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« Be careful while hiking in the woods! | Main | Teaching Students About the Coming Crises »

July 20, 2010


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One day I'll read this, but I haven't gotten to it yet: "Where There Is No Doctor" from the Hesperian Foundation.

Maybe that's what I'll print off just as civilization is crashing.

Molly Radke

Wise words, as usual. And it sounds like you're on the road to recovery! Good news, that.

I'm growing poppies, and rumor has it that most can provide pain relief, but I'll be damned if I know how to process the little buggers! They're just flowers to me, but flowers with promise, I guess!

Gary Peters

Hi George,

I'm glad to see you back up and running, and it good that your accident has forced you into some new considerations.

However, I'm not sure that the picture you present isn't a bit gloomier than it need be. For example, if we are now in a bottleneck, we've got no idea how we might come out the other side, assuming that we do. There have been large population declines in the past, and populations often experienced better times once the episode had run its course. The Black Death of the mid-14th century is a case in point. Europe's population dropped by at least 25%, with local areas experiencing twice that. It takes no imagination to see that after the plague subsided the per capita resources available to people had increased substantially. Survivors were better off than they had been. It seems at least possible that this could happen again.

I remain uncertain about the path we might follow after peak oil, but a smaller population may well be part of it, taking some pressure off demand. I'm also not sure that rationing will occur, other than rationing via the use of money, i.e. the rich may experience very little change in their mobility while the poor may well not eat. Our ethanol program has already taken us a ways along that road.

I have no doubt about the ecological horrors in the Gulf of Mexico, and we can probably expect more of them. They already are common elsewhere, e.g. the Niger Delta and parts of Ecuador. As for the actual amount of oil spilled, though it appears massive, it would feed our refineries for only a few hours, depending on which figure you choose for a total. Latest figures show that we in the U.S. consume about 32 million barrels of crude per hour, an addiction that makes no sense to me, but then most addictions don't make much sense.

What remains truly fuzzy is the potential time-line for our lives to really be changed. Uncertainty complicates any attempt to prepare for a future with less energy.

Save your own energy, George, and take good care of yourself. As we age, we will, most of us, become ever more appreciative of a medical system that can heal our wounds, ease our pain, and keep us going. My view, as you know, is that preserving some or all of what we have would be much easier if there were not so damned many of us. Linnaeus should have given us a different name or waited to see if we really were Homo sapiens.

Good luck.

Robin Datta

Lest we forget, at one time in these united States the "country doc" in addition to his "black bag" had assorted medications a box of surgical instruments in his buggy. The instruments would be sterilized by boiling in any convenient container in the patient's home and anesthesia would be provided by any bystander dripping chloroform or ether onto a gauze mask under the direction of the doctor. (I have heard stories passed down - third or fourth hand - of how to adjust the depth of anesthesia by the number of drops per minute).

While this was nowhere close to today's situation in efficiency and desirability, it was a vast improvement over what preceded it for all of history.

Much of materia medica preceding sulfaniliamide was based on fairly sound principles: it was ditched with the coming of modern pharmaceuticals. Even so, a lot of modern pharmaceuticals have their origins in more "primitive" materia medica.

Morphine and heroin are from the opium poppy (one good aspect of our Afghan involvement is the resumption of the cultivation of that plant, a capitalist endeavour - the Taliban being religious fundamentalists had essentially stopped poppy cultivation). Incidentally, the opium poppy is a variant of the regular poppy and produces larger quantities of the desired substances than the regular poppy.

Sulfanilamide came because Ehrlich thought that the differential uptake of stains by bacteria would be a way to find a toxic dye that would bind preferentially to bacteria, sparing the host cells. The aniline blue dye came from a plant in India and was imported by the British: when the actual molecule was identified and synthesized. its modification made a variety of different dyes possible. Experimentation with various side chains led to a molecule that was found to be bactericidal; it was then recognized that the bactericidal property resided in the side chain alone, leading to the sulfonamides.

Quinine for malaria came from a plant used by South American Indians to treat fever, muscle relaxants used in anesthesia "neuromuscular blocking agents" came from a plant used for arrow poison, digitalis used in heart conditions from the purple foxglove Digitalis purpurea, penicillin and streptomycin from molds, bacitracin from a bacterium, etc.

The loss of biodiversity may entail the disappearance of species that might have thus proved useful, and of cultures that may have pointed out similar useful knowledge.

A lot of work needs to be done to find, categorize and publish data on low-tech remedies while also preserving the knowledge acquired in the industrial era, and finding low-tech ways to apply it. But little of it will be forthcoming in the current cutthroat for-profit, globalization environment. This environment evolved as the big players were able to afford the massive expenses of research and clinical trials, shutting out lesser players. Even some reliable medications have been abandoned in the promotion of new items under patent in pursuit of the economic incentive.

