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« Work, Exergy, the Economy, Money, and Wealth | Main | Are we seeing the impending implosion of public higher education? »

October 10, 2010


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I agree,George and the USA is not alone in the West in this bind.
I am an Australian and although the immediate situation in my country is not too bad the writing is on the wall.But only a few can see it let alone read it.The complacency is quite awe inspiring,even to someone of my experience and not a little acquired cynicism.

You are correct that a melt down is probably the only way to destroy the current paradigm.There will be a lot of collateral damage and no guarantee of a good outcome,even in the long term.

But if we don't go there we will never know.

Georgi Marinov
The whole point is that Obama could not really ‘change things’. He has no power. Either he is remaining blissfully ignorant of reality (energy constraints and the economy) or he is unable to tell the truth because of his beholding to the powers that actually govern our world. Either way he is powerless and since this is the executive branch of a “government of, for, and by the people” then so are we the people powerless. So much for democracy in the 21st century.

I am not exactly sure we would even want to have democracy. Democracy would only work if the people were, as you like to say it, "wise". If they aren't, it becomes quite a destructive force, because a vast majority that doesn't "get it" will always block any meaningful steps forward by the tiny minority that does. Which is exactly what's happening right now.

I am not even sure that democracy isn't working as it's supposed to. We like to frame things in a "elites vs the people" fashion, but the more I think about, the more I get convinced that a world without some sort of secret cabal ruling over the world where things are driven by basic human instincts (the urge to hog as much resources for yourself and your progeny as possible being the most important in this case) will look just as the world we live in right now; i.e. there is no need to invoke some conspiracy theory to explain the situation - the politicians would behave the way they simply as a result of the influence of industry interests acting in relatively unorganized way. In this sense, there is no separation between elites and regular people, sure, the former have the money and the power, but there is no material difference in the thinking of the two groups or their understanding of the situation; what's different is the scale at which they do things (people like to complain how corrupt the ruling class is, but the reality is that if you pick a random person from the street and you put him in office, he will behave exactly the same way at least 9 out of 10 times).

Democracy is what we want to have, but only after we have achieved the level of development of each person in a society that would make it work. Until that's the case, a mechanism that will make sure that the minority that "gets it" can make things happen is needed. Of course, this is mostly pointless pondering over these questions, since neither do I see a realistic mechanism, nor is there time or opportunity to implement it, but I am making the general point.

At the best that president would only hold office for one term. Any number of politician will be out there claiming the then current president has gone off his/her rocker. They will promise prosperity and ‘hope’ and that, of course, will be what the electorate wants to hear. And I'm pretty sure the populace will buy the promise.

True. Which is why we need a different socio-political system as I said before.

However, regarding why a president wouldn't come out and say it as it is, as I have said before, there may be a very compelling reason not to want to do that, even if the president and the people around him were completely aware of the situation (and by being completely aware, I mean not just the raw facts about energy availability in the future, but the whole ecological predicament of humanity, its roots causes, etc.). It is pretty much impossible to communicate everything that a person needs to know about the subject to people who don't have some minimum background in a broad range of disciplines, a condition that the vast majority of the population doesn't meet. Without that, the only part of the message that people will get is that growth has ended, there will be severe shortages, etc.; how we can peacefully transition will not be given much thought. The likely result is that things will fall apart very quickly as people scramble to assure that they get as much of the shrinking pie as possible. If you're in power, you would probably want to avoid getting yourself in that mess.

Of course, given how grossly inadequate the actions of the current administration have been so far, I am more and more convinced that the president doesn't get it at all, even though there are people around him who, based on their background, almost certainly do. If I was the president, I would probably do exactly as you said, even being perfectly aware of the potential consequences. But even then, there would be almost no way to change things. Even a dictatorship of the "wise" can't do it because there is no force on this planet strong enough to contain the biological instincts of billions who have no clue about the real situation, even less so in a world with declining availability of key resources as you pointed out...

Molly Radke

Yes to ALL of the above. Alas.


