Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Pile of Straw at the Bottom of the Cliff

[In Japanese — 崖の底にある藁の山 — Thank you, Masayuki!]

[In italiano—Un po' di paglia in fondo al dirupoGrazie, Massimiliano!]

There is an old Russian saying: “If I had known where I would fall, I would have put down some straw there.” (“Кабы знал я где упал, я б соломки подостлал.”) It is one of thousands of such sayings that are the repository of ancient folk wisdom. Normally, it is used to express the futility of attempting to anticipate the unexpected. Here, I am using it facetiously, to underscore the madness of refusing to anticipate the unavoidable.

I started thinking along these lines when I was invited to speak at the annual conference of ASPO (Association for the Study of Peak Oil), which was held in Washington in October of last year. It was shaping up to be something of a victory lap for the Peak Oil movement, now that the moment when global conventional oil production reached its historical peak is well and truly behind us, while the newer unconventional sources of liquid fuels have turned out to be insufficiently abundant and too costly both to the pocketbook and the environment. I wanted to use this opportunity to try yet again to correct what I see as a major flaw in the narrative of Peak Oil: the idea of a gentle, geologically-driven decline in oil production, which seems quite unrealistic, which I had detailed in my article “Peak Oil is History” more than a year before. But I also wanted to look beyond it and sketch out some plans that would work after oil production dives off a cliff, and what it would take to get them off the ground.

It's all well and good to present verbal arguments, but words don't stack up against numbers and curves, so I started looking around for a mathematical model that would capture the essence of what I was setting out. I put out a call for people to contact me if they wanted to collaborate, and was very happy to receive an email from Prof. Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence, asking what I had in mind. Ugo is an authority on the Club of Rome's much maligned but now vindicated "Limits to Growth" model, having provided it with a recent book-length update.

I wrote back to Ugo:

“I would like to argue that whereas the method used to model Peak Oil using a Gaussian is reasonable when looking at individual oil fields, provinces and countries, it is not reasonable when looking at entire planets, because, unlike oil-producing provinces and countries in decline, planets can't import oil, while oil shocks cause industrial economies to collapse rather than decline gradually along some geologically constrained curve. In [my] article ["Peak Oil is History"] I have a long list of effects such as EROEI decline, export land effect, etc., to make the case for a stepwise decline rather than a gradual one.

“If we take our nice simple Gaussian model of Peak Oil and zoom out sufficiently far, it looks like an impulse. The peak amplitude and the width are not so interesting; but we do know what the area under the curve is: the ultimate recoverable. This is the "Odulvai Gorge" view of Peak Oil. Zooming back in, we see that the leading edge is the "growth" edge, influenced by economic growth, technological improvement, ever-wider exploration and so on, and we expect and see exponential growth. The trailing edge, on the other hand, dominated by the sudden collapse of industrial economies, due to all the factors I listed, would be expected to resemble exponential decay, but is so steep that we might as well approximate it as a step function. This is what we generally see when a growth process reaches a limit. Beer-making is one popular example: yeast population and sugar-use increases exponentially, then crashes.

“As oil is the "enabling" energy source, which makes it possible to deplete all other resources at a high rate, a stepwise decline in the availability of oil would halt the process of depleting (almost) all other resources (firewood in rural areas and a few others are the exceptions). So, the further the collapse is delayed, the less there will be left to start over with, making any attempt to prolong the oil age quite unhelpful. This is an ecological argument: the greater the overshoot, the more the eventual carrying capacity is reduced. Therefore, investing in "collapse-proof" schemes and businesses is harmful.

“An alternative is to set resources aside (supplies, tools and equipment, designs, skill sets) that can be rapidly deployed once collapse occurs. Entire turnkey business schemes can be developed and capitalized, in expectation of collapse. These would 1. hasten collapse by withdrawing resources from the pre-collapse economy (a net positive) and 2. provide for rapid development of viable post-collapse businesses, such as manual, organic agriculture, sail-based and other non-motorized transport, and so on (also a net positive). Seeing as there is already a distinct lack of good ways to invest money (US "subprime" Treasuries? Gold bullion? African drought-stricken farmland?) this can be presented to the investment community as a way to hedge against collapse.”

Ugo wrote back:

“Hmmm.... let me see if I understand your point: you say that a Gaussian is no good; that the descent on the "other side" of the peak should be much faster than the growth. Am I right?

