix. Solutions must be all encompassing.  Our existence is threatened. We don’t have a problem to solve, we have an existential threat to deal with. Positive outcomes are possible.  Mitigation of bad outcomes is better than thinking nothing can be done and doing nothing at all.

Actions can be taken. Stopping eating of meat has a huge impact in mitigating our predicament. There is a history of people concerned with existential threats like those we now face. We can use their knowledge.  In the 60’s and 70’s concern about nuclear war caused some people to find ways to become self sufficient.  Leaving the industrial agricultural system to feed themselves. The gas crisis of 1973 caused people to explore ways to live without oil.

At the end of the cold war Cuba lost the oil that had been provided by the Soviet Union. The United States prevented easy oil imports so Cuba experienced a collapse similar to what the world is about to face collectively. Cubans responded and found creative ways to survive by using small amounts of oil. Special buses that could be pulled by diesel trucks filled a mass transit need. Urban farming allowed food to be grown without any need for transport.

Australia contributed permaculture which allows people to transition from being dependent consumers into food producers. People have stepped up to the need. The United States forced Cuba to step up to their oil crisis just as the United States itself had stepped up to the crisis of 1942 when Pearl Harbor was bombed and America entered WWII. Victory gardens across America contributed to the war effort which had caused farmers to stop farming to go and fight in foreign lands. Within a year 60% of vegetables were being produced in victory gardens on municipal lawns.

People come together in crisis. Pablo has worked with his friend Gauthier Chapelle in Belgium. They have co-authored a book L’etraide L’Autre Loi De La Jungle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Currently there is no scarcity in our culture and little need for cooperation. But in harsh conditions group cooperation will emerge. Penguins are a great example. They huddle together for warmth taking turns facing a freezing cold wind on the outside of their huddle. All penguins stay warm enough with each getting a turn in the middle of the huddle where it is warmer all around.

In our culture with 500 energy slaves apiece it becomes easy to decide that you don’t need your neighbor. Relationships suffer. Greed and selfishness prevail and in a disaster situation greed and selfishness is absolutely not wanted. Instead the natural reaction at the epicenter of a disaster phenomena is to self-organize and become selfless. This is where our stories of selfless human sacrifice come from.  Evolution prepared us to act that way.  Early reports of mayhem and lawlessness in the Katrina tragedy were false. Instead cooperation prevailed. In the World Trade Center collapse people helped each other knowing that they were going to die. Panic and selfishness are both myths of western culture. Empathy and cooperation are natural.  The myth of the law of the Jungle is a western cultural creation.

Our culture allowed the ridiculous belief that the law of the strongest was the only law of the jungle to become popular. In fact life on Earth is the result of 3.8 billion years of evolution and in that time nature tried many experiments with success. The western law of the jungle belief is false. Even bacteria and fungi under certain conditions will appear to act selfless. Permaculture has twelve design principles and three ethical principles. The foundation of western civilization in contrast is not well grounded.

Gauthier Chapelle and Michèle Decoust in ‘Le Vivant comme modèle‘ decribe nature as a gigantic laboratory, several billion years old, rich with many solutions.

Permaculture produces resilient abundance by not fighting against nature. It sequesters carbon and restores biodiversity by avoiding chemicals. It requires knowledge and is labor intensive but so is the industrial food system which is highly complex and dispersed over large areas. Permaculture is local. Elliot Coleman wrote the winter harvest handbook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This book has been translated into several languages. Elliot is considered a premiere market gardener.  Permaculture and techniques used by Parisian market gardeners of the 19th century combine to create a new resilient system.

 

The foundation of permaculture is deep knowledge with labor replacing chemicals and energy inputs. It is resilient and local and it is what we must do to survive.

It is not a puzzle we want to solve or an alternative lifestyle we want to consider. It is what we will have to do to survive. There is no luxury in the equation.  Climate change and resource depletion leave us no other choices. We have the challenge to produce food, repair ecosystems and produce energy in the absence of oil and in a new unstable climate. A new generation of peasants must provide the 12 and a half years of equivalent labor a barrel of oil can no longer provide.

Looking at what Cuba had to do when its oil supply was cut off leads to the conclusion that 120 million new cultivators will be needed as the age of oil ends in Europe. The first of these cultivators are already born but they do not yet know they will become cultivators. Forest agriculture must also be valued in a new ecological awareness.

Changes will be difficult. Power for the transition must come from the bottom up. Grassroots power with guidance from above and it will not be easy. The changes can be overwhelming and people should not contemplate our future alone. Elizabeth Kubler Ross identified stages that a person goes through in accepting death. Thinking about these stages helps to understand collapse for it too is something we would avoid if we could and a truth that we would prefer not to accept.

Reaction to collapse can take many forms. We will be living in a new and different post-petroleum world than the world we have know as we descend down the peak oil slope. Collapse can be greeted with anger.  Anger at the many who ignored collapse saying all was well. Even now most people are lost in denial. Collapse is an emotional roller-coaster and anger can lead to despair.

I’m close to the end now. The last part of the video is difficult to summarize. Pablo explains his perspective on what collapse means to him and how he views it. He ends with a cartoon popular in collapse community culture. ‘We destroyed the Planet but for a little while while we created a lot of value for shareholders’.

I agree with Pablo’s attitude but I want to add something Pablo left out. Industrial life pretends it offers freedom but in truth is it takes away freedom. New ways of living will not be all bad. You might not have 500 energy slaves at your beck and call, but you will have better friends and you won’t be as lonely and isolated as you are now.

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Responding to collapse, Part 15: shortages of diesel fuel

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on November 27 2019

Lake Huron on a rare sunny day in November

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In part 10 of this series I expressed the opinion that supplies of electrical power, diesel fuel and money will be at the heart of many of the troubles that lie ahead as collapse progresses. Especially for those of us living in small remote towns, as I recommend you do. Over the last few posts I've spent a lot of time considering the gradual breakdown of the power grid, the effects that will have, and how we might prepare for them. Today I'll move on to consider what happens when supplies of diesel fuel become problematical.

For a number of solid technical reasons, diesel engines are preferred to gasoline engines for ships, locomotives, heavy trucks, and agricultural equipment. If, like me, you're living in a small remote town, the latter two are of great importance. Essentially everything that gets here comes in a truck that burns diesel fuel. Much of that stuff falls in the "necessities of life" category. Agriculture is an important industry hereabouts, and whether it's organic or conventional, most of the work is done by machines that burn diesel fuel.

I can highly recommend the book "When Trucks Stop Running" by Alice Friedmann, who is also the author of the Energy Skeptic blog. Alice goes into much detail in this book about energy and transportation and just what will be affected when the trucks stop running.

There are a few particular aspects of the subject that I'd like to focus on in this post without recapitulating that whole book. I think it is useful to be aware of the sort of things that can cause supply problems. This will help us anticipate them, and have some advance warning so as not to be caught completely by surprise. When those problems are happening, when things get chaotic and confusing, it is good to have a little more certainty about what is actually going on so you can proceed with whatever action is required. And of course it is useful to have thought about supply issues, and the problems they will cause, and made some preparations so as to be able to do what needs to be done when the time comes.

But first, let's make one thing really clear. For moving heavy loads long distances there simply isn't any viable alternative to the diesel engine and the concentrated energy of diesel fuel.

Gasoline comes close (having about 77% as much energy per gallon as diesel), but all the problems are going to be just as bad for gasoline as diesel, and gasoline engines aren't as good for hauling heavy loads.

In many ways electric motors are even better than diesel engines, but the problem is getting electricity to a mobile electric motor. Batteries are the obvious solution, but the energy density of batteries is very low compared to diesel fuel. So low that battery powered long distance heavy transport just isn't feasible.

Electrified railways where power is supplied by a third rail fail on account of complexity and the difficulty of getting them set up in a nationwide network than could service all the locations currently serviced by roads.

The day may come when we are forced to use wood burning steam locomotives, but the energy density of wood not as good as diesel fuel. And coal is ruled out by concerns about climate change.

Sailing ships can do the job of diesel powered ships, but not as efficiently and we'll turn to them only when there is no alternative.

So we're going to be using diesel powered transportation as long as we can get diesel fuel. And when it is no longer available, we'll have to adapt by getting by with a lot less shipping and more reliance on locally produced goods. This is likely doable in many rural areas, but megacities appear to be unworkable under such conditions.

What might make the supply of diesel "problematical"? As I see it, this can take two forms: shortages and high prices, which are related in complex ways. There is also the issue of EROEI (energy return on energy invested) which is having negative effects on the economy even now when oil is still flowing.

Shortages

Let's look at what could cause shortages first.

Peak Oil enthusiasts traditionally talked about running out of oil in the absolute sense—when there is just nothing more left to pump out of the ground. But it has become clear that long before that happens we will run into problems because the remaining oil is non-conventional—it is in awkward locations and/or is more difficult to get out of the ground. Despite all the talk about renewable energy taking over from oil, in the fifteen or so years that I've been watching, the worldwide consumption of oil has gone up from 85 million barrels a day to around 100 million barrel a day, with much of the increased supply coming from non-conventional sources, primarily fracking in the case of the U.S. But this is clearly not, in the short term at least, leading to any sort of shortages.

Even with lots of reserves—oil in the ground that has already been found and is accessible using current technology—if the wells don't get drilled and/or the oil doesn't get pumped out of them, this can lead to shortages. Thus far it has definitely led to increased reliance on non-conventional oil.

If demand is high, why would we leave oil in the ground? International sanctions, civil unrest, revolution, war and speculation that development projects will prove unprofitable are a few reasons, currently happening in places like Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Venezuela, and Canada's tar sands.

There is a lot of infrastructure between the oil well and the gas/diesel pump. Pipelines, storage facilities, refineries, more pipelines and storage facilities for refined products, railways, tank trucks (which burn diesel fuel themselves) and so forth. Pretty well all of it is quite exposed to both heavy weather and hostile human action.

All that infrastructure needs to be operated and maintained as well, and even if it isn't physically damaged, money and organizational problems in the companies responsible, and things that interfere with the workers getting to work, like strikes, civil unrest or war, can also interrupt oil supplies.

I think we can expect more storms (climate change) and more hostile action (wars, civil unrest, strikes) in the years to come, so it is pretty reasonable to expect that there will be shortages caused by this sort of thing. There is some redundancy in the system, so a single point of failure is unlikely to do much harm, but it pretty realistic that multiple points failures may actually happen. Especially if things get so bad that single point failures aren't attended to in a timely fashion.

Such shortages will be uneven, unsteady and unequal, as I am so fond of saying.

Increasing, and Fluctuating, Fuel Prices

Since almost all shipping is done by companies that are in business to make a profit, the price of fuel can cause supply chain problems just as serious as actual shortages. Prices can be forced up by a number of mechanisms.

The various grades of crude oil yield different proportions of fuel oil (diesel) and gasoline. So the kind of crude that is available can, depending on relative demand for diesel and gasoline, lead to a shortage of one or the other and an increase in its price. Sulfur in diesel fuel causes air pollution and acid rain, and diesel fuel for use on land is required to be low sulfur. Traditionally, marine fuel was allowed to be high sulfur, but regulations are changing shortly and ships will have to start using low sulfur fuel or install filtration equipment on their exhaust stacks. This is likely to cause an increase in the demand for low sulfur diesel fuel and an increase in its price.

The free market is a crude instrument for determining prices and can respond speculatively even to rumours of upcoming shortages.

Again, Peak Oil folks traditionally talked about supply problems causing the price of crude oil to go through the roof, to perhaps several hundred dollar per barrel. Clearly that would have disastrous effects on all industries, causing a classic Peak Oil style economic crash.

They believed this would happen because that the demand for oil is quite inelastic, but it has turned out not to be so. Increasing oil prices have a damping effect on economic activity of most sorts—when the price goes up, it triggers a recession, causing the demand for oil to decrease and preventing the price from increasing as much as it otherwise might. To keep the economy growing nicely, the price of oil needs to stay below about $30 per barrel. For the last few years it has been well above that price, and the economy has had problems. Yes, I know that the financial sector of the economy has continued to grow, but it is not nearly so dependent on energy as the commercial (industrial, wholesale, retail) sector, which has not done nearly so well.

Turning to non-conventional oil to meet demand does hurt the profitability of oil companies. Depending of the particular source, they need to get somewhere between $60 and $100 per barrel to be profitable. There is no such thing anymore as a sweet spot where both the economy and oil companies are happy. I think this will lead to the eventual demise of many oil companies, but in the meantime it leads to volatility of oil prices and discourages oil companies from investing in discovery of new reserves of oil.

EROEI, the energy cost of energy

One characteristic of non-convention al oil is that it takes more energy to get it out of the ground. Its "energy returned on energy invested" (EROEI) is lower. This also applies to many new discoveries of what would still be called conventional oil. In the short term the obvious consequence of this is energy sprawl—fracked wells dotting the countryside, tar sands projects springing up in the bush of northern Alberta, drilling platforms sprouting wherever there is under sea oil and so forth. In the long term, using low EROEI energy sources, be they fossil fuels or renewables, causes a strange malaise in the economy which stifles growth, makes it difficult to raise capital for new projects and eventually even hard to find money to maintain existing infrastructure.

The oil business isn't the only business to be effected by this, but it is certainly one of them.

Problems Caused by Diesel Supply and Price Issues

So there will be shortages and threats of shortages, and increases in the "at the pump" price of diesel fuel. And because capitalistic countries practice rationing by price, the price will be allowed to go up to clamp down on demand.

In Europe and South America this will probably lead to trucking strikes, but here in North America not so much. Instead shipping companies will just become less profitable and eventually go quietly bankrupt, and/or be taken over by other companies who will charge more and provide less in the way of service. Either way, this will lead to temporary interruptions in the supply of many goods, including fuel.

Eventually when the situation becomes serious enough that governments can no longer ignore it or pretend that the market will eventually correct the situation, we may see price controls and real rationing for diesel fuel.

Adapting to Supply Issues

The growth in the practice of "just in time" delivery in recent years leaves us vulnerable to supply chain disruptions. And in less sparsely settled remote areas, which are less profitable for shipping companies to service, such interruptions are even more likely than elsewhere.

The first response must to be abandon just in time delivery and stock locally enough of what is needed to get you through short interruptions. Local distributors will be reluctant to do so because it will hurt their bottom line, so I would suggest that individuals, families, neighbourhoods, group of friends, etc. take the problem in their own hands and stock up on necessities. Stocking up on food is one thing we should be doing right now and I can recommend the book Food Security for the Faint of Heart, by Robin Wheeler, as an excellent primer.

As the situation worsens and some goods become largely unavailable there are basically two ways to adapt: learn to do without, or set up to produce things locally. Which course is taken will be determined by how vital the goods are and how hard they are to produce locally.

I am in a bit of a minority among kollapsniks in that I think the breakdown of supply chains, just like the power grid, will happen gradually, with infrequent, short interruptions at the start, gradually becoming more frequent and longer, until eventually the system can't be relied on at all. And I suspect this will take at the very least a matter of months and more likely quite a few years.

This is fortunate in that it will give people a chance to wake up to the reality of the situation and take steps to adapt before it is too late to do so. Fortunately in areas like the one where I live there is quite a bit of agricultural production that can be diverted for local human use. And when there is no way to ship such goods out of the area, farmers will be more eager to serve local markets. Of course, when diesel fuel is in short supply, they will need help from town folks with harvesting and eventually with planting.

A collapse aware municipal government could be of great help in organizing such things, but unfortunately most local governments are focused on growth and boosting local business, and will be caught by surprise by the sort of thing we are talking about here. This is why I have been urging my readers who live in small towns to develop a network of friends and to make sure it includes some farmers.

Ideally, we'd set up some local co-operative ventures to supply the necessities of life. But things will have to get a fair bit worse than they are right now before there will be much interest in doing so, and before BAU has been weakened enough that is it possible to compete with it.

What follows is my response to a comment on a recent post questioning my idea of a slow collapse.

Fast vs Slow collapse

In the "collapshere" today it seems that the majority of voices are predicting a hard fast collapse and one that is due any day now. That has hardly changed in the last 20 years, and some people, notably KMO of the C-Realm podcast, has thrown up his hands in disgust with the standard Peal Oil narrative.

Of those making strong arguments for a fast collapse, David Korowicz, Ugo Bardi and Gail Tverberg come to mind.

David Korowicz, in his famous essay, talks about a financial crash leading to a supply chain/commercial crash as banks fail and can no longer supply credit. Towards the end of the same essay he acknowledges that there would be different degrees of crash in different countries.

Ugo Bardi talks about the Seneca cliff—how things that take a long time to build fall apart quickly. Fair enough, but the developed world took hundreds of years (from the Renaissance to the present) to build, so a few decades to fall apart seems pretty reasonable to me.

Gail Tverberg talks about the world being so closely networked together, that if one piece quits working, it all will. But she never looks in detail at how this might work, at the real details of how those networks operate.

On the other side of the argument, I favour people like John Michael Greer and Dmitri Orlov. Greer offers the idea that the people who are in power definitely don't want a collapse and have much they can do to prevent or slow down a collapse. Orlov talks about five levels of collapse—financial, commercial, political, social and cultural. And he points out that collapse may stop at any of those levels, there being in many cases nothing to force it all the way to the bottom.

My argument combines both those of Greer and Orlov and adds another element. It isn't just the people in power who don't want a collapse, it's most of the rest of us as well. You might assume that the rest of us have little say in the matter, but I don't believe this is so.

There are a great many people (in infrastructure and supply chain industries, for instance) in positions where they can do something about collapse. Especially if they realize that it is happening and refuse to just let it proceed unimpeded. Much of collapse consists of things that quit working because confidence has been lost in the system.

In many cases they could be kept working if those involved chose to do so. Or failing that, alternatives could be found if people chose to co-operate in doing so.

The availability of credit is a prime example. Currently businesses rely on banks to provide guarantees when they (the businesses) are dealing with people they don't know. But there is no fundamental reason why we have to rely on the existing banks, and no reason businesses couldn't set up alternative arrangements in order to keep functioning.

The thing is to realize what is happening and what can be done to stop it. A lot of people think that managers make things work and working class people are no more than cogs in the machine, but in fact anything a manager "accomplishes" actually gets done by a worker who knows a lot more about what has to be done than his boss.

The other thing is that we are not going into this completely blind. Already there have been financial crashes, large scale grid failures and so forth. I think in the near future we will see partial and temporary supply chain breakdowns and many breakdowns at the retail level of our commercial systems. But people at every level in the system will get wise to these events and skilled at containing the damage and patching things back together again.

Of course the system will get shakier as this goes on and parts of it will be abandoned when they are deemed to be beyond repair. This will lead to areas being cut off from vital supplies and in large population centres there will be no possibility of relying on local supplies. This is as close to a hard fast collapse as I expect to see. But it will still be localized and early in the process there will still be places for those affected to seek refuge and resources to mount relief efforts.

I have already written at length on how this might play out in small towns with the local resources to feed themselves and at a sufficient remove from large centres so as not to be overwhelmed by refugees.

For now that's about all I have to say, although I am sure there will be some comments to spark further thought on my part. Next time we'll talk about money and how we can adapt to the failure of the financial and banking systems.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

 

The Economic-Oil Nexus (EON) Part 1: Why have low oil prices and various economic stimuli over the past several years failed to restore global economic growth?

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on November 24, 2019

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By Geoffrey Chia, November 2019

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I recently listened to a podcast from the "Counterpunch" website on oil and the global economy which I found disappointing. https://store.counterpunch.org/jp-sottile-episode-140/ JP Sottile certainly appeared knowledgeable about the geopolitics of oil in the Middle East but exhibited zero understanding of Peak Oil which he therefore declared to be “garbage”. He asserted that the idea of Peak Oil was a ploy to create “artificial scarcity” to prop up oil prices. He subscribed to the common delusion that current low oil prices disprove Peak Oil and indicate that oil must be abundant and will remain so for the foreseeable future, a completely wrong-headed view. http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/2017/07/13/the-economics-of-unconventional-oils-externalities-be-damned/

He repeated the mainstream mantra that there is now a “chronic oil glut”, a completely erroneous way of looking at things. Gross liquid hydrocarbon output may have risen since 2006 but net production of true oil has actually been flat or fallen. http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/2019/01/02/how-business-as-usual-has-been-pursued-since-2006-by-escalating-fraud-and-environmental-vandalism/#comment-10693

He also repeated the misleading factoid that the largest oil reserves in the world are in Venezuela, a useful meme to imply that Venezuela's current economic problems are entirely due to their own mismanagement. I cannot say often enough that the only economically valuable sources of oil are high EROEI or “easy oil” sources and low EROEI sources such as Venezuela's vast Orinoco heavy oil deposits are of NO economic value, no matter how much technically recoverable oil they are theoretically supposed to have (if harvested, low EROEI sources actually exhibit NEGATIVE value). This is why China has no interest in Venezuela but is deeply interested in Iran, Iraq (which is moving politically closer to Iran), Russia and the Caspian states which, after the Saudi client state of the US, are the locations with the largest remaining reserves of high EROEI oil. There is NO “break-even” price at which unconventional oils become economically worthwhile, using honest accounting. Low EROEI sources only get harvested on the basis of market fraud and government subsidies/tax breaks and NOT because they can ever generate any profit in a sane market.

Sottile also stated that the “end of oil is on the horizon” because we will transition to electric vehicles powered by renewable energy and because we will voluntarily choose to reduce our carbon emissions. His views mirrored commentary from the “Economist” magazine, flagship propaganda rag of the establishment, in their recent issue regarding the IPO of Saudi Aramco https://www.economist.com/printedition/2019-11-02.

Let us be clear: Firstly there is no prospect we will ever be able to transition en mass from oil powered to electric vehicles to enable ongoing pursuit of “business as usual” or anything resembling “usual”. Such views reflect profound ignorance of the physics and chemistry (especially energy densities) of fuels, of thermodynamics, of energy extraction, conversion, storage and distribution issues and of the life cycle embodied energies of vehicles and transport infrastructure and how they are constructed (themselves requiring liquid hydrocarbon fuels in the process). I invoke yet again the incisive and comprehensive quantitative analyses of Alice Friedemann of http://energyskeptic.com/ who has put paid to those mainstream delusions.

Secondly, although we certainly need to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate against the worst possible climate outcomes, the unfortunate reality is that the Military-Industrial-Corporate-State addiction to oil, massively overwhelms any and all good intentions. Addicts do not “choose” to do things, they are compelled to do things because of circumstances forced upon them. We will ultimately be forced to abandon oil due to the depletion of high EROEI petroleum and because of our failure to plan over the past few decades. Energy descent will not happen calmly and systematically. The window for peaceful change has long gone. Reality will relentlessly drag us yelling, kicking and screaming into a harsh future of poverty and deprivation and many will lash out violently in the process. The Hobbesian war of all against all. We are going Cold Turkey, much as Kurt Vonnegut wrote in in his famous essay back in 2004: http://inthesetimes.com/article/cold_turkey What have human beings learned since then? Absolutely nothing.

To be fair, Sottile seemed to be expressing opinions that he held honestly, no matter how wrong-headed. In that respect it may be inappropriate to lump him in the same category as those lying, malicious global warming deniers or deceitful establishment economic prostitutes, many of whom are touted as academic "experts". One big problem of such “experts” is that of tunnel vision within their microscopic field of choice, their inability to see the big picture. Another problem is that many such pseudo-experts are simply bonkers, especially the amoral Neoclassical Neoliberal Austrian/Chicago Economic School sociopaths such as Hayek and Friedman. Such overblown pseudo-experts (who may even have been awarded the Nobel prize for economics – which is not an actual Nobel prize) promote the vested financial interests of the 0.1%. They are immensely useful idiots, the high priests of Capitalism and hence must be lionised and worshipped by the mainstream media. Their reputations have been vastly inflated by the establishment, far above their woefully limited intellectual capacities, not to mention their woeful lack of moral fibre. Profits above people are the only things which matter, except when giving backhanders to your fellow crony capitalists. We should remember that Adam Smith himself wrote “the theory of moral sentiments” before he wrote “the wealth of nations”. Although he was the original “free market” classical economist, Smith was deeply concerned about ethical regulation and governance to reduce human suffering and enhance well being, unlike the Neoclassical conartists.

There are many other overblown and overrated celebrants, proponents and apologists for the Western Industrial Capitalist system pervading the internet, Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker being among the most prominent. But hey, if you can cultivate an impressive shock of white hair, carefully coiffed to resemble that of Einstein, then people gotta believe you are real smart, don't they? Notwithstanding such pulchritudinous follicular triumph, genuinely smart people like Richard Wolff and Noam Chomsky have thoroughly and convincingly demolished the platforms of Peterson and Pinker respectively, showing them up to be the mediocre useful idiots they actually are. The fact that Peterson confessed to be an avid fan of Bjorn Lomborg, another absurd pretender, is proof positive he is a microcephalic scientific ignoramus. On the other hand, Peterson is smart enough to know he ain't that smart. After bombastically issuing a public challenge to all comers, he wisely declined to debate Richard Wolff about Marxist economics, knowing he was out of his depth and would be savaged like a sheep by Wolff.

SP in elegant, pensive pose: Sartorially, a pulchritudinous follicular triumph. Intellectually, a sloppy, cringeworthy embarrassment.

JP pontificating on throne: give due credit that he is smart enough to know he ain't that smart. Also remembers to flush after vacating said throne.

As mentioned above, it is not just one idea but many ideas that we need to juggle in our heads simultaneously to try to achieve a proper understanding of our current circumstances. Mathematically and quantitatively this is an impossible task for any single individual, however the Limits to Growth scientists did an admirable job addressing this difficulty by careful computer modelling conducted more than 45 years ago. Their standard model has held up incredibly well with modern day reality. In an effort to subjectively illustrate the dynamic interaction of multiple contemporary factors within a complex framework, I devised this simple 3 dimensional model as a visual aid to understanding: https://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2017/12/the-seneca-cliff-explained-as-network.html

I am saying nothing new here which I have not already stated before, but will try to summarise the essentials in a cogent manner, hopefully more clearly than I have previously, this time adding flow charts. I will highlight key concepts and omit less important considerations which might detract and distract from those key concepts. It is impossible to be more comprehensive without writing a multitude of more detailed essays employing graphs and diagrams with appended supportive references (which I have already done previously).

Insert EONflowchart.jpg here

This article, “EON Part1” attempts to answer the apparently simple question: "why have low oil prices and various economic stimuli over the past several years failed to restore global economic growth to the way things were before the crash of 2008/9?"

That question is predicated on certain historical observations noted prior to the world reaching the peak/plateau of conventional oil output in 2006: that high oil prices in the past tended to cause inflation and economic recession, and that low oil prices in the past tended to stimulate productivity and economic growth. I will tackle the answer(s) to that two part question in two parts as well.

Answer to part 1 of the question: Low Oil Prices:

The question itself is flawed in the context of our new post Peak Oil situation because it looks at things in a flawed manner. Confusion reigns supreme because we are attempting to see things through the distorted lens of price. Oil price is a flawed derived variable, subject to all sorts of manipulations and distortions, which I assert is unimportant. I will repeat that. Oil price is unimportant. What is important to consumers, to businesses, to enterprises which provide real services and produce real items of real material value in the real world, is oil affordability. It does not matter if oil is "cheap" now. If my business was destroyed by the Global Financial Crisis in 2009 and I have been unable to build things up again, if my income stream is presently a mere trickle, I cannot now afford to buy significant amounts of that "cheap" oil, certainly nowhere near the amount that used to drive my previous profligate middle class lifestyle. I cannot return to those heady pre-2009 high consumption days. Decimation of the high consumption middle classes has caused destruction of demand, a key concept.

At its most basic, price is a reflection of supply versus demand. Pre Peak Oil, low oil prices were largely a reflection of increasing oil supply and did at that time largely reflect affordability. Post Peak Oil, low oil prices are largely an enduring result of demand destruction and are therefore NOT a reflection of affordability, certainly not by the majority of the population.

It is possible to have low oil prices in the presence of declining oil supply, if the demand and supply are both declining in tandem or especially if demand is destroyed at a greater rate than supply.

The first part of the question posed should therefore NOT be "why have current low oil prices failed to restore economic growth?" but should be rephrased as "why is the questioner still trapped in a pre Peak Oil mindset?"

Also confusing the picture is the interplay between economic/financial policies and oil production, which did not unfold in a manner any sane person could have reasonably anticipated prior to the peak of conventional oil. Sane people could never have predicted the whole scale, open slather rape of the environment to harvest unconventional oils, driven by outright fraud and Ponzi madness to fund scams which hopelessly failed to break even financially, much less produce profits. Yes, this insanity did forestall the net decline in oil supply, but at horrific cost. Foolish suckers like BHP Billiton can attest to that.

We need to clarify and better define confusing terminology: low oil prices and cheap oil do not mean the same thing. “Cheap” oil cannot truly be called “cheap” if it is unaffordable by the majority. Just because the oil price is now low compared to historic highs does not mean oil is cheap. Unconventional oils are in reality very expensive to extract and transport (mostly by diesel vehicles, not by pipeline) but they have been rendered “cheap” by the flood of low interest money loaned to suckers who will ultimately lose their shirts when the unconventional oil scams collapse. Unconventional oils have been subsidised by stupidity. Furthermore these low EROEI expensive oils simply cannot be sold in the market unless price matched to higher EROEI conventional oil, which is truly “cheap” to harvest and transport.

Answer to Part 2 of the question: Low Interest Rates:

But what about the current low interest rates? Surely that should stimulate former bankrupted small business owners, previously crushed by the heavy weight of irredeemable debt, to now borrow heaps of fiat money again from those wonderful banks to resurrect their former businesses back to pre 2009 glory? And if they can do that, surely their former customers, also now in financial dire straits, can also access cheap money from the banks to buy more goods and services from those small businesses, all those activities driving up the national GDP? One response to this scenario is the phrase "once bitten, twice shy". There is nothing to prevent the banks from raising their interest rates without warning once they have snared the borrower in debt.

However the main answer here lies in who is actually being offered the cheap loans. Is it the small business battlers who lost all their assets after 2009, who may now be deemed unacceptable credit risks by the banks, or are those cheap loans mainly going to large corporations who claim to have massive assets (e.g. huge coal or oil deposits) in their glossy brochures? Professor Richard Wolff has stated that it is largely the latter being given the cheap money. And what have those corporations done with that cheap money? They have bought back their own publicly listed shares (an act previously deemed illegal but now permitted in the deregulated economy) resulting in inflation of their share prices, without any reinvestment in real infrastructure and without increasing real productivity. This has been demonstrated by the huge increases in price/earnings ratios of many large companies over the past several years. Share price rises have fuelled a monumental Ponzi stock market, while also funding insane negative value scams such as Shale Oil. Why engage in share buyback? Because CEO salary bonuses are tied to the company share prices. Furthermore those CEOs know their particular industries have no future, so reinvestment is pointless and they may as well take the money and run.

What is the consequence of the former middle class small business owners or employees now relegated to slave wages in Walmart or Costco, not having access to cheap money and not being able to bootstrap themselves back to middle class wealth again? It is the enduring phenomenon of demand destruction: those folks still cannot afford to buy much "cheap oil", which keeps the oil demand low and hence oil prices low. How many such people have been affected? Literally hundreds of millions of formerly high consuming people in the so-called first world countries. A huge proportion of the former middle class of the USA has been reduced to penury. We have seen the destruction of the entire middle classes of the European PIIGS countries, even extending to France as evidenced by the “yellow vest” protests. Retail establishments have been closing and businesses failing at rates never seen before which cannot be explained by the rise of online shopping alone but can be explained by consumption destruction and demand destruction. https://www.businessinsider.com.au/retail-apocalypse-start-of-2019-more-store-closures-all-of-2018-2019-4?op=1&r=US&IR=T

Students see poor economic prospects for themselves and increasing swathes of graduates find themselves eking a living out as baristas or waiters or cleaners while simultaneously being saddled with massive student debts they will never be able to repay. Many from southern Europe have left or are leaving their home countries for (illusory) greener pastures overseas, causing their home countries to lose even more of their future tax base and their working populations e.g. Greece and Spain.

The rising middle class within China, although substantial, has done little to offset this phenomenon. Their construction of high speed electric railways and plans to electrify all their road vehicles has helped and will help to reduce their demand for oil and hence blunt rises in the world oil price. However such measures have not and will not eliminate their absolute need for oil for their industrial economy to function.

To summarise: Current low oil prices are largely the result of destruction of oil demand which was the result of the collapse of millions of businesses, investments and retirement funds around the world, which was the result of the default of irredeemable debt imposed on unwary borrowers by predatory lenders.

Debt defaults were accelerated by the Peaking/Plateauing of net oil production. When net oil production becomes flat, real material growth grinds to a halt and ongoing debts become impossible to service.

Debt entrapment had been facilitated by "financial innovations" such as sub-prime lending, bogus derivatives (e.g. collateralised debt obligations) and bogus assurances (e.g. credit default swaps). Those giant scams were facilitated by the deregulation of the banks e.g. Clinton overturning Glass-Steagall in 1999.

A similar mechanism of predatory lending e.g. German banks offering irredeemable debt to Greece was the underlying basis for the eventual Greek economic collapse, causing penury, decimation of their public services and ongoing enforcement of impoverishment to service their ongoing debt (i.e. austerity). This is literally killing many ordinary Greeks.

We may now well see a gradual increase in demand for oil with the current ongoing low oil prices, which may transiently increase economic output, however that “growth” will undoubtedly be destroyed again by the inevitable subsequent rise in oil prices and ongoing relentless decline in high EROEI sources. Fluctuating oil prices overlying a stuttering contraction of the global economy was a solid prediction of Peak Oil theory more than a decade ago. When economic activities eventually contract to the delivery of only bare subsistence goods and services, when consumers no longer have any discretionary expenditure, there will be a final skyrocketing of oil prices causing rampant hyperinflation which will very likely trigger war(s). That will represent the end game for global industrial civilisation.

 

 

 

 

 

Responding to Collapse, Part 14: adapting to life without the grid

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on October 29, 2019

Late October Sunset over Lake Huron

Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

I am still on Hiatus, not so much due to being under the weather as due to my new Gaming habit, playing the online, browser based game of Vikings: War of Clans.  For the Doomer and Collapse Prepper & Planner, it's the best game I have found to date which makes you think about your Resources, plan for Zombie Attacks and secure and build your Doomstead.  I have been engaged in a non-stop series of Battles and Competitions over the last couple of weeks as I learned the features of the Game, of which there are many.  When my addicition finally calms down, I'll get back to work writing about all the IRL DOOM currently facing us, most notably this week the EXTREME fire problem in Oz, where the fires have moved from the Bush to the Big Shity of Sydney in New South Wales.  Before we hear from Irv who is standing in again for me this week, here's one of the current Newz Reports.  This and the major danger day isn't until Tuesday! – RE

 

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By Irv Mills

 

This is the last of 4 posts on coping with the decline and demise of the power grid that I promised in Part 11) of this Responding to Collapse series. Last time, with the help of Joe Clarkson, we looked at a typical off grid solar electric system. I would encourage anyone with sufficient financial resources to set up such a system. But even using the most durable equipment produced by BAU (business as usual), and with lots of spare parts in stock, such a system will eventually come to the point where no more use can be eked out of it using locally available "village" level technology and materials.

Before things come to that point, though, such a system can serve two very import uses:

1) allow us to use electrical power for things like lighting, refrigeration, pumping water, communication and entertainment, which will help reduce the initial shock of adapting to post grid life.

2) allow us to use what modern tools and power equipment we have on hand to facilitate the construction of low tech power systems that don't need things semiconductors or fossil fuels, which will be in short supply.

That second use is what I'll be talking about today.

The Context of Collapse

But first I'd like to review the context in which I believe all this will be happening—it has been a while since I've talked about that.

The majority of people in the "collapse sphere" here on the internet are expecting a hard, fast collapse sometime in the next few years. Many of them have been expecting it to happen next year for 15 or 20 years now and others have begun to chuckle at the long string of failed predictions. But my observation is that collapse started back in the 1970s when conventional oil production peaked in the continental United States. It has progressed since then and I expect it will continue, gradually and bumpily—unevenly (geographically), unsteadily (chronologically) and unequally (socially), until BAU can no longer provide us with the necessities of life.

One popular expectation among kollapsniks is that some trigger event will cause a financial crash and that will lead to a breakdown of supply chains that will leave almost everyone cold, hungry and in the dark. This sort of fast collapse makes for great stories with lots of conflict and drama, but in reality a planet is a big place. I can't imagine the degree of co-ordination it would take to make this happen fast and hard, all at once across the whole world. Especially when many of us will be working together to stop it from happening.

So yes, there will a financial crash or, most likely, several crashes over a period of years, but the damage will not be uniform across the whole system. And yes, in some areas, it will be serious enough that the supply chains supporting human life will start to fail. But not completely and not everywhere at once.

Initially governments will still have the wherewithal to mount relief efforts for the worst hit areas. Probably using the military to move fuel, water, food and medical supplies to affected areas, and to set up refugee camps for those who are forced to leave their homes. But as the economy crumbles it will have a weakening effect on governments and their resources will be stretched thin. Already we are seeing a tendency to blame people for whatever plight they find themselves in and to abandon them to their own devices, cutting back on expensive relief efforts. This will no doubt get worse, especially in right wing countries where the social contract is weak and the upper classes rule solely for their own benefit. That would include the USA, in my opinion.

Things will get pretty grim, especially in those camps. Indeed, I suspect that in areas where no help is forthcoming, the majority of people (maybe as many as 80 to 90 percent) aren't going to make it through. This is certainly nothing to cheer about, but I am afraid it is one of the harsh realities of collapse. Another unpleasant reality is that under such circumstances, there will be large numbers of desperate, hungry refugees walking out of the large population centres where food is no longer to be found.

Because collapse is happening unevenly, when you find yourself in difficult circumstances, you can usually find someplace else where things aren't so bad. I have been talking, throughout this series of posts, about doing just that—setting yourself up in a small remote town with local food and energy resources, far enough from large towns and cities so that the majority of refugees travelling on foot are unlikely to make it to your small town. That way, you'll be able to welcome those who do make it, rather than being swamped by them.

And I've been urging people to make their move while there is still time to build a network of acquaintances and friends who can help you cope with the gradual decline of BAU and adapt to its eventual demise. I am not suggesting that such places will be exempt from collapse, but rather that they have the local resources to adapt in ways that large population centres simply can't. A big part of that preparation will include being ready to switch over to subsistence farming when those supply chains finally let you down. And having sufficient food stored to see you through to your first harvest. All within walking distance of where you live.

That is really a subject for another day, but it does have a connection to the eventual demise of the power grid and our response to that demise. Bumpy collapse is hard on continent spanning structures like the grid and will be one of the causes of its demise, along with the faults built into capitalism. But a gradual bumpy collapse does give people a chance to wake up to what is going on.

Long before there is a massive die-off due to supply chain failure, there will be a period (perhaps it has already started) when things are going badly wrong in enough places that anyone who is paying attention will start to get pretty concerned. We saw this happen during and for the years before and after the Global Financial Crisis (approximately 2006 to 2012)—the idea of collapse gained quite a bit of credibility. But then things settled down and interest in collapse waned. I am now seeing interest starting to grow again and I expect this will continue. So finding people to work with on preparations may well become much easier than it is now.

During that period the resources of BAU will still be more or less available and those wise enough to do so will be able to set up some local structures which can step in to replace BAU when the need arises—community gardens and farms, food storage co-ops, energy co-ops and so forth.

I encourage you to pick a town with farmland, ground water and standing timber in good supply. It would also be useful if there are one or more good hydro power resources nearby. There is falling water in abundance here in southern Ontario. Many small towns were once mill towns and still have the remains of a dam and an abandoned mill or generating station which could be refurbished with much less effort than starting from scratch.

I am convinced that there is no need for collapse to take us all the way back to the stone age or even the middle ages. But I am also sure that material consumption and energy use must fall to a sustainable level that can be supported with local, renewable resources.

To stop a fall all the way back to the stone age, we will need to take advantage of some of the legacies of BAU.

BAU's Legacies

One hears a great deal about the negative legacies that BAU is leaving for future generations—climate change, resource depletion, environmental and social disruption—the list goes on. I don't disagree with any of that, but I'd like to point out that there will also be some positive legacies that many people who are thinking about collapse aren't taking into account.

  • The first of these, in my estimation, is the knowledge that mankind has accumulated up to this point, including the scientific method and the change in attitudes that came with the Enlightenment. Immersed as we are in that knowledge, it is hard to appreciate how difficult it was for people in the past to make the discoveries and developments they did, without knowing in advance what was even possible or how to accomplish it. We have an immense advantage over them, in that we know a great deal about the world around us and how things work.
  • Second, there are alive today many skilled and ingenious people, tradesmen and hobbyists, even engineers, who, after industrial civilization grinds to a halt, will be able to do a great deal with its remnants.
  • Thirdly there will be all those remnants, including:

     

     

     

     

     

     

    • durable equipment and tools that will continue working for years or decades after the factories of BAU have gone dark
    • large scale infrastructure such as roads, bridges, tunnels, dams, communications, power, water and sewage systems, factories, housing and other buildings
    • true, many of these will be left in pretty rough shape, but what can't be used as is will still have a great deal of value for the materials that can be salvaged from it
    • initially there will even be some fossil fuels left in local storage, plus materials and spare parts sitting on shelves ready for us to use

It is to be hoped that some of those skilled people will have set up off-grid power systems and things like tool libraries and workshops (maker spaces as they are called these days). We should encourage and support such efforts in every way we can, since they will be of great importance in facilitating the transition to long term, sustainable systems that can be operated, maintained and replaced when necessary with "village technology", local materials and local sources of energy.

Local energy sources

I think it's worth taking a look at what kinds of energy may be available locally and how can they be harnessed.

Fossil fuels

Fossil fuels will no longer be readily available except in the few areas where there are functional oil/gas wells or coal mines. Sure, thinking of climate change, it would be better to keep that carbon in the ground rather that returning more of it to the atmosphere. Still, I wouldn't discourage anyone from making use of such an energy source if it is close at hand, and you can get it out of the ground and convert it into usable forms. The amount of CO2 involved would be tiny compared to what's going into the atmosphere today.

Nuclear Energy

I live only a few miles from a nuclear plant, and I used to work in the switchyards there. The importance of a reliable tie to the grid was firmly impressed on me—without it, nuclear stations cannot operate safely. So nuclear plants will have to be shut down as the grid becomes unreliable. The employees of those plants, who live nearby, have a large incentive to see them shut down and mothballed safely. They will take this into their own hands, regardless of what company executives might want. And I am sure the employees will have the backing of the local community.

It is important to get that shutdown underway as quickly as possible while we still have the resources to do it. I expect spent fuel will be stored locally in dry flasks, which is considerably safer than leaving it in spent fuel ponds.

This leaves us with renewable energy sources—solar, wind, hydro, tidal, and biomas.

Solar Power

Converting solar energy into electricity takes some pretty high tech equipment. Photovoltaics (solar cells) will almost certainly be beyond our ability to produce locally. It is possible to use solar energy to create steam and drive turbines which power electrical generators. But this is really only slightly lower tech than semiconductor solar panels. And because solar energy is intermittent, we'd need some way of storing it, probably batteries. In the quantity needed, batteries are likely beyond village technology.

That leaves us to use heat from the sun directly for water or space heating, cooking, drying crops, or for process heat in cottage industry situations. And to find a way of doing this where the intermittency is not a problem. Glass is needed to make efficient solar collectors, and all but the simplest passive solar installations need electric motors and fans or pumps to move collected solar energy (hot air or water) to where you need it.

Wind Power

Wind power is also intermittent, and largely unpredictable as well, so either you need some way of storing the power or you need to use it in ways that can manage with an intermittent power source. Pumping water into storage containers at a higher level is one traditional example. Wind power has been used for grinding grain as well.

The towers, blades and gearing required as likely to be within the reach of village technology.

Hydro Power

Hydro power is slightly intermittent, but only on a seasonal basis and it is reasonably predictable. It can even be stored in head ponds to smooth out variations in load. It is doable with nineteenth century technology, and even simpler equipment if you use the mechanical power directly rather than generating electricity.

Tidal Power

There are a few location in the world where high tides can, with clever arrangements of dams, be used to drive water wheels or turbines. Tides are also intermittent, but quite predictable.

Biomass

Where I live, this would consist mainly of firewood, which can also be converted into wood gas or charcoal. It is useful for space heating, water heating, process heat, and can be both produced and used with very simple equipment. Of all these energy sources, biomass is the easiest to harness at the individual and family level, without setting up more complex community projects.

Wood gas can fuel internal combustion engines and firewood can fuel steam engines, both of which can power electrical generators. But this is only practical if there is wood left after vital uses like cooking and heating have been taken care of.

It is also vital to keep in mind that biomass is only a renewable resource if we use it at a rate slower than the rate at which it grows. Fortunately, forestry is a well established science and it can guide us in which trees to cut, how many of them, and how many and what type of new trees to plant.

Biogas

This is methane produced during anaerobic composting of manure and other organic materials. It can be useful in many ways, just like natural gas. But a lot of manure is needed to make useful quantities of biogas.

Muscle Power

For most of our history (and prehistory) energy mainly came from human or animal muscles. This has largely gone out of fashion in the industrial world, but I suspect that as collapse progresses, it will once again become the default where mechanical power is needed and nothing else is available.

Harnessing Local Energy Sources

There is a lot that can be done at the individual/family level to conserve energy, to make use of what's available locally, and to get by without electricity. But once you've decided to harness most of the energy sources above, a community effort will be required, especially if they are going to be used to generate electricity.

When talking about harnessing such energy resources, we must always consider whether the energy gathered will justify the energy and manhours used to build the equipment needed to gather it. Without the legacies I described above, I suspect the answer would more often than not be no, but with them, I think there is much that can be done. Remember that during the initial crisis of adapting to grid and supply chain break down in your area there will likely be some off-grid power systems to draw on.

At any rate, there is always the option of using these energy sources directly as heat or mechanical energy when we don't have electrical generating systems set up yet, or when they have failed beyond our capacity to repair. This also saves the inefficiencies involved in converting energy from one form to another, and the trouble of setting up distribution systems. Flour mills and saw mills are excellent examples.

Yes, at the start, the overpowering need will be for food, water and firewood, and a well organized community would divert available manpower to supplying those needs. But electrical equipment can actually make those tasks easier, replacing manhours with kilowatt hours, and doing some things, like lighting and refrigeration that no amount of manpower can do.

When the initial crisis has been overcome, there will be some spare manhours than can be spent on setting up a sustainable power system. I am terribly tempted to go into some specifics of what might be done, but it would have to get pretty technical and would make this post much longer than it should be.

