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« Is Science Another Failed Institution? | Main | Extinction »

July 21, 2013


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>Imagine something like the Huffingtonpost for energy and the economy (biophysical economics).

Something like an energy bulletin, oops they are called now.

A more mainstream site is, provides only important news - finally.

What I would like to see, is more in depth analysis about energy/resource dependencies in society, so far I only know about EROI and net energy and those are too highlevel and low frequency (also too imprecise it seems) to make much out of it.

Instead I was hoping for a subsystem view and predictions when things are going to fail, i.e. companies becoming insolvent, and possible responses of the system. That study about food price dependent revolutions was great in this respect:

Looking at the energy topic, it is decidedly too low frequency to catch peoples attention. The effects of net energy decline appear to stretch over decades. Even climate scientists came up with statements like "1°C global average temperature change annually". Maybe the Long Now Foundation would be interested in dealing with the topic.

Reverse Engineer

I know one Billionaire, but so far he hasn't got back to me for a Podcast unfortunately. Long time since college days, and not sure my email even got past the filter staff.

Anyhow, we talked about the demise of TOD with Ugo Bardi some in the recent podcast, still in post production. It's part of a natural lifespan of these types of things in part, though IMHO there are many things you can do to keep a website Fresh, which really TOD was not anymore. They were stuck in a paradigm focusing very narrowly on Peak Oil, not recognizing the more general nature of the Collapse. Also, there was some very heavy handed moderation and censorship on TOD which drove away many people, yours truly included as it is another one I was BANNED from. LOL.

Anyhow, you move on from this and make better things, that is what Homo Sapiens does, no? Today, the Doomstead Diner is where it is at for the best discussion of Collapse on the Net. Best Platform, Funniest Host too. ME! LOL.


George Mobus


Thanks for the link. Once, not too long ago the notion of peak oil was pretty limited to a few far thinking people. Today, while many others may think it is passe, at least they know what it is. As for predictions, we are talking global macroeconomic scale and great difficulty with data. EROI studies seem to be maturing, however, so we might one day be able to get to good estimates of net energy by that route. Stay tuned.


Well apparently I've been moderated out of TOD. I posted an announcement of this blog post in the latest by Heading Out. It never showed up after a couple of days. I really don't know what he or they have against net energy issues. Oh well.


Paul Chefurka

I had a soft spot for TOD, both because they provided my first in-depth education in Peak Oil and because they published my first two major web articles on population and PO.

In the beginning I had high hopes for them taking a broad view on social and system issues as related to energy, but no such luck. In the end the site was home to a large contingent of oil-oriented engineering types, and TOD began to feel more and more like part of the problem.

Of course my distaste was partly my fault too. Over time I have shifted to a position that acknowledges Sevareid's Law ("The chief cause of problems is solutions") and have come to regard human problem-solving - aka engineering - as antithetical to life. If only I could still believe in solutions...

I will mourn TOD not so much for what they were, but for what they could have been.


@George - Your essays have beautifully expounded on a multitude of conundrums for fledgling sapients among QE visitors, but this may be the biggest yet:

Anyone know any truly wise and knowledgeable billionaires?

It's right up there with "anyone know any military man who believes the defense budget should be cut by 95%?" and "anyone know any Democrat or Republican power-wielder who won't take one red cent from any K Street lobbyist?"

If these super-wealthy supranational self-proclaimed superstars do get an attack of societal conscience, it tends to come late in the day - and probably as a result of guilt rather than wisdom. It also goes without saying that they are highly unlikely to exit the denial game that keeps them rich.

Of course, if a miracle happens (it must be sooner rather than later), I'll arrange the relevant introductions as fast as a Microsoft programmer "accidentally" leaves a back door open for the National Stasi Agency.

George Mobus


Might I suggest a slight change: "aka engineering as practiced under the profit motive!"

The last chapter in my book will explore systems engineering, a field which is still trying to emerge. My hope is that by consolidating and integrating all of the various aspects of systems science that this will become the science basis for engineering. The first appendix is a technical definition and requirements for "sustainability" based on systems science (vs. politics or neoclassical economics). The second appendix will be about permaculture as an application of systems engineering (based on systems ecology) at work to produce a technically sustainable system for living.