“If so, it is curious that I was working right on this concept today—and I think I cracked the problem just one hour ago! Maybe it was already obvious to other people, but it wasn't to me; maybe I am not so smart but, at least I am happy now. So, I can tell you that you are right on the basis of my system dynamics model. Descent IS much faster than ascent!

“When I received your message I was just starting to prepare a post for my blog "Cassandra's legacy" on this subject. So, if you can wait a couple of days, I am going to complete my post and publish it. Then you may give a look to it and we can discuss the matter more in depth. And I'll make sure to cite your post, because I think it is right on target.”

A little while later Ugo published his “Seneca Cliff” post. The name came from the following quote from Seneca:

“It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid." Lucius Annæus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91

I wrote back:

“The Seneca Effect is splendid, and well-named. (Last winter I re-read Seneca's letters to Lucillus while laid up with the flu, and found a lot that's relevant.) I think I should be able to build on this model to include a few other effects.”

Ugo's post detailed two very simple models.

The first model reproduces the canonical depletion curve, which looks like a Gaussian. It is based on just a couple of intuitively obvious relationships: firstly, the rate at which the resource base is exploited is proportional to both the size of the resource base and the size of the economy that is being used to exploit it; secondly, the economy decays over time (depreciation, entropy, etc.) Set up the initial conditions, run the clock, and out comes the expected curve.

The second model incorporates the idea of pollution, or bureaucracy, or overhead: the inevitable external costs of exploiting the resource. About a third of the flow is diverted into the pollution bucket, which also decays over time. The first model, it turns out, must be filling the “pollution” bucket by exploiting some other resource, through imports. But since the planet as a whole imports nothing, the first model is not relevant to modeling global Peak Oil, and so we have to use the second model instead.

I found the Seneca Cliff model very easy to reproduce, first using a spreadsheet, then by writing a short program in Python:

I showed my results to Ugo, and he wrote back: “Yes, it seems to be working.” I then started adding elements to this model, to see what it might take to “reboot” the economy into a post-fossil-fuel, post-industrial “operating system.” I made a highly idealized, wildly optimistic assumption: when a critical mass of people realizes that global Peak Oil has occurred and that the global economy is beginning to crash with no hopes of recovery, they will do the right thing: take 10% of the remaining industrial output, divert it and stockpile it, to be used to “reboot” into a post-industrial mode once the crash has largely run its course.

There is a problem with this plan: to a layman, global Peak Oil is rather hard to detect, leading to much confusion and dithering. Up to the final crash, it looks like a plateau, where oil production refuses to increase in spite of historically high prices.

But ignoring this issue (you have to idealize somewhat, for the sake of clarity, when working with conceptual models), if we start setting aside a “Peak Oil Tithe” around when Peak Oil occurs, and if we deploy all that we've stockpiled when the fossil fuel economy can no longer support us, the picture looks like this:

Zooming in, there are two triggers: when the “tithe” starts accumulating (shortly after the peak), and when it is deployed to build a post-collapse economy (when the fossil fuel economy is 50% down from its peak).

The resulting post-collapse economy is quite a lot smaller than the fossil fuel economy, but still large enough to support a significant portion of the current population, albeit at a much lower standard of living. There might not be indoor heat or hot water, certainly no tropical vacations in wintertime or fruit out of season, no advanced medical treatment and so forth. But it would still be better than the alternative, or, rather, the complete lack thereof.

I presented these graphs at the ASPO conference, where they were greeted with polite silence. There were some “investors” at the conference, but they were busy attending a session dedicated to discussing opportunities to invest in the fossil fuel economy. Nobody offered any counterarguments, but then nobody felt compelled to act based on what I said either. Why do you think that is? Why is that reasonably rational individuals who are able to follow an argument and who are unable to refute it are at the same time incapable of making the transition from thought to action? What is stopping them? Humans are clearly smarter than yeast, what does that matter if they are incapable of acting any more intelligently? I will attempt to address this question in a subsequent post.


Ugo Bardi said...

Interesting story, Dmitri! I am still working at these models; now I discovered that there are other ways besides pollution to obtain the "Seneca" shape. It can be obtained by transferring resources from one source to another; which may be closer to what's happening now. Pollution is something that hits us more on the long run.

Interesting also that your presentation at ASPO-USA was met with polite silence. People just don't care about understanding what's going on and what's going to happen. If they are rich they care about how to make money on oil; if they are poor they care about miracle devices that will save us from the brink of the cliff.

Then, as we start falling, interest in understanding what's going to happen will fade even more. I remember that you said something like that in your book, "Reinventing Collapse" - that in the Soviet Union, when the collapse started, nobody cared any more on why everything was collapsing.

