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« Spring is Springing | Main | Time to Retire (from Education)? »

May 17, 2015


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Steven B Kurtz

As close to my position as anything I've read to date. Needless to say, well done. I join you in pessimism.


The Public Library system is operating on a sustainable model. It could use more money, and put it to immediate good use. I wish I could think of more, you can't build an economy on a library system.

Social Security, Medicare, and the ACA are doing surprisingly well, but one political party is dedicated to trashing them.

Richard Parker

Perhaps human beings are an evolutionary mistake doomed to last no more than another few hundred years at most. Is this what Mobus believes? If so, he might be right.

Narrowing the scope of his despair, it may be only that he believes that the Golden Age (relative to the rest of mankind) that Americans have enjoyed over the past 50 years is coming to an end. If so, he might be right.

Still, a lot is better than it has ever been in the history of mankind. Almost everyone has more to eat and enjoys a safer existence than in the past. The position of woman in the world has never been better. Most people are living much longer than ever before. A higher percentage of the world population is literate than ever before.

Perhaps it all cannot go on for the reasons he advances. But probably it will. I think that we have almost no ability to foresee what the world will be like in 2100.

Bill Roope

Me too, I'm too old to worry
about too. The odds are pretty good that society here
in Japan will last as long as I do (I'm 72). As for non-dysfunctional institutions, local city governments seem to do a pretty good job of caring for and supporting people.
There's an initiative that has the slogon of,roughly
translated, Zero People Dieing Alone/unnoticed, and is a community effort to check on people who live alone and make sure they are OK.
Also, I think that what is most important is that an individual (me for example)can enjoy life and be productive even though it's obvious to me that the world is in for some radical and harsh for humans, changes.If you can make your lifestyle require less than your income you can have a lot of fun with a limited amount of money and in my case a lot of free time which I use to study Kanji and go hiking.

Gail Tverberg

I am just finishing a short trip to Cuba. Cuba is having serious problems--basically not producing enough goods and services for its people. Debt is not as much used here, so I haven't been hearing about that issue. Instead, it is the basic lack of production of affordable goods and services for its people that the rest of the world is experiencing. The people here don't seem to recognize the connection of these problems to the rest of the world's problems, though.

Don Chisholm

I generally agree with Moubus' observation about all of the systems and subsystems that function so badly.

But this paper does not mention that there is one key human-created factor that is a common-causes to motivate them to function this way. Like the lifeblood of a body, the money system is the lifeblood that enables energy flow to bring civilization to life.

His recommendations should have suggested that we work on a blood transfusion for the system.

Harry Gibbs

The refusal by mainstream economists and journalists to even countenance the possibility that our 'new normal' is the result of energy and resource constraints attempting to express themselves through the financial system makes this a highly discombobulating era to live through, so thank you for being a voice of reason.

"I've given suggestions in the past about what sort of plan might succeed, but it is based on radical decoupling that most people will simply not believe is necessary."

Could you be very kind and point me to some of those suggestions? I am about to radically decouple!

Don Stewart

Some humans are doing pretty good work. I mention two systems science books: Mobus and Kalton and Capra and Luisi. David Perlmutter, MD points out the importance of a happy relationship with one's micro biome, and Elaine Ingham talks about cooperating with the biology in the soil. Kelly McGonigal. PhD, makes persuasive arguments from neuroscience that living a purposeful life is what it is all about. Many individuals are working out ways to live purposeful lives with very small physical footprints.

Don Stewart

Louis Ash

Your analysis is spot on as usual. Our basic systems are still working, and I try to be grateful for that every day. Food on the shelves, water from the tap, gas at the pumps, electricity from the outlets. Each of us must individually transition to a lower energy lifestyle. Institutions will not lead this shift. Like John Michael Greer says "collapse now and avoid the rush!" Let's not allow collapse fatigue from worrying about the future rob us of the present. We must do what we can, help each other out, and adapt as best we can as the energy descent plays out in real time. Keep up the great work!


The access to information at the touch of a few keys is unparalleled in world history. I just diagnosed and repaired my dishwasher by researching the problem and finding the part on the internet. The part, a small rubber check valve that prevents backflow of water, only cost a few dollars but it caused the entire machine to stop working when it broke off and clogged up the discharge hose. What would that have cost me if I had called a technician? So I would say access to knowledge is for the taking like never before, but how many of us take advantage of it? The same is true of the information you provide on the weaknesses and impending failures of our economic, political, and social systems.

Why are few listening? I think it's primarily because we have developed a blind faith in techno-fixes for all problems and are under the thrall of global capitalism. Monied interests control every facet of government and society. All problems and solutions are shoehorned within the tenets of capitalism and the need to always extract a profit.

