Collapse (too) Might Come Sooner Than Expected

12 min readJul 25, 2023
Photo by Micah Williams on Unsplash

I’ve been writing long and extensively about peak oil for some time now, still, after so many years spent on researching the topic, I had to realize that I might’ve missed an important point. A kind reader, and an astute scholar of the global energy system, Dr Louis Arnoux, has brought another perspective to my attention. He and his team of engineers and scientists at the Fourth Transition Initiative are focusing more on the useful energy oil provides to civilization (as opposed to counting barrels), and view the global energy supply and use system (GESUS as they call it) as one interconnected mechanism with feedback loops and a complex behavior of its own. Their calculations suggest a rather unexpected turn of events — well before a theoretic maximum oil-output could be reached — putting quite an abrupt end to our way of life. So here is a different version of the story of our global energy system and the role of oil in it.

First, we must understand a few things about our global energy system, and oil in particular. Perhaps the most important point to make is that it is not the actual barrel count of oil what matters, but the useful work that it provides to society. Common sense suggests that we wouldn’t be a whole lot better off if we would have to invest more than a barrel of oil worth of energy into getting one barrel on the market. That would be a net waste of our efforts, right? Should this be the case, we would need to be adding all sorts of other energy resources to produce liquid fuels, eventually bleeding our entire energy system to death in the process. As it turns out, this very well might be the case already.

One might ask how is that possible? First, not all the energy of a given barrel of petroleum can be turned into useful work, and thus returned to further exploration, drilling and refining; not to mention the countless other uses this dense energy resource has. According to a detailed analysis of the matter, Dr Arnoux and his team concluded that only 62% of any given barrel of oil’s energy content can be turned into productive work — the rest is essentially lost due to inefficiencies and the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

Before we continue with what researchers at the Fourth Transition Initiative have discovered, we must understand why oil is such a vital input to the global economy, and how the entire global energy system became reliant on it. First, we must understand that oil is not a uniform substance. It consists of hydrocarbon molecules of various lengths, all having a different use in the economy. Consequently only a fraction of a barrel of petroleum can be converted into liquid fuels, the rest gets used to produce a range of industrial products from plastics to asphalt, from lubricants to paint. Oil is like God. It’s everywhere. Not all of its potential chemical energy gets used up by civilization, however: it is as much a raw material as an energy resource. A good portion of the energy stored in a barrel of oil thus remains trapped in our chemicals, plastics, tires and in the countless other products… All finally ending up in landfills.

In search for the truly essential part of oil, and thus narrowing the circle of petroleum products even further, we must focus on one particular set of fuels: diesel, jet fuel and the lighter grades of fuel oil. These products are the so called middle distillates, coming out in the middle of the distilling process and powering all our heavy machinery. Mining, shipping and agriculture, all essential activities for energy production and civilization to thrive, burn diesel, jet fuel and fuel oil without exception... And while gasoline is useful in maintaining our frivolous car-centric lifestyles, it contributes little to nothing to uphold a stable flow of raw materials and energy into the economy. Viewed through this narrow lens, the really useful, economically vital energy content of oil is actually a rather small portion (20–30%) of a full barrel. A small cut, but with a vital importance.

Crude oil is separated into fractions by fractional distillation. The fractions at the top of the fractionating column have lower boiling points than the fractions at the bottom. The heavy bottom fractions are often cracked into lighter, more useful products. All of the fractions are processed further in other refining units. (Source)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, middle distillates are also an essential input into oil extraction itself. Drilling equipment, pumps, generators, trucks (hauling all these machinery plus a thousand truckload of sand and water to a fracking site for example) all take diesel to operate. These machines have to work in remote locations, far away from sources of electricity, and do not have the luxury of carrying a three ton battery pack. (Using hydrogen is also a non-starter here, due to the lack of infrastructure and the complex machinery needed for its storage and pumping — not to mention the dismal energy return on investment). Suffice to say: without this valuable fuel there is simply no oil production. In fact, since the same is true for coal mining — and as we will see later: renewables and nuclear too— no diesel means no energy production for this oh-so modern civilization.

Biodiesel and ethanol provide no saving graces either, as both require burning a lot of middle distillates in the process of their making. So much so, that they barely provide a return on investment, and thus depend on government subsidies and regulations to stay viable. (Not to mention the fact, that they take valuable land from food production, but that’s a story for another day.) Agricultural machinery — tilling the land, spreading fertilizers and pesticides, or doing the actual harvesting and delivery of grain into a processing plant — all work on diesel as well. The reason is simple: these activities are also spread out in vast remote areas, just like mining, without any idea how to electrify at scale… And yes, you’ve guessed right: carrying a three ton battery pack, compressing the soil into concrete, won’t do it here either. All in all it seems, no diesel means no biofuels. In fact, no diesel, no food. At least, not for 8 billion people.