Anyway, I am trying to write an academic paper on the Seneca effect. It is an exercise in futility, given the situation. But, in the end, it is not just my job. It is fun!

Ugo Bardi said...

As further comments to your post, I have just finished reading the book "Too smart for our own good" by Craig Dilworth. I think it gives an answer to your question

"Humans are clearly smarter than yeast, what does that matter if they are incapable of acting any more intelligently?"

The gist of Dilworth's book is that we are smart, individually, but that we aren't collectively. So, we are very good at solving individual problems, but that has the cost of creating larger collective problems which, then, we can't solve.

Also on that I am preparing a post. What can we do other than writing posts? Not much more, except enjoying life; as probably Seneca himself would have said.

R. A. Davies said...

In my novel, "The Heirloom," and in the rest of the trilogy, I explore the idea of a fast crash with two competing systems attempting to rebuild--the business as usual crowd (BAU) and the powerdown group (PDG). The BAU scrambles to regain control at first because of the plunge in confidence, but new technological promises and trinkets doled out to the masses situated in resource dense areas convinces them to take up the banner of tech once again. The PDG comes to realize that they must destroy the BAU in order to prevent a second pulse of even more destructive industrial civilization.

Thanks for confirming my viewpoint!
Richard Davies

Wiglaf said...

It has long seemed to me that what is variously called rationality, sentience, or soul-edness only exists circa the individual -- maybe subsystems of the brain have it, maybe small groups of people have it; but a population of billions of humans does not have it any more than the yeast colony does. The Internet notwithstanding.

As for individuals not acting on your message, well, it's understandably difficult to go against the very fabric of one's culture and civilization.

Phil said...

I think Dave Pollard may be onto something here:

Not Ready to do What's Needed"

Avner said...

Brilliant as usual!
Avner, Oxford

Unknown said...

Wonderful post. Nice closer look at the matter of peak everything.

One might be tempted to think that people who are thoughtful enough to listen to your thesis, and cannot (or will not), find any objections to your arguments, would sooner or later arrive at a "Pascal's Bet" position, one that would require more than just a passive inclination to action.

I have been bothered by the feelings I have had about the sustainability of exponential growth with limited resources for a long time, since the first Earth Day preparations back in 1972. The hardest part has been formulating an adequate response. What kind of action?

I don't believe that I suffer from much of a "normalcy bias," in that I believe that change will have to begin with the individual. Forget the government. But when I sit down to build a new, self-sufficient, sustainable world, the bill -- just to get the project off the ground -- comes to around $10 million dollars.

There's nothing grandious about the actions necessary. I am talking about a minimally required set-up organized around living rather than dying, eating rather that starving, a hot shower and a shave, warm clothes, that sort of thing in a post collapse world.

Maybe we have all waited too long. After all, most of us don't have $10-milion dollars lying around.

Maybe that's the reason for the silence. said...

I like everything except the idea that the planet as a whole imports nothing. There is a vast import of solar energy coming to half the planet, all the time. The fossil fuels are, of course, merely conversions of this energy, but without that solar import they wouldn't exist. I think it is this realization that leads people to place so much faith in solar power, but that is a very different issue. I don't even know where to begin inserting a data point like planetary solar input into a model, but there you go. Thanks for your thoughts!

Dave Z said...

Hi Dmitry,

Thanks for this chewy morsel.

I'm particularly interested in your assertion that the proposed, post-collapse economy (PCE) could support a significant portion of present population. At present that's beyond my powers of imagination.


Does your model reflect consequences of unrest/disruption by dense urban populations facing local collapse of food supplies? In other words, would 'locust effect' overwhelm any tithy stockpiles and nip the PCE in the bud?

What do you see as replacing present, hyper-extended food supply? Is there reason to believe that diffuse but intense garden/farming can offset overshoot, and sustain that 'significant portion' through the transitional period?

Looking at your crash/reboot plot, I can't help but try to visualize what upheaval that represents. And whether it represents the roof caving in on anyone trying to rise to their feet.

Thanks again, to both you and Dr. Bardi for new additions to my struggling vocabulary... Senaca's Cliff, and the Oduvai Gorge/peak-oil-pulse simile.

I'll be awaiting your follow up post!

Dave Z

forrest said...

"Why is that reasonably rational individuals who are able to follow an argument and who are unable to refute it are at the same time incapable of making the transition from thought to action? What is stopping them? Humans are clearly smarter than yeast, what does that matter if they are incapable of acting any more intelligently?"