On a more primal and biological perspective, civilizations can be thought of as super organisms which simply exploit the most energy-dense resources it can find in order to grow and expand as any organism is impelled to do in order to survive. Look up the "optimal foraging theory". Thus the "hive mind" of civilization trumps the individual intelligence and sapience of any one person. Also, Jevon's paradox and the "boomerang effect" of energy consumption guarantees our continued upward trajectory in energy demand.

I remember Joseph Tainter saying that only a couple civilizations have voluntarily and successfully simplified and reduced the complexity of their society in order to stave off collapse. We've established an economic system that enshrines survival of the fittest and demands maximization of profit and expansion of markets no matter the damage resulting from externalized costs. And for those who question the status quo too much, the surveillance and security state has ways of dealing with you.

For those of us who have an inkling of what is coming, the inability to fix things can drive you mad. Learning to deal with the fact that none of us has any control of the situation is probably the best thing you can do to maintain your mental health. As Tim Garrett said, "...if things really truly are hopeless, well then we don't have to worry as much. We can just enjoy the present."

Perhaps this is the best indication that we are chasing diminishing EROEI:

Fossil fuels subsidised by $10 million a minute, says IMF; ‘Shocking’ revelation finds $5.3tn subsidy estimate for 2015 is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments


Reading your sane, measured, posts is like drinking from a pure spring.

In contrast to your children not listening to sage advice, I have the opposite problem: my parents (I am 45), enriched by the boom years, will not listen to my warnings: so much for wisdom of the elders.

As Marcus Aurelius so amusingly observed, sometimes it would be better not to poke one's head out from under the blanket. Now, if a Roman emperor could feel like that....

But whatever the folly of Man, the sun rises and just has to be enjoyed and valued, if we are sane.

Maybe one can hope to roll with the punches of Doom. And if not,so not.

George Mobus

@Steven K.

When you look at the larger scope of the situation and dig just a little into any one aspect it is hard to not be cynical re: any supposed solutions, especially those that would purport to save civilization as it is. Agreed.


Libraries do seem to work well still in spite of the stresses of changing technology and lack of adequate resources. A very ancient and venerable institution, the curation and dissemination of the aggregate of human knowledge must find some way to survive as long as there are people, even after collapse or a population bottleneck.

@Richard P.,

I'm not sure you can characterize evolution as making a mistake. That we are no longer fit for the environmental conditions that we have created (the Anthropocene) is not a mistake any more than the generation of excess oxygen by cyanobacteria 2+ billion years ago was a mistake. It just is the way things work.

As for:

Still, a lot is better than it has ever been in the history of mankind.

Better for whom? The benefactors of technology and energy are a smaller percentage of the whole population and growing smaller as income distribution continues to skew toward the 1%. I'm not sure you could back up those claims with solid evidence.

I agree that no one can see the details of the future, but seeing the big picture that is the result of resource constraints doesn't take any special ability. While I acknowledge that some "miracle" energy source might be in the offing, the likelihood is extremely small. And unless it came about, the demise of civilization is certain. Only the time frame is subject to uncertainty.

@Bill R.,

I have not paid much attention to small city or many local community governance structures. I suspect that they are under the same pressures as the larger scale systems but because the "issues" are local, simpler, and more transparent those governing probably have a better handle on work arounds to problems.

In any case, I have long advocated for re-localization as a survival strategy, for the reasons mentioned here.

@Gail T.

Hi Gail. That is not good news about Cuba. They had long been held out as an example of survival resulting from de-complexificaton post the Soviet Union withdrawal of support. They were touted as evidence of an ability to operate a reasonable society at a lower energy flow level. I look forward to you writing something about their situation in Our Finite World.

@Don C.,

Actually I have written a good deal about money in the past and only give a nod to those posts in this one. Simply put, real money is not more than a tokenized information system used to regulate the flow of energy (the real physical currency of an economy). But as mentioned in the post here, that system has been so distorted by financialization that it no longer serves the original purpose.

@Harry G.,

Sometime back in 8/2011 I started a series of posts regarding this. See, for example: The Goal - Episode 1. The posts are scattered throughout the site so you may have to do some searching.

@Don S.

Thanks for the plug. But I couldn't agree more that at the level of one individual or small groups some humans are doing good stuff. It just doesn't seem to scale to the scope that has the most impact on us all.

@Louis A.,

Thank you. And you are absolutely right. One other commentator characterized my writing as showing "despair". In reality if I were really in despair I probably wouldn't write about this at all. Once we give up the notion of a technological whiz-bang future with a global governance apparatus, and get back to human basics - small-scale communities - we can build a livable, perhaps even more enjoyable, future.


