How I see the years ahead

Regular readers of this blog should by now have figured out that I think the years ahead are not going to be “ever onward and upward”, but that our society instead is at a transition point where, for some period of time, we’re going to take a few steps backward from the world we know today.

The reasons for this are legion.

Every resource that is non-renewable (or renewable, but extracted at a rate faster than it can be replenished, like taking water from an underground aquifer more quickly than it refills) represents a finite amount that can be used.

That finite account, in turn, forms a spectrum from the easiest and cheapest to get access to, up to the most difficult and most expensive (in terms of money and energy) to extract.

We can call the first of these the “cheap” end. They’re the ones that require the least input for the output gained. Typically, these are also the ones most worth going after, since part of being “cheap” is often that you get a lot for the work you have to do, and the investment you have to make, to get at it at all.

Well, the passage of years, the increase in our population to 7,000,000,000+ human beings and our own appetites for more have slowly but surely chewed through and used up a great deal of the “cheap”, regardless of what resource we’re talking about.

The master resource, of course, is one that can be used to power other things. Burning peat, wood, coal, oil & gas, for instance. The energy that goes into getting it can be used to produce much more of the stuff to power other things.

Once again, we’ve used up a great deal of the “cheap” end of this spectrum. Trees in England became precious because most of the forests were gone — owning New England became worthwhile because it was filled with new ones (to build ships, and to get coal mining to the point where it became the commonplace fuel, supporting itself).

So it goes — until you reach a transition point. As the Saudi Oil Minister once noted, the Stone Age didn’t end because of a shortage of stone.

On the other hand, every new source of energy production we’ve discovered since oil & gas has produced less energy per unit invested in it than “cheap” oil & gas did.

Nuclear … wind … geothermal … solar … it doesn’t matter. None perform as well (or as flexibly) as do oil & gas.

For many years, too, none could compete on energy return for energy invested against coal, oil, and gas. In the early days of nuclear energy we didn’t worry about “what happens to the waste” or “what happens if” — yet coal-fired electrical plants kept being built instead of nuclear ones (and power systems that committed heavily to nuclear, like Washington’s Public Power Supply System, were bankrupted by the competition).

(An honest accounting of resource usage and pollution effects would rebalance these scale somewhat. But the result would simply raise the cost of energy from the “cheap” end of the hydrocarbon scale; it wouldn’t make the others cheaper.)

Running low on “cheap” is a transition moment.

With any other type of resource, we eventually hit a point — long before the last of it is used up (Easter Island’s complete deforestation excepted) — where it just doesn’t pay to get the last of it. That — not when we’ve completely run out — is the moment the resource is “exhausted”.

New technology can change the economics a little bit — supergene silver finds in Nevada that were considered played out in the late 19th century are now worth mining for the small bits that remain today — but the amount of energy that goes into doing so is far more per unit of resource obtained than it was in the earlier, “cheap” days.

All of which was fine as long as energy remained “cheap”. But it has not.

We drove to Disney World, lit up Las Vegas, ate at McDonalds, zoned our communities for one acre lots and school over here, work over there, shop somewhere else, and a hundred thousand other things that chewed through “cheap” energy, even while we exhausted all sorts of other “cheap”.

Well, unless you believe in magic (e.g. “cheap” fusion, wonderful finds, and the like) it’s time to face reality. We are going to have to adjust to less. Not only using less, but having less.

No growth? Well, there goes a financial system built on debt and growth to pay the interest (and occasionally retire the debt). Welcome back to repeated bouts of the long recessions of the 19th century, when gold was money, its amounts were mostly fixed, and growth had to be earned the hard way, not through just doing “more”.

Less energy? There goes scale — “cheap” energy makes it possible to project power and influence over larger scales (today, to the global scale); withdraw that, and choke debt’s ability to pull the future forward, and scale must contract in turn. The local once again can compete — and will — with the national and international.

What we have ahead of us is a series of crises, that act as stair-steps down, with intermittent periods that are holding actions. (The one place new invention can come into play is by deliberately under-consuming the plateaus and putting those resources into deploying the change — that is, if we have the right inventions to work with.)

So I’ve written about rail, because rail makes better use of energy than does road transport for getting around and getting goods around. It lets us plateau with less for longer (but we have to rebuild it, first, or else we’ll have neither.)

So I’ve written about communities and their revitalisation, because Main Street (the traditional model) works better for energy use and capital use than does big-box retail on the highway strip, and local merchants, manufacturers, etc. can make use of sources that aren’t worth a big enterprise’s time (e.g. a small local hydro plant producing just enough for a community). Otherwise we’ll have places to live that have neither WalMart nor the Main Street it destroyed.

So I’ve written about density and walkability, because that uses far less resources than does sprawl and the need for motorized travel. I’ve written about how to do things without needing masses of debt capital to be mobilized (because if it’s successful it’ll be bankrupted by a loan being called to bail out the lender for one more day: go back and read your Great Depression history if you disagree).

We took a step down — a small one — back in 2008. We’re about to step off another one. Then another, and another.

It’s a long descent down to the point where we live within our means.

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2 Comments

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  1. charltonestatetrust 08/09/2012 — 20:16

    intelligent post on collapse – well done!

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