Fracked tight (aka shale) oil also yields relatively low amounts of diesel (the majority of the derived fuel being gasoline). These wells also take a massive energy investment to drill, frack and operate, so shale oil might also be a net diesel sink. Just like tar sands which effectively have to be mined and shoveled by diesel engines and using natural gas to ‘cook’ synthetic crude from it. Not a recipe on how to preserve diesel for other uses.

Electrification (including „renewables” as well as nuclear) is another case in point. The mining and transportation of all the metals going into these devices (not to mention the distribution, installation and maintenance of said panels, turbines and reactors) all take diesel without exception. Alternative energy, on the other hand, substitute the burning of coal and natural gas in power plants (plus some gasoline combustion in personal vehicles) only. Long distance transport, as well as heavy machinery used in their production, however, all continue to remain on the diesel paradigm for the same reasons stated above… Viewed from this perspective, all our hopes pinned on electrification (from “renewables” to nuclear) depend on the uninterrupted availability of diesel, and thus oil itself. And as prof. Micheaux keeps telling:“We are not mining with solar panels and wind turbines… and when we do, shit’s gonna get real.” As an engineer, I cannot argue with that.

Having so many useful and some truly essential applications, it’s no wonder that the world economy does everything to subsidize diesel production, by electrifying at least the stationary equipment (like drilling rigs near the shores of Norway), or using pipelines to forward this valuable fuel instead of trucks, and consuming natural gas in refineries to turn more of the heavy oils into fuel oil — or experimenting with synthetic diesel production — and so on and so forth. All this is an exercise in futility though. The problem lies not with our “ingenuity” aimed at finding a better, cleaner, greener way to produce liquid fuels, but with physics and geology itself, making our entire current energy paradigm obsolete.

Now let’s return to the research from Dr Arnoux and his colleagues cited above. Since, according to their calculations, converting petroleum into useful work has a maximum theoretical efficiency of 62%, a relentless increase in the energy invested in its production will cause serious troubles well before a theoretical 1:1 ratio is reached. As easy to tap large oilfields continue to deplete and get increasingly replaced with unconventional sources, extracting oil takes more and more energy with time. In fact, according to them, the total energy cost of the oil-based energy system (per average barrel) has reached the ceiling of the maximum amount of work available from a barrel of petroleum in 2020, already. Since then it no longer makes sense to talk about the EROI of oil, because the oil-based energy system has ceased to be self-powered. This means — in practical terms—that we are pouring more energy into the process of making liquid fuels, than what we get in the form of useful work performed by the world’s massive fleet of ships, locomotives, trucks and heavy machinery. Using their terminology, we have entered the Big Mad Energy Scramble phase, where

“The oil industry is 100% energy dependent on the non-oil GESUS [Global Energy Supply and Use System] that in turn is 100% dependent on energy from oil — it’s like a mad dog running round in circles trying to bite its flea infested tail.”

According to their analysis, oil is thus no longer an energy resource, but an energy carrier — like a battery or hydrogen — charged by using all sorts of other energy inputs. Paraphrasing Dr Arnoux, this is the “diamond phase of oil”, but we do not mine it (or rather drill for it) for its beauty, but for its immense ability to store and release massive amounts of energy. All of which can be in turn used to maintain the rest of the global energy system: from doing agricultural work (energy for the people), to digging out minerals from the ground in order to turn them into solar panels or nuclear fuel rods.

Since diesel is such an irreplaceable ingredient to a functioning global energy system and world economy, we cannot help but keep subsidizing its production by utilizing even more coal, natural gas, solar, wind, nuclear, you name it. The problem is that we have already hit a plateau of high quality conventional oil production (the best source for diesel) in 2005 and a decline is clearly on the way. As we have seen unconventional sources (tight oil, ultra deep water, tar sands, or extra heavy oil from Venezuela) produce much less fuel per unit of energy invested into their extraction, and thus stand no chance at pushing the oil-based energy system back into a net surplus territory.

We have found ourselves digging a hole, which we cannot stop doing. Instead of looking for a way out, we are now obliged to keep investing more and more energy into getting the next barrel of distillates. Our energy subsidies provided by alternative energy sources, however, will not be able to support traditional diesel production for much longer. Producing coal, natural gas, nuclear and “renewables” are all prone to mineral resource depletion too, manifesting in ever lower returns on investment as we bring ever lower quality ores to the surface, requiring more and more energy to process into metals… It also goes without saying that these “alternative” energy sources are all ultimately dependent on cheap diesel to make and operate. The circle has become full.

