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« What Institution Is Working? | Main | A Feasible Living Situation - Continued »

February 14, 2010


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Robin Datta

A beautiful template for the Future reflecting sincere hope in spite of the odds.

A WWII+ attitude was advocated by James Earl Carter in April 1977 shortly after he took office ("The Moral Equivalent of War"). We have wasted more than three decades since then and the consequences are at hand.

The future arrangements will not support today's population: Albert Bartlett had said that if we do not limit population voluntarily, Nature will do it for us. That leaves us with William Catton's bottleneck.

These complicating circumstances will also have to be addressed in the transition.


Fascinating summary George If only we had the time to comment on all the sections. I will confine comments to an addition to the soil section and the importsnt subject of global soil demineralisation. This has been accelerating since advent of agriculture and more disturbingly since post WW2 argibusiness took over farming.
Actuallly mineral levels have been falling since the last ice age. Not many people know the origin of the earths minerals; ground rock from the retreat of the ice sheets- a part of the earths fertility cycle. Minerals are converted and incorporated into soil by pioneer tree leaf falls some of the facts of the mesocratic phase(post glacial climatic optimium) are amazing. Soil avaraged 7.5 feet thick globally (4-7 inches now) Deserts-and ice sheets- were minimal trees were 8x larger than any today. Gradually natural soil erosion leaches ans washes minerals into the sea- they are recycled but its a inevitable decline over 10,000 years. Our present overdue glaciation combined with human agriculture means minerals are becoming dangerously low, modern agribusiness of growing crops in a fossil fuel sponge makes it worse- minea5ral levels in fruit and veg- even organic- are declining.
The clincher is that global soils will never be re-mineralised until the next ice age!
The observation that we are simultaneously obese and undernurished is a portent one.

Mark Twain

Mr. Mobus, another terrific article. Your articles always get me thinking, even if I've thought about the topic in the past. Thanks for that.

There is a lot to discuss, but I need some time to digest it all. However, one thing I kept thinking about while reading was the distribution of jobs within your base case: how many of each type of "job" are needed in the 500 person community?

Or, alternatively, lets assume there are an average of 12 working hours each day for each person (or ~6000 human-hours per day). How many of those hours need to be devoted to agriculture (food production)? Wood chopping? Blacksmithing? Animal husbandry? Production of necessary products?

My guess is that food production (agriculture and animal husbandry) and energy harvesting (wood chopping) might account for 75-90% of the available human-hours.

However, that's just what my gut is telling me, and I could be completely wrong (in either direction). I'll look for some statistics on this to get a better sense of things, and post back if I find anything.

I've been reading about the Edo period in Japan recently (here and here. It's a good example of the type of base case that you explore.

Mark Twain

The comments didn't like my hyperlinks. Here are the two pages on the Edo period:


Apologies (and this goes for a lot of my posts here) for the spelling and gramatical errors; I usually post to this blog in tea or lunch breaks with students (hawk,spit!) breathing down my neck.
My comments are usually 10 min off-the-top-of-my-head and could be more precise.

422 Survivor

This is awesome. Thank you for writing this article in an easy to read way too.

George Mobus


I don't know if you saw my book review of Catton's book or not.

Good thoughts.


George Mobus

Hi GaryA,

Your knowledge of mineral depletion is just the kind of knowledge I am talking about. We do know so much more about nutrition and crop varieties that do well in different soils/climate conditions. But the trick will be understanding how to preserve this knowledge in a way that future generations can take advantage of it.


George Mobus


My thought is that if we choose the general setting properly the amount of physical labor needed to manage food production (which would be the principal labor activity of the village) would be much less than had been the historical case on average. Under conditions of dense population and competition for prime real estate, many people have had to choose marginal lands that required considerably more effort per unit of food energy than more ideal land would.

There have been a number of anthropological studies of both hunter-gatherer and agrarian groups that show that given higher general productivity of the local environ these people need to work less to acquire food than we find on average. What this means is that the ideal conditions that might support the objective of self-actualization for all are rare and need careful research.

But, in addition, I am relying on our greater knowledge of soil management, and tool design/maintenance to increase basic productivity even for less ideal conditions. In addition, we might find it possible to substitute energy subsidization from water and wind to make up for lesser productivity. For example, lands that are OK for grain production would produce more calories (if not complete nutrition as GaryA points out) for less effort if a windmill were used to grind the grain releasing more accessible carbs, proteins, etc.

In any case the objective function is to maximize potential for achieving self-actualization, so any environmental deficiencies that would require more labor to compensate would not contribute to this objective. And I think that is what we really need to pay attention to.


George Mobus

Thanks 422 Survivor!

To everyone else, 422 is the number of the operating systems course I teach at UWT. I'm guessing Survivor is one of my former students! But correct me if I'm wrong Survivor.


George Mobus


BTW: no apologies necessary! After all this is a blog. I, too often, notice my own mistakes long after posting. Some I go back and edit. Some I just shrug my shoulders recognizing that my meaning could be determined by blog readers even if my syntax (and spelling) were messed up.


George Mobus

The following is a comment submitted via e-mail by Clay.

Posted by G. Mobus
A couple of comments:

Maslow gave us a convenient model of human need. Yet the self-actualization level has always been, to me, a bit vague. What does that actually mean? Social types tend, I think, to see it as something vaguely – or specifically – spiritual: the struggle to develop a lifestyle that fits in with enlightenment or the expansion of moral comprehension. However, it seems apparent that “self-actualization” for many people may more often actually be the acquisition and concentration of power, a.k.a. status. To me, at least, it seems there is a large body of empirical evidence that suggests that the achievement of high status is a basic human motivator and, when that achievement fails, a source of great human frustration.

A powerful incentive to develop physical technologies (and to maximize entropy) is, of course, that those technologies can be used to enhance status and to preserve it against direct challengers. Perhaps even more significantly, it also provides the possibility of substituting technology for status if you are status poor. Technology provides what can appear to be an alternative route to some important benefits of status – greater access to resources, better breeding opportunities, longer life, even “freedom.”

But technology is also expressed in organizational sophistication. If we use a low-tech approach to organization, we arrive at a basic alpha-male tribal group structure. This may be workable, assuming very small groups, yet such societies create a basic incentive to develop physical technologies, for the reasons suggested in the previous paragraph. Therefore, any sustainable, low exosomatic energy society must be very high-tech, organizationally speaking, in order to prevent any slide into high-tech, physically speaking.

Still, the above doesn’t treat the problem of what may be the ultimate aspect of human self-realization – the achievement of immortality. Culturally, we deny immortality as a worthy goal, it is even treated as a suspect goal, but in reality, it is aspired to constantly. Can organizational high-tech ameliorate that aspiration successfully?

A less thorny issue is vagueness concerning the land area required for a sustainable population. We can, of course, generate complex models incorporating many factors with many weightings to create estimates of maximum carrying capacity. You may have been implying that 500 was a sufficient world population, but I suspect that the number was just meant to represent a maximum local tribe size. (The problem with local tribes is as in paragraph two. Again, high-tech organization will be required to prevent repetition of previous history, even if with a different energy use profile.) You also seemed to imply that agriculture is an inherent component in the sustainable society model. Yet how is it to be moderated? I.e., what level of agriculture is enough, without being too much? This question is directly connected to the question of maximum world population size. So, rather than trying to develop a complex model – which may or may not be well constructed, but will always be complex to administer – I suggest that the metric should be simply that agriculture must always be an optional activity.

It remains to me an open question if a world population sufficiently reduced to make agriculture optional would be a sufficient population to maintain either the organizational or physical technologies desired. To me, the logical way to answer that question is to systematically allow population size to decrease until either desired technologies become unsustainable or we achieve the goal of freeing ourselves from the burden – and the sustainability destructiveness - of mandatory farming.

A. Lewis

I think you abandon too many 'high tech' concepts that can be done with very little energy.

For example, communications - phone, or low-bandwidth internet, requires very little energy, especially if you don't demand continuous usage out of it.

Dropping air travel entirely would dramatically reduce American energy usage. Dropping most car travel would decimate it. And yet you can have quite a big bustling society without those two things - traumatic though it might be to only be able to receive goods shipped at railway speeds, or travel at bicycle speeds around your own town.

Even if it's much more like your version, there's no reason we won't have low-energy electronic storage of data (flash memory works awfully well to store data when turned off), and we won't be relying solely on paper libraries. Paper manufacture is notoriously energy inefficient.