I completely share your pessimism, George, however, I would hope that my generation (current college students) is able to mitigate the pain somewhat. Though we are hardly perfect (and hardly a homogeneous group), we seem to be more interested on environmental and ecological issues than previous generations. And we seem to recognize that some sacrifice may be necessary to get there. But though I would like to be optimistic about hte contribution my generation can make, I question whether we are willing to make a sufficient level of sacrifices in order to significantly smooth our energy transition.

After all, we live in a society where the prevailing culture is one of instant gratification based on readily available energy, and college students seem eager to gratify themselves more than most. We can consume on demand by driving to the store and buying what we need on borrowed energy. We can go online and instantly share details of our own lives and read the stories of others through Twitter and Facebook (made available often by fossil electricity as well as rare metals for electronic components that are energy-intensive to extract). And we can visit one of the millions of websites offering services to satisfy our carnal desires. We have a plethora of media and entertainment where all can be catered to, and where truth is a relative concept. How can a message of self-sacrifice and work for the common good be heard amongst this droning?

But I also wouldn't blame the ignorance of the American people entirely on the media or on politicians. Sure the hard-rightists have won big victories in recent years, and granted, Americans are spending a lot more time than before in front of the computer or television screen instead of getting to know their neighbors and being involved in civic issues (A good book here is Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam). People are living increasingly stressful and busy lives. They're working longer hours for less pay and being informed about public affairs just isn't on their radar screens when they're working 10 hours a day and shuttling kids to/from piano lessons and soccer practice. The inability to be involved in community, to be aware of what's going on around you is what is killing our democracy.

Furthermore, when you're absorbed in your own life, worrying about day-to-day matters and listening to BAU messages in the media, it's nearly impossible to imagine a radically different life could be at hand in the not-so-distant future. Getting through the next day or week is the challenge, not the next decade or two.

A resources shock combined with the powerful messaging that did bring millions to their feet to support Obama is what is needed. It takes courage to stand up and say something profound but unpopular. But given the cynicism most of us have about politics these days, I honestly believe that a forthright politician has the potential to inspire. I can still hope, right?

Part of the problem is that having a democracy with 300 million people, with lots of entry points for influence is a recipe for lethargy. Although I am a Pacific Northwest native, countries like Australia and New Zealand are looking more attractive all the time. Even Canada would be better. That's not to say these countries don't have their own problems or pathologies--they absolutely do--but their politics is more civilized and streamlined, and in the case of Canada and New Zealand, are environments where an abundance of resources and/or a relative paucity of people will make an energy transition easier. It wouldn't surprise me if those who are seriously concerned about peak oil make a break for another, smaller, resource-rich country before TSHTF, because I don't see things getting better in the United States.


I dont have much time to post these days George but I'm still reading.
Quality journalism in this post...sorry dont take that as any slur but these kind of discussions are futile.

Discussing or arguing about these -------- wont make any difference to the longer term future. What we have here is another small example of the accumulating crisis of our society, the slow crumbling of our civilisation.
Not only is this inevitable but in some ways it is a part of the story of evolution; any reversals in decline will be localised, temporary and empheral. The crisis in ecology, politics, finance, community, education, medicine, technology, religion, culture and meaning will continue to escalate, they are interelated and have their roots in the increasing separation of humans from nature and their sense of self.
I occ post on a 'life' section in a UK cycling forum where so many discussions revolve around the political and social stagnation and.... to save a lot of time typing I think I cut n paste this on to threads about -------



Methinks a crucial step for making U.S. politics more sane is introducing a third party. For that to work the voting process needs to be reformed, so that smaller parties get some chance.

The coming elections will be very interesting. The Tea Palinist candidates are nutjobs far beyond the pale - perhaps the electorate will sense this self-destruction of the once GOP?

I'm looking at all this from Germany. The stupid I see is amazing, e.g. GOP senate candidate Christine O’Donnell. Or e.g. Virginia attorey general (grand inquisitor) Ken Cuccinelli.

So, the GOP has truly devolved into a lunatic asylum. Perhaps the electorate will one day note that? Scientists can help in this process. Actually they have an obligation to speak out against liars and reality denialists.

Georgi Marinov
Methinks a crucial step for making U.S. politics more sane is introducing a third party.

That's probably correct. It will make it more sane. But is such a thing measuring up to the magnitude of the real task? Not at all.


Methinks no kind of tinkering with the (failed) sacred cow system called democracy will save anything.
In fact I'm certain.
We live in a global corporate plutocracy, the politicians are their obedient puppets; if that wasnt obvious before the 2008 crisis it damn well is now.
What sticks in my craw is that supporters of democracy do not simply claim political legitimacy, they also claim ethical legitimacy, a claim to moral authority. This is where it is culturally taboo to even criticise democracy never mind think about overthrowing it. The Catholic church has their infallibility claims of the pope and we get the cult of democracy where the word 'undemocratic' is used as a euphemism for 'criminal' 'hostile' or 'elitist.' It is used to suggest an attack on society, a form of terrorism.
This suits the masters of the asylum very well.

Phil Henshaw

A good way for Obama to stave off our approaching "drop off the edge" of a larger scale self-reinforcing decline, is detailed in the model presidential order he could issue, as a matter of natural global emergency. If you ask questions I can fill in all the gaps and enrich the context.$.htm

Lincoln, after all, had no idea he was going to emancipate the slaves, and accepted the idea was unthinkable, until circumstances force his hand and saw it as the one way to save the nation. Lincoln demonstrated the ability of leaders to change when they have not other choice, but either change of fail completely.

I don't think Obama has that ability, though I once hoped he would.

Gary Peters


You were right; I tossed away my vote on BO in 2008, in part because I hoped he would actually be different. He turned out to be just another politician from Chicago.

In my lifetime I think Jimmy Carter was the only president that tried to tell Americans that things were not all good. He was dumped!

As Bill Clinton once said, "No one ever got elected in the U.S. by promising people less." Americans don't want to hear the truth if it disagrees with their perception of how things should be. For example, they don't want to hear about anything that might destroy their happy motoring world. I've seen nor heard not a peep in the mainstream meeting about the ASPO meeting in DC last week. Taboo, big time! Don't mention global warming--it is just a hoax. Don't mention the huge shift in national income that is going to the richest 1 %.

The conspiracy between the financial community and politicians will continue until something dreadful happens. We are moving toward becoming a banana republic in which the income and wealth are controlled by a small minority and the nation is operated for their benefit.

Buy Online Rx

One of the reasons I admire Thatcher is because she was clever, curious and well-informed. I think you need to get over your class analysis of this situation. I also think the idea of a conservative who has no time for the concept of the 'better' is a contradiction of terms.

Georgi Marinov
What sticks in my craw is that supporters of democracy do not simply claim political legitimacy, they also claim ethical legitimacy, a claim to moral authority. This is where it is culturally taboo to even criticise democracy never mind think about overthrowing it.

That's also because the objective of socio-political systems has been long forgotten (if it was ever seriously not many people's minds to begin with). That objective is (or should be) to maximize the long term well being of the people in that society. If that includes a maximization of individual freedom to the extent this is possible, then that's even better. But we have, as you pointed out, reached a point where we have elevated "democracy" to the status of unquestionable religion and the system is never to be revised. That's very bad in a case that such a revision is actually needed.

Curtis Fromke

Jerry Brown is running for governor of California. His ads come close to what seems to be required.

Phil Henshaw

I agree with the general pessimism voiced above, though importantly because only one person took your question at face value. I offered a practical response that a president could make to our observably desperate situation.

Scientists from an increasing range of viewpoints seem to be realizing that mankind is most likely to exhaust itself trying to maintain an endless growth economy, instead of using those same resources to transition to a sustainable one. The main confounding reason, in my view, is the prevalent confusion of "sustainability" with promoting growth. Using the theme of sustainability has the world policy community trying to stabilize the economy by making growth more efficient, as if that would correct our accelerating resource depletion that directly causes... It's surely "rather funny" but no joke at all either, of course.