I'm not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Our species just needs to grow up.


Yes, my tongue was stuck in my cheek. And I was feeling in a lighthearted mood at the moment. I enjoy this kind of Ad Absurdum argument!


Paul Chefurka

George, there is always a profit motive, even if the profit is just the EROI of a hunted antelope. Money just made the profit more obvious and efficient.

No, I mean "engineering" plain and simple - all the way back to the Olduwan toolkit. It's what Craig Dilworth talked about in his book "Too Smart for Our Own Good".

There have been too many positive feedback loops operating in both human culture and the nature of life itself. IMO the collision of the energy-seeking, reproductive imperative of all living organisms, the appearance of analytical intelligence as the singular human evolutionary fitness advantage, and fossil fuels has made this outcome (or something quite similar) inevitable.

Perhaps the idea that humans, after all this time, can grow up enough to lose the unseen constraints placed on our behavior and worldview by the first eukaryote is just a pleasant dream.

Sheesh, I seem to have become a bit hardcore about this. I am becoming more of a determinist every day. Sorry.


I think Heading Out was right in his July 21 TOD post, where, to paraphrase, he said that there are only so many times you can skin a particular cat. The focus of TOD became too narrow such that the editors couldn't update the site with enough new content in the technical areas that became the focus of the site to make the blog readable. It's unfortunate that the site went in such a parochial direction. While I think it speaks to the personalities of those who were running the site, I think it is also because IMHO, the editors didn't seem all that interested in soliciting reader input on editorial decisions or what future content should look like, which is essential to providing a news source people want to use.

I think you're right that a Huffington Post-like site which could serve as a clearinghouse for folks like Heading Out, Robert Rapier, yourself, and other writers who address peak oil/EROEI-related topics would be a useful service for those of us who are interested in these topics, but don't want to go to 20 different blogs a day. That, and perhaps a wiki site that could be used to introduce folks to the key terms and debates that these authors address would be helpful.

I remain skeptical, however, that educating the public will materially change public opinion or behavior about these issues. As we have seen with polling data with the issue of climate change, seeing is very often believing, and extreme weather seems to change people's beliefs about climate change much more than additional scientific evidence does. I suspect the situation is not too different for peak oil, unfortunately.

George Mobus


"... there is always a profit motive..."

Granted. But originally and in all natural complex adaptive systems profit taken was sent to savings against the inevitable hard times. Profit wasn't something acquired for its own sake.

The exception in an evolvable system is accumulation of profit for the sake of reproduction. Because of the existence of negative feedbacks (e.g. predation) living systems are mandated to counter act the reduction of population by increasing it whenever it can, hence the pressure of growth. But this is still a form of savings, i.e. the gene pool and diversity maintenance. In the case of individual reproduction the constraints are imposed from without and there is a balance between negative feedback (dying and being killed) and positive feedback (reproduce as many offspring as possible).

My own observation in complex systems is that when a system is newly generated (forms) and is highly successful at obtaining resources, the positive loops predominate and you get growth. But at some point the growth itself triggers or amplifies the negative loops so that balance obtains. In the meantime, of course, the growing system changes its environment by its acts of taking resources and producing wastes. And those changes are what contribute to the negative loops being amplified.

Humans are the first species to seemingly transcend the natural balance. And the changes our population with its technologies has wrought on the environment are, by our measures, horrendous. But, I contend, the value judgment we place on this, and ourselves as the perpetrators, is based on our anthropocentric viewpoint and that the world we have known is the one we think should exist into the future.

But this has never been true throughout the history of life on this planet. There have always been cycles of renewal and destruction and from various causal forces including life itself. We really are not anything new under the sun in that regard. Evolution is all about change. And the fact that we seem to be the causal agent doesn't matter.

There is a phenomenon in biology that runs counter to the competition and profit theme. That is the socialization of systems first through cooperation and later through coordination. And the latter provides the opportunity to develop internal negative feedback loops or constraints on growth from within. Individuals, comprised of trillions of cells, most with the inherent ability to continue reproducing mitotically, nevertheless, stop growing after reaching a milestone (e.g. sexual maturity). This is due to the complex hierarchical control network that has evolved to keep a system (i.e. the individual) in balance with its environment.

I believe Homo was evolving toward this kind of situation, toward eusociality based on higher sapience (which includes empathy, etc.). And I believe that the already underway great die-off will provide the window of opportunity for that evolution to resume.

That is what I mean by "growing up". I have absolutely no conviction that Homo sapiens will be capable of being fully eusocial in the same sense that some other species are. The only way out of this conundrum is the same as it has been for all of evolutionary history - more evolution! The alternative is extinction, and there is nothing that I can see that rules that out entirely. I am expressing a hope for the future that is based on my understanding of evolution and what has happened in the past. But anything can happen!


I share your skepticism about the general public. A site like TOD provides a community resource more than an education. OTOH it is surprising how many lurkers have posted comments lately saying the have learned about PO and other issues by reading TOD.

I guess my thought is that a good news and information site about energy in general would at least provide a venue for aggregating the evidence of the various energy-related phenomena. The "technical" articles, posted by regulars, would be devoted more to evaluation and interpretation of the evidence. And they could try to relate the phenomena to people's everyday experiences in economics and social terms.

Just some random thinking.


Matt Holbert


Re: Billionaires

I came across a feature (online edition) by a local tv station (Spokane) a day or two ago. Bill Gates was asked what he was reading this summer. Of the eight books listed, one was by Jared Diamond (his latest?) and two were authored by Vaclac Smil. Does anyone know Bill?

Paul Chefurka


Thanks - that widens the view enough to take my parochial objections off the table. It really is hard to transcend the idea that humanity is the playing field, instead of being just one of the players. This helped. Thanks again.


George Mobus


Smil, huh. That actually isn't a good thing if Bill wants to get a full picture of the energy problem. Smil doesn't believe in EROI! So his thoughts about net energy don't jibe with those of us who actually do work on EROI stuff. Smil is prolific (and very sure of himself) but he has a couple of blind spots that are going to surprise him one day. As for Diamond, I'd rather he were reading Tainter or Catton. But I suspect he is predisposed to be a technocorucopian and would never touch those guys.


Good. I'll get those chapters to you as soon as my coauthor is done with them. Evolution reigns!



@ Paul,

One of the most memorable key posts, to me, several years ago on the oil drum, was the one where you analyzed what was necessary to reduce the world population to 1 billion by 2100.

Paul Chefurka


Thank you! That was my first major web article, and to this day it remains the most frequently viewed article on my web site. It taught me a lot about how (and how not) to frame extreme thinking like that. I've managed to calm most of the angst that propelled it emotionally, but the things I learned from thinking about the human future in that way stayed with me and still inform my thinking.


Thanks for this post and all the good comments. I haven't looked at TOD in quite a while because I saw them increasingly to be apologists for the oil industry (and now fracking and natural gas) which told me all I needed to know. While learning some technical stuff from the commenters, most of whom NEVER saw the pollution as a problem, it became clear that these folks had blinders on and didn't see humanity for the cancer it has become on the planet.

That being said, I enjoy reading about your systems approaches to life, but I can't see the so-called "sapience" of humanity (it's a myth to me) as winning out over all the destruction (reality) we've caused. It's too late and too expensive to clean up our messes (more every year), and we'll undoubtedly keep going in the same stupid direction (certain death) despite all the science and evidence everywhere because THAT is what we are (as opposed to some mythical "eusapient" creature).

Just my two cents.


Hi Tom

I love your comments, like a surprise bucket of ice water above a door on a hot day :-)

However, it does seem like Groundhog Day when you mildly berate the Professor about that "mythical eusapient creature". As far as I understand, George is talking about a projected evolutionary process resulting in increasingly eusocial behavior, leading to eusapience. I don't think for one moment that he is claiming we are already there.

Far from it - as you so strongly point out, and which is backed by daily evidence. Certain death is a certainty, for most but maybe not all descendants of today's Homo nonsapiens.

That's the issue: total extinction or rump humans living on. All aboard! ... the speculation train is leaving from platform 12.


George: "As for Diamond, I'd rather he were reading Tainter or Catton."

