Book Review | When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on April 30th, 2017

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I left off last week's post – "Money Doesn't Grow on Trees, Industrial-Scale Renewable Energy Does" – by mentioning the existence of a rather excellent resource. By that I didn't mean an energy resource, but rather a book – a book that nonetheless gives a rather fine breakdown of our various energy resources and their applicability to a world in the midst of peak oil and declining EROEI levels. That book would be When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation by systems analyst Alice J. Friedemann.

But before I get to the book, it's worth reiterating from said previous post the notion that just as the coal lobbies, nuclear lobbies, and all the other "dirty" fuel lobbies are wont to exaggerate and obfuscate the specifics of their energy resources, so too are lobbyists for the large-scale application of "renewable" energy sources more than willing to exaggerate, obfuscate, and even fudge the facts when it comes to conveying the benefits and advantages of their energy resources. And as I also pointed out, the latter is just as often the work of PR agencies and other marketeers, the goal effectively being anything but conveying a clear understanding of our current energy situation. Friedemann perfectly explains why this is (italics mine):

In business, …analysis is essential to prevent bankruptcy. Yet when scientists find oil, coal, and natural gas production likely to peak within decades, rather than centuries, or that ethanol, solar photovoltaic, tar sands, oil shale, and other alternative energy resources have a low or even negative energy return on the energy invested, they are ignored and called pessimists, no matter how solid their findings. For every one of their peer-reviewed papers, there are thousands of positive press releases with breakthroughs that never pan out, and economists promising perpetual growth and energy independence. Optimism is more important than facts. And, it's essential for attracting investors.

So don't let a title like When Trucks Stop Running give you the impression that Friedemann's book is simply one about the energetic options for the trucking industry, since what it actually does is use trucks as an interesting starting point for how to understand the viability of the various energy options available to our declining industrial way of life.

While it was coal-powered trains and railroads that, as described, allowed for extensive inland settlements distant from shipping ports, it was cheap oil supplies after WWII that allowed for the even more distant and scattered suburbs – "truck towns" – thanks to the proliferation of diesel-powered trucks (ten million trucks in the U.S. alone), the millions upon millions of miles of road (4.1 million miles in the U.S. alone), and the just-in-time transport enabled by it all. With our industrial civilization now largely built around the continued operation of these trucks, Friedemann then explains that if our current way of life is to be maintained – and since supplies of various fossil fuels are finite and have begun, or are to soon begin, peaking – this suggests a turn towards renewables to power those trucks. But as is pointed out, renewables themselves are just as dependent on trucks as the rest of our modern, industrial civilization is: trucks are needed to transport massive wind turbine blades and the rest of their thousands of components (more than 8,000 in all), they're necessary to transport the cement needed for windmill sites, they're necessary to build and maintain the very roads they themselves travel on, and so forth.

You don't see many Amish men and their horses hauling those things around on dirt roads

The underlying question then becomes: How can the trucking system be adapted to run on alternative fuels in order to remain viable in a world of depleting fossil fuels of which said trucks rely on? Because if the trucking system can't be adapted, then there wouldn't be much reason for building out the large-scale windmill, solar photovoltaic, and all the other fandangle electricity generating ideas being hyped.

For starters, diesel-engine trucks can last decades, this implying a decades-long replacement time due to the billions of dollars already sunk in said trucks of which isn't going to be thrown away. Simultaneously, a chicken-and-egg problem exists of an aversion to buying alternative-fuel trucks due to the non-existence of fuelling stations, buttressed by an aversion to the building of alternative-fuel stations since the alternative-fuel trucks don't exist either.

What is ideally called for then is a "drop in fuel" – a fuel that utilizes the existing infrastructure and so works with the engines and pipeline systems we've currently got. But as Friedemann explains, ethanol and biodiesel can't travel in oil pipelines for a variety of reasons, one of these being the resultant corrosion of said pipelines. (Instead, ethanol will continue to travel by trains and trucks powered by twice-as-energy-dense… diesel.) Furthermore, hydrogen isn't a drop in fuel for the simple reason that it can't be used in existing engines, never mind that it would ruin existing oil and/or natural gas pipelines anyway. And although natural gas already has pipelines to be transported through, it can't be used in existing engines either.

In short, a drop in fuel doesn't exist.

That being the case, Friedemann proceeds to break down the three most notable alternatives to diesel-powered, internal-combustion-engine trucks: battery-powered trucks, hydrogen-powered trucks, and trucks running on a catenary system (an overhead wire system as used by trolleys/trams/streetcars).

Battery-powered trucks:

While it might be possible to get a battery-powered remote-control Tonka truck with a cute little Tesla sticker on it, the battery-powered trucks that matter are the massive ones that can haul 30 tons of cargo or pour cement, generally weighing more than 40 times your average car. Problem is, the amount of batteries needed to allow a truck like this to travel an appreciable distance results in a significant dent in available cargo space, which is then made even worse by the decreased amount of payload a truck can carry due to the sheer weight of the batteries themselves. This doesn't make for economical transport, and nor does it help that the advancement of batteries is bumping up against physical and thermodynamic limits (as Friedemann has explained on her blog, Energy Skeptic). But supposing you've got the money to burn (and/or have made some key donations to people in the right government departments and/or positions) and wack it all together anyway, the inherent limitations to the energy density of batteries not only dictates the need for more frequent stops, but for prolonged stops of several hours in order to recharge the batteries. As if that weren't bad enough, battery-powered trucks have many performance issues, such as mediocre acceleration and problems driving up steep hills, shoddy performance in subzero temperatures, declining range as batteries degrade, and simply cost much more than a conventional diesel truck. As a result, the battery-powered trucks currently in use are heavily subsidized by governments and exist in the form of smaller-sized hybrids used for garbage pickup since this allows them to utilize all the stopping and starting to recharge their batteries. In other words, they aren't even the type of truck that hauls large loads and travels for long distances without stopping.

I stand corrected. Even Tonkas use diesel – turbo-diesel! (photo courtesy of Dana Martin)

Hydrogen-powered trucks:

As should go without saying, hydrogen isn't a fossil fuel we mine from the ground but rather an intermediary of sorts that other energies (such as from wind, solar, etc.) can be transferred over to for storage or other means of usage. In other words, hydrogen isn't an energy source but more like a battery, and since it takes an enormous amount of energy to split hydrogen from water (water which must be very pure), 96% of H2 is derived from natural gas. In effect, hydrogen has an abysmal efficiency rate due to the multiple stages where energy is lost – liquification, hydrogen re-forming, fuel cell efficiency, etc. On top of all this, hydrogen-powered trucks are so horrible at acceleration that they actually require a secondary propulsion system – batteries – which results in a single truck costing more than a million dollars each – in comparison to the $100,000 or so for a diesel truck.

Catenary system:

Problems quickly appear here due to the frequency of trucks travelling on the system – once every few seconds versus trolley/tram/streetcar systems in which passenger vehicles generally come once every ten minutes or so. This puts a significant strain on the system due to the enormously large loads of electricity that must pass through the overhead wires. Moreover, the tens of thousands of trucks that would travel on a single system each weigh twice as much as one of the few hundred trolleys/trams/streetcars on an urban transit system and so require much more energy to move. Then there's the massive overhead costs to install such a system over tens of thousands of kilometres (at several million dollars per kilometre) and the abhorrent amounts of electricity that tens of thousands of trucks would necessitate, compounded by the fact that catenary enabled trucks also require an added battery or fuel cell system for those times when trucks need to drive off the catenary system towards a delivery/pick-up point (or simply overtake another vehicle), or for those times that the power goes out and one doesn't want the highways to turn into McParking lots.

And that's all supposing that there's even enough energy in the first place to charge those batteries, or to be a feedstock for the hydrogen fuel cells, or to power the overhead catenary system. Because while being a slim and easy-to-read 131-page book, When Trucks Stop Running also gives a barrel-by-barrel, kilowatt-by-kilowatt account of why none of our fossil fuel energy sources – not oil, not coal-to-liquids, not natural gas, not even any of their combination – are capable of maintaining the trucking system and thus our current industrial way of life. Likewise, the book also conveys why no amount or combination of renewable energies are enough to maintain a trucking system which is needed to maintain a… renewable energy system. And sorry, Friedemann also explains why energy storage systems are a crapshoot as well.

In effect, you aren't going to find much in When Trucks Stop Running to help sell your favourite brand of snake oil in order to prop up your Madison Avenue lifestyle. Otherwise, it's an excellent read.

Without fossil fuels, how will the trucking industry be able to move around all the
components necessary to maintain the trucking industry? (photo by jeshua.nace)

That all being so, Friedemann suggests in summation that rather than waste the fossil fuels we've got left on attempting to build out systems that won't have much of a shelf life, we'd be much better off using that fossil energy to convert away from industrial agriculture, to build passive solar houses and buildings, maintain and upgrade domestic waterway transportation infrastructure as well as other low-energy systems.

Regardless, no PR agency, or energy lobbyist, or charlatan is going to be content with letting Friedemann get away with the last word here. For as was mentioned in the passage of hers I quoted earlier:

[W]hen scientists find [uncomfortable facts], they are ignored and called pessimists, no matter how solid their findings. For every one of their peer-reviewed papers, there are thousands of positive press releases with breakthroughs that never pan out…

And you know what that means, right?

Elon Musk just announced the unveiling of the Tesla Semi truck!! And it's "Seriously next level"!!

Okay, okay, I don't mean to say that the latest MuskMobile will "never pan out", just that Concordes generally necessitate too much energy to make them viable without significant subsidies of one sort or another. And that isn't to say that there's anything inherently wrong with subsidies either, just that while Friedemann also points out that "it is energy, not money, that fuels society", it is also energy, not money, that fuels subsidies (money is after all a proxy for energy, as I've previously written).

In other words, using energy to subsidize energy probably isn't much of a viable long-term plan, but it can certainly score you the starring role as the latest messiah in this age of optimism being valued over facts.

Sorry there Elon, but it looks like even the big boys realize their Tonkas have no
choice but to use diesel – mighty diesel! (photo courtesy of Wallace Shackleton)

Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees, Industrial-Scale Renewable Energy Does

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on April 19th, 2017

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When you wish upon a star the Blue Fairy sends Tinker Bell, who plants a magic seed, which grows into a giant beanstalk, which leads you to the goose that lays golden eggs, which can buy you all the renewable energy you could ever want. The End.

Follow the headlines and you can hardly be blamed for thinking that we're on the cusp of a monumental renaissance, one that'll usher us into a renewable energy paradise and allow us to maintain our profligate first-world standard of living for… well, forever!

My favourite recent headline indicative of this supposed renaissance came via the website Ecowatch (by no means a lowly-ranked website), which proclaimed in one of its article's titles that "California Generates Enough Solar Power to Meet Half its Energy Needs".



Well kinda half – "haaaalf." For as the article's second paragraph states,

Recent data shows California coming through. The state briefly generated enough solar power to meet nearly half of the state's electricity needs, according to data from the largest grid operator in the state, California ISO.

Let's break down this paragraph and the title of the article from which it came from:

1) Perhaps the most troublesome thing about this paragraph that should stick out more than any other is the slipshod way in which the article morphs into stating that it's not half the state's "energy needs" that were met (as the title stated) but half the state's "electricity needs" (as the second paragraph stated). This makes a huge difference, seeing how electricity is only one aspect of our energy usage – which also includes liquid and gaseous energies burned in internal combustion engines, central heating systems, etc., amongst much else. In fact, since electricity generally accounts for roughly 17% of overall energy usage, this means that it wasn't 50% of all energy needs that were supplied but 50% of 17% – otherwise known as 8.5%.

2) Perhaps the second most troublesome aspect of the situation isn't the article's clarification that the energy-cum-electricity generated wasn't even half but "nearly half" (so we're talking less than 8.5% then), but the revelation that this level was met only "briefly". That is, the most ideal data from the most ideal time of the day was cherry-picked, then inexplicitly substituted in place for… I don't know, the title didn't say – the entire day, week, month, year? Fortunately the article did in fact say, and it turns out that it was for the single day of March the 3rd. Or at least part of that day, because if one looks at the supplied graph for the 24-hour 15-hour period, one can confirm that the sun didn't in fact shine in the early morning, and that it looks like the appreciable levels of solar energy were generated for roughly eight hours between 8am and 4pm – which means about a third of the day, and so reduces the 50%-cum-(less than)8.5% to less than 3%.

Data was omitted from the evening hours in hopes that it'll encourage the sun to be less shy and so come out to play at night?

3) Last of all, it's stated that the data came from "the largest grid operator in the state", which is later in the article stated to not include urban places like Los Angeles or Sacramento. So while the inner cities undoubtedly have much less energy being generated by grotesque blobs of photovoltaics than rural California, this doesn't necessarily change the energy generation percentages in the slightest. Nonetheless, the wording and situation does still nonetheless seem a little fishy, which in my book justifies decreasing the less than 3% figure by another third, meaning that California, the stated state that "Generates Enough Solar Power to Meet Half its Energy Needs", possibly produces less than 1% of its energy needs from solar. Or in others words, jack shit. (Or in other other words, Jack ain't climbin' no stinkin' beanstalk to grift geese that lay golden eggs.)

My back of the envelope guess apparently wasn't even very far off, because after I realized that I'd better do some Internet sleuthing before I made an ever bigger arse out of myself, five seconds of research resulted in me finding an article explaining that in 2015 California ISO generated 15,591,694 megawatt-hours of solar electricity, out of the state's 231,965,326 total – that being 6.7%, along with 5.9% from hydro and 5.3% from wind. Multiply that 6.7% by 17% and, as I apparently wasn't very far off, we find that in 2015 California ISO produced 1.139% of the state's total energy usage via solar generation.

If that dismal number wasn't bad enough already, it also turns out that California has nearly half the entire country's solar electricity generation capacity. Jack and Jill really ain't gettin' Jack shit at the top of that hill.

Since the Ecowatch article gives nowhere near the kind of (cobbled) clarification that I just gave and instead resorts to conveying even more obfuscation and unwarranted hype, it's probably safe to say that this article's title is actually much worse than mere clickbait. One reason being, the misleading information that permeates these articles provides ample fodder for fossil fuel-backers to denounce renewables as full of BS, thus giving renewables in toto a bad name and giving many people the wrong impression of their complete futility. Secondly, while the article can not only be faulted for having a misleading title, but an ignorant-to-the-issues reader might very well come away feeling reassured that "well, the article didn't lie in the long run because it did ultimately straighten things out". In effect, a reader can consign themselves to believing that while things aren't as good as the title would have lead them to believe (if they even bothered going beyond the title, and if they even noticed some of the incongruities I pointed out), nor are things as bad as "industrial civilization is screwed". But the thing is

On top of all that, articles like the one from Ecowatch are by no means anomalies since our various forms of media are rife with this kind of claptrap.

Denmark is of course the poster-child for renewable energy Shangri-La, one example of the kind of stuff that gets bandied about being that "In the fall of 2015 Denmark generated 140% of its electricity demand with wind power". Which to me sounds like the entire three months of the season called "fall". However, not only did this stated 140% occur on what was "an unusually windy day" (as opposed to an entire windy season called "fall"), but the measurement occurred at the precise moment of – wait for it – 3am in the morning! To throw insult to injury, and as quoted in a Guardian article shoddily titled "Wind Power Generates 140% of Denmark's Electricity Demand", a representative of the European Wind Energy Association actually had the gall to then say that "It shows that a world powered 100% by renewable energy is no fantasy". No, no more fantasy than if we set our clocks to a permanent state of 3am, all went outside to blow really hard, and as a result found our energy woes to be solved.

Nor is it any more fantasy than setting our clocks to 11am, our calendars to Sunday, and similarly finding ourselves blissfully energized. Because at 11am on Sunday, May the 8th of last year, "95% of German electricity demand was being met by renewable energy". (The inclusion of the word "demand", as was used in both quotes about Denmark and its wind energy, gives me the impression that all this energy wasn't actually consumed [and certainly not stored] in Germany and for whatever reason had to be offloaded out of the country, but we'll let that one slide for now.) As said proclamation then continued, "In one of the most advanced manufacturing countries on the planet – this is an amazing feat of engineering."

Really? Is that such a feat? Because as another article described the very situation, "This demand is seen as pretty low, mostly a result of warm temperatures, the summer break and the weekend, when most commercial operations remained closed." Phew, sanity prevails. Or… or does it? Because as the paragraph then continues, "But exactly at such points of time, it can be proven how renewables are edging closer to be capable of covering 100% of the demanded energy."

!?!? Are renewable energy industry shills actually trying to sell the idea that cherry-picked data is proof of viability!? Does stealing candy from babies really mean we can have all the candy we want!? Is everybody involved in the energy industry smoking crack!?

Like that guy who walked on water it's as if you could walk on energy

Thankfully not, because as another article clarifies the similar notion that Germany now produces half of its energy using solar (of which was repeated in Popular Mechanics and Rickard Dawkins' website, and which both errantly used the word "energy" instead of "electricity"), "Last year only 4.5% of Germany’s gross electricity generation came from solar panels, far short of 50%." As it then states,

Germany's solar output varies massively during the year, and these variations can be made clear by a simple comparison. Daily output of Germany's solar panels peaked last year on 21st of July, when panels produced 20.9% of daily electricity demand. In contrast, the worst day of the year was 18th January when solar panels produced just over 0.1% of Germany's electricity demand. This second statistic has, unsurprisingly, failed to elicit any headlines.

Phew – and without any caveats!

Anyway, it's hard to not get the impression that what the wind energy lobbies, the solar energy lobbies, and whatever other renewable energy lobbies partake in is the same hype, wishful thinking, and arguably outright lies that the coal energy lobbies, the nuclear energy lobbies, and all the rest of the "dirty" energy lobbies partake in.

On top of all that, similar to how money lenders will lend to both sides in a war and ultimately not really care which side wins since they'll be coming out on top either way, PR agencies, advertising agencies, and the rest of the Madison Avenue types cumulatively couldn't care less if it's the coal industry that comes out as winners, or the fracking industry that comes out as winners, or the renewable energy racket that comes out as winners, or if Tinker Bell comes out as the supreme winner. Because whichever way it ends up, their industry is coming out on top.

And while getting paid and maintaining cush salaries is of the utmost importance here rather than clear assessments, it's probably not too far off the mark to surmise that – as Eric Janzen did back in 2008 and John Michael Greer did more recently – what's being created is a renewable energy bubble, possibly contributing to, or even causing, the next stock market crash. (The race is on frackers!)

None of this is to say though that "renewable" energies are all for naught, just that their large-scale application isn't going to work any better than "dirty" energies will at maintaining industrial civilization in light of the onset of peak oil and plummeting EROEI levels.

In the meantime, weeding through all the BS and delivering a straight assessment regarding all these energy sources is of course a massive undertaking, so next week I'll take a look at an excellent resource that has done just that.

Why EROEI matters: the role of net energy in the survival of civilization

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on March 13, 2017


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The image above was shown by Charlie Hall in a recent presentation that he gave in Princeton. It seems logic that the more net energy is available for a civilization, the more that civilization can do, say, build cathedrals, create art, explore space, and more. But what's needed, exactly, for a civilization to exist? Maybe very high values of the EROEI (energy return on energy invested) are not necessary.

A lively debate is ongoing on what should be the minimum energy return for energy invested (EROEI) in order to sustain a civilization. Clearly, one always wants the best returns for one's investments. And, of course, investing in something that provides a return smaller than one is a bad idea, to say the least. So, a civilization grows and prosper on the energy it receives. The question is whether the transition from fossil fuels to renewables could provide enough energy to keep civilization alive in a form not too different from the present one.

It is often said that the prosperity of our society is the result of the high EROEI of crude oil as it was in mid 20th century. Values as high as 100 are often cited, but these are probably widely off the mark. The data reported in a 2014 study by Dave Murphy indicate that the average EROEI of crude oil worldwide could have been around 35 in the past, declining to around 20 at present. Dale et al. estimate (2011) that the average EROEI of crude oil could have been, at most, around 45 in the 1960s Data for the US production indicate an EROEI around 20 in the 1950s; down to about 10 today.

We see that the EROEI of oil is not easy to estimate but we can say at least two things: 1) our civilization was built on an energy source with an EROEI around 30-40. 2) the EROEI of oil has been going down owing to the depletion of the most profitable (high EROEI) wells. Today, we may be producing crude oil at EROEIs between 10 and 20, and it keeps going down.

Let's move to renewables. Here, the debate often becomes dominated by emotional or political factors that seem to bring people to try to disparage renewables as much as possible. Some evidently wrong assessments claim EROEIs smaller than one for the most promising renewable technology, photovoltaics (PV). In other cases, the game consists in enlarging the boundaries of the calculation, adding costs not directly related to the exploitation of the resource. That's why we should compare what's comparable; that is, use the same rules for evaluating the EROEI of fossil fuels and that of renewable energy. If we do that, we find that, for instance, photovoltaics has an EROEI around 10. Wind energy does better than that, with an average EROEI around 20. Not bad, but surely not as large as crude oil in the good old days.

Now, for the mother of all questions: on the basis of these data, can renewables replace the increasing energy expensive oil and sustain civilization? Here, we venture into a difficult field: what do we mean exactly as a "civilization"? What kind of civilization could a renewable-powered society support? Could it build cathedrals? Would it include driving SUVs? How about plane trips to Hawaii?

Here, some people are very pessimistic, and not just about SUVs and plane trips. On the basis of the fact that the EROEI of renewables is smaller than that of crude oil, considering also the expense of the infrastructure needed to adapt our society to the kind of energy produced by renewables, they conclude that "renewables cannot sustain a civilization that can sustain renewables." (a little like Groucho Marx's joke "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.").

Maybe, but I beg to differ. Let me explain with an example. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the energy source that powers society has an EROEI equal to 2. You would think that this is an abysmally low value and that it couldn't support anything more than a society of mountain shepherds, and probably not even that. But think about what an EROEI of 2 implies: for each plant in operation there must be a second one of the same size that only produces the energy that will be used to replace both plants after that they have gone through their lifetime. And the energy produced by the first plant comes for free. Now, consider a power source that has an EROEI= infinity; then you don't need the second plant. So, the difference is only a factor of two in the investments necessary to maintain the energy producing system forever.

It is like that: the EROEI is a strongly non-linear measurement. You can see that in the well-known diagram below (here in a simplified version, some people trace a line in the graph indicating the "minimum EROEI needed for civilization", which I think is unjustified)):



You see that oil, wind, coal, and solar are all in the same range. As long as the EROEI is higher than about 5-10, the energy return is reasonably good, at most you have to re-invest 10% of the production to keep the system going, which is pretty reasonable. It is only when the EROEI it becomes smaller than ca. 2 that things become awkward. So, it doesn't seem to be so difficult to support a complex civilization with the technologies we have. Maybe trips to Hawaii and SUVs wouldn't be included in a PV-based society (note the low EROEI of biofuels) but about art, science, health care, and the like, well, what's the problem?

There is a problem, though. And it has to do with growth. Let me go back to the example I made before, that of a hypothetical energy technology that has an EROEI = 2. If this energy return is calculated over a lifetime of 25 years, it means that the best that can be done in terms of growth is to double the number of plants over 25 years, a yearly growth rate of less than 3%. And that in the hypothesis that all the energy produced by the plants would go to make more plants which, of course, makes no sense. If we assume that, say, 10% of the energy produced is invested in new plants then, with EROEI=2, growth can be at most of the order of 0.3%. Even with an EROEI =10, we can't reasonably expect renewables to push their own growth at rates higher than 1%-2%(*). Things were different in the good old days, up to about 1970, when, with an EROEI around 40, crude oil production grew at a yearly rate of 7%. It seemed normal, at that time, but it was the result of very special conditions.

So, the problem is here: our society is fixated on growth and, in order to have high rates of growth, we need high EROEIs. Renewables are good for a steady-state society but probably can't support a fast growing one. But is it a bad thing? I wouldn't say so. We have grown enough with crude oil, actually way too much. Slowing down, and even going back a little, can only improve the situation.

(*) The present problem is not to keep the unsustainable growth rates that society is accustomed to. It is how to grow renewable energy fast enough to replace fossil fuels before depletion or climate change (or both) destroy us. This is a difficult but not impossible task. The current fraction of energy produced by wind and solar combined is less than 2% of the final consumption (see p. 28 of the REN21 report), so we need a yearly growth of more than 10% to replace fossils by 2050. Right now, both solar and wind are growing at more than a 20% yearly rate, but this high rate is obtained using energy from fossil fuels. The calculations indicate that it is possible to keep these growth rates while gradually phasing out fossil fuels by 2050, as described here


Thermodynamic model of oil depletion sparks controversy

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on March 6, 2017


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This is a post by François-Xavier Chevallerau, a Brussels-based public policy professional who is in the process of setting up a new international think tank to support the emergence and promotion of biophysical economics in the public debate and the policy conversation. Here, he comments on the "Hill's Report" that was also discussed in a previous post on "Cassandra's Legacy." 





Guest post by François-Xavier Chevallerau

A report on the world’s oil depletion problem published several years ago by an obscure association of anonymous consulting engineers and professional project managers is suddenly coming under fierce criticism. 
In December 2013, an ‘association of consulting engineers and professional project managers’ calling themselves ‘The Hill’s Group‘ published a report titled ‘Depletion: A determination for the world’s petroleum reserve’. Depletion, as is well known, is the inevitable consequence of non-renewable resource extraction, and determining how this depletion will affect petroleum production has been a key focus of energy analysts and researchers for a long time.

Arriving at an estimate for the remaining extractable petroleum reserve is usually attempted by adding together the quantity of petroleum believed to be present in each field, a method which is error-prone and imprecise. The Hill’s Group’s study proposed an alternative model of oil extraction and depletion, rooted in thermodynamics – i.e. the branch of physical science that deals with the relations between all forms of energy. This model, called ‘ETP’ (Total Production Energy), is allegedly derived from the fundamental physical properties of petroleum, the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and the production history of petroleum.

The methodology used by The Hill’s Group is based on ‘exergy analysis’. Exergy in thermodynamics means ‘the maximum amount of work that can be extracted from a system’. The system being considered, in this case, is a unit of petroleum. The Hill’s Group’s study calculates the maximum amount of work that can be extracted from a unit of petroleum, using the physical properties of the crude oil in question, equations derived from studies of the First and Second Laws of thermodynamics, and the cumulative production history of petroleum. It then uses these these values to construct a mathematical model that it claims can predict the status of the world’s petroleum reserve with a much smaller margin of error than can be provided by the quantity measurement approach.

Optimistic estimates place the world’s total petroleum reserve at 4,300 billion barrels. Of that quantity the model proposed by The Hill’s Group predicts that it will only be possible to extract 1,760.5 billion barrels, or 40.9% of the total reserve. Its model suggests that petroleum’s ability to supply the energy needed to sustain its own production process is declining, that petroleum depletion is further advanced than generally assumed and that oil production will decline or even collapse much faster than commonly anticipated.

From its ETP model the Hill’s Group also derives a petroleum cost curve, which it says maps the price of petroleum since 1960 with a correlation coefficient of 0.965, making it the most accurate oil pricing model ever developed. It also says that the price of oil depends, in addition to production costs, on the amount that the end consumer can afford to pay for it, and derives from its ETP model a Maximum Consumer Price curve, representing the maximum price that the end consumer can pay over time for petroleum. It is based on the observation that the price of a unit of petroleum can not exceed the value of the economic activity that the energy it supplies to the end consumer can generate. According to the Hill’s Group, its model shows that 2012 was the energy half way point for petroleum production, i.e. it was the year when one half of the energy content of the petroleum extracted was required to produce the petroleum and its products. From then on, it says, the price of oil can only be pulled down along the descending Maximum Consumer Price curve, which it says is curtailed at $11.76/ barrel in 2020. At this point petroleum will no longer be acting as a significant energy source for the economy, and its only function will be as an energy carrier for other sources. In other words, the oil industry as we know it will disintegrate, with a myriad of negative consequences for the world economy.

The Hill’s Group’s original report was published over three years ago, and a second version was published in March 2015. It gained significant popularity and was favorably commented on many blogs and websites. All this however seems to have change, and the Hill’s Group’s ETP model is now coming under fierce criticism from various sources:

‘SK’, a professor emeritus in the department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering at a Major U.S. University, delivered a strong critique of the ETP oil extraction model at The fact that The Hill’s Group said that a threshold for oil markets was passed in 2012 and that oil prices would tend to go down shortly after seems to give the report a superficial credibility. But according to SK the thermodynamic analysis is incorrect and therefore any calculations and graphs based on this analysis must also be unreliable.

Spanish physicist Antonio Turiel published on his website an analysis of the theoretical basis of the ETP model (in Spanish). Applying the principles of thermodynamics to evaluate the limits of the oil’s capacity to deliver net energy to society makes sense, he says, provided it is done in a proper way. The ETP model, however, is according to him based on an incorrect use of thermodynamic theory, erroneous deductions, definitions that do not make sense from a physics point of view, deficient data processing, and ignorance of the interactions between oil production and the economy as well as other energy sources. Given these important shortcomings, he says, the ETP model cannot be used for a serious discussion of oil depletion, at least not until it is fundamentally revised and rebuilt.

Another Spanish physicist, Carlos de Castro from the University of Valladolid, also published a scathing critique of the Hill’s Group’s report (in Spanish). The physical, technological and economic foundations of the report are erroneous, he says. The Hill’s Group in fact focuses on the loss of thermal energy involved in the oil extraction process (oil moving from a high temperature reservoir to ambient temperature outside), which he says has nothing to do with the energy cost of the oil procurement process for human societies. What matters to society, he says, is not oil’s thermal energy but its chemical energy – even if this chemical energy may then be used to generate heat. The ETP model, he concludes, is not an adequate model to assess the net energy derived form petroleum extraction and its evolution.

Prof. Ugo Bardi from the University of Florence is also taking aim with the Hill’s Group’s work in a recent blog post. The Hill’s Group’s report, he says, is badly flawed. While it is true that the oil industry is in trouble, the calculations by the Hill’s group are, at best, irrelevant and probably simply plain wrong. The problem of diminishing energy returns of oil production is real, Bardi says, but the way to study it is based on the ‘life cycle analysis’ (LCA) of the process. This method takes into account entropy indirectly, in terms of heat losses, without attempting the impossible task of calculating it from textbook thermodynamic principles. By means of this method, we can understand that oil production still provides a reasonable energy return on investment (EROI). It is anyway erroneous, says Bardi, to draw conclusions regarding the economy from net energy analysis. The economy is a complex adaptative system that evolves in ways that cannot be understood in terms of mere energy return considerations.

This controversy surrounding the Hill’s Group’s report reveals some inconvenient truths that the ‘peak oil’ community now has to face. The Group’s work was widely embraced and disseminated in this community, with no or limited critical scrutiny. It indeed has an aura of scientific accuracy that comes from its use of basic thermodynamic principles and of the concept of entropy, correctly understood as the force behind the depletion problem. But behind the thermodynamic terminology, it proposes a series of assumptions, not always explicit, and of complex mathematical calculations that nobody until recently had apparently taken the time to review. As pointed out by Antonio Turiel, the Hill’s Group’s work would probably not have passed a proper peer review process in its current form.

Yet the report was widely accepted and commented in the ‘peak oil’ community. According to Ugo Bardi, this episode shows that “a report that claims to be based on thermodynamics and uses resounding words such as ‘entropy’ plays into the human tendency of believing what one wants to believe“. As many in the ‘peak oil’ community want to believe in imminent collapse and disaster, works like the Hill’s Group’s report that are perceived as providing a serious scientific basis to catastrophism are widely embraced. If the scientific basis is revealed to be not as sound as initially thought, as seems to be the case for the Hill’s Group’s work, then its embrace and dissemination can only be detrimental to the peak oil community and undermine its credibility.

Energy researchers and analysts should probably be particularly cautious and vigilant when using the concept of ‘entropy’. As pointed out by Ugo Bardi, “entropy is an important concept, but it must be correctly understood to be useful. It is no good to use it as an excuse to pander unbridled catastrophism.” The problem being, of course, that entropy cannot be correctly understood so easily. As famous scientist John von Neumann (1903-1957) once advised a colleague: “You should call it entropy (…) nobody knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.




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Published on The Doomstead Diner on March 5, 2017

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I ran across a chart on Bloomberg which is perhaps the best demonstration to date that the Oil Economy is in Full On Collapse mode now.  The chart is of Oil Inventory in storage, and covers the last 35 years since 1982 of Oil Inventory in the FSoA, and is the Header Pic for this article.

Do you note the Hockey Stick nature of this graph?  For 35 years until 2014, Oil Inventories were kept within a very narrow range.  Supply & Demand were kept in balance by the folks in control of both the extraction of Oil and the production of money.  A more or less steady "growth" rate of the entire system was maintained, as oil output and population increased, the money supply increased in tandem with it, a couple of percentage points ahead which provided return on investment for those in charge of creating the money in the first place.  For everyone else, this appeared as Inflation as the cost of housing, food and just about everything else besides techological gizmos kept spiralling upward.

However, even through all the recessions through the 1980s to today, Oil Inventories always stayed inside this narrow range.  That includes the Great Recession following the 2008 Financial Crisis.  Something CHANGED in 2014 though, and my good friend Steve Ludlum of Economic Undertow pegged it to the month more than 2 years in advance with his "Triangle of Doom".  What changed at this time was that the cost of extracting oil went higher than the price the customers could afford to burn it at.  The price crashed, from over $100/bbl down to $40/bbl or so.

Charts by Steve Ludlum of Economic Undertow

August 2012 Prediction

April 2015 Reality

At this price, virtually nobody extracting oil makes a profit.  A few folks like the Saudis still have Legacy fields they can extract oil at a profit at $20/bbl, but across the whole of Saudi ARAMCO their costs are a good deal higher than that.  Here in Amerika, the Frackers may have got their extraction costs down to $60/bbl in some of their better fields, but they're still not making a profit at $50/bbl.  Just not bleeding money quite so fast,and if they are TBTF, then Wall Street keeps rolling over their loans to keep them floating another day.  This is better in the short term than having to write down $Billions$ in losses, which then would make the bank itself insolvent.

So what has occured here in the Oil Trading market since 2014?  Well, Oil Traders keep holding back selling until they can make a profit.  But in the $50 range they mostly can't, so the oil stays in a tank somewhere while they wait for the price to go back up, but it doesn't.  Meanwhile, the Extractors of Oil all around the world keep extracting, because they have to do that to pay their bills.  Crude keeps piling up because Konsumers refuse to burn the shit fast enough, because they can't AFFORD to burn it faster!

Until they lower the price DRASTICALLY, the glut will continue to accumulate.  Eventually here, they will run OUT of tanks to store this shit in, and it does cost money every day to keep the Oil you bought at one price stored in a tank somewhere to sell on another later date at the higher price you hope for.  NOBODY wants to "buy high, sell low"!  That's a recipe for Bankruptcy of course.  So they keep the oil in the tanks, and they keep filling up more and more.

Oil Tanker Parking Lot off Singapore

Inevitably, a LIQUIDATION SALE has to come here.  There is not endless room for storage of this stuff above ground, and besides that it's expensive to store all that oil. Whoever owns it is bleeding red ink as long as they hold onto it.

Now, whenever you read any of the Oil pundits, they will tell you the reason for the glut is either OPEC members cheating on their quotas, Iranians bringing more Oil online or FSoA shale frackers drilling more wells.  But is the total global production really up all that much?  No, in fact it's been going down since it peaked in August of 2015.  So if it's not the supply going up, why the glut?


Because they massage the figures everywhere else in the economy to show "growth" and nobody wants to admit being in a recession, Oil inventory keeps growing.  This figure you can't massage (well not too much), because the stuff is a physical quantity that has to be stored in…something.  So they have to know where they are going to put it.

Oil is a Global Commodity, in which the FSoA is among the largest consumers but it's not the only consumer.  Europe as a whole consumes a lot, China consumes a lot also.  All the consumption is not Happy Motoring either, a lot of it is industrial consumption.  Globally in aggregate, if the economy was truly growing we would be consuming more Oil, not less.

Sometimes when I make the Demand Argument with respect to both the price and the glut, critics will tell me, "But RE, the traffic is just as bad as ever and everybody in my neighborhood is still driving gas guzzling SUVs!".  Well, that may be true in your neighborhood, but in somebody's neighborhood somewhere it's definitely NOT true.

My best guess is most of the reduction in demand is coming from southern Europe, where they have been in severe recession for years now.  This is probably also bleeding into the Chinese manufacturing sector with declining demand for their toys.  So then they use less Oil in the manufacturing process.

With a declining amount of total production, along with a Hockey Stick graph of skyrocketing inventory, the only answer can be declining global demand for Oil.  In order to get the demand up, they have to drop the price down.  But they're already losing money at the current price in the $50 range.  So the traders keep hanging on for the day the demand will magically rebound here and the consumers will step back up to the pump and pay the prices they need to make a profit.  There is however no reason at the moment to believe that the consumers will magically get more money to pay more for the oil, they already have trouble paying for it at the price it is selling for now.

Unlike the magical world of Money where you can conjure as many digibits as you want out of thin air and which takes virtually no room to store inside a laptop, Oil is a physical commodity which must be burned to have value.  If it's not burned as fast as it is pumped, then it's going to lose value.  The traders don't want to recognize the loss of value though, because they will take a serious bath.  A bloodbath.  They don't have to take the write down though until they actually sell the stuff.  So they don't sell, they keep it stored on a tanker somewhere and pay the daily storage fees out of more borrowed money, which the banks keep lending them because they will go tits up when the traders they lent money to go tits up. No matter how much money they lend to keep storing the Oil though, eventually they're going to run out of room.  Then EVERYBODY will HAVE to stop pumping Oil until they work through the glut.  Given there is double the normal inventory, this could take a little while.  Can any Oil Producing nation go even a week without the revenue from their Oil?

This condition of extreme glut has to break, and the only way to break it is a major reduction in the price.  When that comes, there will be carnage all across the energy and banking industries.  I don't know how long before the last storage tank and VLCC tanker will be full up, but I can't imagine it is too far off.  The End Game Approaches.

Book Review | Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on February 13, 2017

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While trying to get to the bottom of the underlying reasons for geopolitical events has always been enough of a challenge, an unfortunate side-effect of the explosion of information that the Internet has provided us with is the even further erosion of the signal-to-noise ratio. The mainstream media can pretty much be ignored altogether unless the intent is to understand the context and/or see how current events are getting framed and spun by the powers-that-be, which pretty much leaves one with having to seek out more independent sources of media – such as blogs – if what is sought after is insightful and revealing material.

Supposing you've actually managed to make your way through the morass and have found yourself a few good blogs that aren't just charlatans trying to pawn off guides to buying gold or some questionable vegetable seeds, there's also the unfortunate fact that information on the Internet tends to come out in staccato bursts, not as an encompassing whole. To coalesce all this information into a proper narrative requires time and effort of course, to go along with the fact that virtually no one wants to scroll through and actually read 100,000 – 200,000 words on an Internet page. So although books can't possibly be as up to date as a blog, they can give the much needed "big-picture" account that tends to be anathema to the Internet. And that "big-picture" regarding global events of the early-21st century has fortunately now been assembled by blogger (Insurge Intelligence) and author Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed – Failing States, Collapsing Systems: Biophysical Triggers of Political Violence.

At the core of Ahmed's argument is that we're not facing a "clash of civilizations" but rather a "crisis of civilization". And at the centre of this crisis, which is all but certainly going to beset us throughout the 21st century, is the triple whammy of energy, climate and food crises. As Ahmed returns to several times, a major roadblock hampering us from taking action in regards to this "crisis of civilization" is that we generally suffer from what he calls "whole system knowledge deficit", primarily thanks to the slipshod job of what he then refers to as the Global Media-Industrial Complex. As described in Failing States, Collapsing Systems,

Despite an abundance of information, there is a paucity of actionable knowledge which translates this information into a holistic understanding of the nature of the current global phase-shift and its terminal crisis trajectory for all relevant stakeholders. While much of the human population has been denied access to such information, and thus actionable knowledge, vested interests in the global fossil fuel and agribusiness system are actively attempting to control information flows to continue to deny full understanding in order to perpetuate their own power and privilege. The only conceivable pathway out of this impasse, however difficult or unlikely it may appear, is to break the stranglehold of information control by disseminating knowledge on both the causes and potential solutions to global crisis [pp. 91-92].

In his contribution towards rectifying our knowledge deficit, Ahmed draws early attention to the fact that oil's global EROEI levels have been declining since the 1960s. Coupled with a global oil production rate whose continued increase since the 1960s has been going on at a slower and slower rate, and what we're left with is the startling correlating fact that the global growth rate of GDP has been slowly dropping since the 1960s as well [p. 27]. Energy makes the world go round.

Added to this is the fact that while abundant fossil fuel supplies have allowed for the expansion of the monetary and financial system, decreasing EROEI levels have now implied an increasing need to rely on financialization (lest our Ponzionomic system implode in on itself). Or as Ahmed puts it, "the shift from the expansion of money, to the expansion of credit (debt-money) [p. 37]". This was most recently seen by the quantitative easing (AKA "printing money", AKA credit creation) to bail out insolvent banks after the rash of predatory lending-induced consumer defaults.

In the meantime, Ahmed points out that various forms of state-level violence have been intensifying since the 1970s and then accelerated in the late 1990s, the former corresponding with the period when oil's global EROEI level peaked, the latter with the year that the global EROEI level for all fossil fuels (not just oil) reached its overall peak (1999 to be exact), both of which have been steadily declining since.

What is probably Ahmed's most cogent example of this emerging "crisis of civilization" is the ongoing problems currently besieging Syria. The conventional argument given as explanation for Syria's plight is that of repression by its president, Bashar Al-Assad, an argument that is a grossly oversimplified explanation, in line with explaining away the "Arab Spring" as being due to a "deficit of democracy". As Ahmed points out, this misconception has resulted in "international policy [that] has focused on viewing the conflict through the lens of geopolitical interests and regional security [p. 49]". Fortunately, there are however those who recognize the role that climate change has played with Syria's misfortunes, others who recognize peak oil's role, and yet others who factor in the recent food price spikes. But as Ahmed sees it, all of these fail to recognize the systemic interconnections between these factors and so don't offer a systemic understanding.

For starters, Syrian oil production peaked in 1996, dipped by almost half by 2010, and then plummeted again by even more than half upon the outbreak of war. With a dwindling influx of currency due to shrinking exports of crude, the government was forced to slash fuel subsidies in May of 2008, tripling petrol prices overnight and significantly driving up the price of food (a serious problem when food makes up an overwhelming part of your budget, and when what you eat is virtually nothing but staples). Ongoing drought conditions have only exacerbated poor harvests in what used to be a country self-sufficient in wheat, and so coupled with spiking food prices and Assad's inability to maintain subsidies due to dwindling influxes of foreign currency, the situation has only gotten worse, and then worse, and then worse.

Using the situations in Syria and Yemen as base-points, Ahmed surmises that it takes about 15 years from when a country hits its peak in oil production before additional systemic pressures – such as drought, overpopulation, climate-induced water and food scarcity – contribute to outbreaks of systemic state failure. How's that bode for the rest of us?

To answer that, one must take another look at the situation in the Middle East, if not at its largest producer, Saudi Arabia. While Saudi Arabia's primary source of revenue is of course oil, according to Ahmed Saudi Arabia is expected to reach its peak of oil production by no later than 2028. But that isn't its only problem, because due to a significantly rising population which is adding to what are already rising internal consumption levels, Saudi Arabia has actually been exporting 1.4% less oil year upon year. While implying an earlier kind of peak, this of course doesn't bode well for those expecting Saudi Arabia to be their sweet-crude-daddy (which I'll get to in a moment), and will eventually impose upon Saudi Arabia a world of its own problems.

While Saudi Arabia went on a crash course several decades ago to increase its wheat production in order that food couldn't be used as a weapon against it in the same way that it withheld oil from the West (for a while Saudi Arabia, a desert country, was actually one of the world's largest exporters of wheat), its depleting aquifers have been recently putting an end to production that was also using up 18 percent of its oil revenue. While the state-sponsored Saudi Arabian wheat production is now kaput, Ahmed points out that 80% of Saudi Arabia's food is purchased through subsidies. Along with that, he states that 70% of Saudi Arabia's domestic water supplies are procured through desalination, an extremely energy-intensive process that estimates state burns through about half of its domestic oil consumption.

For the time being, and unlike Syria and Yemen, Saudi Arabia has been able to stave off its own "Arab Spring" thanks to bounteous subsidies for housing, food, water, oil, and other consumer items. But as Saudi Arabia's oil exports decline to zero in the next 15 years, and as the then-subsequent dwindling production for internal usage means less air conditioning, less water, less happy motoring (that is, supposing your gender is even allowed to drive in the first place), less everything, life in the desert is once again going to become like life in the desert. As the saying goes, and to put it lightly, "My father rode a camel. I drive a motor car. My son flies a jet plane. His son will ride a camel."

That's not to say though that Saudi Arabia is only Saudi Arabia's problem. As Ahmed points out, Saudi Arabia's and the Middle East's exports of oil will be significantly decreasing right when China and India will be expecting significant inputs in order to power their booming economies (not to mention their need for increasing imports of food). Since China's supplies of coal and conventional oil have in all likelihood just recently peaked (as stated by Crude Oil Peak, Peak Oil Barrel, and others) and its supplies of unconventional oil are expected to peak in another five years (as Ahmed relays), then like India China is in all likelihood going to be experiencing "outbreaks of domestic disorder [that] will become more organized, and will eventually undermine state territorial integrity before 2030 [p. 75]", all of which will render a shift of power to the East all but fantasy.

Might at least Europe be a safe haven? Well, while European oil producing countries have all passed their peaks (with only Denmark producing more than it consumes),

As crisis convergence unravels the global food system across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, geopolitical pressures and northern Europe's relative immunity from the immediate impacts will make the region a prime target for regional and international migration [p. 80].

In short, and to go along with Ahmed's expectation that Mexico will experience state failure sometime between 2020 and 2035 due to its peak of oil production in 2006,

it is difficult to avoid the conclusion as we near 2045, the European and American projects will face escalating internal challenges to their international territorial integrity, increasing the risk of systemic state-failure [p. 85].

Mexico is getting close to having no excess oil to sell for foreign
currency, which theoretically implies there being no crude to spare
for its volatile neighbour with the voracious appetite to the north –
unless (ahem) a certain dealmaker could swing a "you give us all
your remaining oil, we won't make you pay for the wall" kind of deal

With intractable border issues between Mexico and the United States an inevitability – wall or no wall – and with increasing instability in the Middle East and North Africa an eventuality even with mitigation efforts, Europe and the United States are likely due for an influx of migrants that will make the relatively mild-mannered amount of middle-class Syrians currently able to pay for the costly overtures look like a pleasant Sunday-afternoon jaunt on the ferry.

Alongside that, while 2011's Occupy and "Arab Spring" are but a taste of things to come, there's also the fact that while the situation in Syria has allowed for the emergence of ISIS and other jihadis, the coming state-level failures in the Middle East will only exacerbate this. Looking at intra-state conflict, civil unrest, Islamic terrorism, and far-right terrorism, Ahmed's studies show that

the escalation of Western military interventionism has provoked an increase in Islamist militancy, which has further fueled far-right extremism, both comprising the principal sources of escalation in PV [political violence] pandamics [sic?]. Both, of course, have further elicited further militarization in response to these different forms of rising militancy and terrorism [p. 43].

The problem here of course is that influxes of migrants will further fuel nationalist sentiments, which we are likely only just seeing the initial emergence of. Is there anything that can be done regarding all – or any – of this? Well, as Ahmed puts it,

The cases examined here thus point to a global process of civilizational transition. As a complex adaptive system, human civilization in the twenty-first century finds itself at the early stages of a systemic phase-shift which is already manifesting in local sub-system failures in every major region of the periphery of the global system. As these sub-system failures driven by local ESD-HSD [Earth System Disruption – Human System Disruption] amplifying feedbacks accelerate and converge in turn, they will coalesce and transmit ever more powerfully to the core of the global system. As this occurs and re-occurs, it will reach a system-wide threshold effect resulting in eventual maladaptive global system failure; or it will compel an adaptive response in the form of fundamental systemic transformation [p. 88].

Put a bit more succinctly,

The system must either adapt to these threshold effects by transforming its structure, adapting its overarching rules, norms and values, and thus transitioning to a new evolutionary state – or experiencing a protracted collapse process by failing to do so [p. 47].

With a bit of a positive note, Ahmed points out that

Human civilization is in the midst of a global transition to a completely new system which is being forged from the ashes of the old. Yet the contours of this new system remain very much subject to our choices today. If the forces of systemic failure overwhelm us, then the new systemic configuration is likely to represent a maladaptive collapse in civilizational complexity. Yet even within such a maladaptive response – which arguably is well-underway as these cases show – there remains a capacity for agents within the global system to generate adaptive responses that, through the power of transitional information flows, hold the potential to enhance collective consciousness. The very breakdown of the prevailing system heralds the potential for long-term post-breakdown systemic transformation [pp. 88-9].

As a side note, and having read a previous book of Ahmed's years ago, I'll add that Ahmed is one of the few writers I've come across that is cognizant of the conflict between our (Ponzionomic) money system and peaking energy supplies. For as he puts it, what we need is

democratic money creation processes, including community currencies, in place of debt-based fractional reserve banking; communities reclaiming the commons, especially in the sense of communal land stewardship systems; [p. 91]

Along with other suggestions, Ahmed then points out that

Such a vision may, in the current context, appear impossibly utopian. By 2030, and even more so by 2050 – as the manifestations of global capitalism's self-catabolic trajectory become more obvious – it will appear increasingly realistic [p. 91].

Although the book's first two introductory chapters may be a bit too theory-laden for some, the remainder of the book – a very accessible 94 pages in total – without a doubt gives the best "big-picture" explanation of why world events are currently playing out the way they are. If you're new to the notions of peak oil / EROEI / collapse of industrial civilization, and/or would like to try and enlighten a friend that might be receptive to these issues, I'd say that you can't go wrong by picking up a copy (a hardcopy!) of Failing States, Collapsing Systems.


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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on January 13, 2017


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Peak Uranium: the uncertain future of nuclear energy

Alice Friedmann recently posted on her blog "Energy Skeptic" a summary of the discussion on nuclear energy from my book "Extracted" (Chelsea Green, 2014). It is a well-done summary that I am reproducing here. Note that the text below mixes some of the considerations of the main text (written by me) and of one of the "glimpses"; that were written by other authors. The glimpse that reports the results of a model of future uranium production was written by Michael Dittmar. He told me in a recent mail exchange that his model seems to be doing pretty well more than two years after its results were published in "Extracted". (U.B.)


Peak Uranium by Ugo Bardi from "Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet"




Figure 1. cumulative uranium consumption by IPCC model 2015-2100 versus measured and inferred Uranium resources




[ Figure 1 shows that the next IPCC report counts very much on nuclear power to keep warming below 2.5 C.  The black line represents how many million tonnes of reasonably and inferred resources under $260 per kg remain (2016 IAEA redbook). Clearly most of the IPCC models are unrealistic.  The IPCC greatly exaggerates the amount of oil and coal reserves as well. Source: David Hughes (private communication)

This is an extract of Ugo Bardi’s must read “Extracted” about the limits of production of uranium. Many well-meaning citizens favor nuclear power because it doesn’t emit greenhouse gases.  The problem is that the Achilles heel of civilization is our dependency on trucks of all kinds, which run on diesel fuel because diesel engines transformed our civilization with their ability to do heavy work better than steam, gasoline, or any other kind of engine.  Trucks are required to keep the supply chains going that every person and business on earth require, from food to the materials and construction of the roads they run on, as well as mining, agriculture, construction trucks, logging etc. 

Nuclear power plants are not a solution, since trucks can’t run on electricity, so anything that generates electricity is not a solution, nor is it likely that the electric grid can ever be 100% renewable (read “When trucks stop running”, this can’t be explained in a sound-bite).  And we certainly aren’t going to be able to replace a billion trucks and equipment with diesel engines by the time the energy crunch hits with something else, there is nothing else.

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

Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Although there is a rebirth of interest in nuclear energy, there is still a basic problem: uranium is a mineral resource that exists in finite amounts.

Even as early as the 1950s it was clear that the known uranium resources were not sufficient to fuel the “atomic age” for a period longer than a few decades.

That gave rise to the idea of “breeding” fissile plutonium fuel from the more abundant, non-fissile isotope 238 of uranium. It was a very ambitious idea: fuel the industrial system with an element that doesn’t exist in measurable amounts on Earth but would be created by humans expressly for their own purposes. The concept gave rise to dreams of a plutonium-based economy. This ambitious plan was never really put into practice, though, at least not in the form that was envisioned in the 1950s and ’60s. Several attempts were made to build breeder reactors in the 1970s, but the technology was found to be expensive, difficult to manage, and prone to failure. Besides, it posed unsolvable strategic problems in terms of the proliferation of fissile materials that could be used to build atomic weapons. The idea was thoroughly abandoned in the 1970s, when the US Senate enacted a law that forbade the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

A similar fate was encountered by another idea that involved “breeding” a nuclear fuel from a naturally existing element—thorium. The concept involved transforming the 232 isotope of thorium into the fissile 233 isotope of uranium, which then could be used as fuel for a nuclear reactor (or for nuclear warheads). The idea was discussed at length during the heydays of the nuclear industry, and it is still discussed today; but so far, nothing has come out of it and the nuclear industry is still based on mineral uranium as fuel.

Today, the production of uranium from mines is insufficient to fuel the existing nuclear reactors. The gap between supply and demand for mineral uranium has been as large as almost 50% from 1995 to 2005, though gradually reduced the past few years.

The U.S. mined 370,000 metric tons the past 50 years, peaking in 1981 at 17,000 tons/year.  Europe peaked in the 1990s after extracting 460,000 tons.  Today nearly all of the 21,000 ton/year needed to keep European nuclear plants operating is imported.

The European mining cycle allows us to determine how much of the originally estimated uranium reserves could be extracted versus what actually happened before it cost too much to continue. Remarkably in all countries where mining has stopped it did so at well below initial estimates (50 to 70%). Therefore it’s likely ultimate production in South Africa and the United States can be predicted as well.




Table 1. The European mining cycle allows us to determine how much of the originally estimated uranium reserves could be extracted versus what actually happened before it cost too much to continue. Remarkably in all countries where mining has stopped it did so at well below initial estimates (50 to 70%). Therefore it’s likely ultimate production in South Africa and the United States can be predicted as well.




The Soviet Union and Canada each mined 450,000 tons. By 2010 global cumulative production was 2.5 million tons.  Of this, 2 million tons has been used, and the military had most of the remaining half a million tons.

The most recent data available show that mineral uranium accounts now for about 80% of the demand.  The gap is filled by uranium recovered from the stockpiles of the military industry and from the dismantling of old nuclear warheads.

This turning of swords into plows is surely a good idea, but old nuclear weapons and military stocks are a finite resource and cannot be seen as a definitive solution to the problem of insufficient supply. With the present stasis in uranium demand, it is possible that the production gap will be closed in a decade or so by increased mineral production. However, prospects are uncertain, as explained in “The End of Cheap Uranium.” In particular, if nuclear energy were to see a worldwide expansion, it is hard to see how mineral production could satisfy the increasing uranium demand, given the gigantic investments that would be needed, which are unlikely to be possible in the present economically challenging times.

At the same time, the effects of the 2011 incident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant are likely to negatively affect the prospects of growth for nuclear energy production, and with the concomitant reduced demand for uranium, the surviving reactors may have sufficient fuel to remain in operation for several decades.

It’s true that there are large quantities of uranium in the Earth’s crust, but there are limited numbers of deposits that are concentrated enough to be profitably mined. If we tried to extract those less concentrated deposits, the mining process would require far more energy than the mined uranium could ultimately produced [negative EROI].

Modeling Future Uranium Supplies

Uranium supply and demand to 2030




Table 2. Uranium supply and demand to 2030




Michael Dittmar used historical data for countries and single mines, to create a model that projected how much uranium will likely be extracted from existing reserves in the years to come. The model is purely empirical and is based on the assumption that mining companies, when planning the extraction profile of a deposit, project their operations to coincide with the average lifetime of the expensive equipment and infrastructure it takes to mine uranium—about a decade.

Gradually the extraction becomes more expensive as some equipment has to be replaced and the least costly resources are mined. As a consequence, both extraction and profits decline. Eventually, the company stops exploiting the deposit and the mine closes. The model depends on both geological and economic constraints, but the fact that it has turned out to be valid for so many past cases shows that it is a good approximation of reality.
This said, the model assumes the following points:

  • Mine operators plan to operate the mine at a nearly constant production level on the basis of detailed geological studies and to manage extraction so that the plateau can be sustained for approximately 10 years.
  • The total amount of extractable uranium is approximately the achieved (or planned) annual plateau value multiplied by 10.

Applying this model to well-documented mines in Canada and Australia, we arrive at amazingly correct results. For instance, in one case, the model predicted a total production of 319 ± 24 kilotons, which was very close to the 310 kilotons actually produced. So we can be reasonably confident that it can be applied to today’s larger currently operating and planned uranium mines.

Considering that the achieved plateau production from past operations was usually smaller than the one planned, this model probably overestimates the future production.

Table 2 summarizes the model’s predictions for future uranium production, comparing those findings against forecasts from other groups and against two different potential future nuclear scenarios.

As you can see, the forecasts obtained by this model indicate substantial supply constraints in the coming decades—a considerably different picture from that presented by the other models, which predict larger supplies.

The WNA’s 2009 forecast differs from our model mainly by assuming that existing and future mines will have a lifetime of at least 20 years. As a result, the WNA predicts a production peak of 85 kilotons/year around the year 2025, about 10 years later than in the present model, followed by a steep decline to about 70 kilotons/year in 2030. Despite being relatively optimistic, the forecast by the WNA shows that the uranium production in 2030 would not be higher than it is now. In any case, the long deposit lifetime in the WNA model is inconsistent with the data from past uranium mines. The 2006 estimate from the EWG was based on the Red Book 2005 RAR (reasonably assured resources) and IR (inferred resources) numbers. The EWG calculated an upper production limit based on the assumption that extraction can be increased according to demand until half of the RAR or at most half of the sum of the RAR and IR resources are used. That led the group to estimate a production peak around the year 2025.

Assuming all planned uranium mines are opened, annual mining will increase from 54,000 tons/year to a maximum of 58 (+ or – 4) thousand tons/year in 2015. [ Bardi wrote this before 2013 and 2014 figures were known. 2013 was 59,673 (highest total) and 56,252 in 2014.]

Declining uranium production will make it impossible to obtain a significant increase in electrical power from nuclear plants in the coming decades.



A Power Zone Manifesto

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Published on Peak Surfer on January 8, 2017


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" The physical requirements are not negotiable. They cannot be bargained down, discounted, or put on a layaway plan."


Fire in the New Valley, Egypt – PlanetLab

2016 was a year for revolutions. Really it was only a continuation of the Tunisian Spring that began in 2010 or, even before that, the Arab labor strikes that ran from 2006 to 2008, followed by insurgencies and civil wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, civil uprisings in Bahrain and Egypt, large street demonstrations in Algeria, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and Sudan and minor protests in Djibouti, Mauritania, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and the Western Sahara, then the 2008 financial crash, Occupy, the collapse of Greece, the Ukrainian civil war, Brazil, Venezuela, Turkey, many more and eventually Brexit and Trump. A major slogan of the demonstrators in the Arab world was Ash-sha`b yurid isqat an-nizam ("the people want to bring down the regime"). It applied equally well to Brexit and Trump.
 It is no coincidence that all this revolutionizing started with the crash of the world’s energy pyramid in 2005 and the climate chickens coming home to roost about the same time. It has been papered over by financial fictions in the West (Ponzinomics), but 2005 marked the start of the long emergency and the decidedly different times in which we now live. Historic, concurrent and rapid state failures in the Middle East, Northwest Africa, South and Southeast Asia, Europe and North America are either coming, or have already arrived. This week we are witnessing the implosion of México, next week it could be Japan.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


— Yeats (1919)

In Failing States, Collapsing Systems (Springer 2017), Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed writes:

Yet while policymakers and media observers have raced to keep up with events, they have largely missed the biophysical triggers of this new age of unrest – the end of the age of cheap fossil fuels, and its multiplying consequences for the Earth’s climate, industrial food production, and economic growth.

What we are about to undertake is to write a prescription. Essentially, over the next 10 or 12 weeks, we are going to write a book comprised of a string of these blog posts, chapter by chapter. We intend to lay out the whole philosophy of the change required, and then describe, in mechanical detail, not only what must be done, but how it can be accomplished without bloodshed but with plenty of gaity, song and dance. We are calling this our Power Zone Manifesto.

Power Zone: A kite wind window is the area where the kite can fly. This is a three-dimensional semi-dome. In the wind window there are three components: the power zone, the intermediate zone and the edge of the wind window. When you can feel the wind in your back, you will find the power zone lying in front of you. In the picture you see the red and orange colored areas where this is indicated. This is the part where the kite catches wind the most and thus where the kite generates the most power. A Power zone is a risk zone where you should go with caution, but this does not mean it’s dangerous. It’s a learning process on how to use it.


Manifesto: (1620, Italian, from manifestare — denunciation, and Latin, manifestus) a written statement that describes the policies, goals, and opinions of a person or group

— Mirriam-Webster  

We are embarking, with this first installment of the New Year, on a journey together. We are sending a kite into the power zone. Our subject is climate change, but more importantly, civilizational change. The two are a coupled pair, like matter and anti-matter. Not everyone understands that yet, or appreciates the gravity of the situation, and that is unfortunate but okay. The full horror will reveal itself gradually, in fits and starts, and in times and places not of our choosing. Here, in 2017, we take it on faith that we still have options. That faith could be entirely misplaced  but from the available evidence we cannot say either way — the climate juggernaut is in motion but perhaps still reversible. Faith gives us agency. Apostasy does not. We are creatures that exercise agency as an inherited condition. Take that away and we psychologically shatter, wither and die. We need to feel we have choices. We need to be able to exercise will.
So, feeling the wind at our back, we edge the kite closer to the power zone. 

Escondida Mine, Chile, PlanetLab

It has been said that what distinguishes homo from other animals is our ability to make tools. We disagree. Other apes make tools. A crow uses a stick dabbed with honey to catch ants. A humpback whale, having neither hands nor feet, may fashion a bubble net to snare its lunch, humming a song of its own composition as it reels in the harvest. 
Perhaps one thing that distinguishes homo from other animals is our ability to accumulate knowledge culturally, and to do so more rapidly than, say, the lessons passed by each generation of she-wolves to their young, or the nuanced dances of honey bees.

Climate change is occurring so rapidly now, and with such apparent acceleration, that it forces us to go beyond even our high rates of cultural cataloging. We do not have the luxury of slow, generational change. Already born are children who will experience an Earth four or five degrees warmer than it is right now, maybe even much hotter. 

Graeme Taylor, in A Realistic (Holistic) Approach to Climate Mitigation, World Future Review 2016, Vol. 8(3) 141–161, writes:

In general, a realistic climate mitigation strategy must (1) clarify the requirements for a safe global climate, (2) develop a viable strategy for managing critical risks and ensuring safe outcomes (e.g., a multitrack approach capable of both accelerating change within existing institutions and catalyzing systemic transformation), (3) progressively build scientific and political support for this strategy, and (4) develop national and international alliances to educate, encourage, and pressure decisionmakers at all levels to take effective action.

Diplomats and politicians have been slow to come to agreement about the requirements for averting catastrophic climate change. Rather than clarify, they have generally done everything possible to obscure. Scientists, by contrast, have been gradually moving into consensus for the last century or more and now are at nearly complete unanimity, with piercing clarity. 

In broad stroke, to reestablish the relatively stable climate of the last 10,000 years, the Holocene epoch, we must restore the relationship between energy arriving and leaving Earth’s land, oceans and atmosphere.
By any reasonable measure, we are outside the zone of safety already.
The physical requirements to return to a safe climate zone are these:

  1. Humans must stop adding carbon to the atmosphere (and thereby to the oceans);
  2. We must stop throwing off the balance of nitrogen, phosphorus and other critical cycles that maintain photosynthetic equilibrium and the energy balance of the Earth in relation to the Sun;
  3. We must reverse desertification;
  4. We must arrest the degradation of biodiversity;
  5. We must restore the naturally regenerative systems and allow them to heal the damage that has been done.

These five physical requirements are not negotiable. They cannot be bargained down, discounted, or put on a layaway plan. This creates a dilemma for human societies, because, as far back as our emergence from the past ice age and the adoption of agriculture, we have been marking progress by measures that result in the precise opposite of these requirements. 

Atmospheric carbon dioxide, at least a third attributable to agriculture, is on track to peak after 2050 at 600 ppm, more than double the Holocene mean. But agriculture was only made possible by the advent of the gentle Holocene.

Agriculture made us sedentary, created a system of division of the commons and private property, installed capitalism (to borrow and lend lands and seed and to apportion risks and profits) and militarism (to protect property, stored harvests and contract rights), codified laws beyond the moral variety handed down on tablets from God, and gave rise to cities and monumental state architectures.

Could it be that to meet the five requirements we next need to undo all that? Is that even possible?

This is what regime change looks like

Taylor’s second point is more difficult to address than his third and fourth. We have been building political support the same way we built the scientific support, only much more slowly. National and international alliances have been forged, across all parts of civil society, and those continue to exert pressure on decisionmakers. To find “a multitrack approach capable of both accelerating change within existing institutions and catalyzing systemic transformation,” however, is a much bigger ask.

Taylor correctly summarizes the state of international negotiations:

Critics argue that the Paris Agreement failed to deal with many crucial issues. These include assessing and managing the real risks and costs of climate change; defining greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration safety limits; determining a time frame for emissions to peak; stopping fossil fuel subsidies; imposing carbon pollution taxes; limiting both fossil fuel supply and demand; developing clean substitutes for nonelectrical uses of fossil fuel energy; ensuring that climate change costs are borne equitably by rich and poor nations; reducing resistance to climate mitigation through developing alternative, nonpolluting uses for fossil fuels; and planning the transformation of the global political economy into a sustainable system.


Because it does not take a holistic, precautionary risk management approach to climate modeling, it does not recognize that biophysical limits and timelines are nonnegotiable, and that passing critical thresholds creates the potential for systemic failure or state change. For instance, the Paris Agreement does not place safety limits on atmospheric CO2 and other GHG concentrations, an absolute cap on ocean and atmospheric temperature increases, an absolute cap on ocean acidification, or a specified timeline for reducing GHG emissions.
None of these deficiencies was corrected in Marrakech, nor are they expected to be corrected in COP-23 in Bonn next year. This does not make the UNFCCC multi-stakeholder process useless, it just means it is very slow. Like climate itself, it moves in fits and spurts. We can agree: it is probably not up to the challenge posed by exponential chaos.


Plutonium Valley, Nevada Test Site, PlanetLab

If you are toying with some of these ideas, before you throw in the towel and say its hopeless, lets start by naming the deluding passions.

The world is not easily divided between those who deny climate change is a problem and those content to criticize the political stalemate as the karma of capitalism. Nor is it easily divided between those who assume that governments have the matter under control and those that believe the AI singularity will deal with it by dint of human ingenuity.

There is a spectrum of opinion out there. One may overlap with another, or the roles reverse without warning. What is “conservative” actually? What is “liberal?”


Reframing Reality

One might think from the plain definition of the word that conservatives are those who seek to protect and “conserve” the resources that confer wealth upon societies. Those would be things like soil, water, clean air, biodiversity and a system of social contracts that prevents despoliation of the commons. And yet, whether you are speaking of conservatives in the US, UK, Europe or somewhere else, they all have in common a disdain for these very things, and are doing everything possible to use up, trash, and deregulate the expropriation of resources while at the same time relaxing restrictions on pollution and habitat destruction.

On the flip side of that coin we have the liberals — like deer in the headlights when it comes to net energy and peak everything. “Liberal” should mean broad-minded, generous, and progressive. Instead, in an era that screams for rapid build-down of over-extended economies, liberals champion expansion, whether it be programs to resettle, educate and empower refugees, conferring rights to “sustainable development” on non-industrialized, rapidly overpopulating countries or sending out a high-tech military empire in search of the final drops of fossil sunlight in order to sustain the nonnegotiable.

Caught between these polar conflicts are masses of sheeple, running this way and that, trying to escape the pull of the power zone. Knowing that Ash-sha`byurid isqat an-nizam  is the dominant sentiment, regimes are running scared, whether they are regimes of government, economics, academia, or science. Regime change is in vogue. The world has become a free-fire zone.

Cooler heads will eventually prevail. Some pain may have to be experienced first. A change is coming, and next week we will continue to tease out some of its outlines.

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

H is for Hydrogen Dreams

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Published on the 22 Billion Energy Slaves on November 7, 2016

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I can clearly recall one day in 1997 when I was working for a large company in the UK energy sector and one of heads of the Corporate Strategy department came down to give us a talk. He confidently predicted that inside 10 years "almost every car on the planet" would be powered by hydrogen. This sounded a bit fishy to me, and even though I was a corporate flak at the time, something didn't ring true about his claim. I asked him a question: "But where will the hydrogen come from?"

His eyes boggled at the sheer stupidity of such a question. "Where will it come from?" he repeated, his mouth curling into a smile at the corners as if I had made some kind of joke. "Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe! It's everywhere! You yourself are 10% hydrogen!" There was a ripple of laughter around the room and I felt like the stupidest kid in the class. How could I be such a dumbo!?

Now, almost 20 years later, I have yet to see a car powered by hydrogen. But why?

For a start, hydrogen might be abundant, but it is not a primary fuel. It had to be turned into a useable fuel by employing methods that involve using other fuels. Electrolysis is the main method used to extract hydrogen from water, and most electricity is currently produced using fossil fuels.*

Never mind, let's ignore this energy usage for now and continue making hydrogen. Once we have extracted some pure hydrogen from water (or natural gas, as if often the case – but shhh! don't tell anyone!) we will notice that it is incredibly light and fluffy. To get it into a liquid form we'll have to compress it using a compressor. 10,000psi should do it so that it's usable for a car. Of course, it'll need to be stored in a very thick and heavy high pressure tank.

Okay, so now we've arrived at the stage where we've burned up loads of coal, natural gas or even uranium making water into liquid hydrogen fuel. We have compressed it and stuffed it inside a heavy steel tank ready for using. Can we just store it there until we might need to use it? Well, actually this is also problematic as hydrogen has a boiling point of -253C — which is damned cold by most accounts. Anything above this and it will boil off and evaporate. So forget filling up the tank of your nifty "green" hydrogen car and leaving it sitting on the drive for a few days — you need to use up your fuel before it disappears, which it typically does at a rate of 3-4% a day.

Does it still seem so attractive? Leave you car for a couple of weeks while you go on holiday and you'll likely come back to an empty tank.

Anyway, assuming none of the above really bothers us, what about our good friend the Second Law of Thermodynamics — you know, that old Cassandra party-pooper who endlessly repeats that energy is lost at every stage of conversion, increasing entropy as it does so — does he have anything to say about hydrogen powered motoring? Well yes, quite a lot actually. It turns out that using electrolysis to create hydrogen, compressing it and storing it gives it an energy return (EROEI) of about 0.25. Yep, that means we have to put in four units of energy to get one back.

If anyone still thinks this is a good idea go and grab the nearest six-year old and ask them to explain it to you.

But … assuming you don't care about the energy loss, the burning of fossil fuels to turn natural gas feedstock — sorry, water — into hydrogen, the compression costs, the storage losses and the fact that your hydrogen car weighs twice as much as a normal one due to the giant onboard tank — assuming none of that matters — where are you going to fill it up? According to the US Department of Energy there are 31 stations nationwide where you can fill up your vehicle. Yes, that's 31 that have hydrogen, compared with about 90,000 that have gasoline. As far as I can tell, there are around two in the UK "with another four planned". Yep, the hydrogen future is already here.**

So, for our hydrogen fuelled cars — which will inevitably also feature lithium ion batteries — to be usable to those people who don't live across the road from a hydrogen fuelling station and who like to travel more than 10 miles from their homes, we'll need to retrofit more or less the entire energy infrastructure.

Need I go on …?

So, here we are, still waiting for the great hydrogen future ("It's everywhere! The only pollution is water vapour! The fossil fuel industry doesn't want this to take off!") It probably has some industrial application that could be useful but if we think that hydrogen is a straight substitute for petrol we're going to be sorely disappointed.

In the meantime, here's a "zero emissions" train that's just hit the tracks in Germany. Apparently it is entirely pollution free and "runs on water" (like Jesus, but faster?***) Want to play a fun game and lose all you friends in the process? Every time one of them posts a link to the train on Facebook, leave a simple reply saying 'BS' and link to this post. It works wonders — I've already lost several friends as a result, and expect to lose more in the future.

But don't mind me, I'm just a dumbo, and I'm 10% hydrogen.

* Yep, I know you can make electrolysis happen using solar PV or other renewables, but please refer to the bit where I mention the Second Law, and also consider the sheer amount of solar PV that would be needed to do so on a large scale to keep us on a happy motoring course and how it might be better employed.

** In my second career as a journalist/editor, we got invited to meet the late Shimon Peres in a darkened hotel room in Copenhagen during the shambolic COP15 conference. Peres wanted to push his 'Better Place' hydrogen/electric car initiative on us. We were not allowed to ask questions, such as whether it would actually work. "Better Place" went bust a couple of years later due to the unwillingness of the Second Law to negotiate, and the plug was pulled on it — as were several articles that reported on its demise such as this one in The Guardian "Better Place: What went wrong for the electric car startup"

*** As a small footnote, there's a personal irony in this. The Jesus Train was built by the company Alstom, for which my father, gods rest his soul, used to be a purchasing director. In his time he negotiated and purchased all the major parts for the first trains to run through the Channel Tunnel, as well as the French high speed TGVs. I actually spent a summer working in Alstom's French train factory when I was 21. My father would have hated all this BS — he's probably turning in his grave right now.

Reveries of Collapse

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Published on Epiphany Now on December 26, 2016

Celtic Japanese Bambo Druid crazy like a fox wordsmith ninja

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Lady Gaga's meat suit

Energy deflation and dollar preference are large forces beyond the control of politicians, generals or central bankers. They are driving countries and events toward involuntary conservation. America’s new president is the product of economic failure; the inability of the economists to make correct analysis, a long grinding recession disguised as recovery; media falsehoods and the unwillingness of Americans and others to face reality, government policy failures and the headwinds of resource depletion. Trump and his cretinous gang of thieves represents the last gasp of a defunct industrial system that is sinking under the weight of its own costs.

Keep in mind, oil producing states like the US tend to be autocratic. The US, Canada, Mexico and others are on their way to becoming single-party police states like Saudi Arabia or Iran. Because of autocrats promise of access to energy, they gain ascendancy with their populations’ eager consent. What is at stake for Americans and the West is democracy itself: a choice between the right to have a say in our own affairs versus the false-promises of energy-driven ‘prosperity’ offered by autocrats … the choice between the (vague) promise of convenience or having a functioning republic.

King Trump the Irrelevant

I think these two paragraphs sum up our reality nicely.  They capture what is true about our situation.  I'm in agreement with everything quoted above. 

I've long said that the power of money is nothing more than the power of the energy we have at our disposal.  They can create as many digibits as they want to create, and with no consequence since digibits are digital and not really subject to any physical laws.  The banking insolvency is really just a ruse.  Like politics, like arguing about who would be the better president, like watching football, it's just something to talk about that applies to our reality only in a fictional way.  Our talking about it gives it it's strength and relevance.  The great reality behind it is the primary economy of energy and other natural resources.  However, those natural resources cannot support a global economy without the energy to make use of them.  Trees, food produced by the monolith of industrial agriculture,  our collapsing fisheries, fresh water, minerals, ores, all of those things require energy to harvest them, and then to fashion them into consumer items.  Money is simply the means by which we are able to claim our portion of that energy.  The more money you have, the more energy you can lay claim to by way of goods and services.

In the face of a finite world it's really all just an illusion of cohesion.  The great reset should have happened in 2008, but it did not happen.  Instead, the failing energy sector was propped up by the creation of more digibits.  It's not the banks that were too big to fail but our way of life.  If they had not exercised the ability to create digibits ad infinitum, and to put those digibits in service of bringing energy to market, than we would have been forced to engage with the reality of our diminishing resources.  The trillions of digibits that have been created by the Federal Reserve and the Federal Goobermint have amounted to nothing more than the largest financial subsidy in the history of the world.  Just like our industrial agriculture is made possible only by it's subsidization, our energy is now only made possible by subsidy.  It's not a direct subsidy though.  It's a subsidy of money creation loaned into existence for free.  The 3.8 billion dollar DAPL pipeline had to be financed by this money that the banks create by turning the digibit knob.  It could have just as easily been 3.8 trillion dollars, and had it been that price the banks would have created that money and loaned it into existence.  The truth is that without that energy our civilization will become transparent, and we will all be forced to wake up and see the house of cards that we have built. 

The simple truth is that everything we do is only made possible by fossil energy.  Our food, transportation, electricity, buildings, cultural methods of inhabiting our world, clothing, medicine, everything all hinges on the energy being present to create them in the first place.  It's not that we can't create those things using the power of our own bodies and that of our beasts of burden.  It's that we no longer have a human scaled way of inhabiting our planet.  That is why robotics have become so important, and it's why NAFTA had to happen.  NAFTA simply made slavery legal again for the first world, buy it was hidden in third world countries.  We took their resources, and the energy of their people, and exploited it to feed the 1st world empire.  We sold a lie that their people were joining ours by becoming "developed" countries, as if to have a culture made by hand, a culture that is actually a culture made of people and their skills and engagement with the natural world, was not a real culture. 

Now we have what amounts to what I like to call a "global anti-culture."  Now science has enabled us to live a culture free life where we are kept busy by free entertainment glistening on flat screens, the flat lands that are devoid of virtue.  Now robots are set to do all of the work that must be done to continue inhabiting our world the way that we inhabit it.  Every year more and more people must scrap by with mailbox money that must be meagerly portioned out to overcome the cultural atrophy that has descended down upon us all.  Our bodies are becoming nothing more than energy sinks without a purpose.  What jobs there are, that are not part of the service economy, are jobs where we sit and do what amounts to nothing.  Driving around, staring at computer screens in inefficient climate controlled box buildings made of glass, engaging with fictional digibits.  Our bodies are no longer required and so they atrophy along with our brains.

We are entering into the last act now.  This last act is symbolized by the election of Donald Trump to lead the first world "democracy" that we supposedly have.  How perfect is that?  This is a man of no substance beyond that of ego gratification.  A man who has done nothing of any real value, but a man that is filthy rich for it.  Trump is like a mirror of our national consciousness.  He is only reflecting back to us what we have become.  It doesn't matter who the president of the United states is, because the system of business as usual has so much momentum that only it's own weight has the power to destroy it .  The momentum is built up by what social critic, James Howard Kunstler, has aptly titled "the psychology of previous investment."  It's the way we inhabit our landscape that has become to big to fail.  But like the psychology that created it in the first place, it is fundamentally flawed and wrongheaded.  It is based on an infantile wanting with no regards to limits and consequences.  It is a hallucination that continues to exist because we give to it our energy.  We infuse it with our psyches and it is failing us.  It is failing to produce anything of any substance.  It has choked the very life out of our bodies and made us powerless and useless. 

Now all that is left is for this pointless business as usual to slam into an immovable wall that is corporeal limitations.  Just like cancer cells that kill their host and thereby commit suicide.  Our way of life is failing, and like all civilizations that have come before us, it will collapse.  It has been collapsing during my entire life.  The cancer has become a global entity, and it has already metastasized and gone systemic, and all that is left is the awareness that we are dying.   I suppose the silver lining is that this has always been the case.  Just like individual beings who are born, mature, and then die, our civilizations are no different.  All civilizations overshoot their resource bases and end up in collapse.  This collapse won't be on the nightly news (as if anybody under 60 years old even watches MSM now).  It won't be televised any differently than it has been already.  It's not something that will be talked about, but that in no way diminishes the reality of it.

Or maybe I'm just deluded and living in a fictional world made up of the laws of physics.  Time will reveal the truth of my words.

Supporting Everything that Smells Bad

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on December 15, 2016


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Michael Klare has published an extensive comment on "Tomgram" about what appear to be the current policy choices by Donald Trump on energy and he correctly notes how contradictory they are. Basically,


The main thrust of his approach couldn’t be clearer: abolish all regulations and presidential directives that stand in the way of unrestrained fossil fuel extraction, including commitments made by President Obama in December 2015 under the Paris Climate Agreement.

In other words, Trump seems to be locked in a market-only vision of the problem, thinking that physical realities have no role in the extraction of fossil resources. On this, he is surely not alone, but the problem is that deregulation is not so important as Trump seems to think. It was not because the market was over-regulated that oil prices spiked up to $150 dollars/barrel in 2008 and kept hovering at around $100/barrel from 2011 up to late 2014. And it was not because oil production was suddenly deregulated that prices collapsed to below $40 in 2015. The oil market, as all markets, suffers from instabilities that may be, sometimes, cured by regulations. Eliminating all the regulations may well cause further price swings and wild oscillations, rather than increase production.

If oil companies are in trouble, right now, is because the oil prices are too low, not because oil extraction is over-regulated and Trump's policies – if they were to work – may damage the fossil fuel industry even more. That, in itself, would not be a bad thing – especially in terms of the effects on climate. The problem is that Trump's ideas to revitalize the fossil fuel industry may not be limited to deregulation, but could involve actively discouraging renewable energy, a policy that, for instance, the Italian government has been successfully applying during the past few years.

So, why does Trump want to do such a thing? Here, we can only imagine what passes in the mind of a 70-year old man who is not known to be especially expert in anything. Klare puts forward a possible explanation as:


To some degree, no doubt, it comes, at least in part, from the president-elect’s deep and abiding nostalgia for the fast-growing (and largely regulation-free) America of the 1950s. When Trump was growing up, the United States was on an extraordinary expansionist drive and its output of basic goods, including oil, coal, and steel, was swelling by the day. The country’s major industries were heavily unionized; the suburbs were booming; apartment buildings were going up all over the borough of Queens in New York City where Trump got his start; cars were rolling off the assembly lines in what was then anything but the “Rust Belt”; and refineries and coal plants were pouring out the massive amounts of energy needed to make it all happen.

And don’t forget one other factor: Trump’s vindictiveness — in this case, not just toward his Democratic opponent in the recent election campaign but toward those who voted against him. The Donald is well aware that most Americans who care about climate change and are in favor of a rapid transformation to a green energy America did not vote for him,

Given his well-known penchant for attacking anyone who frustrates his ambitions or speaks negatively of him, and his urge to punish greens by, among other things, obliterating every measure adopted by President Obama to speed the utilization of renewable energy, expect him to rip the EPA apart and do his best to shred any obstacles to fossil fuel exploitation. If that means hastening the incineration of the planet, so be it. He either doesn’t care (since at 70 he won’t live to see it happen), truly doesn’t believe in the science, or doesn’t think it will hurt his company’s business interests over the next few decades.

This interpretation by Michael Klare may or may not be correct but it underlies a basic problem: elections give power to people on the basis of their promises, but nobody really knows how they will behave once they have power in their hands. The world's history is full of leaders who had mental problems of all kinds or even just had a vision of the world that was completely out of touch with reality. The result was normally unmitigated disasters as leaders, in most cases, refuse to learn from their mistakes. And not just that, they tend to double down, worsening things.

About Donald Trump,as I discussed in a previous post, nobody can know what's going on inside his mind. All what I can say is that America may badly need God's blessing in the near future.


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Published on The Doomstead Diner on November 27, 2016


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I gave a mini presentation at a Griffith University “sustainable economy” seminar on 29 November 2016 As the themes were slanted towards “business opportunities”, I chose this title for my talk: “Tiny House Communities: grassroots solutions for those with sufficient initiative to exit a collapsing industrial civilisation”. In my pre-conference paper/abstract submission to the GCSE, I made it clear I was going to talk about much more than just tiny houses. Ultimately I spent only 5 minutes talking about tiny house communities and 15 minutes talking about our collapsing industrial civilisation. I focused especially on the sudden global energy descent we will soon be facing and tried to explain the key concepts with my “post peak oil” slides

I received the usual denialism response I have come to expect from one individual in particular, a person who in a previous session advocated that if only we use objective science to persuade the public, we can transform society and create a great future. That person also said we should not convey negative messages to the public because that would alienate them. I had neither the time nor inclination to engage with that person. I did not bother to point out the obvious contradiction in his position: that objective science unequivocally shows our future to be dire, which by necessity will convey a “negative” message to the public.

At a subsequent main session, Professor Susanne Becken, a highly acclaimed professor of “sustainable tourism”, spoke about Peak Oil and Aviation and projected this slide from the International Energy Agency on the screen:



To her credit she couched those IEA future oil projections in cautionary terms and advised the audience NOT to invest in the aviation industry.

As an audience member at the Q&A session, I made this comment and posed this question to her (I paraphrase here. The event was recorded and my exact words may be audible if Griffith eventually post the session as a webcast):

I was amused to see the IEA slide you displayed, which included “oil yet to be found” and “oil yet to be developed” in the projection of future oil available, which made the future total oil curve look flat or even rising. Such wild speculation brings to mind the thought that if pigs had wings, pigs could fly and flying pigs will solve all our aviation problems. IEA are well known for always overestimating future oil availability, then having to revise those figures downward when reality proves them wrong. In terms of deceit they are second only to Daniel Yergin's CERA, a stooge of the fossil fuel industry. I am sure you know who I am talking about. I am sure you are familiar with David Murphy's Net Hubbert curve which takes into account energy returned over energy invested. I am sure you are familiar with Jeffrey Brown's export land model, which looks at future oil availability for oil importing countries. If you superimpose the ELM on the Net Hubbert curve, which you must do if you believe in basic physics and mathematics, you will realise that Australia will have no more conventional oil available to import within ten years. Do you not think such a graph is more accurate and appropriate to use?”

To her credit, the professor did not take offence at my “flying pigs” comment and acknowledged the validity of my points. She really had no choice, otherwise she would be denying basic physics and mathematics, which would make her look foolish. She accepted that proper assessment of actual oil availability should subtract the amount of oil needed to produce that oil. To her credit she stated that unconventional oils such as tar sands have such poor EROEI that in reality they are not worth pursuing. However with regard to the short term prospects for her particular fields of interest (aviation and tourism), she was sanguine. She expressed a “Realpolitik” view that when there are competing interests for diminishing oil supplies in the future, such as whether to allocate oil to produce food for the poor or to fuel the aviation industry, the business interests of aviation will win out and the poor will starve. She made a valid, if cynical point there. That view is not dissimilar to my own view about how the “five fingers” of net energy will be allocated in the future when we tumble even further down the net Hubbert cliff: Military activities will be given priority over everything else, thus promoting human die-off. Gotta love the human race.

My ongoing concern is that such “peak oil experts” continue to use fraudulent fantasy graphs based on cornucopian speculative projections in their presentations, which to a less critical audience will otherwise be accepted and go unchallenged. Here is one solution to this conundrum: make the audience less critical by getting rid of troublemakers.

Needless to say I do not expect to be invited back by that particular department of Griffith University in the future. And so it goes.

G. Chia Dec. 2016




Peak Oil in a Fact-Free World: the New “Oil Bonanza” in West Texas

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on November 18, 2016


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Sometimes, I have the feeling of living in a fact-free universe where the laws of physics hold only if you believe in them. (image)

So, the USGS comes out with a press release that the media immediately diffuse in terms of a great discovery: 20 billion barrels, somewhere in Texas in a place called "Wolfcamp".  Bloomberg multiplies the number by the current oil price and comes up with a title that reads: "A $900 billion Oil Treasure," for a piece that tells of "bonanza" and of "the gift that keeps on giving". USA today speaks of "The Largest Oil Deposit Ever Found in the US". And how about the comments? Just a few examples.


As our new President will do – DRILL BABY DRILL!!! Energy independence – that sure has a nice ring to it. Middle finger to Middle East arabs.

I remember in the late 70's when scientists said we would be running out of oil by the late 90's. I wonder where those scientists are working now? Climate change?

They are constantly finding more reserves. President Trump will open up more land and ocean for safe drilling. Something the Obama administration had no clue how to do..


but of course the Radical Left, determined to return all of western civilization to the hunter-gatherer society of 10,000 years ago will do all it can to prevent this once great nation from becoming energy dependent and permanently kicking the barbarian raghead arab oil nations out of this country.

Great fun, and all fact-free! But let's suppose, for once, that facts mattered. What should we say about the "Largest Oil Deposit Ever Found in the US"? One point is that nothing new was "found;" the Wolfcamp formation was well known and already being exploited. The USGS just made a new estimate; probably valid within the assumptions made; but it is just that: an estimate. It doesn't mean that these resources have been discovered (note that the USGS explicitly says "undiscovered.") So, what all this means is that, statistically, these resources should be there, but nobody can be completely sure and it wouldn't be the first time that these estimates turn out to be optimistic. (in this case, the round number "20" is more than a little suspicious).

But never mind that; let's assume that these 20 billion barrels are there for real. How does this amount stack up in comparison with the world's oil situation? Here are some data, taken from Bloomberg (not exactly a den of Cassandras).


Let's compare these data with the world's oil consumption that, according to "Index Mundi," is today a little more than 33 billion barrels per year. So, you see from the figure that, during the past decade at least, we have been consistently burning more oil than we could discover. Now, if there had been other major discoveries this year, they would have been trumpeted enough that we would know of them. So, adding the 20 billion barrels of the Wolfcamp formation to the meager total of 2016, probably, we still don't reach a total of 33 billion. In the end, all that we can say is that, for this year, oil discoveries were just a little less, rather than much less, than what the world has consumed. These would be the news, if facts mattered.

But, that's not even the point: the essence of depletion is not how much of it there is, it is how much it costs to extract it. Here, Arthur Berman notes that Bloomberg had calculated the value of this "treasure" at $900 billion as if "if the oil magically leaped out of the ground without the cost of drilling and completing wells; if there were no operating costs to produce it; if there were no taxes and no royalties." Then, Berman calculates how much it would cost to extract all this "bonanza" of oil and concludes that, at the current prices, it would result in a net loss of some $500 billion. 

So, aren't you happy to live in a fact-free world? You can keep thinking that it is enough to poke a few holes in the ground to see it gush out in never ending abundance because, as everyone knows, it is really "abiotic." Sure, and you can also walk on thin air, as Wile E. Coyote can do as long as he doesn't realize he does.

E is for EROEI

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Published on the 22 Billion Energy Slaves on October 3, 2016


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Understanding EROEI – or Energy Return On Energy Invested – should be on every school curriculum, but isn't. Simply put, it's the amount of energy we as a species can play with. Back in the days when you could poke a hole in the ground and oil would gush out of it skywards, getting hold of plenty of energy was easy. In fact, for every blob of oil you used for locating, drilling and transporting the stuff, you got between 100 and 200 similarly-sized blobs of the same quality back. The way this energy value was expressed was by way of EROEI; thus, sweet onshore crude oil could be said to have an EROEI of 100 to 200. These were the low hanging fruit days that made the 20th century boom.

Once all the low hanging fruit was gone we had to move a bit further up the tree. Oil and coal and natural gas were still abundant but they needed more work to get at. They also needed more processing, transporting and all the rest of it. Because of this, the net energy (i.e. energy return minus energy expenditure) available to us was lower. We invested one blob and got considerably less than 100 back. In other words, the energy we invested in unlocking fossil fuels needed to be higher just to get the same amount back that we were used to, meaning the EROEI was falling.

Of course, fossil fuels aren't the only forms of energy. Nuclear was thought to have a high EROEI, but once you took into consideration the entire process of building the power stations, mining the uranium, decommissioning the plant and storing the waste, the EROEI shrivelled up like dead fish in the sun at Fukushima Beach.

Renewables also have relatively low EROEI values compared to early oil. Note, however, that EROEI has nothing to do with money. Getting EROEI mixed up with EROI (Energy Return on Investment) is a common mistake. One deals with the immutable laws of physics and the other deals with the infinitely manipulable world of finance – and only one of these sets of conditions is negotiable.

So what would be the average EROEI value of oil discovered today? Unfortunately nobody can seem to agree on an exact figure, but you can be sure that it's a lot lower than 200. 20 perhaps. In fact many insist that fracked shale gas and tight oil have such a low EROEI they are only viable as a commercial operation when financed by Wall Street Ponzi schemes. Biofuels, such as ethanol, have disastrously low EROEI numbers – in many cases they are less than 1. When you put more energy into something than you get out of it then it can no longer be regarded as a fuel source. Nevertheless, biofuel volumes are often added to 'total liquids' figures, implying they are an oil substitute when clearly they are not.

People will often say that 'the world is awash with oil' because they see it on the news all the time. They see no reason to think scarcity exists – everywhere they look they see abundance. However, there's a problem with this kind of thinking, and the problem is that our net energy levels are shrinking. Yes, shrinking! We can cover the world in wind turbines, solar panels and fracking wells, and we still can't escape the shrinkage problem. We might be producing, say, ten million barrels of oil per day – which looks great on spreadsheets and in news articles – but what good is that if we are then spending the bulk of it to do more drilling to get at more oil that will have an even lower EROEI value?

Which leads us to the crux of the problem. The modern world was set up to run on high EROEI energy. Take a look around. All those roads, airports, microproccesor factories, mechanised agricultural systems, globalised supply chains and space programmes require a huge throughput of energy. But we are running out of high EROEI energy, and will soon have only low EROEI energy to play with. Which begs the question: at what average level of net energy will the modern world cease to be a viable option? In the past, when high energy fossil fuels were abundant, you could always throw more money and energy at problems and expect them to go away – and usually they did. But this option itself is now going away. What will we do?

Here's a chart showing estimated EROEI values for different energy sources (source unknown).

Proponents of renewable energy will say that we can simply swap out the old system for a new 'clean and green' one. We'll all drive electric cars, live in solar cities and our lifestyles will not be much different to what they are today. This vision ignores many of the other limits to the system, and would still permit the continued destruction of the planet's life support systems, albeit in a more 'green' fashion. That's not to say that renewable energy isn't extremely useful – especially in a locally-distributed way – just to recognise some of its limits.

On the other hand, fossil fuel dinosaurs claim that we should just go all-out for oil and gas and coal. If there's such a thing as EROEI or global warming or acidifying oceans then they don't want to hear it. We should be fracking the living daylight out of the planet, building pipelines and fighting wars to get 'our' oil out of the Middle East. These people are a type of modern day cargo cult and as such, are quite dangerous. Many of them are politicians and leading businessmen.

There's a third category, too. The techno cornucopian optimists insist that a new technological breakthrough is just around the corner that will allow us to live like we do with no interruption to service. Haven't you heard there's a government conspiracy to cover up the availability of free energy? Or that if we can send robots up into space to mine comets for uranium we can have endless energy? Selling dreams is a profitable business, and the most successful of these people have MBAs and hire the best PR staffers. I myself once pretended to be one just for fun and have had several requests for an investment prospectus from people with money.

So what is likely to happen as these groups fight it out amongst each other while, all along, the needle on the global EROEI fuel tank moves into the orange zone? Perhaps it will be like the hand of God slowly turning down the dimmer switch on industrial civilisation. Because the more energy we USE simply to GET energy, the less energy is available for the rest of society to use. And this manifests itself in many different ways, but it all comes down to lower available net energy. Already we are seeing demand destruction and lower energy use as the former consumer classes struggle to be able to afford as many goods and the corresponding energy they use. Heavy goods vehicle traffic levels have fallen over 6% across the UK in the last decade, councils are turning off streetlights at night, and homeless levels in the US are spiking. Sweden is encouraging its citizens to refurbish goods instead of buying new ones, malnutrition in children is becoming common in the developed world and 30-something Britons possess half as much as 30-somethings did only 10 years ago [*See links below]. These are just some signs that the big squeeze is on, and it's getting tighter and tighter with each passing year.

Links to articles:

HGV traffic levels falling across UK
Councils turning off streetlights
Number of homeless people over 50 in US spiking
Sweden encourages goods refurbishing
Malnutrition in UK children
30 something Brits have less than half of 40 somethings at same age
UK hits "Peak stuff"
If you're under 30 – bad luck – you're screwed

Syria: it’s all about pipelines

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Published on The Doomstead Diner on November 19, 2016


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I've just spent some time watching videos raving about how the war in Syria is all about pipelines – a Young Turks specialty as well as ZeroHedge.  Their idea is that the South Pars gasfield in the Persian Gulf (shared by Iran and Qatar) needs to get gas to Europe, and to do that it has to cross Syria, which has refused permission, hence Assad has to go. 

I also did the research on actual pipelines built and being built.  Pipelines are expensive things, and of course they get designed to have a certain capacity and no more, because it's more expensive – there is never any spare capacity just lying around waiting for more gas.

OK, so first we need the map, with South Pars to the Austrian gas hub on it:


The red line is the shortest possible route and takes no notice of mountain ranges in Turkey, Greece, Albania and the Alps in Italy-Austria.  It is 6,200 Km, and probably a lot more in practice.  The most efficient route from Turkey to Europe has been in planning for over 14 years.  First there was the Nabucco route, then that was dropped in favour of Nabucco West, then that was dropped in favour of Trans Adriatic Pipeline.  Work finally started on that last year, and although the project website hasn't been updated for 10 months, is presumably still going, with an estimated start date of 2021.

Although the Qatar pipeline would probably follow the same route after leaving Turkey, NONE of it has been designed and financed yet, let alone built.  The Syrian war isn't even over yet, and its outcome is far from certain.  But even if it results in a Russian-controlled West Syria and a US/Turkey-controlled East Syria, and peace breaks out soon (a very unlikely scenario), there are still 8 other countries to get on-board and the EU Commission too.  As a price for going along with all this, those countries will/may want a spur off the main line to use themselves.

An additional complexity is that both Russia and Iran want to send more gas to Turkey too, and the Russian South Stream project to Turkey via the Black Sea is quite advanced.  What happens next with the EU Commission is still very much up in the air.  No doubt Russia wants to sell gas to Europe just as much as Qatar does, but Russia has the added incentive of getting more energy control over Europe, which Qatar doesn't have.  This could be used as lever to ensure peace between Russia and Europe (the aggressive bastards ! ).  At the same time, Europe (and Big Brother) doesn't want to get even more dependent on Russian gas if it can help it, making Qatar's non-existent pipeline more attractive.

So would the US be fighting ISIS in Syria (and Iraq) when ISIS is already fighting Assad, if the main game was to get the Qatari pipeline through Syria as quickly as possible?  I just can't see it somehow.


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Published on the Doomstead Diner on November 12, 2016


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fig1-eroiandfivefingers  fig2-fivefingers-contract  fig3-fivefingers-peace  fig4-fivefingers-flip

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by Geoffrey Chia, November 2016

sameboatver1These slides (four figures followed by four graphs) are for any Diner readers who wish to explain the looming decline in global petroleum supply to their family, friends or community. This impending sudden energy curtailment will guarantee that the collapse of global industrial civilisation will be complete within 15 years (which is an exceedingly conservative estimate – Dr Louis Arnoux believes a 10 year timeline is more likely and I fear he is probably right). This does NOT mean we have a 10 or 15 year window to prepare for an offgrid fossil fuel free lifestyle, it means global industrial collapse will be complete by then.

Those fortunate enough to be able to prepare, have at best a 2 to 3 year window of opportunity, however it is possible that if global financial collapse occurs sooner, then our ability to act will be lost sooner.

The slides can be explained to your audience using background information from my previous Diner articles:

  • The appendices explaining EROEI from my articles "How the world works" parts i and ii

  • "Peak oil revisited part 1a"

  • "Open letter to TZM" which I wrote in lieu of my "Peak oil revisited part 2" article.



  1. "Easy" oil (high net energy conventional petroleum on the upslope of the Hubbert curve) is the keystone commodity which enables industry and large scale agriculture (and the debt based economy) to function. Even the supply chains and infrastructures for coal, natural gas and nuclear energies require petroleum. Even the construction and maintenance of "renewable energy" infrastructure requires petroleum.

  2. "Difficult" oil (unconventional oil or conventional petroleum well past the Hubbert peak) is no substitute for easy oil. Unconventional oil is in fact a fools' errand and a financial scam. We will continue to extract post peak conventional oil until the net return falls off a cliff.*

  3. Oil price is an inaccurate and misleading index with which to judge oil availability. Price in itself is meaningless. What is important to the consumer is affordability.

  4. Gross production of crude oil (or other liquid hydrocarbons eg light tight oil) at the wellhead is meaningless. It is the NET availablity of refined petroleum products delivered to our point of consumption which is valuable to us, which enables us to do useful things. This is best analysed by EROEI methods** This idea is exactly analogous to the fact that your gross salary is meaningless and it is only your net income after business expenses and taxes which allows you to do useful things.

  5. Oil importing nations need to consider the rising domestic consumption of oil exporting nations (most exporters have increasing populations) when estimating the oil available in the coming years. This concept is the ELM which is simple primary school subtraction arithmetic. The ELM concept is also important to oil exporting nations because once their rising consumption curve intersects with their falling production curve, their oil export income will vanish to zero which will trigger economic collapse if they lack a diverse economy.

  6. The only realistic way to judge future net oil availability is therefore to superimpose the ELM curve on the post peak NET Hubbert curve

  7. One of the biggest impediments to public understanding of these urgent issues (apart from people equating low oil prices with petroleum abundance) is faulty linear or symmetrical thinking. It may take 10 minutes to build a Jenga tower, however once it reaches its maximum height, it will NOT gradually decline over another 10 minutes. It will suddenly collapse in a split second. Similarly the graph showing that Net oil availability falls of a cliff once EROI goes below 5:1 explains why societies will suddenly shift from a seemingly "normal" lifestyle, to severe privation in the blink of an eye.



*The only possible carbon neutral substitutes for petroleum are either: biofuels from algae (which must NOT encroach on food producing areas) OR artificial photosynthesis, both of which I discussed in various articles dating back to 1999 (first in the Australian Skeptic journal). As things now stand, the former cannot be scaled up and the latter remains a pipe dream. Hoping for a breakthrough in either in the next couple of years is like depending on a lottery win to pay off your mortgage, the false hope of a fool. Furthermore, energy decline is but one of many threats which will cause civilisation to collapse, the others being depletion of other resources, climate catastrophe and ecosystem destruction, all driven by the massive consumer and waste footprint of 7.5 billion homo stupidus. The key measures to survive must therefore be simplification of individual lifestyles by reduction of consumption and waste production (ideally combined with "closing the loop" eg using humanure for local crop production). Population reduction will take care of itself in the form of massive human die-off ,which may occur over decades (famines, regional wars, epidemics especially among war and climate refugees and the spread of tropical vectors) or may occur overnight (global thermonuclear war).


**EROI analytical methods continue to be refined by those working in the field. At this time, even basic definitions are unclear, for example, what exactly are "Energy Returned" and "Energy Invested"?

Consider a post peak "nodding donkey" oil rig which requires saline to be actively injected into the oil well to enable a saline/crude oil mix to be extracted. Saline injection is performed by a diesel pump, hence that diesel is the "Energy Invested". That diesel is a refined petroleum product which has been delivered to its final point of consumption.

In order to compare apples with apples, we should therefore define the Energy Returned NOT in the form of crude oil, but in the form of refined petroleum products which have been delivered their final points of consumption. I would argue that "Energy returned" is NOT the calorific value of the crude oil produced at the wellhead. Crude oil in itself is NOT a useful energy source, it is nothing more than a toxic pollutant. Energy Returned must be the calorific value of the refined petroleum products derived from the crude oil and delivered to their final points of consumption. Energy Returned must subtract the sum of energies required to transport the crude oil to the refinery, to refine that crude into usable petroleum products and to transport those refined products to their final destinations.

Please not that this Energy Returned is NOT the same as Net Energy available.

Net Energy available is Energy Returned from the previous cycle of energy production MINUS the Energy Investment required for the next cycle of energy production.

EROEI is Energy Returned DIVIDED by Energy Invested.

Previous overestimations of EROEI were because ER was defined as the calorific value of crude oil produced at the wellhead which in my view is inappropriate and does not reflect the real world.

Clearly using solar or wind energy to power a "nodding donkey" pump will increase the net energy gain from a depleting well, which may be a final act of desperation for many producers.

G. Chia Nov.2016

Hillary Hallucinates Energy Independence

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Published on The Daily Impact on October 10, 2016


Wait, we don’t have to do it! Just roll up our sleeves and imagine it’s already done!

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Just when we were beginning to accept that the lesser evil in this batshit-crazy, un-presidential election was also the safer option, we get confirmation that Hillary Clinton is almost as delusional as Donald Trump. In last night’s debate, minutes after scornfully describing Trump as “living in an alternative [sic] universe,” Mrs. Clinton emailed a dispatch from her private planet, announcing for the first time anywhere that in the United States, “We are now, for the first time ever, energy independent.”

Now, among English speakers, the words “energy” and “independence,” used together, have a specific meaning. (I know, it’s quaint of me to suggest that words have meaning independently of who is using them, but you can have my dictionary when you pry it from my cold, dead hands…) A country is energy independent if, and only if, it produces all the energy it needs.

Mrs. Clinton was seriously mistaken to suggest that the United States is energy independent now, and further mistaken to say that if it were true it would be for the first time ever. The United States produced more energy than it consumed until World War II, and never again.  

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s latest (September) “Short-Term Energy Outlook,” the United States is still extracting about nine million barrels of its own oil per day and burning about 20 million barrels per day. I say “still” because the numbers and their relationship have not changed substantially for several years. The EIA forecasts that next year we will produce less oil and consume more.

With the U.S. government reporting that we still import about half of the oil we use, and that imports have been rising during the first half of this year, how are we to process the fact that a woman who is about a step and a half away from the presidency of the United States professes to believe that we are energy independent and says we no longer have to concern ourselves about the instability of the oil-rich countries of the Middle East? Some of us remember that the near paralysis of this country during the Arab Oil Embargo (Remember? The closed gas stations, the endless lines, the short hours? Anybody?) occurred when we were only importing 30% of our oil, and the Arabs shut off a mere 10% of that.

If there is any logical consistency on Planet Clinton  — I know, another quaint concept, just shut up and hand me my broken lance — we can expect some awesome changes in foreign policy under the new President Clinton. You know, like closing U.S. military bases in 150 countries and bringing home 150,000 service members. Of course that’s not going to happen. Because of course Mrs. Clinton does not believe — cannot possibly believe — that the United States is energy independent.

The most charitable interpretation of what she said last night — actually the only charitable interpretation —  is to assume that she is referring to the fact that for brief periods of time we produce a few more barrels of oil than we import, and defining that as energy independence. So if the Middle East gives us any instability, we only have to park half our cars and shut down half our economy.

Oh, and by the way. According to the EIA, next year we are going to be less independent than that.

So the most charitable interpretation of Mrs. Clinton’s assertion is also the most terrifying — that she is utterly ignorant of the energy realities, and future, of this planet. On Trump’s planet, meanwhile, they have a thousand years’ worth of coal left to burn and, lo and behold, it is “clean coal.”  

There is no lesser evil. We are going to be completely fracked.

World Electioneering Entertainment 2016: 1,000 Years of Energy Indepen­dence and the Greatest Con Ever? (part 1/3)

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on October 28th, 2016

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Let's get ready to rumble!!!!

As probably anyone will attest, the greatest spectacle of the past year – if not of the past eon – has been none other than the United States presidential election, something that I now like to refer to as World Electioneering Entertainment (WEE). Because to properly understand this election (and its nascent title) requires, I believe, an understanding of the WWE – World Wrestling Entertainment. I've personally never had a liking for any of that wrestling stuff, but I am nonetheless intimately familiar with it all thanks to an old high school friend of mine – who goes by the nom de plume of Jason Sensation, but whom I knew as Jay – who has been a wrestler and impersonator in the WWE and other wrestling federations for nearly 20 years now. Follow along with this and the next two posts and – partially in thanks to my exposure to my old friend's antics and the mechanics of the WWE that he often explained to me – you'll see why I've come to the conclusion that this United States presidential election – WEE 2016 – might very well be the greatest con that any of us have ever beared witness to.

But before I get to the significance of the WWE to the WEE, a partial recap of the three presidential debates – and in particular their mention of energy – is required in order to provide some backdrop for understanding their correlation. I didn't actually watch the debates myself but rather listened to them (because I gave up making and watching film and television 10 years or so ago), which in a strange twist of events actually made a significant difference.

While moderator Chris Wallace stated in the third debate that "there is almost no issue that separates the two of you more than the issue of immigration", there is on the other hand probably no issue that more strongly bridges the two candidates – to go along with Bernie Sanders, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein – than the issue of energy. The first debate didn't cover much ground here, Hillary Clinton stating that

We can deploy a half a billion more solar panels. We can have enough clean energy to power every home. We can build a new modern electric grid.

Skipping over my doubts regarding the possibility of all that (which I've already repeatedly written of), Donald Trump then stated that "I'm a great believer in all forms of energy".


(photo by Brendan Loy)

Jumping over to the third debate, it was stated by Clinton that "I do want us to have an electric grid, energy system that crosses borders." Although I won't examine this in detail, it's worth remembering that it was a highly integrated energy grid that in 2003 enabled a software bug and some unpruned foliage to allow for a two-day (for some a seven-day) blackout on the eastern seaboard that left 55 million people in a mad scramble over what to do with all of their melting ice cream. (If you think I'm being a bit unfair, it's worth remembering what was broadly learned from the blackout: absolutely nothing.)

Switching over to the second debate, it was here that a question directly related to energy was (surprisingly?) asked by a fellow named Ken Bone.

What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?

Roughly translated, his question was "How can we have it all?" Or rather, How can we have an increasing energy supply that doesn't pollute and which won't cause much job loss in the fossil fuel power plants that emit pollution?

1,000 years of energy independence for everybody!
(photo by Gage Skidmore)

In response, and in short, it was stated by Trump that "There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country". Clinton then stated that "we are now for the first time ever energy-independent". Both statements are patently incorrect, but since neither candidate disagreed with the other's statements on this I figure that we might as well lump both replies together and presume that what both Trump and Clinton believe in is 1,000 years of energy independence. Bi-partisan consensus!

For the record, and as Alice Friedmann relayed in her book When Trucks Stop Running, global coal supplies may have hit their energetic peak back in 2011, while the United States' peak in tonnage of coal will probably occur sometime between now and 2050. In regards to Clinton's statement about "energy independence", up until WWII or so the United States was in fact the world's overwhelming swing producer when it came to oil supplies and actually produced more oil than the entire world combined (why do you think the allies won WWII?). That was energy independence. But seeing how the United States currently produces about 9 million barrels of oil a day and consumes about 20 million barrels a day, perhaps it's believed somewhere in the back of Clinton's mind that Canada and Saudi Arabia are the 51st and 52nd states (which sometimes wouldn't be hard to believe).

Having cleared that up, did the media call out either candidate on their highly erroneous statements? Well…

In an interview with the New York Times, the questioner (sacrificial lamb?) that made the query on energy, Ken Bone, did turn out to be rather proud of himself: "I’m just glad I was able to spark the energy debate a little bit". Yes, well, so much debate occurred that Bone appeared on various news programs, talk shows, and even did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on the website Reddit. In an interview with CNN,

CNN's Carol Costello read him a tweet arguing that he had become a meme because of a combination of "33% confidence, 33% calming demeanor, 33% hugability, 1% power stache."

So thanks to Bone's power stache the United States now has enough energy to – wait, what? Power stache? Meme? Those aren't even anagrams for energy. What's going on here?

Alright, well, it turns out that had of I watched the second debate and not merely listened to it I would have noticed that Bone was wearing a bright red sweater, a sweater which caused a sensation across the Internet and got Bone booked on various television programs. Along with

Kenneth Bone quickly bec[oming] a shorthand for all that is right about American democracy: mutual respect, caring about the issues, and the truly unifying power of a pun on the word "bone"

a Halloween costume was crafted in Bone's likeness, Bone was, of course, offered a porn contract, to go along with all the rest that comes with that 15 minutes of fame thing. Following that, and upon doing the AMA on Reddit in which he used his regular user account and not a throwaway account, much of Bone's dirty laundry was laid bare for all to see via his comment history. I won't dignify any of that gossip by rehashing it here, but it did seem important enough that rather than call out Trump and Clinton on their "misstatements" about energy supplies, the media dutifully relayed the fact that the "Bonezone" had had a vasectomy some years ago. Gripping stuff I tell you.

Anyway, this is where we get back to the macro spectacle of the WEE.

As was explained to me many years ago by my old friend of WWE notoriety, there are essentially two characters in wrestling: the hero/heroine, known as the "babyface" (or "face" for short), and the villain, known as the "heel". The "face" persona is the empathic figure that aims to garner the respect and sympathy of the audience; they are likeable and honest and are determined to overcome the overwhelming odds placed before them. The "heel" on the other hand is the unethical figure that will lie and cheat and do whatever it takes to win the match (and/or the money, the girl/guy, the power, etc.); they readily antagonize the fans and even their peers, and have a habitual streak of playing the victim. Furthermore, the "heel" never accepts the loss of a match due to an ingrained perception that a grandiose conspiracy is relentlessly working against them. On top of all that, and regardless if you're the "face" or the "heel", what matters the most in the WWE is that you get attention, and any attention is good attention (meaning it doesn't matter if the audience loves you or hates you, but that you garner a strong reaction).

In other words, and in case it isn't obvious enough, Trump's behaviour couldn't possibly fit any closer to the script and blueprint laid out for a WWE "heel": insult and deny, feign conspiracy, rinse and repeat. But while there is probably no greater student of World Wrestling Entertainment, and no person that has more shrewdly adapted it to politics than the incomparable and indomitable Donald Trump, I don't mean to imply that Trump is merely using the WWE playbook to run his campaign and ultimately win the election. No. What I mean to suggest is that Donald Trump may very well be playing out the part of a character, just as much as any run-of-the-mill wrestler does in the WWE and just as my old (wrestling) friend repeatedly did in public, the only ones in on Jay's gags and the characters he constantly acted out being his friends and the random person that recognized Jay from television and the various public events he partook in.

For starters, Trump's history with the WWE goes back to at least the late-1980s (when the WWE was known as the WWF – the World Wrestling Federation) when a casino of his in Atlantic City hosted two of the greatest events in WWE's history – Wrestlemanias IV and V. Along with being a business associate and friend of WWE's owner Vince McMahon, Trump performed in Wrestlemania 23 in a match dubbed "The Battle of the Billionaires" (otherwise known as the "hair versus hair" match) where he ended up shaving the head of a subdued McMahon. Six years later Trump was inducted into the WWE hall of fame.

Donald Trump being inducted into the WWE Hall of
Fame in 2013 (photo by Rick Foster)

I won't delve too much into Trump's antics in this post (as I'll save that for the Trump post coming up next week), but suffice to say that Trump is a media savvy political performance artist like none other and is quite possibly playing out one of the greatest roles any of us have ever seen.

Here's something relevant that Jay mentioned to me and other friends way back when and which I was able to find quoted on a website:

There was a couple of times I was doing some home shopping gigs in Canada with WWE – and this was prior to my parody as Owen [Hart] – and Triple H was at one of the shows and he came up and asked me to dress up like Bret [Hart] and make fun of him. I really didn't wanna do it, he was my favorite guy and everything. Triple H had to sit down and explain the business to me, telling me, "You can be a fan, you're not offending him, this is a job. You're getting an opportunity, you can still impersonate him for us and it can be in dedication to him even though you're making fun of him, it's just part of the gimmick."

If we can parallel that with Donald Trump, should we be so naïve as to believe that when Trump shaved off Vince McMahon's hair that he did so out of spite, or might it make more sense to realize that "it's just part of the gimmick"? Likewise, might it not be just as naïve to believe that Trump has been sincere when he's called Clinton "crooked Hillary" or even a "nasty woman" in the third debate? And how about "Little Rubio", "Lyin' Ted", "low energy" Jeb Bush, "Miss Piggie", and on and on and on? Are any of those to be taken seriously, or might it be possible that they're part of a ruse where they're also "just part of the gimmick", one where the "feud" between Trump and Clinton is entirely made up? And if it is just part of some "gimmick" (the purpose of which I'll touch on in a moment), might it then be possible that by lashing out at and/or incessantly commenting on and intellectualizing Trump's antics that our entire media, journalists, and all the rest of us observers have taken the place of the ravenous WWE audience member, giving not just Trump, but also the WEE, the attention and legitimacy sought after?

Because it's not just the WWE that follows the matrix of "any attention is good attention", but also the media in general. As Les Moonves, CEO and executive chairman of CBS, put it last year,

It [Trump’s campaign] may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS… Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now?… The money's rolling in and this is fun. I've never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.

There's no doubt that Trump is well aware of this and doesn't need one bit of reminding. As he put it himself two years before he even announced his candidacy,

I’m going to get in and all the polls are going to go crazy. I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.

And that's not the bombast of some mere pretender. It's the truth being parlayed by possibly the greatest student of the WWE, one who has taken the WWE's mechanics and applied them to the biggest arena in the entire world – the ring of the United States federal election.

The Hollywood Walk of Shame

Jumping on the bandwagon, such things as the television show The Simpsons like to portray themselves as having warned us of a Trump presidency years ago. But on top of that being a bunch of self-indulgent nonsense, the only thing that mini-spectacles like The Simpsons have done is lay down some very useful groundwork for enabling the showmanship of Donald Trumps, thanks to its contribution to the creation of a complacent and apathetic people that is highly malleable to this "age of irony" of ours.

As was put by one of the several apologists over at Salon,

Humor is one of the primary ways that oppressed, weak, and marginalized people speak back to Power. The serf mocks the king. The worker laughs at the boss or factory owner. The slave derides and makes fun of the master. The child goofs on the adult.

Oddly enough, Jay played the character "McDonald Dump"
last week at a wrestling event in Toronto. I don't think
for a second that Jay's a fan of Trump's, but much like
the media and the chattering classes – and whether
he realizes it or not – Jay's playing right into the hands
of what I see as being the Trump and WEE ploy

True enough. As I hope this blog shows, I rather like humor (as well as humour). But while making light of the foibles of life is one thing, mockery is something else entirely – one where politics turns into theatre. While the various clowns and clownettes of late-night television pride themselves for eviscerating Trump, and while their audiences gleefully lap it all up, said clowns have accomplished absolutely nothing save for supplying Trump and the WEE with the attention and reaction they seek and require in order to legitimize what I believe to be the charade of WEE 2016.

As Barack Obama's former chief speechwriter Tweeted back in February, "if Trump is the nominee, I actually think we should fund a SuperPAC that hires professional comedians to take him down with funny ads." But as the late media-theorist Marshall McLuhan put it several years ago, "The clown is really the emperor's PR man". Otherwise put, the very modus operandi of the mocking satirist is to feed into and legitimize the roasted.

Think I'm exaggerating? Then take a look at the greatest eviscerating clown currently alive, Jon Stewart, "the most trusted name in fake news". While Stewart likes to play the role of the responsible observer that uses his razor-sharp with to take down those on high, in an infamous interview on CNN's Crosstalk he fired back at – cut off – criticism of of his actions by pointing out that "The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls! What is wrong with you?" Or in other words, we're supposed to take Stewart seriously while not, well, taking him serisouly at all.

As if all that weren't enough, while it's well known that Stewart recently gave up the helm of his critically acclaimed 16-year stint as host of The Daily Show, it's not quite as well known who one of his recent employers has been. In case you need me to spell it out for you, yes, Jon Stewart has in fact been working for none other than the WWE, hosting and even wrestling in its RAW and Summer Slam events for the past couple of years. Still no word though on when Stewart and his foil will be meeting in the ring so that Stewart the clown can shave off the mane of his fellow showman, Donald Trump the emperor.

Jon Stewart and Mick Foley (of the WWE) at the
Rally to Perpetuate Insanity (photo by Cliff)

As I recently read, it's not possible to name the greatest con ever pulled off because the greatest con that ever existed was the one that nobody ever realized was actually a con. With that in mind, might it be possible that Trump is actually playing out the role of the greatest "heel" that the WWE, and now the WEE, has ever seen? If so, what I can't help but ponder over is whether or not the purpose of "the gimmick" is to create a fog of distraction over the most important issue of the day that in a strange twist of events got superseded by a red sweater, talk of a vasectomy, and, shall we say, something that the "Bonezone" "liked". In other words, inane gossip took center stage over the topic of energy supplies. Or more specifically, peaking energy supplies.

Moreover, I don't think we should expect this "feud" – this distraction – to end anytime soon. As Trump stated at the end of the third debate in response to whether he'd concede the election were he to lose, "What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense, okay?" As I'll explain further in the next post, were Trump to win the election the "feud" would essentially come to an end. But were he to lose the election, what I see as being a faux feud would be allowed to continue, thus allowing for the citizenry-cum-audience to remain properly distracted from slightly more important things like the collapse of industrial civilization.

None of this is to say though that real people won't be affected in real ways by Trump's antics. Although what's going on in the ring of the WEE may be roughly staged – I imagine that Trump is taking the lead while Clinton has the simple job of playing herself in return – at many points in the future many real people in the stands of the WEE may be incited to riot, and many real people may, to say the least, get hurt.

Alongside that, it's been postulated by John Michael Greer that upon the protracted collapse of industrial civilization the United States may see the rise of a Fred Halliot (that is an anagram). Which is, I'd say, entirely possible. But as stated by another late media-theorist, Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,

[Aldous Huxley] believed that it is far more likely that the Western democracies will dance and dream themselves into oblivion than march into it, single file and manacled. Huxley grasped, as Orwell did not, that it is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcoticized by technological diversions. Although Huxley did not specify that television would be our main line to the drug, he would have no difficulty accepting Robert MacNeil's observation that "Television is the soma of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World." Big Brother turns out to be Howdy Doody.

In other words, so long as the citizenry is kept placated and gullible with its soma, what reason is there for how, or why, a Fred Halliot might emerge? However, once the lights start to go out – meaning once the televisions and movie theatres start going dark, and people start losing access to their soma – then all bets are summarily off.

Furthermore, although I think Greer is spot on with his explanation of why so many voters are gravitating towards Trump, I'm not so sure about his interpretation regarding Trump's motivations. I'll hash out those motivations a bit more in the next two posts, starting with one on Donald Trump, followed by one on the candidate who I think wasn't so much bound to be the winner of the WEE so much as she wasn't bound to be the loser – Hillary Clinton.


Having made a comparison between Donald Trump and my old friend Jay, out of fairness I'd like to add that besides being students of the WWE they are nothing alike. While Trump slurs virtually everybody he comes across, and whether they are part of a character or not, his words are given as his honest opinion of which there is no excuse for. On the other hand, the only slurs Jay ever doled out (that wasn't behind closed doors) were either upon himself or some light ribbing upon close friends.

The mother of all promises and how science failed to maintain it

youtube-Logo-2gc2reddit-logoOff the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Cassandra's Legacy on October 22, 2016


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"Energy too cheap to meter" was the mother of all promises (above, Disney's atomic genius from 1956).  Unfortunately, science failed utterly to deliver this and many other promises made during the "nuclear age," and even later. Eventually, people will realize how much hot air there is in the press releases about pretended scientific breakthroughs and, already today, we shouldn't be surprised if so many people don't trust what the scientists are telling them about climate change.

In the 1950s, during the high times of the "atomic age", someone had the unfortunate idea of claiming that nuclear technologies would give us, one day, "energy too cheap to meter." We might call it "the mother of all promises" and, of course, it was not maintained. But, as propaganda often does, it stuck in people's minds and it seems that many people still believe in the concept that energy too cheap to meter is just around the corner. Many seem to expect it to come with one of the many scams about "free energy" or "cold fusion" that litter the Internet today.

But breakthroughs bordering on miracles are claimed also in other fields of science and some scientists seem to have made a point in saving the world every two weeks or so. The latest scientific claim that went viral on the web is about a catalyst able to turn CO2 directly into ethanol. It is likely that many people understood as a miracle that would remove the dreaded CO2 from the air and transform it into something useful at little or no cost.

Yet, if you look at the original article, you will find nothing that suggests that this catalyst is ready for practical, real-world applications. There are no data about how long it can last in operating conditions, nor there are calculations that would tell us how efficient would be the whole process, considering that one has to saturate the electrolyte with CO2. The authors themselves state that "The overpotential (which might be lowered with the proper electrolyte, and by separating the hydrogen production to another catalyst) probably precludes economic viability for this catalyst." So, we have something that works in the lab, which is fine, of course, but we should never forget that the graveyard of failed inventions is littered with tombstones with the inscription "in the lab, it worked."

In the discussion that took place on Facebook about this story, some people asked me why I was criticizing this paper so much; after all, they said, it is a legitimate research report. It is true, but the problem is another one. What is the public supposed to think about this?

Most people will see only the press release and they lack the intellectual tools needed to understand and evaluate the original. And from the press release hey will understand that scientists are making a new claim of a further scientific miracle that will solve some important problem at some unspecified moment in the future. And then the whole story will be forgotten and the problems of climate, pollution, depletion, etc., will still be there; worse than before.

It is true that the myth of the scientific miracle is stubborn, mainly because it is a comfortable myth: nobody has to do anything except giving some money to our priests in white coats. But that can't last forever. Science, as all human enterprises, doesn't live in a vacuum, it lives on its reputation. People believe that science can do something good for them because science has done that in the past. But this reputation is being tarnished a little every time some hyped scientific claim falls into oblivion, as it is destined to do. The reserve of trust that science has accumulated in the past is not infinite.

Already today, you can see the decline of the reputation of science with the many people who believe that no man ever never walked on the moon. Even worse, you can see it with those (nearly 50% of the American public) who believe that human-caused climate change is an elaborate hoax created by a cabal of evil scientists who are only interested in their fat research grants.

So, what happens when the reserve of trust in science runs out for good? I don't know, but wouldn't it be a good thing for scientists to be a little more humble and stop promising things they know they can't maintain?

Naomi Klein & the Let­down of the Leap Manifesto: Poli­tics Doesn’t Trump Physics, Nor the Economics of Collapse (part 2/4)

Off the keyboard of Allan Stromfeldt Christensen

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Published on From Filmers to Farmers on September 26th, 2016

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Avi Lewis, Stephen Lewis, Michele Landsberg & Naomi Klein
at the "This Changes Everything" premiere at the
Ryerson Theatre / Toronto International Film Festival

Much as it came as a surprise to me, it's probably not very well known that Naomi Klein comes from a rather politically active family, and that she ended up marrying into a very politically active family. While Klein had a "very public feminist mother" who was notable for her anti-pornography work, her husband Avi Lewis' mother, Michele Landsberg, was not only a well-known feminist columnist for the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail for many years, but also managed to write three bestselling books. Moreover, Lewis' father, Stephen Lewis, was the leader of Ontario's (socialist) New Democratic Party (NDP) for several years in the 1970s (to go along with later stints with the United Nations), which coincided with the period when his father, David Lewis, was leader of Canada's federal NDP. (For those who aren't aware, the NDP is one of Canada's three major political parties, and whose leader that preceded David Lewis, Tommy Douglas, helped usher in Canada's health care system.) But although Avi Lewis shares many of his father's and grandfather's leanings, he chose not to follow in their footsteps. As he put it many years ago,

As far as making the arena of politics the main stage, I could do it, but I don't feel a compulsion to. As far as I'm concerned, winning has replaced change as the goal of the party and that's wrong.

So not to shirk Klein's own accomplishments in the slightest, but she most certainly has some rather accomplished families to draw upon. Having said that, I do kind of wonder if having such a strong political background and leaning can somewhat muddy one's perceptions a bit when it comes to interpreting the effects and implications of fossil fuel depletion. As Klein put it a few days ago,

It has been one year and one week since a coalition of dozens of organizations and artists launched The Leap Manifesto, a short vision statement about how to transition to a post-carbon economy while battling social and economic injustice. A lot has changed: a new federal government, a new international reputation, a new tone… But when it comes to concrete action on lowering emissions… much remains the same. Our new government has adopted the utterly inadequate targets of the last government.

In other words, one year on and the issue is that (the) government – a new government at that! – is still the problem. But to look at this a bit differently, and to quote George Mobus (author of the book Principles of Systems Science) from his blog Question Everything,

People have gotten used to thinking that solutions come from politics – having the right officials in place means that they will solve the problems.

Sure, having "the right officials in place" when the pie is growing – when going up Hubbert's Curve – has definitely been a good thing to have when we've wanted to make sure that everybody gets a fair share of the ancient sunlight (and all its proceeds) going around. Like health care. However, while this has been useful when making sure that everybody gets more of more, it's a bit different when we start going down Hubbert's Curve, particularly when since birth it's been ingrained in the head of virtually all involved that more is a right and that progress is a given. That's bad enough. But it's possibly even worse when the egalitarian politicians doing the doling out also get the impression that more of more is normal, and that it's their inherent duty to fight back against the greedy cretins calling for austerity.

As far as I can tell, and as I explained in part 1, it seems to me that Klein subscribes pretty heavily to this left versus right, Keynesianism (of whatever stripe) versus austerity logic. Or perhaps "of whatever stripe" isn't quite correct, since one of The Leap Manifesto's 15 pillars was the call for the implementation of the all-of-a-sudden reputable notion of a basic income. (I don't inherently disagree with the notion of a basic income, although my post questioning a bit of its underpinnings will be forthcoming.)

Having said that, over the past week or so it has crossed my mind several times that perhaps I was being a bit too harsh and/or critical of Klein, and some comments garnered on a re-posting of part 1 on another website made me question myself yet again. So I went digging in some boxes of mine and found that copy of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present and Future of Rationing by Stan Cox (plant geneticist at the Land Institute), and checked out that blurb of Klein's I remember being on the back cover. This is part of what she writes:

In this richly informative and deeply courageous book, [Cox] tackles one of the greatest taboos of our high-consumer culture: the need to consume less and to fairly share what's left.

In other words, and perhaps contrary to what I was saying in part 1, Klein does readily recognize that there's going to be less to go around and that we all need to consume less. However…

I got to thinking about the Leap Manifesto again, and the notion that there's going to be less to go around isn't exactly what it says (particularly when it comes to energy). For as The Leap Manifesto claimed, and as per "the latest research," we (specifically Canada) can apparently replace 100% of our electricity usage with renewable sources within two decades, and 100% of everything else by 2050. This then begs the question: If we can get 100% of all of our energy from renewables, where does this need "to consume less and to fairly share what's left" come from?

On top of that, and at risk of being called nit-picky, did it just so happen that "the latest research" discovered that we can get exactly 100% of our current energetic usage from renewables, or was it somewhere around there? It certainly wouldn't have been less than 100% because then the researchers involved would have been misleading the public (and I doubt that that was their intention), and they also would have been setting themselves up for some major scorn once their fraud was discovered. In other words, it's quite likely then that according to "the latest research" we can (supposedly) get more than 100% of our current energy usage from renewables. Which kind of makes me wonder how much that would actually be. 102%? 110%? 150%? And depending on how much higher than 100% that figure is, how many other problems and resource shortages of ours might actually be fixable by these "technological breakthroughs"? Can we use all that extra renewable energy to desalinate all the freshwater we need? Can we power inner-city vertical farms to provide ourselves with uber-local food? How about power all the carbon capture and storage that our hearts desire? Thanks to 100+% energy, might it be possible that we can do it all? Because that's what 100+% means to me, and I can't see how your average Josephine, upon hearing the news that 100% renewable energy is possible, is going to think that we actually need to change anything about the way we go about our lives.

Do these mean that besides politics we don't really
have to change anything? Or rather, ourselves?

In other words, and regardless of what that 100+% number supposedly is, it seems to me that working off of what the Leap Manifesto and "the latest research" is telling us, we don't actually have much of a climate change problem anymore. Besides some issues with Bessie the Belcher and such, the causes of climate change have essentially been solved by a bunch of engineers and their "technological breakthroughs." As a result, all that really remains is the political problem of not having the right policies in place to make 100+% happen.

But that's all based on the idea that it's even possible that we can get 100% (or 100+%) of our current energy usage from renewables. Although I'm by no means a scientist or an engineer, and although I recognize that there are those much more learned than I on these issues who say that this is in fact possible (such as Ugo Bardi), I'm nonetheless still very sceptical about this – there seems to be just too many things that must go right in order to make it work – and wonder how wise it is to be throwing the precautionary principle to the wind as we put 100% of our eggs in the 100% renewable energy basket.

As a bit of a counter-example, it wasn't too long ago that corn-derived ethanol was widely touted as a replacement for gasoline thanks in part to an inflated EROEI level provided by insufficient research, and whose inclusion in gasoline was then mandated by governments (E85 and such). But with an EROEI that turned out to be barely higher than 1:1, the most significant accomplishments of corn-derived ethanol have been an increase in natural gas consumption in order to create nitrogenous fertilizers to douse corn fields and hypoxicate (no, that's not actually a word) the Gulf of Mexico with, and the winning over of farm lobbies by a few shrewd politicians.

In a different example, a study by Charles A.S. Hall and Pedro A. Prieto (Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution: The Energy Return on Investment) showed that photovoltaics actually only get an EROEI of 2.45:1, which with the boondoggles of various biofuels makes me wonder if windmills and the rest of the renewable gamut are all they're cracked up to be and if the two studies The Leap Manifesto reference – "the latest research" – are as accurate as some may assume. For as Hall recently stated, "There are at least three reasons that EROI estimates appear much wider than they probably really are," the first two being that "They are often done by advocates one way or another" and that "a common protocol is not followed." Which is enough to stoke my scepticism, although Klein appears to be fully convinced. As she put it herself,

The time for this great transition is short. Climate scientists have told us this is the decade to take decisive action to prevent catastrophic global warming. That means small steps will no longer suffice. So we need to leap.

For posterity's sake, let's put aside the amount of times I've heard "this is the decade [or year] to take decisive action" or Now or Never or whatever (and all their bygone expiry dates). For as Alice Friedmann uncannily stated in her book When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation (which is more recent than the two studies that The Leap Manifesto and Klein reference, if "the latest" is what we're going by), "We need to look before we leap":

There has been considerable discussion about whether the EROI of wind and solar are sufficient to support modern society, especially if backup systems are included. Charles Hall and other scientists believe this issue is not resolved yet, especially if the high costs of batteries or other backups are factored in (p. 88).

And as she concludes,

Even if we continue building wind and solar at the current record rates, it would take centuries to reach half of our total power generation from wind and solar (p. 94).

But for argument's sake, let's also put aside all the "doomer" talk about intermittency, low EROEI levels, scarcity and depletion of rare earth metals, the longevity and replacement requirements of renewable systems and their batteries and inverters, transmission losses, the fact that renewables aren't liquid fuels, and so forth. Let's give the benefit of the doubt and suppose that deriving the equivalent of 100% of our current energy usage from renewables is in fact technically feasible (never mind desirable).

But even if we assume that, there's still another problem besides technical feasibility, and that's the viability of implementing such systems under times of economic duress. For starters, over the past couple of years or so we've seen the loss of over 350,000 (high-paying) jobs in the energy sector alone due to the crash in oil prices, which itself was brought on by demand destruction: consumers and businesses unable to afford (for too long) the new high prices that energy companies now need to charge in order to pay for the expensive unconventional supplies of oil they're increasingly forced to tap into now that the cheaper to extract and refine conventional oil supplies peaked back in 2006.

Latest values up to 2008 (image courtesy of Charles A.S. Hall)

While noting that correlation does not imply causation, Hall and Kent A. Klitgaard astutely noted in their book Energy and the Wealth of Nations that when the expenditure of oil as a percentage of GDP has been above 5.5% or so for long enough, economies have gone into recession. With that being the case, since energy companies are continually having to extract more and more of the poor quality, costly (energetically-wise) to extract and refine stuff, what this is all pointing towards is a future of energy-induced economic breakdowns brought on by a system that has troubles maintaining the economic growth that its Ponzionomic setup of fractional-reserve banking and interest bearing debt require.

As far as I understand it, none of that, or the fact that money is but a proxy for energy, is taken into account when Klein states that "The money we need to pay for this great transformation is available – we just need the right policies to release it." As I put it earlier, all we (supposedly) have is a political problem.

Sure, Klein can decry things like growth, but in place of her or the Leap Manifesto mentioning how our monetary/banking system requires growth – which to me is a political issue if there ever was one – what we hear instead is the call for the egalitarian method of essentially maintaining growth – the basic income. (It could have been different if at least the basic-income-as-usual's dependence on steady energy supplies was mentioned, or the possibility that nationalizing the currency [not the banks] could get us off the Ponzionomic growth habit, but they weren't.)

If economic contraction turns out to be the case – and for some people on the poorer end of the scale it already is the case – how motivated (and financially capable) are even the most altruistic of governments going to be about installing massively-scaled renewable energy systems, and how concerned is your average person going to be with being 100% renewable three decades or so down the road, when in the present time it's getting harder for people to fill up their cars, pay their rent, or even put food on their tables? And just because it isn't currently happening to you (or me), doesn't mean that it isn't currently happening to others.

Sure, these might be the rantings of some random blogger who doesn't realize that he's not living in unique times and that things like the recent Hanjin Shipping bankruptcy (which incited the Los Angeles Times to print an article titled "Hanjin bankruptcy is the tip of the iceberg for flailing shippers") is just a classic case of boom and bust.

But maybe not.

And "lucky" us if not, because then what we're due for is another recession (or even depression) which will induce another all-too-rare reprieve of greenhouse gas production, a boon for an already ravaged climate. But once again, this economic contraction is guaranteed to induce another round of calls for how to get growth going again in order to spur recovery (from a reduction in greenhouse gas production?), particularly when the constituents that most current politicians tend to be primarily concerned with start to get testy when they're increasingly forced to cut back on how many overseas vacations they can take every year.

And when did Syria's problems really begin? (data: EIA)

But none of this is to suggest, as some have mused, that I'm dismissing concerns for climate change with concerns for peak oil. As Nafeez Ahmed has noted, Syria is a textbook case of a country that is being ravaged from both ends – climate change-induced drought for one, and an economy hit by oil production that peaked back in 1996. As Ahmed put it in what's been the best article I've read on both climate change and peak oil,

from 2010 to 2011, the price of wheat doubled – fueled by a combination of extreme weather events linked to climate change, oil price spikes and intensified speculation on food commodities – impacting on Syrian wheat imports. Assad's inability to maintain subsidies due to rapidly declining oil revenues worsened the situation.

Sure, many of the things that we need to do to deal with the effects of climate change are the exact same as those we need to do to deal with the onset of peak oil (and resource depletion in general) – in (very) short, localize our economies. However, and as far as I see it, if Naomi Klein and movements like The Leap Manifesto fail to take fossil fuel depletion as seriously as they do climate change (which is rather scant I think), the attendant lack of understanding of the economic effects that peak oil will imply – is implying – will continue to result in missing out on many of the underlying causes of current economic problems, and while progressives or lefties or whatever continue to point the (political) finger at the boogeyman of austerity, the disaster profiteers that Klein spoke of so forcefully in The Shock Doctrine – some of whom may very well be shrewdly clued into the effects that fossil fuel shortages are already having – may very well be given carte blanche to work their magic. In effect, and without some kind of a Redux, the original Leap Manifesto comes across like little more than a bunch of socialist-flavoured techno-evangelism in climate change clothing.

Perhaps the popcorn went over better?

Regardless, none of these issues I write of are anything new, and I'm 99.979% sure that at least some of those on the left have been aware of the looming collapse of industrial civilization – or at least of its warnings – for more than a decade now. For although I didn't plan it that way, the last movie I ever saw in a theatre, in mid-2006, just so happened to be the peak oil documentary A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash. And although I didn't plan it that way either, while waiting in line outside of the Bloor Street Theatre it just so happened that I spent about half an hour standing right next to none other than the working-on-his-first-feature-film movie director himself, Avi Lewis. (I suppose there's a 0.021% chance that he didn't see the movie and was actually in line to get some of that tasty movie theatre popcorn, but I kind of doubt it.)

We didn't say anything to one another, partly because I was just some stranger that Lewis had no reason to randomly start chatting with, partly because there was plenty of other people in other parts of the line that Lewis kept going to speak to, and partly because I didn't exactly want to make an ass out of myself:

Hi, I'm Allan. I dropped out of Ryerson University / film school and went WWOOFing in New Zealand for a year. [Awkward silence.] I think peak oil is cool!

I'll try and not make too much of an ass out of myself in part 3 part 4.

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