Jordans 4

To get ahead, you'll have to work long hours and take short vacations. I think This sentence is very reasonable.

Matthew Watkinson

Regarding the baby pelicans and whether or not they deserved their fate or not, I am obliged to point out that, in nature, deserve has got absolutely nothing to do with it. Most will die young whatever happens and I cannot just let that emotive anthropomorphism lie unchallenged (I am sorry).

Kind regards,



Matthew, an emotional view of the ongoing ecocide (with suigenocide ensuing soon perhaps) might perhaps be very useful in kicking hominid asses hard enough to get real about reality.

rube cretin

glad you are doing well following this tragic incident. missed your posts. but now u have an idea of the perils of old folks like myself. youth and vigor is the most valuable of resources. The rapids of the first stage of the bottleneck will take most of us elderly out. Keep putting out your missives. step back from what you have written and become a little philosophical occasionally.

George Mobus

Gary Peters wrote:
" Linnaeus should have given us a different name or waited to see if we really were Homo sapiens."

My classification name is Homo calidus, meaning man the clever. I could also go with Homo quasisapiens indicating we are sapient to a degree, just not enough to match our cleverness and keep it in check.


You are right of course. But I am still human and tend to see this as a tragedy since it was preventable and in the service of our human greed. Most animals are content with satisficing (Herbert Simon) rather than maximizing. We, on the other hand will not stop until we've taken it all.

Besides, human emotion is a motivator, no? If something needs doing it should trigger our emotional response. That is natural too.

Thanks all.



Hi George,
Your site is one of the most carefully reasoned and and informative on the web. Much appreciated. Sorry about your mishap on Mt. Adams. In 40 years of rambling and scrambling on mountains, Adams is the only place where I too had a problem.

EROEI is indeed an important concept for understanding the present and future foundations of industrial civilization, but I'm increasingly bothered by what it ignores in its fundamental assumptions.

Energy in and of itself is of no value to humans. You can't eat a kilowatt like you can an apple--- energy is only valuable when it is used to create services or useful goods. A home interior maintained at 72 degrees by negawatts is no less comfortable than one maintained by kilowatts.

When we try to use the EROEI world view to evaluate use values it starts to become awkward, so we slide into the implicit assumption that a joule of energy is interchangeable regardless of the source it originates from.

Is the clean electricity needed to power a laser to reshape the lens of your eye really interchangeable with a gallon of diesel oil? Does the concept of EROEI account for the cost of trying to conquer Iraq in order to extract their oil if we are comparing the EROEI of a Zero energy home design to a Universal Building Code design heated by an oil furnace? How do we cost the value of grid stability and point of use independence from decentralized PV vrs. giant centralized coal or nuclear power plants?

As a footnote, I encounter disinterest or hostility when I broach these ideas to the editors of The Oil Drum, which I take as evidence that the EROEI concept is becoming an ideology. Time to Question Everything!

George Mobus


Your observations and questions highlight one of the main problems with EROI as popularly conceived. As background I would highly recommend the works of Howard Odum, esp. Environment, Power and Society for the Twenty-First Century: The Hierarchy of Energy. The issues about transformity and equivalency of energies were worked out by Odum and others quite some time ago.

Energy in and of itself is of no value to humans.

This is where the problem starts as this is actually a fallacious statement. The food we eat is our energy source (calories). Literally all else follows from that. Every tool that we make that helps us do more work (esp. if we use extrasomatic sources of energy) helps us conserve our bioenergy. What you call negawatts are meaningful only because some other form of energy was used to construct something that reduces the loss of energy (like insulation) somewhere else.

The point is that all forms of energy are interchangeable but only after transformations are taken into account. So while a joule of oil is not the exact same as a joule of electricity, once you add back all of the energy lost (2nd law of thermo) converting the oil into electricity you would find that the original total energy required from oil to produce one joule of electricity should be added in to compute the EROI of the electricity.

I'm sorry about the hostility sense you might be getting from The Oil Drum (though I think most folk there are reasonable enough). I suspect that some may react to these kinds of statements as being just a bit naive with respect to the underlying energetics, especially if you persist making these claims. Words like "interchangeability" do not apply to energy transformations and work. If you will take the time to study Odum's work, I think you will start to understand why EROI is a valid concept, even if only poorly applied to economic situations (it comes from systems ecology which is very highly developed as a science).

So, I'd be hard pressed to consider EROI as ideology. What I suggest is that you do some deeper digging and then do question some of your assumptions above!

I sincerely hope this is worthy advice.


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