What would it take?

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks exploring the gap — the missing narrative — between conventional economics and the real world of goods and services. Economic realities and climate change are just superficial issues however, compared to a much bigger one hidden from plain sight. Why are we facing issues on all fronts, all at the same time? Is there a common root cause?

As I have pointed out (here & here) recent developments in the world economy reflect an energy dilemma: conventional fossil fuels have started their long decline, and in the absence of new discoveries we have resorted to ever more complex and energy intensive methods of their extraction. Due to the high costs involved, these new resources failed to scale up economically and now have started having troubles keeping up with demand too.

If this weren’t enough the continued use of fossil fuels caused climate change to wreak havoc on Earth. “Renewables” on the other hand failed to take up the slack — in fact they have made the problem worse by introducing a great deal of instability to the system, while making people believe that they present a solution. Is this really a matter of technology?

In these recent posts I referred to a missing word from the vocabulary of economists: the d-word. I’m yet to find an article from mainstream media, or neoclassical economics mentioning, let alone admitting the existence of this phenomena without immediately pointing to somebody or something giving us hope that it actually does not exists. That it has been put to rest, and we should not worry about it. That it cannot possibly hurt us. That we are in full control.

Yes, I’m talking about resource Depletion. D E P L E T I O N. Nine letters only, yet they reflect something very consequential. Remember, it is not something temporary. Once a resource is depleted, it is no longer available in any meaningful quantity neither for us, nor for other beings. This also implies that it won’t be regenerated in any relevant time-frame. If it’s gone, we have to live with the consequences.

Here is the message no one in the technosphere really want to hear: we have sent carbon accumulating for hundreds of millions of years into the atmosphere, turned metal ores taking millions of years to form into products, then scattered them across the surface of the planet. We have used all of cheap, easy to extract, dense resources, and turned them into waste and pollution. For us, Homo sapiens sapiens, there is no way to repeat this feat on Earth, let alone leaving this planet and repeat it elsewhere (that was never a real possibility anyway). Now, we first have to learn to live with less and less, then completely without the resources we took for granted — starting with oil.

It is no exaggeration to say that oil is key to everything we do today. Bright greens try to deny this, and imagine a civilized, industrial future without it — but this is simply impossible — and this is where we need to look first in searching for the root cause of our energy “problem”.

Let me explain.

The industrial revolution has started with coal, and the advent of the steam engine. Easily accessible deposits of the black rock (close to the surface, in not too remote areas) were quickly depleted. Gone. People had to dig deeper, go further and utilize heavy machinery to mine away rocks and deliver the material to cities and factories. This all took a lot of energy — and since steam engines are rather inefficient in turning the immense heat from burning coal to locomotion — a point was quickly reached where this depletion process started to hinder further growth. Think about it: if you have to burn a large portion of the coal you have found under a remote hill to operate mining machinery, then turn another large portion of it into fumes on the way back to the city, how much is left? Is it enough to pay for the expensive equipment?

The answer was: no. Something had to be done. Humanity needed something even more dense in energy, that is even easier to extract and transport, and something that could be turned into useful work more efficiently. This something was oil. You drill a pipe into earth, and bam! It bursts out propelled by its own pressure. You can transport it in cheap pipelines (you don’t need expensive railways, locomotives, staff etc.) and you can turn it into a range of various fuels to power engines three times as efficient as steam.

The amount of work performed by these new engines were truly amazing. It made the building of large dams, like the Hoover-dam possible unlocking even more energy to humanity. It also made the mining and transportation of coal in a much more energy efficient way, allowing the former to be burned in power plants in huge quantities. In other words: oil made energy and mineral resources cheap and accessible to humanity. Without it’s discovery the first industrial revolution would probably had died a slow lingering death.

If this weren’t enough, oil had a sister too: natural gas, which came associated with it (a large portion of gas comes together with oil). Thanks to the Haber-Bosch process this natural gas could then be turned into ammonia — the main ingredient to plant fertilizers. This, together with mechanization via oil has turned agriculture into overdrive and resulted in a veritable population explosion. At the dawn of the industrial age in 1804 there were about 1 billion of us on this little planet. Today we are almost at 8 billion.

We have became totally dependent on oil, not only for our transportation needs, but for all aspects of our life. First and foremost it is used to grow process and deliver our food. We spend 8 calories worth of oil and gas to produce every single calorie we put into our mouth. Today, we almost literally eat fossil fuels. In addition to that, all of our building materials, the heating and cooling of our homes, our clothes etc. are all coming from, or transported by using oil and gas. Most of the mining activities is performed by them too: think about the multi-hundred ton dumpers and excavators. All of our roads are covered with oil’s byproduct: asphalt. Want electric vehicles and dump the black gold? Better to build electric 4x4-s rolling on… wait a second, rubber tires are now made from oil too! Just like 20% of our cars by weight (plastics)… Not to mention iron ore for steel (mined using oil) and smelted using coal (mined also by burning oil — forget the Hydrogen myth, it’s an energy sink). Is there a way out of this nice little circle of love…? What happens when we run out of oil?