Actually optimal foraging theory played a big role in my development of robot foraging as the basis for a learning algorithm!

Neither societies nor individuals necessarily need to consume all they can. Both have natural growth limits. The difference between an individual and a population or society is that the former has built-in (evolved) regulation mechanisms that down modulate growth once those limits are approached. The latter do not. However, given that the decision agents in a social system were sapient enough, and knowledgeable enough about natural governance systems (like those in a body) it is perfectly reasonable (IMO) to expect that the same kind of internal growth-limiting regulatory systems could be employed. Unfortunately, human societies are too much like population systems and fail to install the necessary mechanisms. So we grow beyond boundaries.


May those of us who can understand the dynamics of society and grasp the bigger picture remain sane and able to enjoy the sunrises.


Robert Vogel

Republicans, particularly, like to believe that private institutions function better than public ones. Public libraries do well. Social Security is efficient. Public sector health care (Medicare) works pretty well, and, in my opinion a single-payer system would be much more efficient than the insurance bureaucracy controlled, expensive system for medicine that we have in the U.S.

So I think it is useful to decide where to draw the line between public and private.

Take, for example, software as a product. The first copy requires a large investment, but after that, the marginal cost of copies is near zero. Free software (as defined at is steadily improving, and it has the potential to be a public good. As a matter of public policy, we should prefer it.

Privatization requires the profit motive that corrupts many industries including health care, elder care, pharma. Capitalism knows no limits, and that is why it will destroy us.

Desmond Smith

Hi George,

I disagree with some of what you said. As follows:

"that civilization must necessarily collapse due to the decline of net free energy (i.e. peak oil combined with declining energy return on investment — EROI — and still growing populations)."

Civilization is definitely not collapsing because of declining EROI. In fact, EROI is not declining in any meaningful way and has never done so. Renewable sources of energy have EROI ratios which are comparable to, or higher than, fossil fuels.

See here:

"Civilization is facing increasing declines in net free energy per capita."

Civilization is not facing declines in net free energy per capita. China almost doubled its energy consumption in the last ten years, mostly from coal, and the EROI of coal has remained roughly constant. Bear in mind that China has a considerable fraction of the world's population.

"When I started enumerating institutions and organizations at multiple scales that were showing clear evidence of dysfunction it became clear that I would be at it indefinitely."

This has falsifiability problems. There have always been all kinds of dysfunction and problems in large bureaucracies. Large bureaucracies necessarily entail problems of organization. You are interpreting something which is always the case as evidence in favor of your theory. Furthermore, you are interpreting anything as evidence in favor of your theory.

"Grow your own food, and all of that."

Oh goodness, no. The system of food transportation is nowhere near collapse. It could withstand reductions in global energy production for many decades continuously before approaching collapse. The market economy sacrifices the least important things first. Since long distance transportation of food requires negligible energy, it wouldn't be sacrificed for a very long time even if net energy were declining (which it is not).

-Tom S

George Mobus

@Robert V.

RE: capitalism. I strongly recommend Naomi Klein's latest book, "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate." I hear more and more reasoned criticism of neoliberal capitalism and its effects on humanity.

@Desmond S.,

Interesting comment. You make a number of claims but fail to provide any real evidence. The link you provided is pretty flimsy as well. I went through it and found most of the arguments about errors to be in error. I would suggest that if you want to have your claims taken seriously you do more than just state such-and-such is so.

In your paragraph re: "falsifiability problems" you argue that large organizations have always had dysfunction problems. True enough. But it is also the case that those very dysfunctions, if not corrected, lead to demise of the organization. Most, if not all, of the historical civilization collapses have now been linked to various forms of governance dysfunctions under environmental stresses that in turn led to collapse so thanks for verifying my thesis.

I suspect you are new to reading QE since you seem unaware of prior posts, including some of my scientific work, that led to this particular argument.

Next time you visit and feel inclined to make unsubstantiated claims, consider not wasting our time please.



Perhaps a significant factor in our overpopulation is the fact that we has no predators, except for each other.

Desmond Smith

Hi George,

"(You) fail to provide any real evidence... I would suggest that if you want to have your claims taken seriously you do more than just state such-and-such is so."

I didn't just state that such-and-such is so. I provided a link whereby I show that Charles Hall et al (who coined the term "EROI") wrongly calculated EROI, wrongly counted consumption as investment, did not account for recyclying and its effect on embedded energy, wrongly assumed that gross energy is constant, and so on. I showed that when those errors are corrected, the EROI for renewables is fine and the EROI for society as a whole has not been declining.

You haven't posted any objections to that. I see some nasty personal remarks from you, but no actual objections. That's just not a legitimate response. There are severe and widespread mathematical errors in this EROI stuff which invalidate its conclusions, and that needs to be addressed.