I think it would be good to develop a common language for connecting that shared impression to concrete observables, so anyone can tell someone else, and they can tell others, and still have the message tied to the same reality. Wouldn't that be the practical approach?

George Mobus


My apologies for taking so much time to respond to your comments. The work load is significant with lots of problems to solve on our campus.


I doubt that we will have any choices. If we were to act now in some meaningful way we might lessen the pain somewhat. But we will experience the pain.


Thanks for the thoughts. It seems you see the same basic problem I do. It could be that by telling the truth (and keeping it simple, like: Oh god oh god we're all going to die! ;^) s/he would start a panic that would hasten the end. In some perspectives that might be a good thing.


...I honestly believe that a forthright politician has the potential to inspire. I can still hope, right?

Absolutely. You know how I think this could work? If we could find and organize the young but highly sapient people in the world. This is tricky. Young people have not gathered a lifetime of experience through their sapience to give evidence of their wisdom. They only mostly have the potential. But assuming we could tell, perhaps by the mere fact that they are open to listening and grasping the message, we need to provide them with a way to assure a future for themselves even as we abandoned the masses of foolish (low sapient) people. What do you think? The fact that you are here and participating gives me hope!


See Sam's comment. I strongly believe there are (even if only a few) highly sapient beings out there who can find ways to get through the bottleneck. All you say may be true, but evolution can select for certain qualities and not just against. At least, as I told Sam, that is my hope.


Got to go with Georgi and GaryA on that. Frankly I think politics in the US is moribund. It just keeps going on the ventilator of corporate money, but it is dead in all other ways. No third party, playing by essentially the same rules, is going to really fix what is wrong here.

The basic problem remains that we are too low in sapience for our cleverness. We have created an overly complex civilization and now we have no way of understanding how to govern it. The electorate are now schizophrenic. And they seem to favor whacko politicians. And believe me, after watching Pelosi and Reid operate I can tell you they are just as bad in their own way as John Boehner and his clueless bunch on the Hill.

So, not only is the political process broken, so is the fundamental governance of the country broken. Look at the Supreme Court decision on campaign finance. It is broken beyond repair.

What I do look for is a new kind of political force emerging from the ashes of our burned out system. Call it the Phoenix Movement! Young people like Sam (above) who have a strong interest in salvaging a world that is possible to live in could redefine governance itself (a sapient governance). What I then see happening is as the old system crumbles and takes the foolish folk with it, the Phoenix Movement will rise to take over. No revolution, just succession.

I can dream can't I?

I read your proposal and found it interesting. But I do wonder how some of the mechanisms could be realized if we don't start with some real basis of value (such as emergy) to calibrate any kind of resetting.

Then as you say, it probably doesn't matter because while Obama might be in a position to take some kind of action, it is nearly certain he won't. Other than, of course, to bail out the banks and Wall Street.


Gary P.

I sometimes wonder how many people might be out there who do want to know the truth, even if it is scary. I work in an environment where knowledge of reality is certainly given a premium, at least in lip service. I have not had too much trouble delivering the message about peak net energy and its role in the economy. In fact I am having a bit of an effect on some of the thinking among the senior administrators and the search committee for the UW's new president. I am calling for a person who is an adaptive strategic thinker more than the classic politician who can schmooze the legislators and business folk. I get the sense that they would like to hear the truth and if the POTUS were to lay it on the line they would listen and take it to heart.

I wonder just how representative of the general population are the Tea Partiers. I realize that there is an overall lack of wisdom in the crowd, but there should be no lack of basic biological desire to survive. And if people sense that there is something fundamentally wrong that could be a threat to that survival, wouldn't they be open to the truth?

Ponder, ponder, ponder!


Haven't seen his ads for this go-around. I lived in Cal. when he was Gov. before. Had some interesting interactions with some of the energy "experts" he had on his staff.



I've wrestled long and hard with the question of how do you convince the masses to get them thinking. I've reached the conclusion that you can't really. I think they will need to be really scared before they start listening. The people I referred to in my comment to Gary Peters are already edgy and sense that something is different. That doesn't mean they will act out of understanding -- more likely survival.


Phil Henshaw

George, you say that resetting the level of debt would work, to erase the effect of the 30 year bubble in over-inflating the values of borrowed money people now owe beyond what is physically possible to pay, but should just wait for you and others to agree on a better unit of measure than money.

I think there's a simple solution to that, already spelled out in my proposal, that to act in time someone has to guess. All those who would like to help the guess to be better can study the problem and offer their way to bias the data from the default straight line assumption.

Even that process could get bogged down in relatively pointless debate, like nearly everything does these days, and get nowhere at all... To me the best option is readily at hand. I'd suggest you consider my various studies that seems to show that a quite good estimate of "emergy" is readily available, once you learn how to calculate the emergy content in money.

In my Wind EROI paper I show that with a proper accounting for the energy content of all the business services a Wind Farm uses to bring its product to market the total is 500% of the energy used by the principle technologies used alone (the world standard measure of business energy use) but only 15% more than the world average energy intensity per $ of costs. Do you see what that means??

It means that we need to completely rethink our way of accounting for embodied energy, at least, and that money is clearly a far better measure of energy use than energy use data is. That would seem to have a few other implications too, wouldn't it? It should be a shock to anyone reading the words, and I think will be once people hear it spoken as if it were possibly true.

Molly Radke

I REALLY appreciate what you mentioned about your role in the search for the next UW president. MAY YOUR VOICE BE HEARD. I'm still old-fashioned enough to believe that our schools and universities are our most important institutions and the places where we are most likely to find an rare measure of real wisdom. Keep knocking on their doors, George.

George Mobus


George, you say that resetting the level of debt would work, to erase the effect of the 30 year bubble in over-inflating the values of borrowed money people now owe beyond what is physically possible to pay, but should just wait for you and others to agree on a better unit of measure than money.

Did I actually say that it would work? I think it is an interesting idea, but I put a proviso on what would be a necessary (not sufficient) condition before it could work IF it could work.

Have you read any of Howard Odum's analyses of emergy, emdollars, etc.? I think there is a solid basis in his work on the relationship between money and energy. So really good guesses are certainly possible. But that isn't the problem. The problem is with the minds that have to be convinced of it, recognizing that their own political (and economic) interests are not served by changing the system, say to emergy accounting. Odum and his wife wrote a very good book called "A Prosperous Way Down" in which they outline these kinds of policies back in 2000. But the words fall on deaf ears, I'm afraid.


George Mobus

Hi MOlly.

As you might guess, I couldn't agree more about the value of education. I have an on-going conversation with members of the search committee (as well as the search committee for our own campus' chancellor!) that feel productive. We'll have to see.


Phil Henshaw

GGeorge, I have read some of Odum's analyses and "A Prosperous Way Down", but not sure which in particular you refer to. I think "emergy" refers to the usefulness of particular forms of embodied energy, right? To my mind, though, Odum makes a quite common but basic error in thinking about environmental systems. He interprets nature as working by his logical reformulation of the data available to him, as most scientists in all fields actually do. It results in fascinating but large misreadings of cause and effect to my mind.
The relation between money (our universal resource) and energy (nature's) is quite real of course, but driven by money being used as our way of communicating our decisions about physical processes we want others to do for us. Anything you buy takes large communities of other people putting together energy uses in many different forms.

From my systems science view the critical understanding for how that works is that you can't derived it from first principles. How complex systems work always exceeds our imaginations. So what you can learn is usually found by a scientific search for something that a real system does simply, and using that as a way to explore and expose the things that connect to it.

To me that starts with having a scientific method for identifying systems that work as whole units of organization in the environment. I think I find a good way to explain and demonstrate in studying how businesses work as complex environmental systems. My paper for Charlie's next EROI collection seems to do a nice job of demonstrating that, fyi.

Why so much of this falls on completely deaf ears, despite such very large communities of professionals and the public saying it's their main interest... is the twist I find curious. ;-)

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