Using Energy Wisely

In parts 11 and 12 of this series I included a list of important uses for electricity and alternatives to use during outages. But this time we're considering the permanent loss of the grid, and instead of coping temporarily with grid outages, we're talking about adapting to that permanent loss, either by generating our own power, by replacing it with other energy alternatives or practicing conservation—using less energy. We should be aware in advance that this will require some changes in the way we live.

Lights

Conservation is pretty simple here—we can do without lights at night, and set up workshops with windows to let in sunlight. But at higher latitudes, winter nights are long and much could be accomplished during them if we had artificial light.

Without electricity, you burn something to make light. Candle wax, kerosene, naphtha and propane are all based on fossil fuels and will not be available for long. Vegetable oil, animal fat, and alcohol will be locally available, but the source in each case is something that could also be used as food. If food is in short supply, lighting will have to suffer. This is one area where biogas could be quite useful.

My beloved mantle lamps will be hard to produce, as those mantles use salts of various elements that are not likely to be available locally to produce that bright white light.

If electricity is available, converting it to light is a bit of a challenge. We are in a sense spoiled by today's LED lights, which are highly efficient and long lasting. I've been reading recently that when they fail it is usually not the actual diode that fails, so I suspect ways will be found to refurbish them and keep them going for a long time. But the day will come when we have to go back to various sorts of arc lights and carbon filament incandescent bulbs.

Water

Here is Southern Ontario there is no shortage of good ground water, so I suspect wells with hand or wind driven pumps will be the thing. Friends in Australia and Hawaii tell me about their large outdoor water storage tanks. This looked odd to me and at first I wondered why we don't use such things here, but then I realized that they would freeze solid in the winter. In cold countries indoor cisterns are more practical and can be filled using rainwater, or well water pumped when the wind is blowing.

Electrically driven pumps will no doubt be used where power is available—they save a lot of hand pumping and are easy to control.

Sewage

There are many low tech ways of safely handling sewage. But we'll need to recover and use the plant nutrients and organic matter it contains, so I would think composting toilets will be very popular. I can recommend two books on the subject of composting human waste: The Humanure Handbook, by Joe Jenkins, and The Scoop on Poop, by Dan Chiras.

Food

Food is going to stop arriving regularly at the local supermarkets. To me, it seems that the necessary response would be to switch over to using locally grown food and growing much of it yourself, and to have enough food stored to last you through to the next harvest. There is a lot to say about this subject, but since it's not directly connected to electricity, I leave it for another post.

Cooking

Cooking is largely a matter of heating food, so we'll do it by burning biomass. Preferably in a nice indoor wood burning cookstove. I suspect the demand for those will go through the roof when it becomes more clear how things are going. Fortunately there are alternative that can be made by hand from local materials—mud/brick ovens, rocket stoves, etc. Google will lead you to all kinds of information on these.

Refrigeration

Where winter is sufficiently cold, the obvious solution is to use ice, harvested from frozen bodies of water, and to set up a well insulated icehouse to store that ice through the summer.

Ammonia based refrigeration uses heat as its power input, and should be within the reach of village level technology.

The kind of refrigeration we are all used to uses some variation of freon as its working fluid and electric motors to pump that fluid. I expect that once existing refrigeration equipment has worn out, freon will be too big a challenge to make locally and we will abandon the technology.

Heating

For space heating woodstoves are the obvious solution. As with cookstoves, I think at some point there will be a huge demand for heating stoves. Getting set up to heat with wood before you are forced to do so would be a good idea. If electricity is available, fans can be used to move air around the house and heat it more evenly.

Heating your house with wood takes a lot more wood than cooking. It you don't own a wood lot, you should find someone reliable who specializes in cutting, splitting and delivering firewood.

If you do own a woodlot, you'll likely be doing that for yourself. At some point gasoline won't be available to power chainsaws and you'll have to fall back on more traditional methods. Here is a series of posts on this subject by Category 5, another Canadian kollapsnik and blogger.

C5 Gets Wood:

 

Cooling

I covered this in some detail in part 12 of this series, here.

Communications

A small community which is generating its own electricity should be able to get its landline telephone system working again. Setting up a local broadcast radio station also sounds like a good project to foster community solidarity. And ham radio may be one of the few ways of finding out what is going on in the world. When modern solid state equipment wears out, vacuum tubes should be doable with village technology.

Transportation

Fossil fuel powered vehicles will no doubt be used until supplies of those fuels run out. It would be good to ration those fuels and see that they get used for the most critical purposes for as long as possible. It may be possible to convert some internal combustion engines to using wood gas to extend their usefulness.

Bikes are actually pretty high tech, and will eventually wear out beyond local repair, especially those rubber tires.

Horses and other draught animals will become extremely valuable, and we should do what we can in advance to encourage and support horse breeders.

Water transportation, using lakes, rivers, canals and powered by sail or muscles will grow in importance.

But walking will probably be the default mode of transporation, especially within the local area. And most of us will try to avoid having to make long trips.

Cottage Industry

I'm adding a new category here, because without the factories that now make all the goods we use, we will have to return to making them for ourselves. With modern knowledge, tools, equipment and electrical power, there is a great deal than can be done using local and salvaged materials. Acquiring the skills needed is something all of us should be working at. Pick an area that interests you and learn everything you can about it.

I bake bread and know a fair bit about growing grain and milling it. I make cheese and I know how to milk a cow. I weave wicker baskets and harvest willow that grows locally. As well as being an electrician, I am fairly good at carpentry, plumbing and drywall. These skills and a great many others will be needed and can be learned with some effort, if necessary from books and the internet while it lasts, but ideal from people who already know them.

Many years ago I started working on a degree in electrical engineering, but soon dropped out and apprenticed as an electrician instead. So the electrical parts of what I've been talking about here seem fairly straight forward to me. But I've been thinking recently that a degree in chemical engineering would be damn handy, or at least the equivalent knowledge, with a focus on low tech, small scale applications.

In Conclusion

Back in Part 10 of this series I said, "It seems to me that supplies of electrical power, diesel fuel and money will be at the heart of many of the troubles that lie ahead, so I'll concentrate on those areas." I think we've finally reached the end of the discussion on electrical power. Next time I'll talk about diesel fuel and the supply chains that rely on it.

Responding to Collapse, Part 13: Keeping the Lights on When the Grid Goes Down Forever

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on October 16, 2019

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Standing in for me this week is Joe Clarkson standing in for Irvine Mills. lol.

Hoping to get some energy back for next Sunday

RE


I'm doing something new this time, which is to publish a post that is almost entirely the work on one of my regular readers and commenters, Joe Clarkson, who lives off-grid on the Big Island of Hawaii. My knowledge of solar electric systems is entirely theoretical and I have always found that in the process of actually building something like this, one learns a great deal that isn't covered in the books. So I am pleased to present this material from someone who can speak with a much greater degree of practical experience than me.

I do have a few comments to make, but I'll save those for the end of the post.

-Irv Mills



Keeping the Lights on When the Grid Goes Down Forever

by Joe Clarkson

As someone who has lived most of my adult life in an off-grid home, I have had a lot of experience in managing the equipment needed to replicate the round-the-clock availability of electricity provided by the grid. That experience has been marked by a few failures but over the long haul our electrical supply has been more reliable than most utilities. That there is far more support available now than there was when I was setting up my first off-grid system back in 1975 (small hydro/diesel) makes living off-grid even easier. And since the rural neighborhood surrounding my home has homes that are all off-grid, I rarely hear the questions that many people asked me in years past, “Why do you live off the grid?” and What’s it like?”

The first question I answered by explaining that land without public utilities, like power and water, is almost always far less expensive than land with them. This is true, but I almost never went on to explain that I didn’t like the feeling of insecurity that came with being dependent on the grid. I have long felt that the grid is vulnerable to any number of disruptions, some of them likely to be permanent, and I wanted to live in a situation where I had more control over my electrical supply. Most people still think that attitude must also come with wearing a tin-foil hat.

The answer to the second question was that living off the grid was mostly like living on it. This is even more true now that solar panels have gotten so inexpensive that it is easy to have an ample supply of electricity. My current house is a sort of “legacy” off-grid home. It started out in 1986 with very little solar capacity (under 800 W), so everything was geared to minimizing the use of electricity. Thirty years ago, our electrical consumption was about 2 kWh per day at most. Now that I have 4 kW of solar PV capacity, we have become more profligate, even with the kids gone, and we use 4-5 kWh per day. A solar installer recently told me that he typically designs off-grid homes for a capacity of 20 kWh per day, just as much as the typical grid-connected home around here uses.

I have lived without electricity during two years serving in the Peace Corps and found it easy to do, albeit on a tropical atoll. This experience gave me a deeper understanding of the place electricity has in the modern world. I won’t be discussing that place here, although that is something that everyone should consider thoroughly before making plans for adapting to collapse. Instead, I will describe my way of replicating a modern household electrical system without the grid and my preparations for keeping it going as long as I can.

I know that if the grid goes down forever and business-as-usual becomes ever-accelerating collapse, it will be impossible to maintain an independent electrical system for the long term. But I would like to keep it going as long as possible, if only to ease the transition from a modern, high-energy life to one that will look a lot like life was here in Hawai‘i before contact with outsiders changed everything. These old bones are not ready for a life of subsistence agriculture and hunting-gathering in service to a feudal lord. That life will eventually come, if not for my wife and me, then for our children and their children, but I hope to make the transition as gradual as possible for all of us. If collapse is rapid, it also just might be the difference between life and death.

Our Home Power System Details

So, what kind of system do we have and how do we intend to keep it going during collapse? Our electrical supply is old-school and typical of many off-grid systems:

  • 4 kW of solar supply (Sixteen 250 W modules with an output of 24 V DC nominal but wired in series-parallel to about 140 V).
  • Two 80-amp MPPT solar charge controllers convert the solar output to 24 VDC for the battery.
  • 900 amp-hour lead-acid battery (12 cells at 2V each)
  • 4 kW inverter (2 Outback FX2024 operating in parallel at 120/240 VAC output)
  • 6 kW Northern Lights diesel generator

 

Inverters with solar charge controllers to the right

 

One half of 4 kW solar PV array.
The other half is on the roof of another building but looks identical.

 

Battery box 
(with concrete block to keep a visiting 4-year-old grandchild out), 
6kW genset, diesel supply in 55-gallon drum.

 

24 V battery
(12 Hawker flooded lead-acid cells, each 900 Ah)

 

24 VDC water pump inside concrete block enclosure

 

Solar hot water system with TV and Ham antennas behind.
80-gallon hot water tank is stainless steel.

 

240 VAC wood splitter runs off the solar electric system.

 

38,000-gallon water tank.
24 feet in diameter X 12 feet high.
Half the tank is underground.

The average solar incidence here in up-country Hamakua is low, only about 2.5 peak sun-hours per day. But with 4 kW of solar array, this is enough to average about 10 kWh per day, more than twice as much as we actually use. This means that we rarely need to use the back-up diesel to charge the batteries. Our average annual use of the generator is about 30-40 hours a year at a maximum charging rate of 2 kW. My estimate is that we use about 10 gallons of diesel a year in the generator.

The appliances serving the home are pretty typical except for refrigeration and water pumping. We have a washer and propane heated dryer, a propane range, propane back up water heater (rarely used since we also have ample solar water heating) the usual compliment of LED lighting and an assortment of communications and entertainment equipment (flat screen TV, a couple of computers, CD player and receiver), clothes iron, vacuum cleaner, bathroom appliances like hair dryer and toothbrushes, all being used at rates that would be typical in a grid connected house. We do power everything from power bars so that we can turn off equipment completely so as to avoid “ghost loads”.

Our refrigeration and water pumping are DC. This was originally for efficiency and power demand reasons, but over the years we have kept these appliances operating directly off the battery as a precaution against inverter failure. If the inverters fail, we can still have water and keep our refrigerator and freezer powered up. We would need to run the generator in the evenings two to three hours for light and for other electrical appliances, but it would save us from having to run the generator more often to keep the fridge cool and to pump water. Now that DC LED light bulbs are available, we may switch back to DC lighting, which would not be too difficult as the lighting load center is separate from the load center for the outlets (our lighting was originally DC).

Our water system is based on two corrugated steel tanks (including metal roofs) with heavy polyethylene liners. A 40,000-gallon main tank is filled with water from our roof and that water is pumped up to a 2,000-gallon tank about 100 feet higher than the house with a 24 VDC Shurflo pump. The little Shurflo pump only moves a couple of gallons per minute, but we only need to turn it on about once or twice a week for a few hours. (We have another piped water system with non-potable water for agriculture and livestock, but a description of that system is outside the scope of this post).

How much of these systems can we keep operating while adapting to collapse? In a collapse situation propane will be impossible to get. The clothes dryer can be abandoned totally to line drying (what we mostly do now), the back-up water heater can be shut down, and the range can be nursed along for a few months to a few years depending on the state of the 125-gallon propane tank at the time of propane delivery failure. For the longer term we have a wood cooking range on a covered lanai. This range would also be a source of hot water once I get the auxiliary water tank installation off my “to do” list.

So, the long-term energy sources for the house and farm are slated to be solar electricity and wood, with solar hot water for as long as the solar hot water modules last (perhaps 15 to 20 years). We have plenty of wood on the property and even have an electric wood splitter powered from the solar system. The wood range has a probable life measured in decades. We have a wood heater for those cool winter days (low 60s), but how to keep the solar system going?

The short answer for most of the power conversion equipment is to have plenty of spares. The inverters can be completely rebuilt with three circuit boards and a cooling fan for each inverter. Those parts are on the shelf. The inverters have been in continuous operation since 2006, so I expect them to need rebuilding in the next few years. The solar charge controllers have an estimated 15 to 20-year life and they are only about 7 years old, so with a spare for each the charge control system can last another 30-35 years. My current crop of solar panels is only about 5 years old, so they should last for a long time yet and I already have their replacements handy, since I bought another set for a second home that probably won’t get built after all. If we do finally build the second home, it will have a duplicate electrical system that can be intertied with our existing system, thereby increasing redundancy.

Here is a table summarizing the power system and the appliances operating from it:

Item

Estimated Life Span (Years)

Method of Repair

If Failure is Unavoidable

Solar PV modules

25-30

Replace with spares

Remove bad modules, rewire and use less electricity

Charge controllers

15-20

Replace with spares

Reconfigure PV to battery charging voltage and manually switch modules on and off (works only with flooded cell batteries)

Inverters

15-20

Rebuild with spare boards

Use DC appliances only or replace with legacy spare inverter (I have a couple of old Trace 2024 inverters in storage)

Battery

Wide variation

Replace with spares? Pick the battery with the longest possible life?

Use no electric equipment except any that can be operated directly off the solar array (DC motors, heaters)

Diesel generator

 

 

 

 

 

 

30

Have plenty of maintenance spares (belts, filters, etc.)

Greatly reduce electricity consumption in cloudy weather

Water pump

10

Replace with spares or rebuild with still-good parts from failed pumps

Haul water with buckets or install eave-level tank or install catchment roof at upper tank.

Corrugated water tanks

30-50

Reinforce weak areas with cables

Use any available vessel for water storage and hand carry water in buckets

Refrigerator

30

None

Evaporative cooling? Night radiation cooling?

Freezer

30

None

No frozen food

Washer

25

None

Hand wash with plunger. Have manual wringer on hand.

Propane dryer

30

None

Line dry everything all the time

Propane range

40

None

Substitute wood and wood range

Solar hot water modules

20

Substitute modules with spares?

Water heating loop in wood range

Stainless steel solar hot water tank

50

Move to wood range location

Batch heat water on stove

Household wiring

50+

Repair with spares

Live without electricity


Battery Considerations

Without an industrial civilization as backstop, the biggest hurdle to keeping a solar system going is the short life of the battery bank. My batteries have been well maintained, but they were three years old when I purchased them 8 years ago. They are nearing the end of their cycle life.

If it cannot be replaced by going to the nearest battery store, the main attribute a battery will need to have is the ability to operate over a large number of daily charge-discharge cycles. There are numerous comparisons of battery cost and cycle life on line. Most of those comparisons result in lithium-ion batteries being the best choice, especially if cost is not a determining factor, just because of their superior cycle life.

 

Many lithium-ion batteries are touted as having up to 10,000 cycles, even with 80% daily discharge. That would result in a life expectancy of 27 years even though they are typically guaranteed for only 10 years. Even though the cell chemistry could last as long as 27 years, my worry is that the sophisticated electronics that manage the charging of each cell in a lithium-ion battery will probably have a life expectancy of less than that.

I have not yet decided on a final battery replacement strategy. Here are some pros and cons for the best main choices (excluding price):

  • Lithium ion: proven long cycle life but delicate to charge and requires sophisticated electronic charge management system.
  • Lead-acid: Very forgiving if well maintained but have the shortest cycle life. It may be possible to store “dry charged” cells for many years before putting them in service.
  • Nickel-iron: Reputed to have a very long life and very forgiving of a simple charging system (similar to lead-acid). Very hard to damage except by using poor water for electrolyte replenishment. I am still not certain that the lifespan of this battery matches its reputation. Manufacturer literature suggests a cycle life between that of a good lead-acid battery and a lithium ion battery.

I am leaning toward lithium ion. I need to confirm the life expectancy of the typical battery management system and any needed protection from a solar charge controller failure.

I am also keeping an eye on the market for flow batteries for the home. These are quite new and have a limited track record, but should have very long life with easily replaceable pumps.

I am also tempted to see if I can craft build a pure-lead-plate battery from roofing lead sheet.

 

Conclusion

This post has covered a lot of expensive equipment, much of which my wife and I have acquired over many years. We feel very fortunate to have been able to do so. When one adds up the cost of a small parcel of decent farmland, a home and the outbuildings and equipment a small farm requires, including the equipment needed to provide electricity, water and heat for the home (including in-ground piping and electrical circuits) and other costs like livestock, fencing, roads, ponds, and land leveling, it becomes obvious that it takes a lot of money to prepare to eventually live without money.

I do know that the one thing that will always have value when adapting to collapse will be the skills it takes to help manage a small off-grid farm. Any person that has the ability to grow and hunt for food, manage livestock, operate energy and water systems and knows which end of a screwdriver to grab, is likely to find a place in a post-industrial-civilization world, even without a lot of money for preparation. I am still learning these skills and I started a long time ago. It’s past time to get started, so I recommend a crash course in practical trade skills to anyone that has few of them. Good luck to us all!



Wind and Hydro Power

Anticipating questions from our readers, I asked Joe about wind and water power. Here is what he had to say, which makes good sense to me. —Irv

I have had a small wind turbine as part of my array of battery charging sources and found it to be more trouble than it was worth. It was a Whisper 1000 and it really needed strong winds to produce much power. It also had a continuing series of mechanical problems, but I kept it going for a couple of years and then threw it away.

I have also had a lot of experience with the larger Bergey 10 kilowatt wind turbine on village power projects. It worked a little better than the Whisper but also required a lot of maintenance. Constant changes of blade leading edge protection tape, furling cable that broke and very high noise levels made it a pain to use. Now that solar modules are so inexpensive, I strongly advise against wind turbines except for large, grid-tied machines for commercial power producers.

Small hydro is another story. If a small stream with a reasonable head is available, small hydro can be a great charging source. I recommend going with a DC alternator to charge batteries and use an inverter for AC power. The small hydro system just substitutes for solar panels as a battery charging source.

If a larger stream is available, enough to generate the maximum power required at the site, then an all AC system can be installed. A load diversion governor is a lot cheaper than a variable geometry turbine. With a load diversion governor, the AC alternator is kept loaded at full output at all times and any unneeded power is electronically shunted to a waste load, typically a water heater element inserted in the penstock or a spa basin.

 

Small hydro is extremely reliable. The only difficult part is getting clean water into the penstock, which means that a lot of attention has to be paid to the intake structure and subsequent settling and screening equipment. Flood conditions put a great deal of force on the intake, so everything in the stream bed has to be very robust. The best small hydro sources are hillside springs, which avoid a lot of the issues with stream sources. Year around streams and springs are relatively rare, but if you have one they are great sources of energy. With enough head, it takes very little water to produce enough energy to power a homestead.

 


Irv again, with thanks to Joe. And now, just a few comments from me.

I agree very strongly with what Joe said in his conclusion about learning practical skills. If your work has you sitting in front of a computer pushing little bits of information around on the screen, and what you do for fun in you off hours never sees you touching a tool, it is time to start learning some of the skills that will be needed when BAU(Business as Usual) is no longer functioning.

Now back to the specifics of off-grid power systems:

One important thing to be clear about is that batteries don't like to be "cycled", that is, to be charged and discharged. Joe touched briefly on this, but I think it is important to emphasize.

Every time a battery is discharged and charged back up (cycled), it wears out a little bit and its capacity to store energy is reduced. The backup batteries that I maintained as an electrician in the power system were kept fully charged and only discharged during outages, and even then not too deeply discharged. They usually lasted for about 15 to 20 years.

In an off grid solar electric system, batteries are cycled fairly deeply on a daily basis. Joe estimates his current batteries will have a lifetime of around 11 years, which sounds about right to me.

The temperature where Joe lives ranges from the 50s to the 70s, Fahrenheit. This is, to say the least, less extreme than the temperatures we experience here in Southern Ontario ( -30° F to around 90° F.) And there are many places not that far north of here that get even colder in the winter. Precipitation around here also comes in various nasty forms in a addition to rain. Such as hail, freezing rain, sleet and snow.

This has some negative effects on solar panels, which are inevitably exposed to the weather, causing them to fail sooner. And of course their output is limited when they are covered in ice or snow.

Batteries function best when their temperature is in the 70s Fahrenheit. That means they need to be in a heated space in the winter. Lead acid and nickel iron batteries also need a well ventilated space due to the hydrogen created during charging and discharging. You probably wouldn't want them in your house due to the fire hazard. Lithium batteries don't given off hydrogen and can withstand more charge/discharge cycles, which is a major plus. But they are more expensive and required more complex charging controls.

I would appreciate hearing from any readers who are running solar electric systems with lead acid or nickel iron batteries in climates with cold winters.

 

I have some experience repairing battery chargers at the component level, but that equipment was built in the 1960s and 70s, used single layer, single sided circuit boards and discreet components rather than integrated circuits. It almost seemed as if it was designed with repair in mind.

 

Joe tells me that more modern equipment is less maintainable at the component level—about the best you can do is change out a whole board or module.

Acknowledging that, it still seems to me that there are quite a few people around who I would call tinkers, but who are currently referred to as "makers", at least some of whom have the knowledge, skills and equipment to salvage and refurbish/repurpose defective equipment when that becomes the only alternative. I think in some cases they will succeed in getting some extra life, maybe a few more decades, out of systems like Joe's. A way to make storage batteries using salvaged materials and a fairly low level of technology would be very helpful.

Finally, as Joe says, a system like his does not come cheap, and I suspect many of my readers will find themselves lacking the financial resources to set up anything close. And yet I've devoted this whole post to the idea, and I would recommend that those who can afford it should go ahead and set up such a system. Why so?

First of all, electricity is very useful and if you could extend it's availability by a few decades, it would be worth quite a bit to do so. In one's own domestic situation electric lighting, refrigeration and water pumping would be worth a lot, along with communications and entertainment.

Secondly, in the years after the grid finally fails us, I would like to think an attempt will be made to switch over to sustainable, "village level" technology and to utilize local energy sources to generate electricity. This transition would be greatly facilitated by off grid power systems of the type Joe describes.