The answers to these questions are: no, and not much. Most of the troubles ahead will occur on the way down the “production” curve, when we no longer can afford to expand oil extraction and have to live with less and less, year by year as the flow of the black gold starts to dwindle and fields deplete one by one. It is a long process taking several decades, but it is unstoppable and has probably already started. Tough times ahead.

Fossil fuels have enabled all four of the industrial revolutions, growth and globalization, but also caused our numbers to swell to unsustainable proportions. Thanks to fertilizers and pesticides, combined with mechanized agriculture, we managed to overshoot the planet’s carrying capacity about eightfold (probably more) — compared to what the land could feed 200 years ago without them. There is no way the planet can sustain 8 billion of us without oil and gas.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution soils were depleted badly, or carried away with the wind. Forests were chopped down, or started to burn on their own. There is no place left to expand to. We have also depleted rich mineral deposits to the point that a switch to “renewables” has now become impossible on the scale needed to maintain industrial civilization (even if this feat were possible in the first place). In other words: we have damaged the carrying capacity of the planet considerably and permanently (on a human timescale).

Carrying capacity refers to a population number of a given species that can be sustained indefinitely into the future. This can only be achieved without over-consumption of food and without producing more waste than the environment can handle. As you have seen above, we eat oil and produce CO2 as our primary waste product. None of which is on a sustainable path: oil will run out, pollution will run up. It is that simple. No amount of techno-fixes can keep increasing the flow of oil forever, and considering our energy deficiency no method of geo-engineering can reduce current pollution levels significantly.

Contrary to modern beliefs, but very much in alignment with thermodynamics, there is no way putting this fart back into the horse.

Yet humanity has placed all of it’s bets on the unending flow of oil. We already knew that it’s a finite resource and that it causes climate change 50 years ago, when the first oil-shock hit. It was clear that we needed to find a replacement. Apparently this didn’t work out well: still today, more than 80% of our energy comes from fossil fuels (and probably all of it was made available by using oil) — just like half a century ago. We have found a magic substance and used our technologies to extract and burn as much as possible of it, like there was no tomorrow.

Not much has changed in the past 50 years apart from China ramping up its coal use in the early 2000’s. If you look at the global annual per capita energy use, progress is nowhere to be found. Can you spot wind and solar for example without heavily magnifying the image? Even nuclear looks like a statistical error on this image… Data from Our world in data (divided by global population numbers)

This could not possibly end in any other way than overshoot: we have became too numerous while consuming and polluting too much. As a result, all of our resources have started dwindle. Oil. Minerals. Water. Arable land. A supporting biosphere. Using a metaphor of a space rocket: we have shoot ourselves up to the very edge of the atmosphere, where living is only made possible by man made life-support systems. The rocket however has run out of fuel and is about turn it’s tip downward to begin it’s long fall… Back to Earth.

This scientific study explains it all in detail. Another one hints at how this process could play out. In a nutshell: there must be a balance between the human world and the rest of the living world (the ecosphere) — so the later has at least a chance to cope with our pollution and provide us with the services we need for our survival. While this might sound like prime time anthropocentrism, we have long past the point of moralizing about the rights of low land gorillas, wild tigers and many other species. We have simply exterminated them, or pushed them to the brink of extinction without a second thought. Now the joke is on us. According to the study above (Bystroff 2021) we might have just passed the tipping point in human population growth. This is where feedback loops take over: starting with climate change, novel viruses, crop failures, increasing energy poverty… in addition to our everlasting chemicals and plastics starting to take their toll as well. The balance has been lost and Nature now takes care of restoring it.

This is the human predicament: our ecological crisis. It is not something happening out in the wilderness — this happens to us. We are part of a much bigger ecosystem, and if it dies, we die with it too. Discussing whether we should deploy more renewables, or trying to electrify what cannot be electrified makes no sense at all. It will do nothing to restore the balance between us and the rest of the biosphere. In fact it will make matters worse by destroying even more of Nature in the race for an “energy transition”. As Rex Weyler, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace in Canada, and an excellent ecologist summed it up brilliantly:

“Governments claim to care about risk mitigation, but ignoring the real dilemma is the biggest risk of all. It’s like turning on the air conditioner when the house is on fire.”

Here is a simple exercise: judge an act, policy, investment decision etc. based on the following question: does this reduces our footprint on Nature, or takes away even more from it…?

With this in mind let’s review what would it mean then for our society to admit that we have depleted our best resources, and now we are in overshoot:

  1. True economic growth is no longer possible, nor desirable. We no longer have the cheap energy and resources to do so. Not to mention a biosphere left to be turned into humans, or their wasteland.
  2. The cost of maintaining complexity will continue to rise exponentially while providing ever lower (diminishing) returns. Adding more “renewables” will result in even more complexity and instability to the human system, while dealing further damage to the ecosphere.
  3. Not even steady state economics is a sustainable option today. (Actually, it never was.) This level of consumption will end: whether we want it or not.
  4. A global survey of petroleum reserves needs to be made. Not an investor friendly one, an honest one with realistic prospects and energy requirements of recovery for each and every field. A global rationing agreement needs to be put in place to spread out the transition period into a low energy / low tech future as much as possible.
  5. Human affluence will shrink relentlessly, with inequality being the only thing left growing. Measures must be taken to prevent the wealthy siphoning the last remaining resources from the poor. Basic foodstuff must be made available for free, for all.
  6. All nuclear weapons must be dismantled and buried under miles of rock together with spent fuel rods — literally collapsing a mountain on them making these materials completely inaccessible. A plan needs to be established on dismantling all running nuclear plants while we have the resources to safely do so.
  7. In the not so distant future we will no longer be able to rebuild infrastructure and housing lost to climate chaos (floods, hurricanes etc.) and other natural, or man made disasters. Infrastructure must be reinforced, but only where it makes sense (safe from rising seas and hurricanes). An evacuation, then eventually an abandonment plan needs to be put in place for coastal cities, and places becoming uninhabitable otherwise.
  8. We are in overshoot. Promoting population growth at this point or resisting a slow, natural population decline will make matters even worse for even more people and thus borders psychopathy. Contraceptives and abortion should me be made free for all, and performed without questions, but only at the individual’s will. Same is true for ending one’s own life peacefully. Child-free living needs to be cherished.
  9. The way forward is going backward. We need to shrink our consumption and impact on the planet back to sustainable levels. Our only option is to perform a managed de-growth: cutting back on fuel use (cars, flights) and electricity. Insulating homes. Stopping all new transit infrastructure projects (yes, including high speed rail). Then devise a plan on how to live without liquid fuels and electricity. Working animals (horses, oxen) must be bred to establish a stable population for future use. At the end of the process almost all remaining fossil fuels must be directed to agriculture and healthcare, and to maintain water treatment facilities. This is where we need to install the last working “renewable” energy sources: to operate sewage plants and wells bringing fresh water to the surface. Eventually, (lacking an industrial background by then) these options will fail too — but at least we will have a chance to figure out how to live without them.
  10. The resulting collapse of industrial capitalism would naturally result in previously unimaginable levels of unemployment. The workforce will need to be retrained on how to grow food in whatever small plot of land is available, how to cook what has been produced and how to repair or re-purpose consumer goods and industrial equipment. Others will need to work on regenerating natural habitats in voluntary work (planting trees, restoring wetlands, removing an burying industrial waste).
  11. De-growth will be painful and far from easy — but also restorative.

Due to the necessary implications and required steps listed above, it is perfectly understandable why resource depletion and overshoot remain forbidden words in economics lingo. Anyone who would openly admit these would be ostracized and cast out from every politically influential group instantaneously. Investors — including citizens who have invested their youth in learning and their best years working for large corporations — want to hear the good news only. That we can somehow continue with our lives in a bright green future. That there is hope. In fact they are in the state of denying denial, and chances of waking them up to reality rivals the chances of a paper dog successfully chasing an asbestos cat through the burning pits of hell.

Since we are all part of a complex adaptive system, which makes it up as it goes, I have long lost the illusion that it could have happened any other way. Humanity, just like any other species, or particles floating in space for that matter, are governed by the same basic principles and follow the same patterns of creation and destruction. Just like any other energy consuming system we will grow until our fuel starts to dwindle then collapse under our own weight.

We have successfully got rid of our competitors and hunters (predators as well as most diseases) and broke into Nature’s cookie jar of stored energy. The rest is history, and what follows will be a consequence of what many generations (including ours) did so far. This is what I, and many prominent writers in this field call the human predicament, where:

“Problems have solutions; predicaments have outcomes.”

Understanding the human predicament, overshoot, to its true extent is what separates magical thinking from being honest about our situation and having realistic expectations towards the future. Predicaments have no solutions: you can but hope, that you will manage to adapt to its outcomes. Some say it is defeatist to say so. I see it as a chance for a true reset. The biggest challenge for anyone living today is not how to save humanity, or this lifestyle, but to how to preserve sanity in a world going insane. How to overcome fear about what’s being lost and how to preserve human dignity? How to find a new purpose once the current structure slowly crumbles to the dust? Remember:

“In times of turbulence wisdom is always on short supply.”

Until next time,

B

A critique of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation.