econoimic contraction

Responding to collapse, Part 3: Declining Surplus Energy

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Knarf plays the Doomer Blues

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