A closer look at this transition and the positive legacies of the industrial world will be the subject of my next post.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

 
 

Responding to Collapse, Part 11: coping with power outages, the basics

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on August 25, 2019

x

Storm moving in off Lake Huron, August 2019

Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

 

In my last post I talked about some of the problems with using "for profit" companies to provide infrastructure services and went on to look at how one major part of our infrastructure—the power grid—is likely to gradually fail over the coming years. I ended up looking at the effects of power outages, but ran out of space to cover how you can mitigate those effects and what your community can do to cope when it finally finds itself permanently isolated from the grid. I'll start talking about that today, but it looks like it's going to take three or four posts to cover this subject in the detail it deserves.

If you're following or considering following the suggestions I've been making in this series of posts, you're probably receptive to the idea of making preparations for collapse—possibly quite eager to get at it. The endgame here is the end of industrial civilization, with the grid shut down completely and the wells, mines, farms and factories it supports no longer running. So, you might think it would be a good idea to just dive in right now and go off grid.

In general, though, when preparing for any of the effects of collapse, it is important to remember kollapsniks like me have a pretty bad track record when it comes to attaching dates to our predictions. So the shape of your preparations should be such as to not squander your resources and leave you broke or in debt when the apocalypse doesn't happen a week from Tuesday. Ideally your preparations should enhance your life as BAU (business as usual) continues to gradually wind down, as well as making it possible to get by when BAU is finally gone. Which may be quite a way down the road as yet.

When most people talk about going off grid, they are talking not about doing without electricity but about generating some of their own, in order to maintain a certain level of modernity in their lifestyle. To do this requires access to two things: an energy source or sources and technology that can convert that energy into electricity. It is also helpful to be able to store the electricity you generate if your energy source is intermittent.

Today's consumer society makes energy sources, generating equipment and batteries readily available. This, unfortunately, will involve a significant upfront investment, the electricity you produce is likely to be more expensive than the electricity you can buy from the grid, and you won't have really gained any long term degree of independence from BAU. If you can afford it, this may be one way of setting up to weather power outages with a good degree of comfort and convenience. I suspect, though, that many of my readers are not wealthy enough to spend many thousands of dollars on an off grid power system.

It is probably true that at some point, as grid power increases in cost and decreases in reliability, home generated power becomes a winner. But at that point you'd also like to become much more independent of BAU, so a different approach will be required, and whether you can arrange to have electricity at all without relying on BAU for fuel, equipment or spare parts is a serious question. Which I'll get into in a post just a little way down the road.

But first, let's get back to the issue of coping with power outages. The effects of such outages, especially longer ones, are so far reaching that it is overwhelming to think of coping with them all. So I'll just concentrate on the most immediately impactful: lighting, cooking, refrigeration, food, water, sewage, heating, cooling, communications and transportation. Not necessarily in that order.

I'm going to divide the rest of this into four sections, each of which deals with a different sort of response to the challenge of power outages, roughly speaking in increasing order of expense and personal commitment. The first of those sections will be covered in the rest of this post and the final three in my next few posts.

I am assuming that many of my readers are convinced enough of the inevitability of collapse that they already have or are seriously considering moving to a remote small town and are eager to do some preparation, but they may be limited in their financial resources and practical skills. Sections 1 and 2 will cater to those limits.

1) Short Outages, minimal response

In the case of short outages, you can simply do without for a few hours, and experience little more than minor inconvenience. Indeed, the most important technique I can recommend for coping with any of the effects of collapse is to be ready to cheerfully accept some loss of comfort and convenience.

Around here, minor outages used to last from 2 to 4 hours. Now it's more like 4 to 8 hours, which is almost entirely due to power companies trying to save money on staffing. Most of us have lived through a few of these, especially in rural areas where power is distributed via overhead lines strung on wooden poles. This is, realistically, part of living in an industrial civilization—the cost of eliminating all outages would be too high.

So kick back, read a book and wait for the power to come on. Of course, if the power is still off after sunset that book is going to be hard to read, and it sure would be nice to have a flashlight and/or some candles. A little more thought and you'll soon realize that there are a few things that aren't terribly expensive and which would make short power outages much less of a nuisance.

Even people who don't accept the "collapse narrative" will benefit from some basic preparation of this sort. At this point (August 2019) all the resources of BAU are still available to consumers, so everything you'll need can be had very easily.

Lighting

Flashlights and batteries

In the short run, the lost of electric lighting is one of the main things to prepare for and also one of the easiest. You don't want to be stumbling around in the dark as you do the things you'll want to do to cope with an outage. And once that's out of the way, you're going to find it pretty boring without all the electronic entertainment you're used to. It takes light even to enjoy books and board games. At this basic level, you'll use flashlights and/or candles to provide light.

Flashlights have improved a lot in the last few years. LEDs have replaced incandescent bulbs, increasing battery life and making flashlights much sturdier. These days the best batteries have a shelf life of around 10 years, so that you can leave your flashlight sitting on a shelf for along time and not end up with dead batteries or a corroded mess. And I guess if you plan on using a flashlight a lot, one with rechargeable batteries would be a good idea. One useful variation on that idea is a flashlight with rechargeable batteries and a built in hand cranked generator.

In emergency situations, a flashlight is especially handy when you need to move around in the dark. They also don't present a fire hazard the way candles do.

In the photo on the right are the flashlights found around our house and car, all of which were purchased at Canadian Tire. (Canadian tire is a chain of automotive/hardware/houseware/sports and garden stores here in Canada. If you live outside Canada don't know what you are missing.) At the back is a worklight that takes 4 AA cells and produces a startling amount of light for along time. Comes with a hook to hang it by and magnets in the base to stick to any iron or steel surface. In the middle is a Garrity handcranked flashlight. Thirty seconds of vugorous cranking gives you 3 to 5 minutes of light, depending on how dim you're willing to let it get before cranking it up again. At the front on the left is the Maglite single AAA flashlight that I carry on my keychain. Put out 47 lumens. Second from the left at the front is the Maglite 2 AA flashlight that we keep in the glove box of our car. Puts out 97 lumens. On the front right is a cheap 3 AAA flashlight that only puts out 60 lumens.

Candles and holders, matches and lighter

Candles are good too, especially as a stationary source of illumination. Unfortunately most candles don't come with built in holders and being tall and skinny, don't stand up very well on their own. So it is a good idea to have a few candle holders around the house, sized to fit whatever kind of candle you keep in stock. In the front right of the photo to the right is a tea light, which comes with a built in holder and doesn't take up much space. Useful in emergency bags.

Since candles don't light themselves, you'll need matches or a lighter of some sort. Nobody smokes in our family, so the lighter we have is made for lighting barbeques, but works fine for lighting candles and our woodstove as well. The long nose keeps you hand back a bit from whatever you're trying to light.

Water

Water storage in the cold room at our house

Water is your next most urgent need. And while the municipal water supply or your own pressure system may continue to supply enough water for drinking and washing for a short period, it is wise to have a few gallons of potable water stored away. It is usually recommended that you have one gallon per person per day just for drink and washing.

Water from a chlorinated municipal water supply does not need further treatment when stored in clean, food-grade containers. Non-chlorinated water should be treated with bleach. Add 8 drops of liquid household chlorine bleach (5 to 6% sodium hypochlorite) for every 4 litres (one gallon) of water. More details can be found here and here.

I'm not, by the way suggesting you go out and get a few cases of bottled water in single use 500 ml plastic bottles. First off, if you can't drink your tap water, you're living in the wrong place. Second, bottled water is an expense you should avoid. Third, those bottles are a serious waste problem. If you're strapped for cash, save food grade plastic containers that you would otherwise throw out, wash them and use them to store water. Things like 2 litre beverage bottles, juice bottles, and so forth. And if you can afford a relatively small investment, you can easily get sturdy purpose built water bottles that hold 20 litres (5 gallons) and have a built in spigot. In the photo above there is also a blue 2.5 gallon water container from Canadian Tire that we use when travelling.

Our 60 gallon
electric water heater

Another source of water is your water heater which probably holds 40 or 60 gallons of potable water. If it's never been flushed then the water at the bottom, which will come out first, will probably be rusty. The drain valve is also probably very close to the floor, and you likely need a screwdriver or wrench to operate that valve. Best to check this out in advance and make sure you have the required tools and a pan that will fit under the valve to catch the water. In any case it's also a good idea to flush your water tank annually.

Sewage

Safe handling of human waste is an important public health issue. And when you gotta go, you gotta go—it really is an emergency. Even during a short power outage, the odds are that someone in your home will need to use the facilities.

You probably have a flush toilet hooked up to a septic tank and weeping bed or to municipal sewers. The septic tank and weeping bed is likely gravity fed, so it is OK to use the toilet even when the power is off. Municipal sewers may be gravity fed, but it is likely that some parts of town are downhill from the sewage processing plant and rely on electrically powered pumps to make things flow in the right direction. I live in such a location and the town used to show up with a vacuum truck during outages and use it to make sure that our sewers didn't back up. Recently they installed some upgrades, including backup generators for critical sewage pumps. It wouldn't hurt to check into the situation in your town.

Your toilet is good for one flush using the water in its tank. If you've made no other preparations, you need to make the most of that flush, and not waste it when there is nothing more than urine in the bowl. Then you need to be looking for a source of flushing water, which you can just pour into the bowl to make the toilet flush. Many sources of water that you wouldn't want to drink are fine for flushing a toilet. The rusty water from the bottom of your water heater is certainly OK, as is rain water and surface water from streams and ponds. A five gallon (20 litre) bucket is useful to have if you are reduced to scrounging flush water from such sources.

Emergency bucket toilet
with waste bags

People like me, who grew up on farms and have spent some time in the bush, are not above finding a secluded spot outdoors to urinate, and in a pinch even to defecate. Though it is important to realize that feces are a health hazard to other people using the area. This brings us to the idea of emergency toilets which you can put together quickly. Here are several good articles on the subject:
How to create an emergency toilet
Make and use an emergency toilet

Amazon will be glad to sell you a bucket, seat, lid and waste bags, all ready to go. Or you can buy just the seat, lid and waste bags, and supply your own bucket.
Portable Toilet Bucket with Seat and Lid Attachment

I would recommend having one of those emergency bucket toilets on hand. I don't have one because I have a Jenkins style sawdust toilet made up and ready to go for emergency use. These are often called composting toilets, but only because when the bucket gets full you can dump it in your compost pile. The legality of doing that with human waste varies from place to place, so it is best to be discreet.

Food and Cooking

During short outages you can either go hungry for a few hours (it won't kill you) or have some food on hand that can be eaten without cooking.

Refrigeration

Your concern here will be that food in your refrigerator don't spoil and frozen food in your freezer doesn't thaw.

Food in your refrigerator should be OK for up to about 4 hours provided you don't open the door too often and let the cold air out. If you freezer is full, food should be safe in it for about 48 hours, 24 hours if it is half full. If your freezer isn't full, it is a good idea keep some ice in it for increased thermal mass. I use several jugs of water, which freeze after they are put in the freezer. It might also be a good idea to open the door of your refrigerator just once and put in a jug or two of ice from your freezer.

Some good advice on keeping food safe during an emergency can be found here.

Frozen food that still has ice crystals and feels cold is usually safe to refreeze. Frozen food that has thawed out, and food that normally requires refrigeration, and has been above 40 degrees F. for more than 2 hours, should be discarded.

Heating and Cooling

If you've chosen your location carefully, you should be able to get by without air conditioning, and just suffer through the few hottest days in summer. Shade and ventilation will help, as will moving heat generating activities like cooking outdoors. And believe it or not, if you stay out of air conditioned spaces for a few days, you will get used to the heat. Try to take it easy though, until you've adapted.

Here's some good advice on how to stay comfortable and safe during hot weather.

The same careful choice of location will, unfortunately, put you in some pretty cold weather in the winter. If your home is well insulated and well sealed it shouldn't cool things off more than a few degrees during a short outage.

But just in case things get worse than that, here's some good advice on keeping warm in a winter weather emergency. The basic idea is to limit the spaces you're trying to heat, and whenever possible to heat humans, not spaces.

Communications

Handcranked and battery operated radios

You may want to call the power company to let them know about the outage and to contact family and friends to see if they need help. Your cell phone, if it is charged up, will probably work through a short outage as will your land line phone. But if your landline phone is a cordless one, it won't work unless there is power to the base station, so get at least one old fashioned directly wired phone and make sure it works if it is not connected to a power source.

A battery operated radio is also a good idea, for both information and entertainment. The handcranked radio on the left (a Grundig FR-200) in the photo to the right inlcudes a flashlight and receives AM, FM and 2 shortwave bandsworks. It work off 3 AA cells as well as the buildin rechargable battery. Sadly, the quality of the souond is poor, and it doesn;t discriminate between closely adjacent stations very well. The small Sony boom box onthe right takes 6 D cells and works just fine off them or 120VAC. The sound quality is great and it plays cassette tapes and CDs as well as AM and FM radio.

Transportation

Personally, I would advise staying off the roads during a short outage. Traffic lights aren't likely to be working and those who are on the roads may be panicky and not thinking straight. But just in case you do have to go somewhere, it's a good idea to keep your fuel tank at least half full. That's a good idea in any case, really.

Miscellaneous

If you work at home using a computer losing unsaved work in the event of a power outage can be expensive. Of course a laptop with a good battery will allow you to save your work before shutting down. If, like me, you are still using a desktop computer, a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) is a really good idea.

When the power comes back on the voltage is likely to be quite low due to heavy loading. This can cause problems for voltage sensitive equipment like motors and electronics. You can do your part to help with this problem by turning off heavy loads such as your electric furnace or baseboard heaters in cold weather or air conditioners in hot weather, and also your water heater, stove and clothes dryer. And to be safe, disconnect sensitive equipment like refrigerators, freezers, computers and televisions.

In Closing

You can make these few, simple preparations even if you're living in an apartment where you can't make big changes to the infrastructure. And it won't cost you very much, either. Everyone should have these basics under control.

But I would guess that along with a few short outages the immediate future holds the possibility of one or more substantially longer outages, which will do much to change our complacent attitudes and render us eager to be more prepared.

In my next post I'll cover a higher level of preparation, still achievable on a tight budget and still relying on BAU for supplies and equipment, but suited to coping with longer and more frequent outages.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

Responding to Collapse, Part 10: the future of the power grid

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on July 17, 2019

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In this series of posts I've been advising my readers that moving to a small town remote from large population centres, in an area that can supply the basic necessities of water, food and firewood, is a prudent way of coping with the ongoing collapse of BAU (Business as Usual). With the caveat that some advance preparation will be needed to ensure successful use of those resources.

 

 

In the next few posts in this series, we'll look at some of the details of how BAU will collapse and how you can prepare to weather that collapse. In the immediate future infrastructure breakdowns will get more frequent and longer until finally it's no longer practical to rely on BAU for the necessities of life. It seems to me that supplies of electrical power, diesel fuel and money will be at the heart of many of the troubles that lie ahead, so I'll concentrate on those areas.

And while I'll mainly be talking about infrastructure breakdowns we should remember that interruptions of service can occur for a couple of other reasons.

The first has to do with the way our economy is organized and how we choose to provide vital services such as power, water, sewers, housing, food, communications, transportation, education, health care and so forth.

Today most of the world's nations are capitalistic, with a distinct neo-liberal flavour. Under such conditions, companies are operated to make a profit and other goals, such as the public good, are strictly secondary. So when a "for profit" company finds its business becoming less profitable they must find ways to increase their charges or to supply less for the same fees or to quit supplying customers in less profitable areas altogether. And if they don't do those things they will either be bought out by companies that will, or they'll suffer bankruptcy. If there doesn't appear to be much chance that another company could make a good profit in the same business then it will never be reestablished. And if the public was relying on that company to provide vital services, then we are just out of luck.

Of course there are other ways of organizing an economy, and in particular other ways of setting up companies to provide infrastructure services. But the argument is often made that for profit companies operating in a free market are more efficient. I would question if there has ever been any such thing as a free market, and whether it would function as predicted in any case. Efficiency in this case is defined as the amount of return on share holders' investments, and has nothing to do with providing a high quality and reliable service to your customers.

But perhaps we should set all that aside in order to focus on the really critical thing, which is the difference between the way such companies work in growing economies versus contracting economies. In a growing economy it is relatively easy to make a profit and do so while supplying a service for the public good. But when the economy begins to contract that becomes more and more difficult for "for profit" companies.

Governments can set up non-profit organizations whose primary goal is to provide services for the public good and they are likely to last longer in a contracting economy. In my experience, contrary to typical capitalist propaganda, they can also be quite efficient. But as the economy contracts so will tax revenues and eventually governments will have to cut back on the services they provide. With good planning though, they can do this in a controlled manner with lots of advanced warning, and give people time to adapt to the situation.

As the economy gets even weaker, co-operatives organized by the people who need the services hold considerable promise. I'll have more to say about this over the next few posts.

The second thing is that if you rely on BAU to make a living, you will find that your own economic circumstances are declining. When you can no longer afford the services you have come to rely on, you'll have find ways to provide them for yourself, and in the process learn how to get by with less, like it or not.

I can consume along with the best of them, and there are certainly all kinds of things that it would be useful to have as we try to become more self reliant. But don't worry too much if you can't afford some of the shiny toys I'll be mentioning in future posts. As well trained consumers we may feel that buying things must be the solution to the problems that face us, but it isn't. Actually, there is no solution to the fix the world is in at the moment, and the best we can do is adapt to the changing conditions. Part of that is learning to get by while consuming less. This is hard for me and I'll bet it's hard for you too. That's why I talked first about preparing by become part of your new community (in posts 7 and 8 of this series), rather that the less important preparations that involve accumulating "stuff".

Back 2012, when I started this blog, the authorities recommended that you be prepared to weather emergencies lasting for as long as three days (72 hours). They were basically saying, "don't rely on us to be there immediately—it may take as long as 72 hours before help arrives." In the meantime, this has been changed to two weeks in some areas. Is emergency response capability declining, or are they expecting more lengthy and severe emergencies? I suspect both. Of course serious "preppers" are laughing at this—they'd recommend that you have supplies on hand for a year or two. I don't disagree, but you have to start somewhere. And as collapse deepens those longer intervals to prepare for will come to seem more reasonable.


Power Outages

Power outages will probably be the most frequent infrastructure failure you'll have to cope with. Short outages have relatively minor impacts, but because electricity is at the heart of so much that goes on in modern civilization, as outages stretch out they start to effect more and more things.

Eventually, it seems very likely that the power grid in many, if not most, areas will cease to function. I encounter two different responses to this idea. Many people cannot conceive that their 24 hour a day, essentially infinite supply of power could every come to an end. Others are fixated on the idea of a sudden and hard crash which will bring the whole of industrial civilization to an end, including the power grid.

I'm somewhere in between, holding what I think is a more detailed and nuanced opinion. Most of the rest of this post is going to be spent talking about how the slow decline of the power grid will go, leaving the responses I would recommend for the next post.

Power outages can be as simple as a utility pole getting knocked over during a traffic accident, to as complex as the grid failures that happened in northeastern North America in 1965 and 2003. And to take it even further, EMPs (electromagnetic pulses) from nuclear weapons or coronal mass ejections (solar flares) can do huge damage to electrical girds which may be very hard to recover from. But I think some of the most common and serious problems with the grid will come from three specific areas:

  • The first is equipment failure due to age and/or lack of maintenance, aggravated by overloads such as air conditioning load during summer heat waves. As the economy continues to contract power companies are going to find themselves short of capital and less able to invest in their own systems, leaving those systems more susceptible to failure. /li>
  • The second will be damage due to storms that are growing more frequent and more intense due to climate change—things like high winds, tornados and ice storms in particular. Lengthy outages will happen when there are widespread weather related problems combined with shortages of spare parts and limited manpower to install them. Those latter two problems will come mainly from cash strapped utilities trying to save money.
  • The third is sabotage. The grid is very exposed to a saboteur who knows what he is doing, and because of its geographically diffuse nature, very hard to secure. As collapse intensifies, there will be increased civil unrest—more angry people looking for easy targets that symbolize the establishment. The grid is certainly one such target.

Of course, these concerns apply to the grid as it exists today, using conventional generation. It seems there is going to be a serious attempt to switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, primarily solar and wind. Those who are pushing for a "Green New Deal" are telling people that we can use wind and solar to replace fossil fuels, and that in the process more jobs will be created and we'll actually end up more prosperous. This is a very unrealistic dream and just off the top of my head I can think of four serious problems with it:

  1. What solar and wind produce is electricity. But electricity supplies only 18 to 20% of our current energy use. Most of the rest comes directly from coal, oil and natural gas, and those fuels are used in ways that will be difficult, if not outright impossible, to replace with electricity.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    The main issue is that a battery is not nearly as effective a way to store energy as a tank of diesel fuel. And there are definite physical limitations on how much better batteries can get— we can probably improve them by a factor of two, but that's about it. Despite what we keep hearing in the news, it simply isn't practical to use batteries to power airplanes or long distance heavy transport by road, rail or sea. The quantity of batteries needed, and the size and weight of those batteries, is the problem.

    There are many industrial processes that use coal or natural gas for heat. Replacing those fuels with electricity may be theoretically possible but we haven't, for the most part, even started to develop ways to do so, much less begun to implement them.

  2. Phasing out fossil fuels would require using renewables to supply much larger quantities of electricity than we are currently using. But there are fundamental problems with using renewables to produce even part of the comparatively small amount of electricity we use now.

    One aspect of running a power grid that the general public is largely unaware of is that generation must be matched exactly to the load. Since load is something the grid operator cannot control to any great extent, generation that is "dispatchable"—that can be turned on and off on demand and ramped up and down as required—is very important. Conventional generation is dispatchable to varying degrees but renewable energy sources such as solar and wind are intermittent and for the most part not under the control of the grid operator—the very opposite of dispatchable. As such, renewables only exacerbate the problems of running a grid, especially given the lack of feasible large scale storage technologies. Yes, I know there are a number of storage technologies available but none of them are economical to use on the scale that would be required for use in a power grid with intermittent renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

    The concept of a "smart grid" which gives greater control of both generation and load offers hope of addressing these problems to some minor degree, but only at the price of adding complexity to the system. And adding complexity never increases reliability.

  3. The immediate reason for switching away from fossil fuels is to reduce the amount of CO2 being released into the atmosphere in order to combat climate change. But no one seems to be thinking of the carbon footprint of switching away from carbon. The switchover to renewables would be a massive undertaking powered mainly by fossil fuels, and the amount of CO2 being released would greatly increase during that effort.

    Much of this construction effort would also require large quantities of steel and concrete. Making steel and concrete involves the release of CO2, regardless of where the energy comes from—it's inherent to the chemistry of the processes involved.

    So it is by no means obvious that we can get off fossil fuels and onto renewables without creating an even worse climate crisis that the one we are currently facing.

  4. Renewables have a very low EROEI (energy returned on energy invested). A high EROEI is essential to the functioning of a modern industrial economy–money is just accounting, energy is really what makes the economy go. Any country which adds a large quantity of renewables to its energy mix will lower its overall average EROEI, making it more difficult to support a growing economy and a high tech industrial society. So even if we could somehow manage to switch over entirely to renewables, we'd have trouble sustaining a high enough level of technology to maintain and repair solar and wind generation facilities. And replacing them when they wear out would be a real stretch. Switching to renewables is something we might be able to do once, but then we'd be in big trouble.

 

All this is of course based on not having to change our lifestyles, not having to accept a lower level of prosperity and consumption. Indeed one frequently hears people talking about increasing economic growth in order to bring the poor parts of the world up to our level of consumption. It is clear to me that this is not going to happen and that what we really need to do is reduce our levels of consumption down to what can be supported without fossil fuels, using local, sustainable, low tech renewables. It is also clear to me that we will not do this voluntarily, that the majority of our efforts will go into maintaining business as usual regardless of the consequences.

Give all these factors time to work and it will become difficult to continue running the power grid as a whole. Some parts of the gird will simply quit working. Others that have proved unreliable, which place the grid as a whole at risk, will eventually have to be excluded from the grid. These islands will grow until the grid as we know it falls apart.

There will be a few areas where generating equipment will continue to function for a long time and will be able to supply local load. Again, the matching generation and load will be a problem since most such generation comes in large chunks and is a long way from large amounts of load. The most hopeful situations are small hydro (water) powered generators, which can be run at less than full capacity and adjust quickly to match varying loads.

Anyway, it seems clear that we can indeed expect more frequent and longer power outages. But what are the effects of these outages, and what can we do to mitigate them?


The effects of power outages

When the power goes out, you lose the lights, heat, cooling, cooking equipment, refrigeration and so forth in your own home. Even most oil, gas and wood heating systems rely on electricity for control, ignition and circulating fans. Then there are all the services that comes to you from outside your home, that you rely on to just work, but which need electricity to do that.

In general, the most critical services run off batteries which are kept fully charged as long as the power is on. When the power goes out, these services keep right on running as if nothing had happened, at least until the batteries are discharged. The batteries for the controls in power stations are rated for eight hours. The batteries in cell phone towers are rated for two to four hours.

Everything I'm finding on the internet says that the central switching stations for land line telephone service should keep working even during long power outages, which implies both batteries and backup generators. I have some doubts about this, and I'll be keeping an eye out for more detailed information.

Many slightly less critical services have generators that start automatically with only a brief interruption when the power goes out and run as long as there is fuel (usually diesel fuel) in the tank. If arrangements have been made to refill that tank, then this can go on for quite a long time.

Even less critical services than these can have a portable generator hooked up to them if need be. This would include facilities operating on battery power, if the power is off so long that the batteries need to be recharged.

Most service stations don't have backup power so you likely won't be able to get fuel (gasoline, diesel, propane) while the power is off. During long outages the many supply chains that are powered by gasoline and/or diesel fuel will be in trouble.

Natural gas pipelines have to be pressurized to keep to gas flowing through them. Some of the pumps used to do this are powered by natural gas, some by electricity. And I suspect that at least some of the controls for the gas powered pumps are electrical. So your natural gas supply, at least in some areas, will be compromised during electrical outages.

The pumps in municipal water and sewage systems need electrical power too. Some may have backup generators, but not all. If you live on a farm or in a very small town, your toilet is likely gravity feed into a septic system and weeping bed, and will work as long as you have water to flush them. Or perhaps you have already set up a composting toilet which requires no power at all. Your water supply is probably from you own well, with a pump driven by an electric motor that uses 240V AC (if you are in North America). Even if you have a generator, you may need an electrician to help you hook it up to that motor.

Refrigeration of food in grocery stores and pharmaceuticals in pharmacies and hospitals will be jeopardized. Fortunately our local hospital does have a backup generator.

Radio and TV can be important sources of information during emergencies. But you will likely find that only a very few of your local stations are set up to keep broadcasting during power outages.

It would also be great if internet service could continue during power outages. I understand it some areas it does, but we get our internet through the local cable TV company, and even short outages to their facilities knock out our internet connection and our cable TV service, even if the power is still on at our place. Your situation may be different—I hope so.

Oddly, or so it seems to me, most traffic lights aren't backed up in any way and stop working when the power is off.

ATMs won't be working, nor the systems that allows us to pay for things by credit and debit cards. Even if you do have cash in hand, you may find many retail outlets are unable to sell you anything when their cash registers and product code scanners aren't working. Many of them may just lock their doors for the duration of the outage.

Not all of them, though—I was quite impressed during a recent outage when I saw the guy behind the counter at a nearby convenience store beavering away with a cash box, battery operated calculator and a notebook to record sales in. It can be done, but one hopes the prices are marked clearly on items rather than encoded in UPCs. This is an example of an individual (or maybe his manager) taking the situation in hand and keeping things working rather than sitting back and letting them fall apart.

No doubt I am missing many of the potential effects of long power outages, but I think this gives you the flavour of what you'll be facing. Next time I'll talk about how you can mitigate the effects of power outages, both short and long, and what your community can do to cope when it finally finds itself permanently isolated from the grid.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

 

Responding to collapse, Part 3: Declining Surplus Energy

 

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on October 26, 2018

 
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In my last post I talked about responding to changes in our "natural" environment caused by climate change. Today I'll be talking about responding to changes in the human part of our environment, the part that we have created, both the "built" physical environment and the social environment.

We are social animals and also technological (tool using) animals. For the last few million years our ancestors evolved to live in groups and use technology. In one way of looking at it, our techniques for working together in groups are an organizational technology that greatly amplifies what we could do alone.

At any rate, for a long time now we have been dependent on technology—we certainly aren't much good alone, naked and empty handed. Technology needs energy to make it work and for most of our history that energy has come from food via muscles (human or animal), biomass (mainly firewood), and to a lesser extent wind, moving water and the sun. But over the last couple of centuries we've added cheap and abundant fossil fuels to that mix of energy sources. We've gradually become dependent on a global network of complex technology powered by those fuels for the very necessities of life.

This is a cause for concern—what if energy were to become more expensive and/or less abundant? As it certainly seems likely to do in the near future. Well, in short, the way we live would have to change, becoming less energy intensive, and it seems very likely that the planet would no longer be able to support so very many of us. It can barely support the number of us that are alive today, so this would mean a significant dieoff of the human population. And the climate change related problems we talked about last time will only make this worse.

Of course this is nothing new. I've discussed the ideas of carrying capacity, overshoot and dieoff many times over the years on this blog. But the devil, as they say, is in the details and if we are to discuss strategies for living through collapse, we need to look closely at those details.

The economy is a major and critically important part of the modern human environment and one that is fueled by energy, so I see depletion of fossil fuel energy resources (often referred to as Peak Oil) as the major challenge as far as the human built environment goes. To really understand that challenge, it is important to understand a bit about "biophysical" or "surplus energy" economics. Have a look at those links for more detail, but I'll try to explain in brief.

First, why is energy so critical to the functioning of the economy? Modern industrial processes are significantly more productive than the cottage industry of just a few hundred years ago, and it requires a lot of energy to make them work. The energy that drives these processes is worth far more in terms of the goods it produces than the price that industry pays for it. As such, energy is far more than just another commodity. And it must be abundant and cheap, if industry is to be profitable and the economy is to continue growing.

Second, why are fossil fuels such an important source of energy? Basically because they have been abundant, cheap and convenient to use. When I say cheap, I am not just talking about the cost in dollars, but in the amount of energy it takes to access fossil fuel energy. This is defined as the "Energy Returned on Energy Invested" (EROEI). Early in the twentieth century, when oil came into prominence as an energy source, it took just one barrel of oil to get 100 barrels of oil out of the ground—the EROEI was 100. The "surplus energy" was over 99% and this was a tremendous stimulus for economic growth.

Since we have developed fossil fuel resources on a "lowest hanging fruit" basis, the easiest to access, highest quality sources have gradually been used up. Modern oil discoveries rarely have an EROEI better than 10. Unconventional sources of oil, such as fracking and tar sands, have even lower EROEIs. And sadly, the renewable energy sources that are being considered to replace fossil fuels also have very low EROEIs. Even lower if you add in the energy storage required if intermittent sources like wind and solar are to be put into practical use.

The important thing to understand here is that there is a very clear link between the average EROEI of a country's energy sources and the strength of its economy. As that average EROEI goes down, industry starts to become less and less profitable. Below 15 this gets very serious—it becomes difficult to raise capital to start new endeavours and existing businesses find it hard to stay profitable. As the average EROEI decreases further, infrastructure replacement and even routine maintenance of infrastructure becomes difficult to fund. Industrial civilization starts to crumble and the kinds of heroic efforts it would take to save it are beyond its capabilities.

Conventional economists are blind to this and assume that as one energy source runs out, demand will successfully fuel efforts to find a substitute. Without a clear understanding of EROEI, evaluating the merits of such substitutes can be very difficult. Already we are seeing "energy sprawl" as wind turbines and solar panels are springing up everywhere, but with such low EROEIs that they are actually lowering the average EROEIs of the systems they are being added to.

Some people argue that there are huge reserves of unconventional fossil fuels, enough to last for centuries, "so where's the problem?" The problem is that these unconventional hydrocarbons have such low EROEIs that they are not a solution—pursuing them just makes things worse.

The same is true of nuclear fission—lots of fuel, but such a low EROEI (around 9) that it's no help. If at some point we manage to design practical fusion reactors, it is pretty clear that they will be so complex that their EROEI will be even lower than fission reactors, making the abundance of fusion fuel a moot point.

The essence of our situation here in the early twenty first century is that the problem of declining surplus energy doesn't have a solution. Of course, in addition to that underlying and insoluble problem, there are lots of things wrong with our social/governmental/economic systems that make the situation even worse. Definitely it would help to fix these problems, but it is important to keep in mind that, even if they were all fixed, everything wouldn't suddenly be OK—the main problem would still exist. And because of declining surplus energy, it's going to get harder and harder to fix anything.

So, what to do? Well, we just have to adapt to these new realities. Here I am going to borrow some ideas from Prof. Jem Bendell's essay "Deep Adaptation", particularly his three Rs.

Bendell is mainly concerned with climate change and after doing a review of the current findings of climate science, he concludes that "collapse is inevitable, catastrophe is likely and extinction is possible". Considering declining surplus energy and the resulting economic contraction as well as climate change leads me to the same conclusions, maybe more so. Even without any catastrophic events, the slow collapse of industrial civilization, brought on by the falling EROEI of its energy sources, is surely an inevitability. And we should be planning our response to such a slow and tedious collapse, which will require a great deal of adaptation to our new circumstances.

There are many forms of denial that people fall into when faced with the certainly of collapse. Not surprisingly, most people see their continued livelihood and their feelings of self-worth as being dependent on the possibility of ongoing material progress. This is the "religion of progress" which is so central to our modern society. Collapse, of course, means the end of material of progress, and immersion in a complex predicament beyond our control. Admitting this is even possible has, at least initially, a crushing effect on most people.

But, for those who have overcome their denial, Bendell's three Rs hold the key to successful adaptation.

First comes "Resilience". This means having the personal resources—emotional toughness to keep going in the face of collapse and the willingness to adapt to conditions that we have been taught are simply unacceptable (involving a significant reduction in our level of comfort and convenience). I am currently reading Resilience, by Rick Hanson, which gives an abundance of advice on achieving a greater degree of personal, internal resilience.

The alternative is to continue with denial, or having accepted the reality of the situation, give up and abandon any attempt to adapt. To do so is a great pity, since the situation is potentially survivable. Not to minimize the rigors of collapse, especially of the kind of dieoff we will eventually be facing, but there is good reason to think that some of us will survive, find a livelihood and maintain a sense of self worth even with drastically reduced consumption of energy and material goods.

In order to be among those who survive, resilience also involves having accumulated some physical and social resources which will tide us through when the system that currently supports us falls apart, allowing us to hang in there long enough so that we have a chance to adapt. These are the things we will decide we do really need to keep in order to meet our basic needs—safety, satisfaction and connection. Our ancestors did this for millions of years without the help of industrial civilization, so I think there is some chance we can do so as well.

Next comes "Relinquishment". This means deciding what we need to let go of in order to not make matters worse. Clearly, many aspects of modern industrial society cannot be sustained and will have to be abandoned.

Lastly comes "Restoration". This means deciding what can we bring back to help us with the coming difficulties and tragedies. In building our modern world there is much that we have set aside, old things that can brought back and put to good use in our low energy future.

I could spend one or more posts looking at the details of these three Rs, and it is likely that I will. I think there are many different approaches that should be tried, and of those, quite a few that will be successful to some degree. The main thing is that people actually give it a try.

So, we started out to have a closer look at the details of collapse in order to gain a better perspective on strategies for living through collapse and after it. I think an understanding of surplus energy's role in economics and the three Rs outlined above is a good start. But to delve deeper into this, I think we need to take a look at mankind's disturbing tendency to group together in ever large settlements. We tend to focus on the advantages of living in cities and to ignore what it takes to make a city work, how it can stop and what might happen when it does.

Cities rely on long supply lines and extensive infrastructure to supply their inhabitants. Our failure to maintain that infrastructure and its resulting decay is already leading to intermittent outages of services for which there is no local alternative. At some point the line between outage and catastrophe blurs and not long after that it becomes unavoidably clear that collapse is really happening.

Now I am a country boy, so perhaps I am biased, but it is my contention that cities are going to be very hard hit by collapse, even the sort of slow collapse that I am talking about. I think that escaping to a more rural area before collapse progresses much further would be a good idea.

The key question, though, is why do I think things will be any better in rural areas?

There is no doubt in my mind that the crises related to supplies of energy, water and food (the basic necessities), which will no doubt occur as industrial civilization crumbles, will effect rural areas just as much as urban ones. People in rural areas are just as much a part of "Business As Usual" as people in the city, just as dependent on long supply chains and complex systems. And when there are disasters, relief efforts are likely to be focused on large population centres, ignoring the rural areas just on the basis of what will help the most people with the least effort.

But we are already seeing the US federal government tapering back on relief efforts in response to hurricanes and passing the responsibility off to the private sector. There is little reason to believe they will do any better. And not far down the road local communities, be they urban or rural, will find themselves essentially on their own when the going gets tough.

The good news is that there are many rural areas where:

  • adequate energy can be had locally in the form of firewood which can be cut by hand
  • potable water can be accessed from already existing wells that can be converted to hand or wind driven pumps and surface water that can be used with fairly simple filtration or treatment
  • sufficient food for the local population can be grown on existing farmland within walking distance of town, without fossil fuel powered machinery

Sure, it will require some degree of advance preparation and a willingness to adapt our lifestyles, but it is all quite doable. This is not the case in the city, where local resources for self-sufficient living are simply not available.

When I speak of rural areas, let me make it clear that I am talking about small towns of a few hundred to a few thousand people, surrounded by farmland, not isolated farmsteads. It will take more than a single family or two to make this work. Indeed isolation is one of the most debilitating conditions that you can find yourself in as a human being.

During the last few decades neoliberalism, in its endless search for profit, has done its best to monetize every human relationship and to isolate individuals from each other. The declining economy is leading to increased under employment and unemployment, poverty and homelessness all of which stresses our communities and isolates their individual members. And civil unrest is growing as inequality between the upper and lower classes increases and the degree to which the lower classes are being abandoned becomes more obvious.

But many small towns are a long way behind cities on that curve and their communities are still intact enough that co-operation is possible when it becomes clear what is required. And during a slow collapse it will gradually become more clear what the situation really is. To enough people, at least, that those advance preparations will get made. Collapse aware people have an important role to play there.

For a long time now, young people have been moving from areas like the one where I live to the cities in order to get an education and find work. The day will come (as I understand it already has as conditions have worsened in Greece) when the situation in the cities will be so bad, they will start to come home to take advantage of the somewhat better situation in the country. They will be able to pitch in and help their families adapt to collapse.

So far I have been talking about adapting during a slow and steady collapse. But of course catastrophic events can by no means be ruled out. In particular, our financial systems are largely virtual and as such are subject to extremely fast collapse when they fail. They will be the first to go, and that will have a negative effect on everything else.

It appears to me that most real economic growth ended in the 1990s and since then growth has largely taken the form of financial bubbles, fueled by debt instead of energy. Those who have money are desperate to find somewhere to invest it at a good return, but profitable, growing businesses are becoming rare, so instead they invest in ever more speculative endeavours. That's fine as long as the price is going up, but every such bubble is looking for a pin to burst it. A few months ago I said that we can expect a financial crash of greater magnitude than 1929 or 2008, sometime in the next few years and nothing has happened since then to change my opinion.

Already we have had a minor spike in the price of oil, trouble for the currencies of emerging market countries, and some indication that the long running bull market may be coming to an end. We are in the middle of this and it isn't yet clear if this is the start of a recession, or if the economy will rally and put off the big crash for some months or years yet.

When that crash does happen, I think that even in cities most of the population will survive the initial days of a financial collapse, mainly because of heroic efforts on the part of individuals in shop floor and low level management positions in supply chain and infrastructure organizations. The people at the tops of those organizations will be largely paralyzed, or at worst doing exactly the wrong thing. But even a worldwide financial collapse will hit some areas harder than others and will proceed, as I have said before, unevenly, unsteadily and unequally. And that's a good thing, because it means when things get really bad locally, there may well be someplace to go where things are better.

I expect there will be some reduction in our population due to supply chain failures following financial crashes. But the big dieoff that lies ahead of us will happen when industrial scale agriculture (both conventional and organic) comes hard up against resource limits—mainly fossil fuels and mineral fertilizers.

Still, it is possible that in the wake of a financial crash the stereotype of a city full of people starving in the dark with no help in sight will occur occasionally. For the vast majority of the unprepared people in that city this will not a survivable scenario. For anyone who really has no other choice but to stay in the city for now, it might be best to have a few weeks of food, water, etc. on hand and plan to stay at home during such a situation, keeping a very low profile, until things settle down and only then head for the country.

But you and I, of course, will have long since moved to a small town at a safe distance from the city. The standard trope in discussions of collapse involves our little town being overrun with roving hordes of hungry people engaged in looting and other forms of violence. I think this is unlikely. The key is to be farther away from the city than most of its population can walk on empty stomachs, which is not that great a distance. Thirst and starvation are debilitating and most people will not think to head out until they are quite desperate.

A few people will no doubt make it through though. It is my opinion that it would be better for everyone involved to welcome them with food and medical assistance, rather than fight them off with guns. It will be a bit of a trick to be set up to do that and in my next post I will look at the practicalities of moving to a small town in the country and getting ready to cope as the pace of collapse increases.

 

Machinery for a Post Collapse World: Charcoal Tractor

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on October 17, 2018

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Welcome to my kick off post. I find it the height of arrogance to blog as I claim no mastery in the subjects that interest me most. I’m a greenie, a builder, a single dad, an alternative energy enthusiast, a gardener, and deeply concerned about the sustainability of the world we have created. I probably won’t write all that often but look in from time to time as I muddle my way through building a better life. For today the topic will be My charcoal powered tractor.

Years ago I launched a search for a fossil fuel free way to charge my batteries in my off grid home. The amount of useable sun in the winter on my solar array would drop to 1.5 hours from a summer high of 5. Most off grid homes resort to propane generators to make up the difference. Propane was not cheap and like any good doomer I understood how precious it was. Steam, thermo electrics, stirling engines, Hydrogen brown gas, you name it I researched and tinkered. The search for an alternative led me to Gasification, specifically charcoal gasification, as a possible locally appropriate solution. Hidden in history I discovered hundred of thousands tractors, buses and cars ran on the stuff during the second world war. Some were jury rigged but there was also also factory made kits, standardization of fuel, Fuelling stations, government pamphlets, standards of construction, government regulations and guidelines, it was all there and vanished as soon as gasoline became available again. Don’t buy it? Just another conspiracy theory?  here is a great photo montage done by another woodgas nut like me. What strikes me here is just how normal this fuel was:

Imagine my surprise that a fuel that could run all my machinery with minor modification could be made at home while I heated my house…

This article is too short to go into the ins and outs of gasification, charcoal versus wood and how it works so take a look here for a primer on the subject:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wood_gas

If you want a glimpse into the modern masters of the technology check here:

www.driveonwood.com

As often happens in life priorities change. For me it was kids, a busier work schedule and correspondingly higher electrical usage which had me choose to grid connect my home to replace the generator. For a while projects around resilience took a back seat to all that make families work. It was always there though. I’ve decided to revisit these themes over the next few years as I attempt to refocus my life towards greatly increased food production, renewed energy independence, and fossil fuel replacements. Right now food comes first.

Fossil fuels have come to be critical to food production. I won’t debate the effectiveness of permaculture, lasagna garden bed making, french intensive methods, organic farming, or the joys of draft animals here. I can tell you that in times of crisis we will need millions of new large gardens seemingly overnight and one thing all those above methods are not is fast. Tractors are able to convert a manicured lawn into a plowed field in a matter of hours. With all that in mind my contribution is my 1953 Ferguson TEA20 tractor converted to run on charcoal. It was cheap and available but appropriately its from an era of simpler machines designed to run forever and be repaired by an owner in the field with minimal tools. On a sunny october afternoon it turned my weed filled 2250 sq ft garden back into the food plot it had once been. One hour of charcoal powered cultivation replaced what would have been 3 days of back breaking work for one person. Total fuel consumed 10 gallons of charcoal ,just shy of 14 Lbs., roughly equivalent to 1 US gallon of gasoline. I make my charcoal in my wood stove over the winter. This would have represented the coals from 24 hours of mid winter fires but honestly it probably took me 2 evenings of shovelling coals to accumulate this much as I’m not a fanatic or desperate. This is not a solution for a thriving society basking in economic prosperity and cheap energy. It works best if you have access to wood and are used to processing it so probably rural dwellers, who are land rich but money poor and heat with wood. It will not power an economy of commuting suburbanites but it might be enough for my northern tree covered slice of the world.

I’ve committed to plowing up 2 garden plots for friends this fall if time allows. I will be running on charcoal and will record the process. For now just some stills and some background videos will have to do. As a teaser that same 14 lbs of charcoal would have produced between 6 and 8 kW Hr of electricity for battery charging… That is another post though.

Cheers,

It all starts with making charcoal:

A walk around in the tractor’s early days:

All nice and shiny running on charcoal gas at an agricultural fair. It’s never been that clean since!

The Geopolitics of Petroleum

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on October 12, 2018

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This was a presentation to the members of ReNew/ATA (renewable energy advocates) at the Peace Centre in Brisbane in late September. Even though it is almost 90 minutes long, it is just a basic introduction. It is a much abridged version of topics already covered in articles previously written (see weblinks in text description beneath video)

Link to full talk:

https://youtu.be/K9wCbNHlMsU

 

 

 

New York City Has Become So Progressive it Plans to Bite the Hand that Feeds it – the Oil Companies

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on January 26th, 2018

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Lady Libertine (with no apologies to Emma Lazarus): "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled energy slaves yearning to exhale CO2 virtually for free, The wretched black gold of your teeming bowels. Send these, the unburned, tempest-tost to me, I fill my lamp beside the charlatan's door" (photos by David Saddler and Robert Byron)
Lady Libertine (with no apologies to Emma Lazarus): "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled energy slaves yearning to exhale CO2 virtually for free, The wretched black gold of your teeming bowels. Send these, the unburned, tempest-tost to me, I fill my lamp beside the charlatan's door" (photos by David Saddler and Robert Byron)

Who would've guessed it? New York City, the harmonious hometown of the chief litigator himself, Donald Trump, is planning to sue. By no means any more courteous or humble than its prodigal son, following divestiture of the $5bn in fossil fuel investments its $189bn pension fund holds, New York City plans to use what are possibly the only ridiculously deep-enough pockets in the entire world capable of ridiculously deepening themselves even further by actually suing five of the largest oil companies. That is, the very oil companies that over the years have enabled New York City to be so jacked up that it's earned the moniker of "the city that never sleeps".

A bit too harsh am I? Perhaps I've failed to realize how concerned New York City is with not simply climate change but also the effects it will have on the plight of others? Let's see about that.

What's first required here is a look at the justification for why New York City believes it deserves "billions of dollars in damages" from the five investor-owned fossil fuel companies it intends to sue: Exxon, BP, ConocoPhillips, Shell, and Chevron. As New York City mayor Bill de Blasio described it in a piece he wrote for The Washington Post,

For decades, Big Oil ravaged our environment. They knew what they were peddling was lethal, but they didn't care. They used the classical [sic?] Big Tobacco playbook of denial, denial, denial, and all the while they did everything to hook society on their lethal product.

From this we get rationale #1 with which New York City is basing its case on, that being the act of equating fossil fuel companies with tobacco pushers. To do so requires a serious stretch of the imagination though, considering that although Big Oil (Exxon, to be exact) came to know about climate change in 1977 and then proceeded to promote climate misinformation, prior to 1977 Big Oil in general would have been your run-of-the-mill profit-driven capitalist enterprise that for at least half a century earlier had done nothing out of the ordinary to get New York City "hooked" on its "lethal product". It of course didn't actually need to, because for the most part New York City voluntarily and giddily did that on its own.

Furthermore, it's a bit rich to compare tobacco to fossil fuels when tobacco is but a frivolous stimulant while fossil fuels are the "life force" that makes industrial monstrosities like New York City "go". Take away a smoker's pack and you may have one seriously irritable, ticked-off, but nonetheless mostly-functionable person. Cut off fossil fuel supplies to New York City and you'll have guns being pulled out at supply-hampered gas stations, grocery store shelves empty in two or three days, inoperable water and sewage systems within two weeks, and yes, even shortages of cigarettes. Shortages of the latter would of course be the least of New York City's problems though, because without fossil fuels New York City would quickly break out into utter pandemonium and would probably wish it had of been nuked to smithereens instead.

Secondly, and although we can put aside the fact that Svante Arrhenius' was (rather obscurely) writing about CO2's contributions towards a greenhouse effect back in 1896, de Blasio's statement that "For decades, Big Oil… knew" is almost as egregious as his comparison to tobacco pushers, seeing how the first cover-to-cover book focusing specifically on climate change appeared back in 1989 (environmentalist Bill McKibben's The End of Nature: Humanity, Climate Change and the Natural World), a book that was undoubtedly sold in fine New York City bookstores.

Any occasion is a good occasion for a parade in New York City! And will you take a look at those colourful balloons full of hot air – adorbale! (photo by United Nations Photo)

Why, may I ask, did it then take 25 years – decades – before New York City decided to take things so seriously that it finally held its first climate change parade, and then four years after that finally decided to sue Big Oil? Might that be because it had to wait before the science had definitively come in, and/or because it was forced to bide its time while climate change's foot soldiers raised enough consciousness? Maybe. But maybe, just maybe, it was also because New York City finally saw its opportunity to undertake what might very well come to be known as the greatest swindle of the (industrial) civilisation. For as Don de Blasio also stated in The Washington Post,

Today, we are saying, "No more." The time is long past due for Big Oil to pay the bill and take full responsibility for the devastation they have wrought. That by itself will be a major step forward, but it isn't enough. We know we have more to do. We are going to stop investing in the fuel of yesterday, so we can have a better tomorrow.

With New York City being one of the largest consumers in the world of fossil fuels per sq/km, what de Blasio's rationale is showing is that New York City has a complete unwillingness to own up to its role in fossil fuel usage as well as a complete lack of contrition. Fully ensconced within the bargaining stage of the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief, what New York City's Don is telling us is not only that it's up to Big Oil to take complete responsibility for all the fossil fuels New York City has burned over the past century (which it used to build up and then maintain its profligate lifestyle), but that New York City bears absolutely no responsibility for eagerly suckling upon the hind front teat of Big Oil, a front teat that from my vantage point looks like it might not actually be much of a teat.

Rationale #2 that New York City intends to draw upon in order to secure its bargain is based upon the recent notion that "renewable" energy can replace fossil fuels, the implication being that at some point in the future New York City (and the rest of industrial civilisation) as we know it can not only be sustained, but righteously sustained. Taking this premise one step further, New York City intends to reap billions of dollars by trying to convince US federal courts that instead of using Big Oil's "fuels of yesterday" yesterday it could have been using what we might as well call Big Renewable's "fuels of tomorrow". Yesterday. Or as de Blasio might as well have put it, "We would have been using clean renewables for the past century, but Big Oil tricked us into using dirty fossil fuels. Shame!"

Whether or not New York City can actually pull off this swindle doesn't interest me in the slightest, while what does interest me is yet another example of New York City's outright skulduggery. Because while Don de Blasio also railed against "an economic system that is harmful to our people" in his Washington Post piece, he had absolutely nothing to say about the Ponzionomic, fractional-reserve banking system that New York City's Wall Street is currently the locus for, and which by being the greatest wealth pump the world has ever seen allows New York City to enjoy a "free ride" on the back(s) of the rest of the world.

I'll once again admit that I'm possibly being a bit too unaccommodating here, and that what I really should be doing is being a bit more patient before New York City and its Don redeem themselves by undertaking the much more than symbolic gesture (and the much more than baby-step divestiture) of kicking Big Oil off the New York Stock Exchange.

How does that saying go again? "When something-something fly"?

No, New York City's finest probably shouldn't try to fly (photo courtesy of Jeff Kyle)

Opportunistic politicians aren't the only skulduggerists getting in on this action though, next in line being the eminent economist Jeffrey Sachs who proclaimed that

There are alternatives to runaway climate change. North America has vast reserves of wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and other zero-carbon energy to power the United States, Canada, and Mexico. New York can go green and electric by midcentury through electric vehicles, electricity-powered public transit, and electric heat pumps for buildings, powered by electricity from wind, solar and hydroelectric power.

Never mind that the notion of wind as a "reserve" is about as ingenious and riveting as passing wind, but as I've pointed out earlier the notion that we can power industrial civilisation as we know it on "renewables" is based upon similar kinds of lies and deceptions that fossil fuel companies and their acolytes have used, and continue to use, in order to promote their fuel of choice. Nonetheless, Sachs also stated – and you're going to have to brace yourself for this one – that

New York hosts Wall Street, the UN and the US media, [and] it will now be the centre of climate action too.

Which, I'll admit, kind of leaves me at a loss for words. Do we all just shoot ourselves now?

If you somehow managed to stick with us, and to round out the triad of skulduggerists, the Third Amigo – the aforementioned environmentalist Bill McKibben – stated in his article "New York City Just Declared War on the Oil Industry", that

New York, for one, isn’t taking it any more.

New York isn't taking it anymore? Riiiiiight.

"I'm mad as hell and I'm – wait, what did you just say? You want to pay me how much? Umm… yeah, okay, on second thought I think I can take it a bit more. This much more!"

Although I have to give McKibben credit for his 2003 book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (which as far as I remember was rather excellent), I also can't help but think that McKibben probably should have called it enough after Enough, what with he being one of the most abhorrent examples of what passes off as an environmentalist, which in this case is someone who uses their stature to give legitimacy to obscenities like fossil-fuel-gorging New York City and thus – amongst much else – the very underpinnings of our environmental and climate change crises. To give just one example, McKibben also stated that

New York and most of the world's other great cities aren't viable if the sea keeps rising: they will be destroyed.

Which, if I'm not mistaken, should probably make one think about what exactly we're trying to preserve here: wilderness? Farmland? The "environment"? Humanity's place in it all? Or could it maybe be "great cities"? Because while I of course don't know about you, and although I'm vastly over-simplifying things here, I'm kind of the impression that rather than "New York and most of the world's other great cities [not being] viable if the sea keeps rising", it might actually be that "the seas will most certainly keep rising so long as we have New Yorks and other great cities". Don't try voicing "cynicisms" as such to McKibben though, what with he being of the reductive opinion that

Smart money has been pouring into renewables; dumb money has stuck with fossil fuel[s].

Bill McKibben and Amy Goodman (of Democracy Now!) at New York City's 2014 People's Climate Parade: "Okay, climate change. But do you also have any thoughts on the collapse of industrial civilisation and what it might imply for how we should approach the dilemma of climate change?"; "I wouldn't touch the topic with a 10-foot wind mill"; "Touché!" (photo courtesy of Eino Sierpe)

Because what we're actually dealing with here is by no means smart money vs. dumb money but rather dumb money vs. even dumber money, an equation of which you'll have to forgive me for not being sure if the common denominator is "dumbness" or "money". I'll leave you to try and figure out that one for yourself though, with perhaps a bit of assistance coming to you via our environmentalist Amigo's I-want-to-sound-even-more-ridiculous-than-the-economist-Amigo statement that

New York is different, and that's why its decision signals the start of a real rout. For one thing, of course, it's the center of world finance… [and] its money managers have a well-deserved reputation for excellence.

I tell you, I'm barely dodging these bullets here.

Anyhow, with it now cleared up for us that what the Three Amigos and all their amigoettes are concerned about isn't so much the general effects that climate change will have on us and the planet as a whole, but rather on how it will effect "great cities" and world finance, what the rest of us might find worthy of our time is to ponder over what New York City is going to try and do when it realizes that there's nobody and nothing that it can sue for the collapse of industrial civilisation. (Except God. Perhaps New York City has in fact built up high enough that it can in fact manage to sue God.)

"Roger that. Coincidentally enough we did in fact just learn how to fly, so if the commander in chief is sure we've got the bigger button then we're ready to unload on the Almighty. Awaiting your order" (photo by Iván Lara)

Because while de Blasio also stated that climate change is "perhaps the toughest challenge New York City will face in the coming decades" (I'm presuming one of the unspoken alternatives on the menu is New York City getting nuked to smithereens, something which even former president Barack Obama regarded as a possibility to be concerned about), one "non-perhaps" is that the collapse of industrial civilisation will make New York City increasingly nonviable, and with its influx of tributes perpetually dwindling it might be a good idea to think about what kind of austerity measures New York City will try and impose on the rest of the world in order to try and preserve its "greatness".

Oh yeah, and about that "greatness".

While de Blasio stated that it's his determination to "build a city that is more resilient in the face of rising waters and more powerful storms", what we find here is not only New York City's "great" synonym for resilience – opportunism – but also the delusional idea that New York City as we know it can ever come even close to what the pre-Madison Avenue word-bastardization of "resilience" actually is. Because to grasp the reality behind what New York City tries to pass off as resilience one need look no further than the idiotically described "bomb cyclone" that recently hit it, a storm that not only utterly crippled JFK International Airport and saw thousands of flights cancelled, but after a water main broke in its fourth terminal also saw the luggage of stranded passengers get deluged in a flood of water.

As tellingly described by Slate,

[I]t’s not surprising that the disruption was severe… [A]n airport like JFK… is a finely tuned and highly sensitive operation… There is no slack; its very efficiency makes it vulnerable to disruptions that are both predictable and, given the way the industry chooses to operate, unpreventable… Under pressure to run smoothly, the system overpromised its ability to do so at every turn, transforming one very snowy day into a chain of failures that would ensnare some travelers for an entire week.

Efficiency and a lack of slack are however the diametrical opposite of what "resilience" actually means. With New York City and its various facets similarly having virtually no resilience to speak of, and with it similarly having no more humility that its prodigal son cum commander in chief, it can only be expected that – supposing it doesn't get nuked first – when supplies of the "lethal product" it giddily "hooked" itself on start to dry up that it'll act little differently than a strung out junkie out to pilfer anything not tightly secured to the ground and/or locked away.

Count yourself warned.

In the meantime, and as Don de Blasio began to close off his Washington Post piece,

We know we're going to face opposition. We know powerful interests and cynical people will push back and hard. But we also know New York City has a special responsibility. We are a beacon to the world. People watch us. We didn't choose this battle, but we accept it willingly. We have to get it right and show what can be done.

I'm not sure if by "powerful interests" de Blasio was referring to the Almighty, but nonetheless, yes, New York City truly is a beacon to the world, a beacon of how much a parasite us humans can be on our fellow man.

Show us how one steals from the rich and gives to the rich New York City!

Yes, there's a second person in that photo (photo by Xu Kin)

No, Not NEOM Nor Even Women Can Save Saudi Arabia and its Monarchy from Peak Oil and Collapse [part 1/2]

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on December 8th, 2017

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You know things have taken a turn for the desperate when women have started to drive. Or rather, when they're about to start driving in Saudi Arabia.

Although repeated efforts over the years to allow Saudi Arabian Miss Daisies to drive themselves haven't managed to budge things in the slightest, it's nonetheless a bit ironic that the sole country in the world that doesn't allow women to drive automobiles is also the country sitting on the greatest amount of (easily accessible) reserves of the stuff that makes those vehicles go vroom. Strangely enough though it's not as if women are completely repressed in the kingdom built upon sand, what with women allowed to become lawyers, doctors, engineers… and jet airplane pilots. That all being so, it's hard to imagine any other reason for why women shouldn't be allowed to drive wingless vehicles (in a time and place where they're nearly impossible to function without) than to provide a leash upon women's necks for the all-male monarchy, clerics and their acolytes.

Surprisingly enough though the "inconvenient" restriction from Happy Motoring beset upon women is soon to be lifted, what with a royal decree read live on TV in September stating that come June 2018 Saudi Arabia will be ushered into the 20th century via women's permission to join men and cows in the quest to equally belch our way towards an overheated climate. Fantastic this surely is for our soon-to-be Saudi Arabian sisters in bovinity, but is this fine example of equality inherently an occasion for celebration?

Yeah, maybe not.

"Strong enough for a man but made for a woman" (photo courtesy of The Internet)

While the expected crowd of cornucopian-minded activists – that fail to realize that the world doesn't revolve around the West but rather around energy – have denounced the decree as "cosmetic reforms" and "little more than a public relations stunt designed to cement this notion of the Saudi regime as the liberator of women", nothing could actually be further from the truth. Because in reality there's one reason and one reason only why the Saudi Arabian monarchy has decided to "mend its ways", that being nothing more than the fact that it's expensive to not let women drive.

Since women who are restricted from driving automobiles can't just wait around on their husbands/fathers/brothers/sons to drive them to and from work or to do a simple errand, the citizens subjects of Saudi Arabia are forced to employ nearly a million and a half foreign workers (60% of the kingdom's domestic workforce) to work as chauffers in order to drive around Miss Saudi Arabian Daisy.

With those million and a half or so chauffers requiring individual families to fork over $500 of their own money per month as well as food and accommodation, the cumulative $10bn or so in remittances (most of which are sent to the Philippines, where most chauffers hail from) are a huge drain on not only Saudi Arabian families but the Saudi Arabian economy as well.

Until recently this detriment to Saudi Arabia's coffers hadn't been much of a problem for the rulers of the oil-rich kingdom themselves, but thanks to the 2015 crash in oil prices black gold hasn't been bringing in anywhere near the amount of foreign currency as it used to, leaving Saudi Arabia in the mind-boggingly absurd position of tumbling towards bankruptcy (which according to a 2015 estimate by the International Monetary Fund would occur by 2020 if the situation didn't change).

With the price of oil having crashed from $114 in 2014 to a paltry $28 in 2016, the difference in price not only contributed to a loss of $390bn in anticipated profits for Saudi Arabia in 2015, but thanks to a 13% reduction in its GDP – and even though it burned through $115bn in foreign assets in order to minimize the damage – it still ended up with a deficit of $136bn in 2015 and then another deficit of $107bn in 2016. Even the "magic" of economists couldn't do much with the latter figure, only able to whitewash it down to a loss of $79bn when delayed payments and IOUs to contractors were excluded. Those exclusions would include such things as the 50,000 workers that the Binladin Construction Group terminated without having received their back-pay, and who upon having exit visas foisted upon them (necessary to leave the country thanks to the slave-like kafala system) decided to stick around and torch a fleet of company buses instead.

Just another day in paradise (photo of non-Binladin bus courtesy of Ulises Vizcardo)

With oil windfalls accounting for 90% of the treasury's revenue (it pumps one in nine barrels consumed worldwide everyday), Saudi Arabia's foreign assets not only proceeded to haemorrhage hundreds of billions of dollars from a high of $737bn in 2014 (for a while $6.5bn were being lost each month), but the kingdom's fragility was then made strikingly evident by the fact that for the first time since 1991 it was astoundingly forced to turn to the world of private finance in order to raise a 5-year $10bn loan from a consortium of global banks in order to finance its deficit.

How is it possible, you might ask, that a country with not just a bounteous supply of crude but a bounteous supply of sweet crude – that costs only $10 per barrel to extract – can be on the verge of insolvency? That would be partly due to the fact that Saudi Arabia isn't so much a country as much as it's a kingdom, a kingdom which in turn doesn't so much have a government as much as it has an absolute monarchy (or rather a theocratic dictatorship) which has to contend with the high upkeep costs of the society it's built.

Founded by king Abdulaziz Al Saud in 1932 (which is where the name Saudi Arabia is derived from), the discovery of oil some 80 years ago has allowed for a procession of kings (all sons of Al Saud) to take on the role of what is essentially CEO of the family business, a family business that happens to be an absolute monarchy, or better yet a petrocratic dictatorship. With countless scions of the royal clan expecting/requiring massive handouts (one of them is rumoured to have purchased the only privately held Leonardo da Vinci last month for $450.3mn), a population that pays no income tax, gasoline priced at a little higher than zero dollars per litre (which it has to import since it's a net gasoline importer), and so forth, prior to the recent crash of oil's price Saudi Arabia required a per barrel price of about $94.80 to break even due to its need to convert oil proceeds into payoffs to buy political loyalty, the quiescence of conservative clerics and the merchant class, as well as the subservience of its subjects.

To put it a bit crudely (no pun intended), what the aforementioned implies is that Saudi Arabia and its monarchy are screwed. Because if Ron Patterson's recent conveyance over at Peak Oil Barrel that "Saudi production peaked in 2016 at 10,338 kbpd and their average production for 2017 is down 443 kbpd so far" is an indication that Saudi Arabia has already reached its all-time peak, then that means that Saudi Arabia's prospects aren't about to get better anytime soon. Or rather, ever.

(image courtesy of Ron Patterson / Peak Oil Barrel)

Don't try and tell that to the Saudi Arabian monarchy though, what with it apparently not being too concerned with its peaking supplies of oil so much as it's leaning towards the much more palatable notion of "peak oil demand", a wishy-washy theory that has been recently espoused by the smartest men in the room over at The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Financial Times, and Bloomberg. Without delving into the notion of peak oil demand (I'll save that for another time), what the Saudi Arabian monarchy is effectively worried about isn't so much its supplies of oil peaking (and then decreasing), but rather the fabled renewable energy utopia where everybody's car is essentially powered by a strap-on of which causes demand for Saudi Arabia's oil to drop to nil.

Put a bit differently, the Saudi Arabian monarchy is worried that technology is going to make its crude energy supplies obsolete. And if you think I'm exaggerating, think again.

Courtesy of a glitzy conference held in Riyadh in late-October, it was announced by the kingdom's Crown Prince that plans were afoot to create a $500bn megacity called NEOM that – you guessed it – will be entirely powered by wind and solar energy and so will provide a "new blueprint for sustainable life". Eschewing the need for pyromaniac Filipinos and the like, NEOM will not only boast more robots than people (in a coinciding event a "female" android named Sophia was the first android in the world to be granted citizenship – in the country that has been unable to grant basic rights to women no less), but according to the Crown Prince "Everything will have a link with artificial intelligence, with the Internet of Things – everything."

Spanning an area encompassing 26,500 km and crossing into Egypt and Jordan, NEOM is "the future of Saudi Arabia", one in which will be found "digital air" for all (free Wi-Fi), driverless vehicles, a population fed by solar-panel-powered vertical farms growing hydroponic food, and so on and so forth.

With NEOM being independent of the kingdom's "existing governmental framework", and featuring cutting-edge technological innovation, environmental sustainability, and gender equality (a promotional video apparently showed women jogging while wearing croptops, although as I don't watch video I can't confirm whether or not cleavage was allowed as well), NEOM promises to be almost completely at odds with the values and image currently portrayed by the ultraconservative kingdom. As the Crown Prince elucidated himself,

We can do 98 percent of the standards applied in similar cities, but there is 2 percent we can't do, like, for example, alcohol. A foreigner, if they desire alcohol, can either go to Egypt or Jordan.

So although foreigners will have to venture elsewhere if they desire alcohol (and possibly cleavage), "Neom's duty is to be a world hub for everyone in the whole world" as the Crown Prince also explained.


Whether or not you think this phantasmagorical Jetsons-on-steroids-Bitcoin vision is even possible, there's still the issue of how the Saudi Arabian monarchy expects to be able to pay for it all, what with its forecasted 2017 break-even point of $74 dollars per barrel meaning it's still about $20 off the mark and so still going broke. Although I'll touch on this a lot more in part 2, this is, in part, where the Saudi Arabian monarchy expects its Wonder Women in shining armour to come to its rescue.

On top of the aforementioned $10bn hit that Saudi Arabian families must collectively take in order to employ foreign chauffers, there's also the fact that many women (who make up the majority of the kingdom's university graduates) find that after deducting the chauffer fees from their salaries there's pretty much no monetary point in working. And since the Saudi Arabian monarchy needs to quash those $10bn in remittances, and since it especially needs an increase in women's participation in the workforce so that it can boost its GDP (Norwegian housewives that moved into the workforce nearly doubled the tax base and are said to have contributed "more to Norwegian prosperity than the coincidental discovery of North Atlantic oil reserves"), the monarchy obviously felt it had no choice but to modernise itself by aiming to increase women's participation in the workforce from 22% to 30% by 2030, in part by giving them access to the aforementioned strap-ons.


But as much of a genuine improvement it would be for Saudi Arabian women to no longer have to be slaves to their men and so have the opportunity to join their men as wage slaves instead, they'll nonetheless still be slaves to their men. Because while come June 2018 women will not only be able to drive in Saudi Arabia but won't even need permission from a man to get behind the wheel or procure themselves a driver's license, this is by no means the most pressing demand of Saudi Arabian women and activists in general.

Because the fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabian women still live under what is known as the guardianship system, a system in which women aren't allowed to marry, work, study, open a bank account, travel abroad, nor even get certain kinds of medical treatment without the explicit permission of their guardian, this guardian of course being a male, a male who might be their husband, father, brother – even their son. That being so, newly-minted female drivers might want to take extra precautions and stick to the slow lanes, considering that upon arrival at car accidents some ambulance personnel have been known to refuse life-saving treatment to women until the woman's guardian had arrived and provided approval, nearly leading to death.

Although dissent towards the lifting of the driving prohibition was mostly muted due to the tight leash the monarchy has on the media and prominent voices, it wasn't too long ago that support for the prohibition was rather de rigueur

Nonetheless, with ten million women over twenty years-of-age (read: potential drivers and thus GDP-contributors), the monarchy seems to figure it can make even more converts via more decrees, the latest one unveiled in late-October and which is to provide women with equal access to bread and circuses (women are slowly being given permission to enter sports stadiums).

However. It wasn't a week after this latest decree that another first was achieved in the kingdom, this one being the first time in Saudi Arabia's history that the heart of Riyadh was attacked, courtesy of a group of Yemeni rebels who launched a ballistic missile towards the capital's airport.