It's funny the way you single out the iPhone/iPad type devices.

It's true that supporting video on demand broadcast of sporting events is kind of ridiculous in an energy-constrained society, but a rugged, very low power version of an iPad would be a wonderful tool for every family in the tribe. Used sparingly, and charged with a tiny solar panel, or by a 'power-bike' cycled for 20 minutes a week, the family stores it's own knowledge (when did we water and fertilize the crops? where are the recipes? our copy of the repair manual for the plow, the plans for rebuilding our house, the stories of our lives, the fiction we write to entertain ourselves).

it's terribly efficient, actually. it would be very expensive to make such an item (only a couple of factories for integrated circuits can be afforded by the country, energy-wise), and valued accordingly by the family. The kind of thing that would be gifted at weddings when new families start out.

Our lives wouldn't be filled with useless gadgets we think of as disposable - we would have a few actually helpful ones, and a deep appreciation for what they do and what they save us.

The ability to store the library of congress on a thumb drive is not going to be given up and stored on paper, badly, in every tribe's library. I mean really.

George Mobus

A. Lewis,

Are you familiar with how much energy it takes to manufacture digital electronic equipment?

See John Michael Greer's take on technology in "The Long Descent".

I mean, really.



Hi George

You write:

"Even though solar energy and wind, and even nuclear may be ramped up to diversify our energy portfolio, the fact is that none of these can begin to replace fossil fuels as primary energy sources to the degree needed to serve modern society."

I'm sure you're right about wind and solar, because their 'energy density' (not sure if that's the right term) is low, and they're intermittent, but why isn't nuclear power capable of becoming our primary energy source to replace fossil fuels? France, from what I can gather, gets the majority of its electricity from nuclear generation. Can other countries not do the same? I've no doubt you're right but I don't understand why! :-) Is it just that we've left it too late and don't have enough fossil fuel left to support the construction of all the nuclear power stations that would be necessary?


George Mobus


It is all a matter of scale and time. Nuclear might, someday, be a primary source of electricity. It is even conceivable that much of transportation could be electrified to reduce our dependence on petroleum. But the problem is the size of the conversion that would be need compared with the time it will take to accomplish it, even if we tried a WWII-style mobilization.

I recently read an article that suggests we would have to build one nuc plant a day for the next 20 years and convert all standing stock of automobiles to all-electric in that same time in order to meet the supposed demand. That is far from feasible even if we (the US) had the capital resources (which we don't). Just finding the number of engineers needed would be impossible.

In Energy Secretary Chu's last presentation (see The Oil Drum: ) he intimated that R&D work was being applied to new reactor designs for smaller, transportable ones that could be manufactured in factories and delivered to replace coal-fired generators. That would nice if feasible (the R&D isn't in the bag yet). It would have been nice if that work had been done thirty years ago. Back then we still had some working capital to expend in such an investment.

In the end, I think, our society will be a very greatly reduced one in both population and in per capita uses of energy. If we have any form of generally available electricity it may very well come from distributed, small reactors. On the other hand, it seems more likely that the waste disposal problems, maintenance, etc. will simply be too much for such a reduced society to deal with.

Only time will tell.


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George Mobus


And the point is?


George, I think you'll find that 'sildenafil citrate' is not a person at all but some kind of automated spam software, and if you click on the link pointed to by the name, it will probably try to infect your machine with malware. I see a lot of this on websites which invite comments. Some of them are quite sophisticated and will paste in text that seems to have something to do with the topic at hand but doesn't actually make sense, or is a copy of someone else's genuine comment.

jim macinnes

A couple of years ago I calculated that it will take about 50 nuclear power plant equivalents to replace about 25% of our transport oil assuming we subsititue EV's. That is a lot of nuclear energy development in the limited time we have left before we begin our energy descent. As the Hersch report says, we are awfully late.

The scary fact is that it takes over 8 years of human hard labor to produce the energy contained in just one barrel of oil and the US uses about 19 million bbl/year. It IS the magic fluid and will be very hard to replace in a timely manner. If AGW does not change the rainfall, places like BC which is powered by 95% renewables, mostly hydro, will have an advantage. There are so many unknowns but high energy dense FF's are going away and that will bring profound changes to our world.

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