Because people generally cope with life by applying"thoughts" & "felts" in a fuzzy-logic way. That is, they work from a basic assumption that "incoming world" and "last week's world" will approximate one another.

They scan the incoming verbiage for "tags" they've learned to recognize; then they assume that these tags are still attached to the same kind of thoughts they're already familiar with, that it's safe to continue feeling the same way about them and acting accordingly.

'Thoughts & felts' are of course David Bohm's terminology for ~'What I thought and felt the last time I was actually thinking & feeling.'

~"Wait a minute!" you say. "This is a new thought and if you actually process it you're going to end up needing to feel a whole lot different and make an utterly unfamiliar response!"

Lots luck...

Lucas Durand said...

"Humans are clearly smarter than yeast, what does that matter if they are incapable of acting any more intelligently?"

I love this stuff.
Maybe what is required is not intelligence but wisdom?

Will your attempt look something like this?

Dilworth's theory seems to imply a sort of destiny of self-destruction...

But this perspective also seems to provide an excuse to shift the responsibility from ourselves in the sense that we're evolved to fail.

Looking forward to your take.

Oh, and thanks for keeping up such a worthwhile blog.

Notmy Realname said...

Great post, I look forward to the follow-up, and good luck to us all...Nevertheless:

I think we can all go around anticipating the unavoidable until we're blue in the face. I have tried. If it makes you feel better, by all means do so. But even if that does tell us where to put the straw, which is unlikely in my view, there isn't enough straw in the world to break this fall. Besides, if we could effectively deal with what we are collectively facing, this crash wouldn't be a crash, it'd be a landing. I think all of us that read Dimitry are here because we know that a landing is no longer one of our options. In the USA, I surmise the "Seneca Cliff" is going to look like an F-16 flying vertically into the ground on afterburner.

Just sayin'...

progressivepopulist said...

"take 10% of the remaining industrial output, divert it and stockpile it, to be used to “reboot” into a post-industrial mode once the crash has largely run its course."

A few weeks ago, I purchased half a pallet of fire bricks (400) cost- $592 delivered. Yes I know, if I have to depart in a hurry, firebricks are not a very portable store of wealth. But I don't plan to depart (not in that fashion anyway). It's doomstead or bust for me and the wife and kids.

What you wrote, quoted above just struck me as ironically funny considering all the folks frantically investing in gold "bricks" these days. Fire bricks on the other hand, while less valuable in dollar terms can be useful for so many applications, and if they'll be useful to me then they'll be just as useful to my neighbors. And considering the embodied energy in each one of those suckers, they aren't going to get any cheaper in real or nominal terms.

Lloyd Morcom said...

I think the answer to the conundrum lies more in the behavior of complex systems as they decay. Complex systems build by accretion but decay catastrophically, at both the level of the human body or of society. Trying to model such complex systems using a few simple algorithms might be barking up the wrong tree.

But I'm amused by both your, Dmitri, and Ugo's attitude to telling people about our immanent collapse. I had Nicole Foss here earlier in the week to give a lecture locally and she and Ilargi stayed the night at our place. We drank red and put the world to rights and at one stage I asked her, why do you do this? I think I quoted you, Dmitri, to her, that no-one remembers the names of the prophets of doom! And she said "Because it's fun!"

The reaction I've had from several people who went to the lecture is a case in point. One friend (who has political ambitions) said Nicole should have toned it all down and not frightened the multitudes with the truth. Another was appalled, and then concluded Nicole was a nutcase who could therefore safely be dismissed. How many attendees got something useful out of it? I think an ambitious estimate would be one in twenty. But in the end, that wasn't why I arranged the lecture.

I don't really care what anyone thinks (as long as they don't think of me!). I got Nicole down here because I thought it would be fun and I'd get a chance to chat to her. Things can get a bit lonely and boring in rural Australia so you've got to make your own amusements! And what can be more interesting than living at and observing the peak of the greatest human civilization we've seen on this planet? And thanks to modern communications, it can be safely observed from a relatively secure distance.

So Dmitri, let me entice you again to come to Australia. We can arrange a lecture tour where you only speak to polite audiences (no guarantees that they'll comprehend fully) but you'll get to meet lots of delightful, interesting people and have a good time. Bring your wife: do the Nicole Foss thing and stay with folk to save money. Spend a month or two here. You'd have a ball. The biggest problem you'd have is finding someone to look after the cat.

Anonymous said...

Great post, as usual.
I think People don't make the effort to prepare today for collapse tomorrow because the act of preparing makes the collapse 'real' to them, and that is overwhelming. Much easier to keep up the familiar routine one more day.
There are some people, however, that think for themselves and act on their convictions - a very small percentage of the population. Perhaps they will be the ones that 'self-select' for survival of collapse.

Lynford1933 said...

Dmitri: Another consideration is found in the modern oil well. A vertical well (or a field of vertical wells) has a rather linear decline rate however a horizontal well will produce very well until the water level reaches the perforations, then the production declines very rapidly. This is a typical topic and well understood at “The Oil Drum”. Given that most modern wells are of the horizontal configuration we are not seeing the decline from 2005 peak accurately. In a real sense, the production curve is more like a shark’s fin rather than a bell curve that has been common (mis)knowledge since the ’70s.

Nathan said...

Hi ProgressivePopulist,

Firebricks are useful, but they are a very bulky store of wealth. Getting down to brass tacks...what's wrong with Dmitry's idea of, well, brass tacks? Buying a shipping container load of brass timber nails is a long term, high usefulness, high embodied energy wealth protection strategy. Currently they are cheap. In the future, they may not be available at all.
A shipping container full of razor blades might also be a useful wealth protection.

Chaucer said...

The psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist explains why modern humans are stubbornly non-reactive in this video.

In a nutshell our Left, self-referential, model making and rules based brain has usurped the power of the Right brain. they are no longer in balance.

It is a biological phenomenon.

John D. Wheeler said...

Dmitri, you were preaching to the wrong choir. There are plenty of people who are already doing the investment in the post-oil economy, people like progressivepopulist. The trouble is that they don't go to conferences about STUDYING peak oil. They're more interested in "prepping" and "permaculture". Give that talk at one of those conferences and you would get a much more enthusiastic reaction. Just be prepared to answer, "What do we do?"

@Unknown, of course you don't have $10 million. Neither does Marcin Jakubowski. But he is well on his way. He is developing the Global Village Construction Set, which sounds very similar to what you're talking about. His plans are to finish prototyping all 50 tools by the end of the year.

Things like fire bricks and brass tacks are fine investments for a post-oil economy. The fact of the matter is that the more people invest in any one particular item, the less it will be worth. So just pick your favorite durable product of industrial society and go with it. Mine are aluminum and stainless steel, as there was a time they were more valuable than gold. Oh yeah, and food forests -- to the untrained "locust" mob, they just look like a bit of wilderness. said...

Anybody looked at the "last" oil that peaked and crashed? ...... Whale oil

James said...

There are institutions, thousands of years old with billions of followers that exist just to cover up the fear of death. The creation of new institutions that absolutely deny the the death of industrial society shouldn't be surprising. The only difference being that when the industrial society falls apart in reality, the limited cognitive abilities of its subsystems, humans, will be intact.

Most people are able to function in reality using the subconscious mind, while rationalizing their behaviors and existence in an analog world that is never fully informed of reality. This points to a division in the brain, one area that is subconscious, automatic and extremely practical with respect to obtaining bodily needs and one area that is marginally conscious and rationalizing.

We always pick pleasure before pain and if the rationalizing mind has a choice, due to ignorance and fear, it will always choose the more comfortable alternative.

westexas said...

If there is anything that is more overlooked than the ongoing decline in Global Net Exports of oil (GNE) and the even sharper decline in Available Net Exports (ANE), it is the rate of depletion in post-2005 Cumulative Net Exports.

Note that the ANE metric is defined as GNE less the Chindia region's combined net oil imports.

But first, five annual "Gap" charts follow, showing the gaps between where we would have been at the 2002 to 2005 rates of increase, versus the actual data in 2010 (common vertical scale):

EIA Total Liquids (including biofuels):

BP Total Petroleum Liquids:

EIA Crude + Condensate:

Global Net Oil Exports (GNE, BP & Minor EIA data, Total Petroleum Liquids):

Available Net Exports (GNE less Chindia’s net imports):

Note the divergence between the first chart, total liquids, and the second chart, ANE.

I estimate that there are about 157 net oil importing countries in the world.  If we extrapolate the Chindia region’s rate of increase in their combined net oil imports, as a percentage of GNE in 19 years just two of these oil importing countries--China & India--would consume 100% of GNE.

Assuming that the Chindia region's combined net oil imports were to approach 100% of GNE around 2029,  I estimate that the current CANE (Post-2005 Cumulative Available Net Exports) depletion rate could be on the order of about 8%/year (versus a 2005 to 2010 2.8%/year rate of decline in the volume of ANE). 

The CANE depletion rate would be the rate that we are consuming the cumulative post-2005 supply of global net exports available to importers other than China & India.  Based on a simple model and based on actual case histories, note that it is common for the initial depletion rate to exceed the initial annual rate of decline in net exports. 

If, and obviously this is a big "If," but if we extrapolate the 2005 to 2010 data trends, I estimate that the post-2005 cumulative volume of (net) exported oil available to importers other than China & India, or CANE, will have fallen by about 50% by the end of next year, 2013.

The CANE metric is very much analogous to a fuel tank. If we project current trends, the "fuel tank" that would provide exported oil to about 155 oil importing countries would be full at the end of 2005, and about 50% empty by the end of next year.

ThatGuyInTheBack said...

Humans may be smarter than yeast, but in aggregate, their actions are quite similar. Consider a group of 1000 entrepreneurs. Each individual entrepreneur tries to maximize his or her individual profit. Some minimal forethought occurs to maximize profit in the future, but only for the individual entrepreneur. No forethought for the environment which supports all 1000 entrepreneur ever occurs. Is this so different from a yeast colony?

ph0rque said...

Ok Dmitry, you've sold me. Where do I invest my 10%?

Steve From Virginia said...

Another take to this discussion @ Econundertow:

"One way to keep this cliff business straight is to focus on the price.

For the bulk of the oil age starting at the beginning of the 20th century, the cost of crude oil fuel in the market has been very low: $20 per barrel in constant dollars or much less. The easy fields to discover and exploit had crude deposits a few hundred or thousand feet straight down in regions close by refiners and markets. These ‘low hanging’ fields were massive, containing tens- or hundreds of billions of barrels, such as the Spindletop field in Texas and Ghawar in Saudi Arabia. The great bulk of the world’s oil used to date has been the $20 oil. Without spending hours fact-checking 90% of all the oil that has been extracted and burned up so far out of the world has been the $20 variety.

The interest of the petroleum industry has been since the beginning to keep product costs as low as possible, which meant the highest rates of production as possible. The pricing structure for petroleum products was both the invention of monopolist John D. Rockefeller in the late- 19th century and the happy consequence of improvements in oil prospecting and drilling technology, refining and transportation."

Looking at Petroleum Markets (with Dmitri Orlov and Ugo Bardi)

weeone said...

There is only so much one can do on your own. The problem I see with preparations is there are so few that are making them that it won't make much difference. I get no cooperation at all from my neighbors or even my spouse for that matter. So yes I've bought all the garden tools, scythes, crosscut saws, greenhouse, fruit trees, bee hives and so on to make a go of low energy farming post-collapse. Right now it appears I will be surrounded by zombies so it looks pretty hopeless.

Not to mention climate-related stresses, dieoffs of honey bees, way too much or too little rain and other factors that are making it harder and harder to make a go of things. And we still don't know if the crash is coming in two months or five years. Its why many of us just end up saying we might as well just enjoy ourselves while we can.

pheikki said...

One simple analogy might be to compare us to the rats in the cocaine experiment, pressing the lever over and over (cheap oil and the toys, drugs, etc that it brings us)until starving to death. We know logically that it's gotta end, but most of us just can't break the addiction. And besides, if one is able to quit, the other rats get the rest of the coke!

Tom O'Brien said...

i can't wait to see what free-market economists say about substitutability of energy for capital in the cobb-douglas equation.... that should be a funny conversation.

I wonder if they will still claim the market economy is still such a wonder after the whole thing collapse.....

tim said...

Yes the problem is that many preparations require more than the individual or even the community.
For example, getting from place to place - unless you are a Billionaire who already owns all the property and land you wish to traverse Transit is necessarily a public affair whether it be via Roads which will be increasingly unsustainable or electrified Rail or bicycles or walking. Of course bikes and walking have major limits in terms of range.
So we are necessarily in the "same boat" (lol!) whether we wish to be or not. I suppose the only exception might be Zeppelin travel assuming you can store enough helium which is also in critically short supply!

Hadashi said...

Hi Dmitry

I love Masayuki-san's Japanese translation. It reads almost like a haiku. I myself have relocated to Southern Japan (from New Zealand) to live. Great rural community in this locality (near Kumamoto). I really enjoy your writing, from the time it first started to appear online (the essay about a Russian village first caught my eye). The other Peak Oil writers who I enjoy as much as you are James Howard Kunstler and John Michael Greer - the latter who I suggest as one of your ClubOrlov Honorary Members. Loved your post about bicycles. I ride daily the mountain bike that Miyata company donated to my wife and me when we traveled the length of Japan 6 years ago. I did find snow tyres great for the ice and snow when I lived in Hokkaido, but I've never got into wearing jeans. Oops, I've started to comment on the wrong post.
Mata ne.

Salish Sea Trading Cooperative said...

Greetings from Seattle, Dmitri! Our community-based sail transport cooperative is gaining "steam" and we're looking forward to our video on Peak Moment TV soon.
Salish Sea Trading Cooperative

Alex said...

As I've mentioned several years ago, the mechanism is that of a device called a "relaxation oscillator", something highschool electronics students can build to play all kinds of pranks of course, and a very common thing in Nature.

Understand the relaxation oscillator, and you'll understand what we're in for.

Ormond Otvos said...

Have any of you considered the effect that withdrawal of our military into an isolationist bubble would have on our balance of energy and manufacturing?

Swords into plowshares, soldiers into workers.

And the comment about inputs of solar not being ignored seemed significant.

Peter said...

Extremely interesting post Dmitry. I started writing some simple python code, like Ugo, to simulate the system. And read Ugo's excellent article on it.

But that got me thinking. The problem with a civilisation is that it constructs infrastructure that has to be maintained. Not just physical infrastructure, although that is easier to talk about. Now imagine that a hypothetical society develops based on cheap, energy-dense liquid fuels. As it grows it constructs roads, bridges, cities, sewage systems, dams, electrical networks, schools and on and on. These have a continuous maintenance cost so as the society grows so does its maintenance burden. If the supply of energy diminishes then the maintenance stops and eventually so does the infrastructure. Infrastructure acts like a machine, even when static it has a function that depends on many interacting components . A road may have the bitumen eroded by rain and develop gullies, then the road becomes unusable. The road as a machine fails. It isn't gradual, once the lack of maintenance starts to become an issue the road can rapidly become useless. This, I believe, is the basic cause of the non-linearity of collapse.

Because we have built an advanced global economy and civilisation then our way of life, and life itself is even more fragile. Advanced technology requires an enormous investment in maintenance by skilled people, often remotely and dependent on other advanced infrastructure. I can only think that this is a recipe for cascade failure.

Anonymous said...

Wish I had money so I could prepare for collapse :(

If only I had a plowshear to keep as a plowshear or to hammer into a sword...

Silenus said...

Humans are smarter than yeast, but reason is merely the slave of the passions. Facts and rational arguments don't generate motivation, only emotion and appetite do. Reason is instrumental and neutral and is used to accomplish the objectives established by one's emotional needs and appetites. So these arguments will fall on deaf ears.

People respond to threats and incentives, and peak oil offers few threats and incentives that most people readily comprehend. Even well-informed people don't feel the threat of peak oil in a visceral way that would cause them to take it seriously. Such people are usually quite comfortable, and comfort is what obtains when motivating factors have been satisfied.

Philip Kienholz said...

See the book, "Never Saw It Coming: Cultural Challenges to Envisioning the Worst," by Karen A. Cerulo, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006, for an investigation into why humans don't proactively react to non-imminent threats.

Patrick said...

I think I'm with Weeone on this. I'm prepared for the short-term, "sh*t happens" sort of situation in terms of drinking water, food, fuel for cars and cooking (something everyone should have, frankly). We have a strong and wide web of friendships and alliances in our immediate community. We have a plan for temporarily "getting out of Dodge," should things get too crazy in our urban, rust-belt area. Beyond that … Uummmmmmm …

There is a series of books called the Camulod Chronicles, by Jack Whyte. They're not great literature, but they're based on an interesting premise: That the founders of the mythical Camelot were enlightened Roman nobles/generals who are, basically, abandoned by Rome in Britannia as the empire contracts. The Romans make some alliances with some of the locals, and they and their descendants build a fortified, well-patrolled enclave. They have fields, horse-breeding, skilled blacksmiths, leatherworkers, vintners, etc. They have their own laws.

Most important, they have a heavily armed security force, highly trained in the tradition of the Roman legions. All their efforts at self-sufficiency—as Northern Europe descends into the Dark Ages—would be for naught without this quasi-military force. It keeps them safe from desperate local warlords, and invading Vikings, Saxons, or Celts. These might be the rough equivalents of Weeone's "zombies." Dmitry touches on this subject of security in his work Reinventing Collapse.

Matthew said...

Hi Dmitry,

Check this out from the oildrum if you haven't. They quantify the effect of lower EROEI on the decline :

Matthew Henry

Adrian Skilling said...

Personally, I think I'm somewhat enlightened on this topic compared to the rest of society, and while I'm making my pile of straw I know for sure it isn't sufficient. For instance: I cycle lots, garden, cook from scratch, insulate, moderate energy use, can purify water, heat with wood and generate a little electricity. But in a serious crisis I know I'd be really stuck.

Every time I read a blog like this I get jolted into further action and depression due to tensions between me and the rest of society pull me apart. Its hard to reconcile the need to seriously prepare when everyone else thinks you are crazy. I also don't have $10 million to set up the perfect eco-homestead.

But, also I know it wouldn't save me if I did. I'd get raided. I think that most of this transition will be mental adjustment, doing with less comfort, less travel, etc... and still being happy. You don't need $10 million to do that. John Michael Greer calls of it voluntary poverty, chose that sooner rather than later or your poverty will be forced.

So the silence is caused by those who know in their hearts that there is no escape but are not ready to accept it in their minds.

Cynthia Q said...

I thought for a while about Dmitry's challenge: "Humans are clearly smarter than yeast, what does that matter if they are incapable of acting any more intelligently?"

Previously, in the course of a dialogue with someone about energy and entropy, my thoughts ran in the following direction: that—while humans go around using energy to create what seems to be an increase of order (in organized societal activities and manufactured objects)—on a planetary scale we're creating a huge amount of DISorder. We move petroleum molecules from Saudi Arabia to Somerville, and banana molecules from Costa Rica to Ontario. The dizzyingly vast, teeming, froth of people & material being continuously shuttled about is awesome to contemplate.

I can see that my own life—through a series of what I thought were rational choices—took me bubbling along the surface froth of the surge in Western energy consumption, even as I tried to conserve, for myself, energy.

Following the theme of the book "Your Money or Your Life", I realized that my city work for corporate America was costly in all respects and not worth my life energy, so I moved to a rural Italian town about ten years ago. I brought my furniture with me, because it would have cost more to replace the furniture than to ship it. For family and other reasons, I must return to the US, and what will I do? Take my furniture, because it will cost more to replace it than to ship it. So, borne of a series of rational decisions, this furniture has traveled 8000 miles more than it otherwise would have. All of the frenzy and the froth is each individual yeast bubbling away on his ration, however temporary, of sweet sweet energy.

Instead, the truly rational thing to do to ensure the greatest chance of survival for our yeasty posterity, is for the majority of us to commit suicide forthwith. If one can't face that, then certainly one shouldn't have children. Childless, I've been lectured about my carbon footprint by someone with several offspring. To publicly air the overpopulation issue has become, since the 1970s, a social taboo of the first order.

The only way to respond rationally to the natural biological tendency to run right up into resource limits is to ruthlessly act with intent to limit the numbers of one's own tribe (as did happen in some cases, with strict sexual taboos, infanticide, long lactation periods, etc.) or species (as we often do, although in a more off-hand way, with wars).

Today we have modern politicians arguing against the very concept of birth control. Certain yeasty individuals want their whitebread strain of protestant yeast to keep pace and hopefully out-breed the Catholic and/or swarthier strains. They think that's a good survival strategy for their particular strain.

No matter what one does to reduce one's own contributions to this predicament, though, it's only going to forestall the inevitable rather than spur a wholesale reversal, don't you think?

And in actively planning for collapse, isn't one still acting to maximize the chances of one's own personal survival, the goal of any one-celled organism. Various organisms have various strategies for individual survival: some keep moving, some stay still, some hibernate, some are predators, some are numerous prey, etc. Whatever your strategy, if you're alive, you're still playing the game.

This isn't to say that I renounce putting effort into "more-sustainable" (to the limited degree that anything can be defined as sustainable) living. It's a far more interesting and worthy challenge than just riding the next consumer wave. It's also psychologically easier to live a life more coherent with what one knows to be factually true, although it can never be entirely coherent.

The only way not to play the yeast game is to intentionally check out early and give your place to another player, if you think that will make a difference. Kind of a hard sell.

Non credete a una parola di quello che scrivo said...

Your post in italian :-)