Fortunately enough the missile was intercepted over north-east Riyadh thanks to the Patriot missile defence system that came courtesy of the decade-old deal between Saudi Arabia and the United States, the President of the United States not being able to contain his effusive glee by pointing out that

We make the best military equipment in the world… You saw the missile that went out? And our system knocked the missile out of the air. That's how good we are. Nobody makes what we make…

Perhaps. Because as a senior Yemeni air force official told CNN,

This is not the end. Saudi cities will be a continuous target. We are entering a new phase.

With this in mind, and to give the monarchy a bit of credit, could it be possible that the monarchy realizes that maybe, just maybe, those missile defence systems aren't going to be able to hold out forever, and that perhaps it might be a good idea to hedge its bets by, I don't know, testing the waters to see if it can cash out while it still can? Could it be that some factions within the monarchy have seen the writing on the wall and so have decided to make a deal?

I'll touch on that a bit more in this post's follow-up. In the meantime, and since there isn't a thing besides peeing while standing up that a man can do and that a woman shouldn't be allowed to do, let's all rejoice in the new-found privileges soon to be bestowed upon Saudi Arabian women and so stand back – way back – in awe as the next volleys of fireworks begin their ascent across the skies of Riyadh.

President Donald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz, quite possibly paying their final respects to the Age of Oil and the Age of Saudi Arabia (photo by The White House)

Collapse Step by Step, Part 4: Political Positions

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool August 6, 2017

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Adapting to energy decline and economic contraction.

 
Kincardine Yacht Club, Returning from Wednesday Night Race

In my last post I talked about some ways of expressing the nuances of political positions. I started out with the basic left-right spectrum and then moved on to the "Political Compass" , which gives us a two dimensional map of our position, using the left—right axis and the libertarian—authoritarian axis. But without too much sweat I was able to come up with four more axes that, along with those two, define what I think are the most important aspects of a political position.

There are probably more, but in this post I'd like to focus on how a government's position on each of those six axes might determine how successful it is likely to be in adapting to the challenges that face us during the next few decades. Challenges that it seems very likely will lead to the collapse of industrial civilization.

Acknowledge Limits <—> Deny Limits

We are already nicely into a crisis caused by the end of economic growth and the start of economic contraction. If you accept the idea that there are limits to growth, this is not surprising and can be attributed to a reduced amount of surplus energy due to the dwindling supply of high quality, easy to access (high EROEI) fossil fuels. The obvious solution is to prepare for and adapt to a significant decline in energy usage. Yes, we will adopt alternative sources of energy, but they are not capable of supplying us with the copious amounts of surplus energy that we became accustomed to in the twentieth century

Accepting the natural limits built into our finite planet also means accepting that we are using up the sinks that have been absorbing the pollution our civilization creates. In particular, that the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing the climate to change, and in the process making most of our other problems that much worse. Solving this problem will necessitate abandoning the use of fossil fuels, and with that a significant decline in energy usage.

If you are in denial about the limits to growth, then the current situation is probably quite puzzling and you will be casting about, looking for something (or someone) to blame things on and a way to get "business as usual" back on track. That's not going to work, but unfortunately it is likely to be the standard mode of operation for most governments in the immediate future.

In the long run, one would hope that intimate experience with limits will lead most of us to acknowledge them. But I suspect that, even then, there will still be a few enclaves hanging on where people can delude themselves that they are living the dream of progress, blissfully unfettered by any sort of limit.

Socially Inclusive <—> Socially Exclusive

At one end of this axis we have societies who feel a responsibility for the welfare of all their citizens, and to some extent all mankind and all of the other living things on this planet. They do what they can to provide for the poor as well as the rich, including an effort to limit inequality. It also includes a welcoming attitude to immigrants and refugees, and making an effort to be kind to the environment.

When the economy is contracting, the attempt is made to spread the pain around more or less evenly. There is no doubt in my mind that societies like this will do a much better job of coping with the declining circumstances in the years to come than those at the other end of this scale. There is much room for economic contraction in the lifestyles common in the developed nations, room for a lot of decline before we get to the point of not having enough to get by on.

At the other end of this axis we have societies where the rich and powerful make every effort to hang onto their wealth and power no matter what happens, with little or no concern for the poor or even the lower middle class, the bottom 80% economically speaking. As the economy continues to contract and even the rich begin to feel the squeeze, governments in these societies will become more forthright about their attitude toward the lower classes.

Every attempt will be made to replace labour with automation. Policies of "exterminism" will be applied to the poor, jobless and homeless. This term comes from Peter Frase's book Four Futures, and refers to simply getting rid of (exterminating) the "impoverished, economical superfluous rabble". I think it is pretty reasonable to expect a violent backlash from the lower classes in response to such policies. No doubt an attempt will be made to direct the dissatisfaction of the lower classes away from the upper classes using scapegoating and xenophobia, focused on one or more specific groups who are visibly different. In most of the developed world today, Muslims are shaping up to be one of the main targets.

It seems to me that U.S. is positioned at the exclusive end of this scale, with northern European social democracies at the inclusive end, and countries like Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand somewhere in between.

Fiscally Liberal <—> Fiscally Conservative

One hears fiscal conservatives complaining about "tax and spend liberals", implying that increasing taxes will have a negative effect on the economy. Fiscal liberals respond that the economy always performs worse under "borrow and spend conservatives". It seems that the two ends of this political spectrum have the opposite effects from what you might think. The policies usually followed by fiscal conservatives lead to deficits, while fiscal liberals manage to reduce or eliminate deficits.

The things is that when the economy was growing, deficit financing worked well. Government spending increased growth and helped pull the economy out of occasional recessions. And money borrowed one year could be repaid the next year using a smaller slice of a bigger pie. Government spending on infrastructure and social programs benefited everyone, so it was hard to argue with borrowing money to do it. This mode of operation was adopted by many western democracies after WW II, and it worked very well until 70s when economic growth began to falter. It stopped working altogether in the mid 90s when real economic growth came to a halt and was replaced by growing debt and financial bubbles.

Balancing a budget has two aspects: spending and revenue, and progressive taxation is the key to making revenue match spending. The idea that taxation has a negative effect on economic growth is self serving for businesses and the rich, but it doesn't stand up to a close examination.

There are countries at the liberal end of this spectrum where taxes are progressive and quite high. Things seem to be working quite well there—so well that even most of the rich folks who are paying those very high taxes are content with the system.

And of course there are countries like Canada who are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, with moderately high taxes and government spending. Our budgets have even been balanced occasionally, though under Stephen Harper's Conservatives, taxes were lowered and deficits went back up. We hope our current government, under young Mr. Trudeau, will have better luck.

Sitting firmly at the conservative end of the spectrum we have the U.S. where taxes are low (and headed lower) and it is political suicide to discuss increasing them. Even poor working people seem to be against the very idea of taxation. I've asked Americans what's up with this and the best answer I've gotten, the one that comes closest to making sense, is that the American government is so corrupt that its citizens just aren't willing to trust it with their money. That may be so, but the American deficit keeps growing, despite numerous efforts to cut spending.

What can we expect to happen as the economy continues to contract? It seems to me that the U.S. deficit will grow until borrowing and printing money leads to a financial disaster that will greatly hasten the collapse of the country, hurting even those in the upper classes. More fiscally liberal countries will suffer less, managing a more graceful downward spiral.

At some point in this process, no matter how well managed, tax revenues will no longer support federal organizations like the UN, Europe, Canada or the US and decentralization will become a well established trend. It can be done the easy way, through negotiation and civilized agreements, or the hard way through secession and armed conflict. No doubt there will be some of both.

Communist <—> Capitalist

It is important to remember that this axis is about economics and not to get it confused with the types of government which are often associated communism or capitalism.

The totalitarian "communist" states of the twentieth century were actually practicing capitalism at the state level. And not very successfully. Most of those countries have since switched over to some more overt form of capitalism. At the same time, democracy has functioned best when restraining and regulating capitalism's excesses.

At the left end of this axis we have Communism. In the sense I am using here, it consists of the people in a group sharing resources and working together for their mutual benefit. The words "sharing", "work" and "benefit" give us the clue that we are talking about economics. Communism works well in small groups (up to 150 or 200 people) and was how we lived for all of our prehistory, more than two million years. And quite successfully, I might add.

At the right end of the axis we have Capitalism. It consists of a small minority of the people (the capitalists) in a group owning the resources and the rest of the people working for them to produce benefits that are enjoyed primarily by the capitalists.

The relationship between the capitalists and their workers may be outright slavery, serfdom or wage slavery. Outright slaves, who by no means have it easy, are at least provided with a minimum of food, clothing and shelter. Serfs in feudal cultures, don't have it easy either, but their lords do have certain obligations to them. Wage slaves, on the other hand, are provided only with a wage. Capitalist have no other responsibilities to them—in particular, when business is slow, capitalists are not responsible to provide jobs for all the workers who need them in order to live. And in modern capitalist societies there really isn't any other way to make a living.

This became particularly significant when we learned to convert heat energy into mechanical work and replace the muscle power of the workers with machinery. Initially, there was concern that many workers would be replaced by machinery and end up jobless. But workers were still needed to build, operate and maintain the machinery and for the last couple of centuries the economy grew fast enough to provide jobs for a growing work force and significantly increased their standard of living.

This is often pointed to as one of the great successes of capitalism, but it should actually be attributed to the increase in productivity made possible by the use of cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Indeed, capitalists did everything they could to improve their profits by reducing the amount of labour needed and the wages paid for that labour. It was only through unions and the support of left leaning democratic governments that labour made the gains it did.

Unfortunately, those days are over and with the slowing of economic growth, capitalists have been forced to try a number of strategies to maintain the viability of their businesses. And there has been a move to the right in many democratic governments which has helped with this.

Globalization, as long as shipping stays cheap, provides cheaper labour and a business environment with fewer safety and environmental regulations. Automation further reduces the number of workers required. And financialization offers a way of making profit by trading "virtual" commodities related to money, instead of real products. All this has been successful to some extent, but has worsened unemployment in the developed countries, and increased economic inequality between the working classes and the rich and powerful. This is a serious problem in consumer economies where the majority of consumers are also workers and need income to function adequately as consumers, in order to support the upper classes.

This and most of the other problems caused by capitalism occur when it is allowed to pursue short term profit (or shareholder value) to the exclusion of all else. As I said earlier, capitalism has worked best when governments have acted to restrain its excesses. Democracies have been particularly effective because with one vote per person the workers have more political power. But during the last few decades there has been a move to the right in most Western democracies and political parties, and power has slipped away from the workers and back to the capitalists.

It seems likely that this trend will continue, in an attempt to compensate for economic contraction. But it will not succeed in rescuing capitalism, which will collapse more quickly where it has the fewest restraints. Those of us with leftist leanings have always assumed that it would take action to end capitalism, but it's starting to appears that capitalism will collapse on its own, without there being anything ready to replace it.

Post collapse, with very much smaller and poorer states, and with capitalism already out of the way, and having acquired a bad reputation in the process, communities may be free to return to a more communistic approach.

Social Progressive <—> Social Conservative

The thing about this axis is that it changes over time as things that were progressive are gradually accepted and become the province of conservatives, while liberals move on to new horizons.

During the latter half of the twentieth century, in the developed world at least, social progressives won victories in gaining equal rights and freedoms for people of different races (particularly blacks in the U.S.) and different religions (particularly Jews, and at least in principle, Muslims), for women and for LGBT people. No doubt there are other similar battles to be won, but given the backlash we are seeing against the gains already made, it may not be time to move on just yet.

There are good reasons to think that society as a whole benefits when equal rights and freedoms are extended to those who have previously been excluded. That exclusion has resulted over the years in the failure to develop a great deal of human potential. Given the challenges we face currently and in the future, we simply cannot afford to do this. Excluding people for traits over which they have no control, which they did not choose, is surely unjust and it should not be necessary to explain why injustice is a bad thing.

Many people feel that as times get harder, socially conservative positions are more adaptive. I think just the opposite, but not surprisingly, that opinion is common among socially conservative kollapsniks, who see collapse as an opportunity to roll back social changes which they are not comfortable with, such as feminism, racial equality, religious freedom, and LGBT rights.

At the same time, I notice a trend for socially progressive people to hold a variety of anti-science positions. It is deeply shocking and abhorrent to me that they have bought into the wrong side of issues that are being pushed by people and companies for profit. The anti-vaccine movement lead by alternative medicine practitioners and the anti-genetic-engineering movement led by organic food producers and distributors are good examples of this, neither of which is supported in the least by the scientific consensus.

Libertarian <—> Authoritarian

It is important to be clear that this axis is about personal freedom, not economics. The libertarian movement and Libertarian political parties seem to be mainly about removing restrictions on the activities of business in order to get rich, with no concern for other people or the environment. I find that sort of activity abhorrent, and it is not the sense in which I mean libertarian at all. Anarchism might be a better term (anarchists being poor libertarians), but this term also has negative connotations for many people.

At any rate, we're talking about politics in Western democracies here, so what we are really looking at is variations in an area around the middle of this axis.

In order to make large countries like the one I live in work, the citizens must be willing to accept a social contract including the rule of law, taxation, regulation of business and the government's monopoly on violence. One receives all kinds of benefits in return, and in a representative democracy you even get to help choose the people who make up your government. This is fine unless the range of parties to choose from is so narrow that it really isn't a choice at all.

I suspect that our immediate future will no doubt see a move toward increasing authoritarianism in states that are nominally democracies. We are already seeing this in the U.S. Being a dictator may seem like a fine thing, until you are confronted with actually solving the sort of thorny problems that face many nations today. It's not as easy as it looks, and more resources are required to enforce this kind of rule than one where the citizens co-operate willingly.

I think the rise of the surveillance state is also something to be worried about. Fear is being used to manipulate public opinion so those in control can get more control. It's clearly a case of exchanging freedom for security, which always turns out to be a poor deal in the long run. The expense of watching over its citizens is something governments will be less able to afford as the economy continues to contract, but I suspect they will be eager to shoulder that expense and expand upon it.

In the long run, as a lack of surplus energy makes large states impractical, we may see a move in the other direction, to less authoritarianism and less surveillance.

And in conclusion…

I guess it's not too hard to tell, from what I've said so far, that I would pick a political party that acknowledges limits, and is inclusive, fiscally liberal, economically leftist, socially liberal but pro-science, and more libertarian than authoritarian. This combination of political positions would, in my opinion, give us the best chance of navigating the collapse of industrial civilization as gracefully as possible.

Unfortunately, due to the realities of modern politics there is no such party and most of the political positions I favour are unlikely to win any elections in the near future. The details of those realities and their consequences will be the subject of my next post.

Navigating 21st Century Hopelessness

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Published on The Doomstead Diner July 16, 2017

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Is our techno-industrial way of life fundamentally benevolent?  Is it advisable to continue perpetuating a civilization that is predicated by non-renewable fossil energy sources as well as unsustainable rates of renewable resource extraction?  Our civilization requires an ever growing GDP to be considered healthy.  This is a measure of production in terms of consumption.  Our literal benchmark for the health of our society is based on how much we can consume in a year as a nation.  The reason for this is to create monetary profit for the individuals of this society whom have shares in the corporations controlling this production.  The actual physical wealth of the world is subjugated to the tune of dollars and cents.  To make this pathway possible it requires a proletariat class willing to sell their lives for an hourly rate.  This hourly rate is the lowest possible rate so as to not reduce the profit that’s stolen from the resources of the Earth and the energies of its peoples.  This hourly rate is about making money and not about stewardship of any kind.  It does not have to be like this, but that is a delusory sentiment based on idealism. 

The road to ruin for our species began with agriculture.  Before agriculture emerged there was no need for money, and so it did not exist.  Agriculture allows for civilization which requires money to function.  With the creation of money we stratify into economic classes of people.  Once money is created life becomes about servicing this need for monetary acquisition.  Before money life is about engaging with nature to acquire food, fuel, fiber, medicine and shelter.  In aggregate these actions create a healthy human culture.  Agriculture allows for money and removes the limiting factors for our numbers.  Before agriculture the limiting factor is the amount of food that can be sustainably hunted and gathered.  The hunter/gatherer life is mostly nomadic as we follow the animals and plants through the seasons which define their lifecycles.  Our lives are imbued with rich somatic meaning as we engage with the body of nature.  We are from this Earth, and we inhabit it as a corporeal being made of the elements.  We evolved both physically and spiritually within the framework of our physical Earth.  Our health depends on engaging with nature to create life and its meaning.  The fall from paradise began with domestication which is nothing less than the taming of wild nature.  Domestication is tandem to agriculture and literally creates civilization.  What is being civilized if not the opposite of wild?  The two are anathema to one another. 

Agriculture means that we stop moving around.  It means that we domesticate ourselves as well as the wild beasts of nature.  It sets up the conditions that allows for a great competition between us and nature.  All of a sudden our culture becomes one of domination and control rather than harmony.  Being rooted in one place we begin building monuments to hubris.  We get bored and invent competition.  We stockpile food and create war and plague.  We set up the conditions for disease and famine and warfare (although nomadic people still do occasionally fight with opposing tribes).  We argue and debate and create inequality amongst our people.  Life becomes a struggle to create meaning and avoid boredom.  Eventually, as we move further and further from our natural origin, habitat, and culture the enchantment of being evaporates. We are left with a driving urge to consume to fill this void of meaning that emerges due to our domestication.  Time continues forward and our habits create technologies to service convenience.  We become lazy and our bodies grow fat with our sedentary nature which arises from our domesticated captivity.  No longer do we need our bodies for anything more than acquiring money.  We then want pleasure to fend off boredom and meaninglessness.  Life is no longer about dancing in the wild where we are from and where we return to.  Civilization is nothing more than something to do in the great illusion that we create for ourselves.  This is the way that it is.  The Matrix was born with the first surplus of cereal grain. 

Is there anything that can be done about this?  It seems to me that we are at the end of this failed experiment in hubris.  There is no harmony in domination and control and consumption.  There is only waste, disease, and poison by way of ecocide and genocide.  Our quest for the production of unlimited energy against the gradient of entropy has created cancer.    In the end we cannot dominate nature.  Aside from money the quest for domination  is the great fallacy of civilization.  We cannot think our way out of the limiting factors of ecology.  Our modern techno-industrial civilization will run out of the fossil blood that sustains it.  We will lose the capacity to safely maintain the nuclear power plants that liter the surface of the Earth.  They will spew out DNA damaging clouds of radioactivity as they have already begun doing.  The rain will become poisonous to life.  As we fight to continue this failing technotriumphalism we will continue increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere which will continue heating the human supporting biosphere.  Natural disasters will continue increasing in number and severity.  Our hubris has metastasized into a cancer that will shrink our settlements as the habitable regions atrophy.  Nothing is going to stop this process now.  All that remains is answering the question of what to do about this inevitability.  We have entered into the age of doom. 

There is no escaping this destiny that we have perpetuated.  The most unfortunate aspect about this hopelessness is that man cannot live without hope.  Hope makes life worth living.  Is hope itself a delusion?  What are we to hope for?  The nature of existence is a destiny with death.   The time we have between birth and death needs to be animated by meaning.  Meaning is derived from a harmony with all life.  Our civilization is marked by domination and control.  There is no harmony in control.  The great struggle is finally about the nature of life because life wants to live.  We must maintain ourselves within the boundary of our skin while we are here walking the Earth.  The overwhelming desire is to do this devoid of pain and misery.  The tragedy of man is to think that he can avoid his own nature by the creation of a technological utopia.  Life cannot be about domination and control, but that is what man forces it to be.  We are teetering in a suspended animation just before the moment of expiration.  We are flailing about in denial of this process of resolution.  Maturation as a species must culminate in an acceptance of suffering and death.  We must accept our temporary nature, stop struggling, and lie down in the great current of life.  We swim against this entropic process everyday as we participate in this civilization.  We collectively attempt to keep the center from flying apart under the pressures of our own technologically created centrifuge.  We struggle in vain against the pressures of physical dissolution.  We create illusions to fight against the natural process of becoming to fall apart. 

The first act was rife with physical struggle within the framework of existing in harmony with nature.  Hubris arose and we thought we could become gods using the power of physical manipulation.  We thought we could master the universe with our cleverness.  We are collectively a breaking wave, and nothing will stop the pull of gravity as we are recycled back into the void which we originally manifested from.    Idealism is nothing more than the ravings of a mental lunatic.  Idealism is a delusion that is born from the struggle to acquire more than we need.  Fighting against entropy is finally not worth it.  Yet this fight is what it means to inhabit a physical body. 

In the final analysis life must be about observing beauty.  Without beauty it is not worth living.  We have made a mess of this beautiful blue/green orb that’s floating about the universe.  We have partied our way to desolation.  Yet the Earth keeps spinning around in outer space in its dance with the sun that sustains us.  Every morning the sun reemerges to give us another day of life.  Our great challenge is to honor this life by creating beauty and not it’s opposite.  We have created a lot of ugliness.  Maybe the secret to this 21st century hopelessness is to learn how to make beauty out of malevolence.  Or maybe we should just stop struggling and accept the final act of misery which we have written for ourselves?  Or maybe we can simply embrace our collective ugliness with grace?  Without love and beauty this great struggle that is life is not worth it.  The greatest challenge that we face is learning to love and observe beauty even as love and beauty vanish under the oppression of our own collective delusions. 

The nature of a body is to act.  How are we to act?  We should act to minimize suffering for all sentient beings while honoring our bodily nature.  Every day is a new day to make the right decisions.   Yet every day requires a certain amount of money.  This is why my conclusion is that a lifestyle that requires no money is the only truly benevolent lifestyle.  That lifestyle is a fiction in this world we have created.  This world is quite literally hell on Earth.  Therefore we must learn to love and find whatever beauty we can while in hell.  We must not resist as we realize our ultimate destiny of assimilation with the machine we have created.  I’ve tried finding work arounds to the truth that life is suffering, but the only way to win is to let go, stop resisting, and accept the nature of this great delusion.  Manifestation is transience in action, and our resistance arises within that transience only to dissolve back into the void that is death.  All that is created within that resistance is more suffering.  Yet still we must act in the world, and how should we act when our actions only serve to create more suffering?  The heart of our civilization is the creation of suffering, and to participate only adds to this toll.  Not participating in this civilization can be our only spiritual redemption.  For the life of me, and my children, I cannot figure out how to not participate. 

The Economics of Unconventional Oils (externalities be damned)

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on July 13, 2017

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The Economics of Unconventional Oils (externalities be damned)

There are a multitude of reasons why the pursuit of unconventional oils represents obscene
environmental vandalism. It is homicide, suicide and ecocide. Water table contamination, surface
water contamination, destruction of arboreal and agricultural land and the triggering of earthquakes
are well known consequences. The carbon emissions are markedly greater than conventional oil
production and will vastly increase the probability of near term human extinction from climate
catastrophe.1
Irrespective of the trivial matter of human extinction, the purpose of this article is to focus on short
term profits, the only matter of interest to those vocal local yokels in politics and the media. This
article aims only to assess the economic viability of unconventional oils in a capitalist market, while
blithely disregarding any externalities they impose. Let us look at the pursuit of unconventional oils
solely as a cold blooded business proposition from the point of view of a self serving psychopath
interested only in short term greed. To hell with the suffering and death of most species on this
planet or the well-being (or even existence of) future human generations.
In this article I acknowledge key energy thought leaders such as Hall, Murphy and Lambert and
especially Louis Arnoux whose "five fingers of net energy allocation" metaphor I previously
borrowed and modified. I also acknowledge bloggers that have helped clarify concepts about
EROEI and net energy who I may have inadvertently borrowed from. Nicole Foss likened
harvesting unconventional oils to sucking dirty drops of stale beer out of a floor mat, a useful,
graphic and memorable image. However analytical readers may want a more quantitative argument
before they can be convinced about the economic worth or otherwise of unconventional oils.
Let us start from first principles: (for further explanations and graphs regarding energy and
climate concepts, please see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfVphmxPOXo )
1. Material wealth can be defined as having easy access to a wide variety of high quality goods
and services
2. Material wealth in our industrial economies is derived almost entirely from our energy
utilisation of fossil fuels, whether directly e.g. jet fuel for planes, coal for electricity
generation; or indirectly e.g. fossil fuels used to construct nuclear power plants or so-called
renewable energy projects. Human and animal muscle power pale into insignificance when
compared with the vast energy capacity of fossil fuels to manufacture and deliver our
modern day goods and services. Mass agriculture is also utterly dependent on fossil fuels.
3. Petroleum is the king of all fossil fuels in terms of its utility, flexibility and energy density. It
constitutes many essential, irreplaceable links in our industrial manufacturing and supply
chains. Without those links, the chains are shattered and industrial civilisation grinds to a
halt. We have no large scale replacement for conventional petroleum. None.
4. The richest, the most valuable sources of oil have been the conventional oilfields prior to, at
and shortly after peak production (rich being defined as bearing oil which is easy to extract
and refine and is quantified as having high EROEI, which is energy returned divided by
energy invested). Conventional oilfields start out being rich (high value fields) and
inevitably become poor (low value fields), with plummeting EROEI on the down slope of
the Hubbert curve as they deplete. EROEI defines the value of an oilfield2
5. Net energy is energy returned minus energy invested and is analogous to net income. Gross
income is meaningless. It is only after we have deducted business expenses, loan
repayments, taxes etc. from our gross income that we can calculate our net income and
know our true wealth (or poverty) and our true purchasing power. A high net income allows
generous allocation for many different expenditures including luxuries and fripperies. That
is what it means to be rich. A low net income forces us to contract our previously complex
lifestyles, to simplify our lives and to focus on basic needs. That is what it means to be poor.
High and low net energy availability are exactly analogous to high and low net incomes. Just
as gross income is meaningless, gross energy production is meaningless. Therefore all
those fancy looking graphs published by IEA, EIA, CERA, USGS etc which only report
gross liquid hydrocarbon production nowadays are meaningless. On the upslope of the
global Hubbert curve in the old days of high EROEI, i.e. before 2005/6, it was reasonable to
treat world gross oil production as being roughly equivalent to net oil availability. Now that
we are well down the global Hubbert curve in 2017, any figures and graphs that only report
gross oil production and do not at least attempt to estimate net oil availability must be
regarded as fraudulent. Even if world gross oil output appears to be the same in 2017 as it
was in 2005, if our net oil availability has halved, then the FACT is that we have lost half
our wealth. Net energy availability defines the material wealth and complexity of a
society. As net energy availability declines, industrial society becomes materially poorer and
is forced to simplify and to focus on basic needs3. Complex technological systems are
inevitably lost because it is no longer possible to allocate energy to support them. Pension
plans, promises of future retirement payments based on old, false assumptions of endless
future economic growth, will never be delivered.
6. Industrial societies are becoming materially poorer and are being forced to simplify as
net energy availability declines. This is happening right now. This is an utterly
inescapable fact, a law of physics as absolute and as certain as the law of gravity, no
matter what any mainstream economist or politician (= deluded idiot who talks about "return
to growth") will have you believe. The pie is shrinking, however one particular glutton is
hell-bent on keeping “their” slice of the pie the same size as back in the “good-old-days”
before Peak Oil. In a zero sum game, this can only achieved by escalating their background
activities of fraud, theft and murder – otherwise known as propping up the US petrodollar
and intensifying US "regime change" foreign policy. This arrogant sense of entitlement is
now hugely increasing the risk of global nuclear conflict4. The only possible way we can
maintain global peace is to educate everyone about the inevitability of our energy descent
and implement voluntary and fair reduction of fossil fuel use by everyone, everywhere. Such
reduction is inevitable, the only question is whether we pursue systematic, planned
reduction or whether we go cold turkey and collapse into violent chaos. Maintaining peace
will require a miraculous mass epiphany and widespread magical transformation eg America
turning into a socialist, rural, agrarian, non-violent society – everybody essentially becoming
Amish. Judging by the quality of our current so-called “leaders”, including the ignorant
and/or stupid and/or corrupt “knowledge leaders” in the universities, and the clueless,
deluded, sedated and distracted general public who blame “the other” for all their problems,
chaotic collapse is a dead certainty (dead being the operative word, die-off being the
operative phrase).
7. Net energy availability falls of a cliff when EROEI falls below 5:1, however industrial
collapse will occur some time before that (according to calculations by many energy
experts). Indeed economic stagnation and contraction occur when EROEI falls to around
10:1 (which is happening now) and that alone can trigger sudden financial/economic
collapse (and/or warfare) before further EROEI decline is able to occur. In other words if
EROEI declines to, say, 9:1 and society collapses, oil output will then suddenly drop to
virtually zero, rather than following a theoretical smooth downward curve with
progressively declining EROEI ratios.
8. Many pundits have stated that money is a proxy for energy. At face value this sounds
reasonable, given that money is a proxy for goods and services and the production/delivery
of all goods and services are mediated by energy. However such a premise also assumes a
fair "level playing field" market with all parties being treated equally (no government
subsidies or sweetheart bank loans to favoured sons) all parties facing perfect competition,
with everyone behaving rationally, applying sane valuations to all goods and services, with
perfect information available to them at all times and with honest interaction between them
(assumptions made by neoclassical, neoliberal capitalist economists who live in a theoretical
world and have zero understanding of the real world).5
With those considerations in mind, let us assess the economic viability of conventional versus
unconventional oils using simple arithmetic:
If one US dollar is the proxy for one litre of oil6 and I invest one dollar in a pristine conventional
oil field with an EROEI of 100:1, I will get a gross return of $100 and a net return of 100 minus 1
or $99. This is my profit or net income, a huge windfall.
As the oil field ages, even though the total production of oil rises exponentially on the upslope of
the Hubbert curve (and absolute profits skyrocket), the EROEI and net profit per dollar invested
inevitably decline, albeit imperceptibly at first. At peak oil production the EROEI may be perhaps
18 or 20:1. Beyond peak, on the depletion side of the curve, even with an EROEI of 10:1 the profit
is still reasonably good. A $1 investment now provides a gross return of $10 and a net return of $9.
Conventional oil fields typically produce prolifically for several decades and after peak may decline
by about 6% per year.
Let us consider an unconventional oil source now. Calculations of EROEI vary, with wild
overestimates by oil industry pundits, but full life cycle analyses of unconventional oils show them
to be universally dismal whether they be shale oil, tar sands or Fischer-Tropsch (gas to liquid or
coal to liquid) oil. Tar sands probably have EROEI of 3:1 or less. Shale oil EROEI is at best around
3:1 in a pristine shale oil "play" in the middle of a “sweet spot”. Often hundreds of exploration
drillings are required before suitable “sweet spots” are located. All that unproductive drilling
activity takes energy (which has not been taken into account in many studies, hence shale oil
probably has a true EROEI well under 3:1). Hydraulic fracturing is very energy intensive. There is a
reason why shale oil is also called “tight” oil. The impermeable kerogen rock holds tightly on to its
oil, only giving it up when subjected to violent fracturing by high pressure injection of chemicals
and sand. Shale plays reach peak output quickly e.g. within 5 years of starting production. Just 3
years after peak production they have typically depleted by 80-90%.
If we think of money as a proxy for energy, that means if I invest $1 in the best brand new shale oil
play, I get $3 gross return and $2 net return. However any “profit” is entirely fleeting due to rapid
depletion. Furthermore the fact that all such scams are deeply mired in irredeemable debt from day
one, means that over their lifetime, their books can never balance. Compare that return with a $9 net
return for a depleting but debt free post peak conventional oil field with EROEI 10:1. This means
that only an idiot would ever invest in a shale oil company compared with a conventional oil
company, even if the reserves of the latter were depleting7.
The ONLY way unconventional oil economics can ever be on par with conventional oil economics
is when conventional oil EROEI falls to 3:1, however complex industrial civilisation simply cannot
function at such a low EROEI, it will collapse well before then. This means that the technological
capacity to harvest unconventional oil (a difficult and complex process) will be unavailable then.
Hence unconventional oil will NEVER be economically competitive with conventional oil.
NEVER.
Looking at things another way: For high EROEI oilfields, production costs are low and their oil can
be sold cheaply while still enabling them to repay previous modest capital expenditures, allowing
them to become debt free and to make a good profit over their lifetimes. For low EROEI oilfields,
production costs are high from day one and their oil must be sold dearly in order to repay their high
capex before they can ever become profitable. So long as conventional oil has a higher EROEI than
unconventional oil, it will ALWAYS be cheaper to produce conventional oil, which will ALWAYS
be priced lower than unconventional oil in a properly competitive market8. Unconventional oil will
ALWAYS be priced out of a truly free market and can NEVER be economically competitive.
Note that such considerations depend only on EROEI and are utterly independent of the
contemporary, extant price of oil. Those pundits who state that if only oil prices rise again to,
say $100 or even $150 per barrel, that unconventional oils will then become economically
viable, are dead wrong. If the price of oil rises, the exploration and production costs of
unconventional oil will also proportionately rise and any financial returns will never be able to
repay capex, ensuring that unconventional oil will always be uneconomic.
In a bogus “free” market, unconventional oils will always have to be sold below production cost
i.e. sold at a loss, if they are ever to be sold at all. The losses are borne by sucker investors and a
taxpaying public who were unwittingly duped into subsidising those scams. Capex loans for
unconventional oil projects can never and will never be repayed. This brings to mind the old joke:
Q: What is the easiest way to make a small fortune? A: Start with a large one
Why then have so many unconventional oil projects been established in North America? Because
their so-called "free” market is NOT a fair "level playing field" transparent market populated by
rational players who value commodities sanely, have perfect information available to them at all
times and who deal with each other in honest ways. Unconventional oil projects have been
surreptitiously subsidised by the unwitting tax paying public (in the form of tax breaks given to
those oily scammers by the government, so their country can achieve "energy independence"). The
North American market is populated by irrational players: greedy banks eager to hand out loans
under ZIRP and QE 9 and stupid investors who base their decisions on bogus information with no
understanding of any big picture issues. All driven by the monstrous fraud and dishonesty pervading
the industry.
Will unconventional oil harvesting die a natural death once sucker investors who have lost their
shirts learn their bitter lesson and no further clueless investors are forthcoming? You can fool some
of the people all of the time, hence snake oil scams will still pop up now and then in the years to
come. As long as this bogus economic system continues to limp along, there will always be one
sector of the population who have more dollars than sense. More than that, however, some
unconventional oil projects will still persist irrespective of any economic “rationalities”, mainly for
military and “energy security” reasons, mandated and pushed through by Deep States which are not
governed by true capitalist principles. That includes the Fascist States of America, which follows
Bernie Madoff type capitalism, not Adam Smith type capitalism.
Let us consider another hypothetical scenario conjured up by the "thousand year shale oil supply"
food fraudster named Geoffrey Annison. Let us imagine that the oil industry spreads its tentacles
worldwide to frack the living daylights out of every shale play they can possibly find, and every
drop of net oil is used to feed "business as usual" industrial scale agriculture. No oil is used for any
other purposes except for agriculture and for the extraction of more oil, not even for military
purposes, in this fantasy scenario. Surely this means that even though the EROEI is very poor at
3:1, but because we allocate oil for no other purposes, we can therefore continue industrial scale
agriculture for another thousand years? Absolutely not. Oil fracking is a high technology activity
requiring complex machinery, complex chemicals (eg special fracking fluids) and complex
processes (eg horizontal drilling) and also requires delivery of all the equipment to remote areas
(with associated housing and logistical support of their personnel) and transport of the oil out. Not
to mention the high tech purification and refinement processes. That all requires a complex
industrial infrastructure (and the manufacture and maintenance of all necessary equipment and
parts, from engines to microprocessors). The existence of such complex industrial infrastructure
requires high net energy sources with EROEI of at least 8 or 9:1. This means that the low EROEI
shale oil industry can NEVER be self perpetuating, it will always require input from higher EROEI
energy sources to operate. It is a monstrous scam. The only "benefit" of unconventional oil
extraction has been to slow the terminal decline of total liquid hydrocarbon output to date, which is
nevertheless poised to fall off a cliff in a few short years to come.
CONCLUSIONS:
– EROEI defines the value of an oilfield. A high EROEI oilfield is a rich, high value field
that can produce oil easily (=cheaply, if we regard money as the proxy for energy) and is
thus also able to sell its oil cheaply ie at a low break even price (a low price which still
allows for good profit as well as repayment of capex, which ensures overall financial
solvency of the oilfield)
– A poor, low value oilfield has low EROEI, extracts oil with great difficulty (=dearly) and
must sell its oil dearly ie at a high break even price if its debts are ever to be repaid.
– On a “level playing field” free market, unconventional oil can NEVER compete price wise
with conventional oil. If unconventional oil is to be sold at all, it must be sold below
production cost which means that the capex of unconventional oilfields can never be repaid
and they can NEVER be financially solvent and will ALWAYS be lifetime money losers.
– Net energy availability (or more specifically net energy availability per capita per year or
NEA/C/Y 3) is the primary index of true material wealth of a society (secondary indices
being fairness of energy allocation and appropriateness of energy allocation). I assert that
NEA/C/Y is a much better index of material wealth than GDP. Global average NEA/C/Y
is scheduled to plummet catastrophically in the next few years and this will affect different
parts of the world patchily. Russia and Iran, harnessing China's capacity to turn that last
remaining high EROEI energy to wealth (=goods and services), will be less affected in the
short term – unless America fabricates some bogus false flag excuse to launch a “sour
grapes” first strike nuclear attack against them4, which will bring about mutually assured
destruction. Even if by some fluke we are able to escape nuclear Armageddon, ultimately
nobody will be spared from the eventual collapse of fossil fool industrial civilisation.
G. Chia July 2017
Footnotes:
1. http://www.salon.com/2017/05/08/pollution-from-canadas-oil-sands-may-beunderreported_
partner/ I consider near term human extinction by 2100 due to climate
change related loss of habitat as a real possibility, even a high probability. This probability
increases with every new unconventional oil or gas project pursued. However the meme of
NTHE within nine years by 2026 due to climate change alone is utter rubbish and I have
completely falsified that nonsensical idea in previous essays. Nuclear war can certainly
destroy us any time soon, but that will not represent NTHE caused by climate change alone.
Climate chaos will be just one of several triggers for nuclear war. Reckless brinkmanship
fossil fuel politics (whether oil or pipeline related) i.e. resource depletion related conflict, is
a much more likely nuclear trigger in the short term.
2. EROEI analysis continues to evolve and definitions continue to be clarified. For example if
a depleting conventional oilfield needs X Joules of energy in the form of diesel fuel to run
the saline pumps to extract 2X Joules worth of crude oil, traditionally it would have been
described as having an EROEI of 2:1. The fallacy here is that the crude oil needs to be
transported to a refinery, fractionated into different components and the diesel component
must be trucked back to the oilfield to run the pumps. All those energy costs were
traditionally not taken into account. Such an arrangement may not in fact provide sufficient
net energy return to do any more than pursue a pointless extract-transport-refine-transportextract
loop. Hence an oilfield traditionally designated as having EROEI of 2:1 may in
reality, using honest accounting, have only an EROEI of 1:1 and may therefore be
completely useless apart from accelerating entropy and carbon emissions. Nevertheless
EROEI concepts are fundamentally important for us to work out the thermodynamic worth
of energy ventures and approximate values can be very useful for us to make informed
judgements.
3. http://www.doomsteaddiner.net/blog/2016/11/12/post-peak-oil-slides-for-diners/ More
precisely the major parameter which defines the wealth of a society is net energy
availability per capita per year or NEA/C/Y (other parameters for wealth definition are the
fairness of energy distribution and the appropriateness of energy allocation). Examples: We
do not regard India as a rich country even though its total net energy availability per year
may be, say, ten times that of a European country. That is because per head of population per
year, the net energy availability may only be one tenth that of the European country – the
average Indian lives in abject poverty. Even if NEA/C/Y of two particular countries are the
same, but if , say, 99% of the wealth of one particular country is corruptly and unfairly
concentrated in the hands of a 1% parasite class, we do not regard that country as rich,
because of the vast majority of the population will be living in poverty. Similarly if energy
(=wealth) allocations are highly inappropriate, then a country cannot be regarded as well off.
If a country allocates the bulk of its wealth to adequate food, water, sanitation, housing,
health, education and environmental governance sectors to benefit everybody, the people
will actually be quite well off eg Bhutan. If however a country allocates the bulk of its
wealth to military expenditure, corporate managerial parasitic activity (eg in the health
insurance industry, the banking sector etc) and bombastic political campaigns, neglecting the
more vital needs of ordinary people, the populace cannot be regarded as being well off.
Short of a popular revolution and complete reform of all their institutions, this is the
inescapable, inevitable fate of the Fascist States of America. Poverty.
4. The USA no longer has high EROEI conventional oil fields and their attempts at achieving
"energy independence" by harvesting domestic unconventional oils have proven to be
spectacular economic failures. Some schemes have been astoundingly idiotic, such as
ethanol from Nebraskan corn. You simply cannot cheat physics and the laws of
thermodynamics, no matter how loud your PR spin. America's greatest fear is the fact that
Russia, Iran and some central Asian states, whose oil output have historically been curtailed
for economic/political reasons, will possess the last remaining high EROEI conventional
fields in the world (relatively high EROEI compared with the rest of the world, however
Russia and Iran are also past peak oil production now). This is because the historically
unrestrained high volume oil producers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE are poised for
economic collapse in the near future, just as Egypt and Syria collapsed when their declining
oil production intersected with their increasing domestic consumption. Iraq is a wild card,
likely to remain in turmoil but just as likely to enter the fold of Iran, because Iraq is mostly
Shi'ite and has suffered terribly from the brutality of ISIS and Al Qaeda offshoot Sunni
Salafists, which were the monstrous creations of the USA and Saudi Arabia. The impending
relative petropower rise of Russia and Iran, with the accompanying decline of the USA, is
why the USA has been so hell-bent on regime change and on installing US puppets in those
countries, employing all manner of fabricated fake news to bring it about. That will not
happen because the world is now wise to the dirty tricks of the CIA. If Russia and Iran liaise
with China (with its massive industrial capacity), if those three trade in their own currencies
and sideline the US petrodollar, that triumvirate will economically dominate the world.
Europe and East Asia will inevitably gravitate towards them. This is in fact happening right
now, especially with the “belt and road” initiatives. The USA, who call themselves the
"indispensable nation" (indispensable to themselves), will be marginalised and will descend
into abject poverty even as the nations they despise and demonise achieve reasonable
"moderate prosperity". This will grate on American sensibilities no end. America will never
be great again but it will certainly grate again, just as it grated under Bush Jr, only worse.
The entrenchment of fanatical chickenshit armchair warmongering right wing psychopaths
in the US administration, irrespective of whichever political party occupies the White
House, bodes ill for the world, particularly as their meme of a "winnable nuclear war" (using
first strikes and theoretical anti ballistic missile shields) continues to bounce around the
hollow echoing corridors of that mental asylum10. The only role the USA now plays in the
world is that of spoiler, mass murderer and probable harbinger of human extinction by
nuclear war. The USA is not simply a schoolyard bully who steals the ball and runs off,
spoiling the game for everybody. The USA is a schoolyard bully who wears suicide bomb
underpants and is planning to detonate it on the playground, believing that their kevlar
jacket will prevent their own head from being blown off.
5. In a hypothetical ideal free and fair market economy, money should be a proxy for energy.
In the real world, that is only partly true. Unfortunately in many cases, money (and most
money exists as digital currency in the stockmarket) represents pure vapour with no value
whatsoever or even negative value as in the case of the collateral debt obligations of the
subprime mortgage scam, which in reality were liabilities, so-called “toxic assets”.
Unconventional oil scams are even more toxic, both literally and figuratively and are only
promoted by fools or liars. “EIA’s projections have been off by wide margins. In 2014 the
agency cut its estimates about the amount of recoverable oil in California’s Monterey shale
by 96 percent. And in 2012, research from the U.S. Geological Survey forced the EIA to cut
its estimates of how much shale was accessible in Poland by 99 percent"
http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/11/10/sapping-thesweetspotshowlongwillusenergyboomreallylast.
html. It is true that some people made
money from those scams, specifically people who cashed out before those pyramid schemes
reached their peak share price (or from short selling just before price collapse). However the
only people who promote those scams as profitable enterprises are people who should be in
jail.
6. This overview is simplified for the sake of explaining certain concepts. Proper detailed
analysis would specify exactly what that one litre of invested “oil” consists of (petrol?
diesel? or a mix?) and that the energy returned should also be in the form of similar refined
fractions, to compare like with like. It should also incorporate the energy costs of crude oil
transportation/refinement and distribution of the refined products.
7. Given the monstrous level of deceit in the oil industry, even investment in conventional oil
nowadays is a money losing prospect due to fraudulently overstated reserves. Consider
Saudi Aramco who tried to sell 5% of their assets in 2016. Despite glossy brochures they
refused to disclose their true remaining oil reserves or allow any inspection. Independent
valuers Wood Mackenzie reckon that Aramco have overvalued their assets by 500%
http://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/Cooking-The-Books-Saudi-Aramco-Could-Be-
Overvalued-By-500.html. Few took that bait, hence the 2016 offer fizzled. They will try a
formal IPO in 2018 but only suckers will buy into it. The only sane investment nowadays is
not oil or gold or silver or diamonds but climate resilient land on which you can establish
your off grid permaculture homestead (and the purchase of associated necessary items eg
tiny house, solar panels etc). The only truly valuable currency in the world is the currency of
trust you must build with “aware” people. Unfortunately not all “aware” people are
necessarily trustworthy.
8. It is a different matter if the conventional oil producers unite politically to raise their oil
prices well above production costs to maximise their profits, however they have not done so
in recent years. Indeed they have been using artificially low oil prices as a weapon.
9. Zero interest rate policy only applies to interest on the savings of bank depositors, those
working stiffs who struggle, scrimp and save to put a little something aside for a rainy day in
these difficult times. ZIRP maximises bank profits while screwing the little guy. The banks
of course continue to charge interest on any loans they provide to any borrowers eg
investors in shale oil scams. Those loans are created out of thin air by the fractional reserve
banking system, hocus pocus made ever easier by government quantitative easing policy.
The funny money of QE is also created out of thin air by the government. It does not cause
general inflation because it is money which is unavailable to the general public, only to big
ticket borrowers. It does however cause inflation of share prices in the stockmarket which
feeds ever more irrational exuberance among the Ponzi investors AKA suckers. Whatever
the situation, the banksters will still get their year end bonuses for any loans they hand out,
whether those loans are ever repaid or not. This is the definition of Bernie Madoff
capitalism.
10. In comparing Trump's White House with a mental asylum, I must apologise if I have caused
any offence to any mental asylums.

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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And so it continues.JOWLink: https://thenewdaily.com.au/news/state/sa/2020/11/27/fires-heatwave-australia-november/Text: Fires ignite as sweltering heat moves across SE Australiasa bushfire emergencyThe CFS says the fire may pose a threat to pub...

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Figured it was about time for you guys to be getting a little early winter. Well done.

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