Just out of curiosity, what's wrong with Diamond? I always found his works quite pragmatic and honest, which is a rarity in these days of ideological bias everywhere. He always seemed to me like someone without any agenda (except to simply present facts as theay are). Also, there's a lot of "civilization pessimism" in his books, it's just not as "in your face" as with the others.

George Mobus


I think Oliver has summarized my views quite well. But it seems to me that we are often not on the same page when it comes to definitions. I have to ask if you ever read my working papers on the subject? I get the sense that you are assuming you know what sapience and eusapience mean and are basing your objections on those assumptions. In order to have a rational conversation about the subject it might be worthwhile to read the arguments I've given. The introduction and links to the various articles can be found at:

I would be more than happy to hear any counter arguments or claims about errors in my reasoning, or other flaws in the work. It would be useful to me to have reasoned critiques of this work.


Thanks for the succinct summary of my position! A lot less wordy than I would have been ;^)


I didn't say there was anything wrong with Diamond. I like his work too. My point was that if Gates is only reading one book on the subject I would have him read Tainter. This is because Tainter nails the issue of complexity being a causal factor in civilization collapse more directly than Diamond. Since Mr. Gates is such a fan of technology and technology is a big component of increasing complexity it might not be a bad idea for him to see another point of view. In reading Diamond, he might come away with the assumption that climate is the only cause of collapse. I realize that isn't what Diamond claims per se, but from conversations with many people who have read Diamond, that is the impression it is easy to come away with.

My own view is that collapse has many factors that can act as aggravations or triggers. But in the end it is the decline in net energy per capita that is the driving cause. This can result from unfavorable climate change or from diminishing returns on complexity. It still boils down to energy!



George (& spokesperson Oliver):

I've listened to the "Diner" podcasts once again after having previously read many if not most of your blogposts. I don't mean to sound arrogant, argumentative or even "intelligent" in this field of inquiry that you've spent many years developing. Nevertheless my response is only to better frame my (perhaps mis) understanding of this term and it's "reality."

I understand that as it is humanity has a lack of population displaying this attribute that encompasses intelligence developed into multidisciplinary wisdom. So my first point is that merely statistically speaking, the probability that some or even one of the very few of these humans (possessing the genes of sapience-tendency) survive the "bottleneck" (that looks more and more like collapse to extinction due to the interrelated destruction of all food sources, unpredictable climate, atmospheric and soil chemistry leading to tree and vegetation extinction, ever increasing radiation due to the failure to decommission all the nuke plants and other waste of the world before peak oil, and many other factors including the death of the oceans) will be negligible to zero (since I don't expect anyone to survive the toxic environment we've created and set into motion to get far worse and due to accelerate probably within our lifetimes).

Secondly you posit (for their survival) the scientific approach to selection for this attribute whereby current humanity is "the (genetic) selector" rather than nature itself, ala Darwin. This raises the question, are we now somehow "more fit" to do this selection than nature when it has been doing fine for millions of years for developing humanity to our current state? (I have more questions about this, but don't want to waste your time answering some schmuck that presumably "doesn't know what he's talking about.")

Thirdly, let's assume all of the thousands of sapient people survive the bottleneck event. Do they constitute the wide variety of individual talents for the sciences that will keep them around to reproduce more of the same and perhaps "heal" the world? Will there be enough doctors, dentists, heart surgeons, nutritionists, engineers, mechanics, farmers and botanists (with what to work with for all of these doubtful to have survived)?

If you're talking about thousands of years into the future we can stop the discussion now because it's completely unlikely that any mammal will survive the continuing temperature increases that will result from our century of CO2 loading, with its 30 or so year lag-time, let alone all the other biota on the planet.

i'll stop there and please excuse my ignorance of the topic, despite reading and listening to your explanations. None of this is meant with any disrespect or malice toward (some of) your life-work.

I enjoy reading your posts and will continue to do so until I can't.

If you'd rather e-mail me a link to your working papers, i'll try to plow through them if they contain the answers to these and other questions you've probably thought of and worked out.

George Mobus


I just posted a new blog that might be relevant. But you sound as if you've made up your mind on survivability and these arguments might not change your thinking.


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