On this blog you regularly espouse things like "questioning your own beliefs" and so on. However, you are doing that less than almost anyone. You are responding to valid criticism by making nasty remarks and then not even addressing the criticism. Furthermore, your own collapse expectations and predictions were drastically mistaken, yet I see no evidence of any kind of critical questioning, from you or anyone else in this group. It is long overdue. I think you should take your own advice, and start asking some hard questions about why the predictions keep failing so badly.

Incidentally, there have been other researchers who are not members of the collapse/doomsday clique, and who have calculated the EROI of renewable sources of power. They found that the EROI for renewables was high. See many of the papers by Fthenakis, particularly The technical, geographical, and economic feasibility for solar energy to supply the energy needs of the US.

"consider not wasting our time please."

Some of the readers here have wrongly prepared for doomsday/collapse over and over again, year in and year out, for decades. I don't think it's a waste of time to engage briefly in some critical thinking. Especially not from someone who claims that he questions his own beliefs.

I probably won't post here any further. If you actually respond to criticism, then I may respond in turn. However, there is no point in my responding any more if you just don't address criticisms.

I wish to remind you that it's not a valid response just to engage in personal remarks and nothing else. You need to explain why this stuff is still valid despite the severe mathematical errors I pointed out, and why it's still valid despite unrelenting failure of prediction for more than a decade.

-Tom S

George Mobus

@Desmond/Tom S.,

I did read the website. Here is what I am talking about:

As an example, the paper[4] from C Hall (What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?) calculates the EROI of oil. However, it includes the energy cost of freeways, automobiles, and so on. That is a mistake, because those things are energy consumption, not energy investments to obtain energy.

Hall et al have explained very reasonably the ways in which they count embodied energy in infrastructure apportioned to energy production (that portion of a road cost used to transport fuels for example). People in the business of calculating EROI have long recognized that the boundaries for energy expenditures must be large enough to take these factors into account.

In this statement you simply claim that it is a mistake by saying (not demonstrating) that it is consumption rather than investment (the embodied energy). This is a strange claim given that when we build a refinery, for example, we consume resources in its construction. However those resources are invested in the future production of fuels so it is definitely investment.

The next sentence is a red herring: "If you include all energy consumption as energy investment, then the EROI of every energy source is 1."

Hall has never come close to trying to include ALL energy used for everything so this statement, while factually true as far as it goes does not do justice to the calculations actually done.

In Error #2:

It would be highly surprising if solar PV cells failed on exactly the day their warranty expired. For example, I bought a car with a 50,000 mile warranty, but it didn't cease working at 50,000 miles.

Another red herring. And Hall etc did not just choose the warranty period as representing the life cycle for useful energy production. There is, however a strong correlation between warranty period lengths and actual average life times for panels so 25 years is not arbitrary.

From your prior comment:

Civilization is not facing declines in net free energy per capita.

You proceed to speculate about the meaning of China's consumption of coal, I suspect making the same error of reasoning about what is investment vs. consumption. But you do not provide numbers or a calculation of what you mean by free energy per capita.

Trust me that over the years I have seen many papers attempting to show higher EROI for alternatives and speculations re: supplying BAU with enough energy to run and even grow our economy. Most of them have long since been debunked by deeper analysis and widening the boundaries. My own efforts at analysis show that solar PV cannot yet supply enough net free energy to both supply consumption needs (which I define quite precisely) and the work needed to replace the solar system over its useful life. In order to be successful, alternative energy sources need to supply both power to society for economic work and power to their replacement industries to do so (that doesn't even get into maintenance).

Once again I will point out that I have been writing this blog for many years and have both questioned my own beliefs as well as shouldered criticisms. However I do insist that when someone makes a factual claim of any kind they be ready to back it up with evidence and not just more claims. The website you suggested would not meet the standards of rigor for scientific work and therefore would not be admissible as a standalone argument against EROI or Energy-LCA work. Nor does it provide any evidence for your claims that, essentially, energy is abundant.


What are your thoughts on Tim Garret's work?:

Tim Garrett updates his work showing only a collapse of civilization could prevent terrible climate change. Only a precipitous crash in our economy can avoid a disastrous warming of up to 5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. (...starts at about the 28 minute mark)

Only a precipitous crash of the economy can avoid a disastrous warming of up to 5°C by 2100:

George Mobus


Good stuff to be sure. Downloaded the full paper and will be going over it. But either he has been reading my biophysical econ blogs (with my science papers in them) or, more likely, he too has seen the clear relationship between energy and wealth production (e.g. we both use a decay factor to show the decline of wealth as energy inputs decline). Thanks for the links.


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