The only question remaining is this: how long can conventional oil support the global energy system with cheap diesel? How steep the fall of the giant conventional oil fields, providing much of our diesel supplies, is going to be? If a decline in cheap oil production is indeed a fast one, despite having more than enough “oil” (in terms of barrels) on the market, we would quickly find ourselves in a ‘dead state’, where the total energy cost of getting energy would equal the total amount of primary energy extracted. Only this time, the entire global energy system would cease to be self-powered. Perhaps it also goes without saying that

“A self powered energy supply and use system (which is able to deliver a net surplus of energy) is vital for any civilization to develop and thrive.”

As suggested by a their analysis of the matter, this could happen as early as 2030… Which is not too far away to say the least. What happens when it arrives? Well, after shedding all the frivolous uses of diesel fuel (like using it to build football stadiums, office buildings, roads connecting MacMansions and the like) — all of which will look like a massive recession for clueless economists — the decline of energetically viable fuel production would turn into a self reinforcing feedback loop. Remember: less diesel means less agriculture (or less biodiesel and food), less mining (or less uranium, rare earth and silicon, aka alternative energy), less drilling for more oil, and finally less transport of goods and building of anything, including coal fired power plants.

The crumbling of our global energy system, precipitated by a relentless rise in energy cost of producing liquid fuels, could thus easily turn into a vicious cycle, resulting in a Seneca-cliff type of decline across all industrial societies, all over the world. Agricultural, as well as industrial, output would fall precipitously like a line of dominoes: eventually leading to a similar fall in population, especially in the over-developed industrial societies, where the knowledge, as well as the land, has been long lost for sustaining large populations.

This would not be unprecedented though. Large, highly developed, complex societies tend to fall rather quickly (Tainter), with the brunt of the collapse taking only a couple of decades to unfold. In case of the Bronze Age collapse, for example, a mere 50 years were enough to erase a number of developed societies from the map, due to their interconnected nature and mutual dependence on each other. Something similar is entirely possible in our case with the ‘big mad energy scramble’ described above: resulting in a population crash and potentially an almost complete loss of knowledge (science and technology).

Here things could take an unexpected turn though. A sudden loss of population during the course of a mere couple of decades would leave survivors in a surprisingly different environment than what was to be expected should current population trends continue. As experienced by people living through the “Little Ice Age” between the 16th and 19th centuries, a sudden cooling can occur due to large amounts of land (previously under agricultural use) being returned to Nature.

Pastures and fields can re-wild rather quickly and the sudden jump in green growth could suck tremendous amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere. The colonization of the Americas, and the subsequent genocide by germs and steel from white folks, has resulted in just that: a massive population crash and a regrowth of forests, which has cooled Earth’s atmosphere by a considerable amount. Back then an agricultural area the size of France was left suddenly without people to take care of, and the resulting forest growth lowered atmospheric CO2 concentration by as much as 2 ppm. This might not sound a lot, but considering that today an area eighty times larger than that is in active use, a collapse of modern agriculture and the resulting regrowth of vegetation could reduce CO2 levels by a hundred ppm or more in a matter of decades.

As to how fast this regrowth can happen I have to refer you to a study funded by NASA. Besides being a valuable resource in showing how civilizations rise and fall as they deplete their natural capital and as inequality becomes unbearable (any similarity to today’s world?), it also shows that regrowth is the fastest where nature was more thoroughly destroyed. Think: the over-developed world.

We live in interesting times for sure. We are at the very end of the Oil Age, and an avalanche of climate, ecological, social, financial and geopolitical issues is set to sweep through the globalized industrial world… An inevitable result of a rapidly deteriorating surplus energy situation, driven by physics, and not the usual suspects on display in the media. It is thus imperative for us to switch to a truly sustainable energy paradigm during the coming years, if we are to preserve at least some of the wealth and knowledge our predecessors have gathered in the past few centuries.

We are the first generation who fully understands the consequences the industrial age has brought about, but will our elites follow suit and lead us through this massive paradigm shift? As for an answer let me quote the HANDY study linked above:

The Elites — due to their wealth — do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners. This buffer of wealth allows Elites to continue “business as usual” despite the impending catastrophe. It is likely that this is an important mechanism that would help explain how historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases). This buffer effect is further reinforced by the long, apparently sustainable trajectory prior to the beginning of the collapse. While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory “so far” in support of doing nothing.

It increasingly looks like that we are headed towards a mad scramble indeed, where our ruling class would be watching their worst nightmares coming true in full panic, while trying to save whatever wealth they can for themselves. It is thus up to us to wake them up and to prepare ourselves and our children to weather this storm.

Until next time,





A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation. Also on Substack: