The Ergosphere
Wednesday, April 06, 2005
 

What side are they on?

Everybody has biases.  The Republicans have biases.  The Democrats have biases.  Oil and coal company executives are biased.  Environmentalists are biased.  The P.C. contingent [spit] on the campus of my alma mater will deny they are biased because "multi-culturalists make no judgements and cannot be biased", but that in itself is a bias against the values of the majority society.

I'm biased.  There, that's out of the way.

There are differences between biases.  One can have biases which are based on (ranked from noble to ignoble) honest disagreement about the meaning of the facts, ignorance, or disregard for the facts.  The biases one carries are part and parcel of where one stands in the various conflicts in life:  which side you're on.

Biases can be overt.  I hope I've been honest if not completely explicit about my biases against pollution, economic foolishness like perverse incentives and counterproductive subsidies, dependence on foreign oil and our gas-pump financing of radical Islam, and for efficiency, nuclear power, alternative energy where appropriate, and better ways of doing things in general.  If you've missed this before, here it is; if you see me appearing to argue contrary to one of my positions above it's almost certainly because the devil is in the details and it's often very easy to miss one little thing and get the big thing badly wrong.  (See CAFE regulations.)

Hidden biases are another thing.  They are one of the trademarks of propaganda, and are often used to mislead.  They come in a dozen styles, but one is to gloss over or ignore facts which would lead others away from the propagandist's desired conclusion.  The desired conclusion may be one to compel action where none is desirable or warranted; contrarily, the desired conclusion may be that action is futile, inducing paralysis in the believers when something can and ought to be done.

Which brings me to the most recent newsletter of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil&Gas ("Life after oil", article #524, pp. 7-9).  This piece, excerpted by C.J. Campbell, appears to be largely taken from a 2003 book by William Stanton; it paints a future of England in 2050 which is powered by biomass in the form of wood.  According to the author, the maintenance of a "passable standard of living" would require about 230 tons of wood per person per year.  The resulting economic and social organization would yield a lifestyle which is "attractive for the survivors".

Survivors, you say?  Yes, survivors.  How many survivors?  About 2 million:  one-third of England's population in 1750, and one thirtieth of the population today.  Consider this carefully:  if one quarter of England's current population is now under the age of 20, eighty-seven percent of those people will have to be gone before the age of 65 for the population to drop to 2 million.  The alternatives:  leave the country (for where?) or die.  And there could be no births in the whole country for the next forty-five years, because for each baby somebody else would have to go.

The transition to a peaceful, stable and sustainable society would have to be done carefully.  A smooth evolution is essential; serious instability would destroy many of the resources that the future economy would depend on.  Does anyone in their right mind think that eighty-seven percent of the population is going to accept deportation or early demise quietly?  Can anyone believe that the kind of crisis (like a plague) which could do this without explicit violence would leave much behind?  Yet this kind of mess is left, implied but unstated, in the text.

What conclusion is the reader supposed to draw?  How about "Oh my god, sustainable society is just code for MASS DEATH!  We can't even think of going down that path!"  Or, "We can't live through the changes coming.  Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die."  In other words, action is futile.  The product:  paralysis.  Might as well go along with the status quo... enriching the current crop of oil barons.  They can't take it with them either, so it doesn't matter.  Does it?

Well, yes.  It does.

To avoid paralysis, it's essential to notice that the conclusion is only valid given the premises.  Minor premises are that there are no low-energy or renewable substitutes for steel and concrete, but the key premise in this case is that biomass (in the form of wood) is the best sustainable power source for a post-fossil society.

I'm going to take Stanton's key premise and examine it.  Is 230 tons of wood per capita per year a reasonable assumption, what would it take to get its energy equivalent without burning fossil fuel, and how much land would be required?

Assuming elm wood at 20 million BTU/cord (128 cubic feet), 23% void space and 35 pounds per cubic foot yields a heat product of ~5800 BTU per pound or ~3750 kWh per metric ton.  230 tons per capita per year comes out to 862,500 kWh/capita/year or an energy consumption of 98 kW equivalent.  That's average, not peak.  This is clearly a very high number, leading to an extremely pessimistic conclusion.

Is it warranted?  The average household in the US uses about 1 kW average, and industrial and commercial uses are only a few times that.  Net consumption of energy by cars and trucks is about 1/5 of total electric generation capacity.  It seems reasonable to set the actual per-capita energy needs of a decent society, not particularly optimized for efficiency, at 10 kW or less.  Boom, the sustainable population of a wood-burning England rises to something closer to 20 million.  You'd have to stop immigration yesterday, make sure the NHS doesn't keep old people alive too long and get birth control to everyone, but none of the under-20's have to go anywhere.  They can even have a few kids.

But is the assumption of a wood-burning England reasonable, even remotely?  I don't believe so.  Forests are not particularly good converters of solar energy to biomass; they use a great deal on housekeeping.  Grasses are certainly better.  But is biomass even among the top contenders?  Stanton's productivity figure of 8 dry tons per hectare per year leads to an average power capture of 30,000 kWh/ha/yr or 3.4 kW/ha.  This is a pitifully low figure.  If the average house has a footprint of 80 square meters, the roof is covered with PV cells at 15% efficiency and each square meter receives an average of 4 kWh of sunlight per day, the roof would produce 48 kWh/day or an average of 2 kW.  A hectare of these roofs would average 250 kW, or more than 70 times Stanton's assumption.  A city-full of solar roofs could easily be twenty times as productive as Stanton's proposed energy farms; a hectare could support the complete energy needs of 25 people, and the land Stanton would devote to a hamlet of 100 would be able to support the energy needs of 7500 people using a mere 10% of its 3000 hectares - much of which could be met by the light falling on buildings and roads.  (Boom, the sustainable energy production could support 150 million; food, fiber, materials and crowding would come into play first.)  It is clear that the assumption of a wood economy is not just unreasonable, it is ridiculous.

Stanton looks at materials as a difficulty; steel and concrete are big energy-hogs.  Well, maybe.  If iron oxide is available it can be reduced using carbon monoxide, which can be made from most anything carbonaceous; a net consumption of 50 kg/person/year could be satisfied with roughly the same weight of wood.  A population of 50 million would consume 2.5 million tons, using the wood grown on 312,000 hectares of tree farms.  (Electric reduction of iron salts to metal would slash this number immensely.)  And steel is not necessarily an essential material; composites made of carbon or organic fibers (graphite or Kevlar) in organic (epoxy) binders can replace it for many purposes, including the wind-turbine blades and towers that Stanton is so certain are non-renewable.

Building materials?  Consider structural insulated panels.  A house made of SIP's with 6 inch (~15 cm) foam cores and 5/16 inch (.8 cm) plywood or OSB skins would use about 11 kg of material per square meter of wall; a comfy 2 story 200 m^2 house might use about 700 m^2 of panels including floors (but no interior walls), or about 7.7 tons of wood and foam.  If all of that material comes from tree farms, that's about 1 house per hectare per year; if one person uses 1/80 of a house per year, the housing needs of 50 million people could be met from 625,000 ha of tree farms.  Between steel production and housing, tree farming would need roughly 1 million ha out of a total area that Stanton appears to count as 60 million hectares.

Is there cause for such pessimism as Stanton's?  I see a renewable future just as populous as the present, and a whole lot more technological and dynamic than he seems to.  The road there need not and should not involve any die-offs (warfare against dysfunctional societies bent on the conquest or destruction of the rest of the world being a possible exception).  It just requires the application of good science and a lot of cleverness.

Science and cleverness that Stanton and his fellow travellers paint as futile, and thus not worth the effort.

Which makes their scenario a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What side are they on, anyway?

 
Comments:
I think we've had this discussion before. The "side" they're on is their own millennialist religion. ASPO has its uses, but they're also prone to publishing chaff (and sometimes sewage) among the wheat.
 
Perhaps, but I haven't rebutted one of their disaster scenarios before, let alone dissected it in detail.

Maybe I should make a habit of this.  If refutations start appearing in the Google search results for ASPO, maybe they'll be chastened.  If not, then at least laughed at.
 
One question: how do you figure the average household in the US uses only 1 kW?
 
I'm glad you asked me that.

As you can see the rule holds pretty well for all parts of the US except the South, and would probably apply there as well if air conditioning was solar-powered.
 
I believe that in the late middle ages and the early renaissance, the shortage of wood was already raising grave concerns.

From some stuff I've read recently, it sounds like the crop with the most potential for conversion into fuel is sugar cane. This is already going on commercially in Brazil.
 
Note that sugar cane is a grass, as is bamboo.  Grasses are far more productive than trees.

The US has little land suitable for growing sugar cane, most of it in Florida; England appears to have none.  It's obvious that fuel from cane is not going to do much for either country.  It doesn't wean Brazil off imported oil despite the large amount of suitable land; IIRC only 30% of Brazil's motor-fuel needs are met by cane-derived alcohol.

My point is that higher plants make very inefficient use of sunlight, and one can get far greater "crop yields" using technologies like photovoltaics (or even single-celled algae).
 
And, of course, you didn't even factor in wind power, which isn't a silver bullet by any means but can play a big role in windswept places such as the British Isles.

Is there cause for alarm? Hell yes, and anyone who isn't clammoring for a large course correction in the trajectory of the world economy is stupid, selfish, or both. For the life of me, I don't understand why engineers aren't leading the charge; it would seem that revolutionizing the power infrastructure of the planet would raise the profile, influence and income of engineers for at least a generation. Maybe they care more about tending the systems they know than in working to save humanity.

But a lot of these Peak Oil types seem similarly misanthropic, gleefully rubbing their hands together at the thought of the coming apocalypse. They are at the bow of the Titanic and not only see the danger but are cheering on the iceberg.

There's gonna be a lot of dislocation as we move from a cheap-oil world to an expensive-oil world. But if we make the right choices--and make them soon enough--we'll come out on the other side with a better place all around.

--jlw
 
I can't think of any reasons why Britain would need to be energy self-sufficient unless someone is planning to throw a tight naval blockade around the island (in which case, the first thing to worry about would probably be food)

If sugar cane and other grasses are convertible to fuel with reasonable economics, they could represent a tremendous cash crop in tropical areas.
 
EP -- it's been rather a draining experience, but I guess you could learn something from this "exchange" between myself and one of the more homicidal groups out there, the horribly misnamed Anthropik. (They're missing the "mis", apparently.) They really don't understand that they're eco-fascists. We have to come up with technical solutions to the problem of oil depletion. Pretending we don't or that everything will be better without technology is just homicidal; what's worse is just how amoral these guys are.
 
Oh my, indeed.  But there is unintentional humor in such malignance; I laughed out loud at this little gem:

"My "cheering on the iceberg" ... has to do with ending the 10,000 years of madness and despair that began with the Neolithic."

I'm certain that the billions who enjoy modern medicine, electronics, and even sanitation will agree with him wholeheartedly.

Not.
 
I was going to post this analysis to http://anthropik.com/2005/04/on-optimism/, but their software identified me as a "nasty spammer".  (What URL was spammy; unh.edu or berkeley?)  Since the folks at anthropok.com don't seem to want to have an open discussion, I'm posting the analysis section here (balance of this comment is the bulk of The Post They Wouldn't Allow).

Feeding 9 billion people for 30 years needn't even be difficult.  (You'd only have to do it for about that long, because population will decline after the demographic transition has passed; in the long run and with a sufficiently prosperous world the problem solves itself.)

Take the UNH figures for algae productivity:  5 billion BTU/hectare/year.  (5 billion BTU is about 1.26 billion kilocalories, or food Calories [capital C]).

Assume conversion of algae to fish protein by tilapia.  This is between 10 and 25 percent efficient.  Assuming 10% efficiency, this yields 126 million kcal/ha/year.  If you used faster-growing, more efficient "livestock" such as shrimp you might be able to improve significantly on that.  For robustness' sake it would be worthwhile to farm a variety of algae and many different species of edible fish, arthropods (popcorn shrimp and Cajun crawfish, yum!) and perhaps chickens and rabbits; if any segment suffered a loss you could compensate by eating lower on the food chain until the problem was rectified.

If each person requires 3000 kcal/day (1.1 million kcal/year) and this entire amount is met with protein (which it wouldn't), each hectare would yield enough fish to feed at least 115 people.  Feeding 9 billion people could be done using less than 80 million hectares.

Current area in the US devoted to food crops is ~211 million hectares (~450 million acres); another 500 million acres is devoted to grazing.  In other words, a world of 9 billion people could be fed on algae-grazing fish from less than 40% of the area currently devoted to corn, wheat, soy and the like in the USA alone, and less than 20% of the total devoted to food production.

If it's possible to feed more than a hundred people with a hectare of algae pond, most of the cropland which currently feeds those same people would be surplus.  Getting more sophisticated has the potential to free up most of the Net Primary Productivity that humans are currently using, letting it be returned to nature.  If we assume for the sake of argument that we only reduce our usage to 40% of the current value, the 40% figure that you believe indicates imminent disaster would be reduced to 16% despite supporting a human population 50% greater than today's.  This figure would be made up by radically increasing the productivity of the land actually in use.

This analysis also ignores the potential of seasteading.  If you put 6 of those 9 billions into seasteads around the equator, their area devoted to growing algae for food would require a band only 13 kilometers wide (assuming the entire equator) or about 1/16 of the area in a band 200 km wide around the equator.  Given that much of the equator is in parts of the ocean where there is no upwelling and which are rather unproductive as a consequence, farming algae would radically increase the total productivity of the oceans (again).  This would cut the continental population to 3 billion and slash the demand on land-based NPP to less than 6% of the current total.
 
According to http://earthtrends.wri.org/text/energy-resources/variable-351.html,
the power use per capita in 2001 was ca 4.5 kW in UK and ca 9.1 kW in USA. Of course most of us can live on a fraction of that - in a different manner. Indians and Chinese did it on ca. 0.25 kW. (same source, 2001).

We can 'survive', but can our 'stock market' economy.?
 
Of course.  While command economies like the former Soviet Union were driven by consumption (engine manufacturers were compensated by the amount of metal they used, not the quality or efficiency of their product!), market economies benefit from efficiencies.

Read this Primary Energy piece for some insights into how much useful energy could be created from what's currently going to waste.
 
one of the more homicidal groups out there, the horribly misnamed Anthropik. (They're missing the "mis", apparently.)

I guess that's the problem of addressing more advanced issues before covering the basics. You see, it's our contention that it is civilization that is dehumanizing and misanthropic. Thus, we are in favor of humanity--we are "anthropic"--in that we are great proponents of the human animal, and wish to see the human animal prosper.

It is Bentham's goal, "the greatest good for the greatest number." It is a well known mathematical fact that you cannot maximize for two goals simultaneously. You wish to maximize for the greatest number; we, for the greatest good. Your efforts are laudable, but I'm afraid I find them unrealistic.

I'm certain that the billions who enjoy modern medicine, electronics, and even sanitation will agree with him wholeheartedly.

In the Thirty Theses I'm currently writing on my site, I'll be addressing just these kinds of issues. I would argue that we do not enjoy electronics or sanitation in and of themselves, but what they provide for us--that is, largely, entertainment, and greater health, respectively.

Yet the health benefits of greater sanitation is more than outweighed by our diet, lifestyle and the dawn of epidemic disease--making the balance of civilization's effects on our health intensely negative. As for electronics, it seems to me that the replacement of the television for the tribal campfire is a poor substitute for unmediated, personal experience--that there is far more entertainment in living a tribal life, than playing with electronic toys.

Your point on medicine is the strongest, but even that evaporates in the face of cross-cultural examination. Every culture has their varying "ethnomedicine" that they believe to be the most effective, yet they all end up being roughly equal in efficacy, and most of that due to placebo. This includes our own medicine. As a small piece of anecdotal support, I went camping this weekend with a group of friends, and we struck camp near a bee hive. Several people were stung. Some brought modern medicines for such an occasion; I made poultices of mud and chewed plantain leaves. We had roughly half a dozen cases to compare, and consistently those who used the mud and plantain poultices experienced less swelling and less pain than those who relied on store-bought, over-the-counter treatments.

This is not an argument that biomedicine is ineffective, mind you. Rather, I am arguing that most ethnomedicines--including ours--are equally effective. So, the question is, is it biomedicine specifically that you enjoy, or not being sick? If it is biomedicine itself, then civilization is required; if you simply don't want to be sick or in pain, then there are any number of equally-effective alternatives.

Since the folks at anthropok.com don't seem to want to have an open discussion, I'm posting the analysis section here

That isn't fair at all. Spam Karma 1 had some well-documented problems, and we have just recieved over 100 genuine spam comments from Berkley. I contacted you personally by email to work out the issue, and spent quite a bit of time fixing my Spam Karma settings in order to get your comments up. How can you say that I'm not interested in a discussion, when I went out of my way to provide a venue for your detractions and criticisms, even in the midst of painting me as a homicidal maniac?

At any rate, I think your argument misses the point entirely. I will grant that there may be some radical technologies that would allow 9 billion people sufficient food with ease. This actually supports the case I made in my original article that Rob critiqued, "The Opposite of Malthus." It speaks to Daniel Quinn's idea of the "Food Race." Population rises as a function of food supply, so there is no systemic Malthusian catastrophe. Feeding 9 billion people should not be a problem; if it were a problem, we wouldn't have 9 billion to feed in the first place.

The problem is that people do more than eat. They also shit, sleep, breathe, and consume all manner of other resources. Our share of the earth's photosynthetic capacity and other resources is constantly going up. Jevons' Paradox states that any new technology which finds a more efficient way of exploiting a resource will result in more, not less, consumption of that resource. If this continues to hold--as it has for hundreds of years--then that fairly effectively roles out the possibility of a technological fix, as any increase in efficiency will make the problem worse, not better.

And why not? It is a systemic problem with its roots in the Agricultural Revolution. Why should we expect an easy, techno-fix to show itself like some Deus ex Machina in the final act? Simply because we need a miracle does not mean that it must suddenly materialize.

An optimist is one who finds opportunity in every obstacle--not one who tries to downplay the obstacles she faces. By that, I believe I am an optimist, but I do not believe you are. I believe you are trying to ignore the facts, because they are so deeply disturbing.

And deeply disturbing they are, indeed. I cannot blame you for not wanting to face them. Who would? We will soon face the most terrible ordeal any animal has ever had to face--10,000 years of comeuppance, all paid off at once. Key to retaining my sanity was to relinquish my delusions of godhood, to stop thinking in terms of how I have to "save" everyone, that I was needed or even wanted in such a messianic role. Instead, I simply look to myself and those close to me. I warn who I can of what's coming, so they can look to themselves and those close to them. In so doing, I believe I am helping save as many people as can be saved. Because ultimately, every individual will have a choice--remain a part of the culture you grew up in and die, or create a new culture and survive. Unfortunately, nearly everyone will choose to die--but that's not something I can do anything about. It's their choice to make, not mine. To try to deny them that choice would be as wrong as to send bombs to them in the mail, and choose for them the other way, or to "come out shooting," as Rob suggested.

Rob and engineer-poet, you're both obviously brilliant, and the work you're doing is good and important. But I think you focus on minutiae and miss the "big picture"--leaving you polishing the brass on the Titanic, as it were. That's unfortunate, I think, but it is your choice to make, not mine. I wish you luck in what is ultimately, I think, a futile endeavor. I write here only to offer some representation for the views being dismissed, and to provide some evidence that Rob's charicature of myself and primitivism in general may be somewhat too two-dimensional to accurately reflect reality.
 
"That isn't fair at all. Spam Karma 1 had some well-documented problems, and we have just recieved over 100 genuine spam comments from Berkley."

And your spam-catcher would not tell me what it didn't like, and this was posted before there was any response from you.  (For all I knew, it could have been some innocent word which happened to get into a badly-tuned Bayesian filter... or was put there deliberately, like "democracy" or "Tibet".  Oops, got this thread banned in China.)

Lesson for you:  Use good software, because outsiders cannot always tell the difference between bugs and policy.

"The problem is that people do more than eat. They also shit, sleep, breathe, and consume all manner of other resources. Our share of the earth's photosynthetic capacity and other resources is constantly going up. Jevons' Paradox states that any new technology which finds a more efficient way of exploiting a resource will result in more, not less, consumption of that resource."

Jevon's Paradox is built upon the assumption that consumption can increase.  If production of oil is limited by geology, it is obviously impossible for consumption of oil to increase as a consequence of greater efficiency; the only thing that can happen is that the abandonment of oil is delayed.  So long as this would soften the disruption, this is a good thing.

A large fraction of humanity doesn't consume much more than their basic biological needs.  They shit?  Gobar-gas digesters can turn turds into cooking fuel, eliminating the need to gather and burn wood.  Increasing the efficiency of shit utilization would boost the demand for shit.  The effluent would make good fertilizer, and the process would probably kill lots of pathogens.  Hey, isn't that great?

As a final example, consider the sunlight that beats down on roofs today.  Our efficiency of utilizing it is low and the cost is high; as a consequence, most of it goes to waste.  Boosting the watts/$ of solar would lead to an increase in its utilization.  You think this is a problem?  I think you're crazy.

"It is Bentham's goal, "the greatest good for the greatest number." It is a well known mathematical fact that you cannot maximize for two goals simultaneously. You wish to maximize for the greatest number... "

Wrong.  I never said that.  I think it's possible, given prompt action and informed strategies, to get the world population through its coming peak without massive die-offs.  (We'd have some anyway in places like Zimbabwe, but they'd be failures of politics then as now.)

If humanity decides not to limit itself to this globe, 9 billion will be a rather small number.  The material from one medium-sized comet could build a biosphere for millions of people.  Dozens of comets transit the inner solar system every year, and they are but a few representatives of a much larger number.

Will the humanity of 2100 decide to spread itself around?  That's for them to decide, not me and certainly not you.

"... we, for the greatest good."

How many billions have to die so you can achieve your "greatest good"?  (And you wonder why people compare you to Nazis and otherwise find you contemptible....)

"Yet the health benefits of greater sanitation is more than outweighed by our diet, lifestyle and the dawn of epidemic disease--making the balance of civilization's effects on our health intensely negative."

Which is why life expectancies are now the shortest they've ever been in historical record...

Oh, wait.  They're now the longest.  Can't you get anything right?

"Every culture has their varying "ethnomedicine" that they believe to be the most effective, yet they all end up being roughly equal in efficacy, and most of that due to placebo."

If that's so, then why do people around the world turn to Western cures for malaria, leishmaniasis and cancer?  Is having sex with a virgin as effective as western drug cocktails as a treatment for AIDS?  Is there any treatment that can even get FDA approval without proving itself to be better than placebo?  (I'll clue you in:  No.)

"Population rises as a function of food supply..."

Which must be why the native US population, in a time of unparalleled availability of food (to the point where exports aren't sufficient to deal with the surplus, we have to pay to have some of it converted into vehicle fuel), is below replacement fertility.  US population would be shrinking if it weren't for immigration.

So to sum up:  you're wrong about the facts, you're wrong about chains of causation, and you're as gleeful about the prospect of billions of deaths as either of two bloodthirsty 20th century dictators.  You'd reduce those billions to a statistic without a shred of regret, because they're in the way of your "greatest good".

Words fail.
 
Lesson for you: Use good software, because outsiders cannot always tell the difference between bugs and policy.

At that point in time, I was being flooded with hundreds of spam messages a day, and Spam Karma was the best filter available. They've since upgraded. But, so long as the record has been corrected and there's an acknowledgement here that your response was premature, I am satisfied.

Jevon's Paradox is built upon the assumption that consumption can increase. If production of oil is limited by geology, it is obviously impossible for consumption of oil to increase as a consequence of greater efficiency; the only thing that can happen is that the abandonment of oil is delayed. So long as this would soften the disruption, this is a good thing.

My understanding is that it would be an increase in demand--whether or not that demand can be met is a different question altogether. How would greater demand for oil delay the abandonment of oil?

A large fraction of humanity doesn't consume much more than their basic biological needs. They shit? Gobar-gas digesters can turn turds into cooking fuel, eliminating the need to gather and burn wood. Increasing the efficiency of shit utilization would boost the demand for shit. The effluent would make good fertilizer, and the process would probably kill lots of pathogens. Hey, isn't that great?

You're vastly underestimating the resources an individual requires if you think they can be simply iterated.

As a final example, consider the sunlight that beats down on roofs today. Our efficiency of utilizing it is low and the cost is high; as a consequence, most of it goes to waste. Boosting the watts/$ of solar would lead to an increase in its utilization. You think this is a problem? I think you're crazy.

Passive solar is a great source of energy. But to pretend it can get us out of our current jam is a fantasy. Even harnessing all the solar energy in the world--consuming 100% of the earth's photosynthetic capacity--would not provide us with the energy we require. In the meantime, it would wipe out every green plant and all life on earth, since no sunlight would be left over for them.

Wrong. I never said that. I think it's possible, given prompt action and informed strategies, to get the world population through its coming peak without massive die-offs. (We'd have some anyway in places like Zimbabwe, but they'd be failures of politics then as now.)

So you agree that a smaller human population would be better, yes? You would just prefer the "soft landing" scenario to the massive die-off? I think most anyone would--myself included. A laudable goal, to be sure, but I've largely given up on it as impossible.

If humanity decides not to limit itself to this globe, 9 billion will be a rather small number. The material from one medium-sized comet could build a biosphere for millions of people. Dozens of comets transit the inner solar system every year, and they are but a few representatives of a much larger number.

My girlfriend paints this as the best hope that our opponents can muster: becoming the alien invaders from Independence Day as we go from world to world, stripping it of every conceivable resource before we move on to the next. We both agree that such a vision seems even bleaker than a massive die-off.

How many billions have to die so you can achieve your "greatest good"? (And you wonder why people compare you to Nazis and otherwise find you contemptible....)

No, I understand it quite well. But there's an enormous difference between the active commission of such a genocide, and simply accepting the inevitable and trying to get out from under it. At the moment, some 6 billion will die. For every bit that the collapse is delayed, we can add on that many more to the death count. The longer it takes in coming, the worse it will be when it finally does. So, what's the "right" thing to do? Do nothing as something horrible happens? Or try to stop it, and thus ensure that something even more horrible happens instead? It seems fairly clear to me that a massive die-off is the least of several evils we have to choose from. It doesn't help me sleep at night, really, but the alternative would be even worse.

Which is why life expectancies are now the shortest they've ever been in historical record...

Oh, wait. They're now the longest. Can't you get anything right?


The longest on historical record, yes. But not the longest ever. Our Mesolithic ancestors lived longer than we did. We've only come close to closing that gap in the past century. The Agricultural Revolution saw a massive drop-off in quality of life across the board, with an arc back up, approaching an asymptote slightly lower than the static line of Paleolithic quality of life. The resulting graph looks rather like a backwards square root symbol.

If that's so, then why do people around the world turn to Western cures for malaria, leishmaniasis and cancer? Is having sex with a virgin as effective as western drug cocktails as a treatment for AIDS? Is there any treatment that can even get FDA approval without proving itself to be better than placebo? (I'll clue you in: No.)

If 75% of a drug's effectiveness is due to placebo, that's better than placebo--it also means that most of its efficacy is due to placebo. The two statements are not mutually exclusive, and you're quite right, our treatments are better than placebo. As are the treatments of any ethnomedicine. Having sex with virgins to cure AIDS is not traditional ethnomedicine; it is the result of very recent cultural syncretism. On the other hand, the chewing of willow bark was dismissed for centuries. Until it became the basic ingredient for the single most effective drug we've ever come up with: aspirin.

Which must be why the native US population, in a time of unparalleled availability of food (to the point where exports aren't sufficient to deal with the surplus, we have to pay to have some of it converted into vehicle fuel), is below replacement fertility. US population would be shrinking if it weren't for immigration.

The average piece of food you ate today traveled 1,500 miles to reach you, and you expect the cause and effect to be observable on a local scale? The geographical distribution of the food supply, and the population growth, is shifted around, primarily by social complexity and ecological footprint. That doesn't change the fact that every time global food supply goes up, global population goes up accordingly.

So to sum up: you're wrong about the facts, you're wrong about chains of causation, and you're as gleeful about the prospect of billions of deaths as either of two bloodthirsty 20th century dictators. You'd reduce those billions to a statistic without a shred of regret, because they're in the way of your "greatest good".

Wow. You couldn't possibly have gotten that more wrong. My facts remain unchallenged, as does my chain of causation, since your "corrections" were, themselves, wholly incorrect. As for "gleeful" and the "greatest good" .... wow. It certainly shows that you've never met me. I'm not forcing anyone to do anything. I'm seeing to me and mine, nothing more. Hell, I even appreciate the work you're doing (as vain as I think it will be, it definitely shows your heart is in the right place--if not your head). This is the single greatest tribulation that any animal has ever faced, and we're the generation damned to face it. But if we can't find some silver lining to it, some way to make something good out of it, then it's just so much death and misery. We can salvage something good out of this. So, while you strive in vain to stave off the inevitable, I'll be making sure that if you fail (I think it's more like "when," but you're quite brilliant, so I'll give you the benefit of the doubt here), it won't mean the end of the entire human race.
 
Taking issues in turn:

"My understanding is that it would be an increase in demand--whether or not that demand can be met is a different question altogether."

Go back to your micro-econ (if you ever took any).  Given a commodity market (and petroleum will remain a commodity for quite a while), demand always meets supply at some price.

"How would greater demand for oil delay the abandonment of oil?"

Since you're having trouble with this concept I'll lay it out in simple steps:
1.  Greater efficiency means that more can be accomplished with a given amount of the scarce good.
2.  More accomplished for a given amount means the fraction of expense due to the scarce good is smaller.
3.  Smaller fraction of expense means that the price can be bid higher before it becomes uneconomical to use the scarce good.
4.  A greater limiting price means that it's worth more effort to produce the scarce good.  For instance, a combination of high demand for oil and inexpensive solar power (probably a contradiction, but bear with me) could lead Saudi Arabia to make large solar farms to get the energy to pump oil at an EROEI near or even less than 1.  Desert nations have a comparative advantage in solar power, but it travels poorly; using lots of cheap solar power to pump expensive oil might pay.

My own thinking on the subject is that solar + batteries replaces petroleum anywhere the sun shines reliably, and ditto wind, hydro or anything else.  A battery breakthrough is sufficient to double or triple the efficiency of petroleum use, and once the pathway from oil well to wheels goes through the electrical grid it is feasible to use wind, solar or nuclear to replace oil.  At some price point people buy e.g. solar panels instead of gasoline and the demand for oil collapses.

I want this to happen, because I believe Wahhabi Islam is evil and I want it bankrupted.  The peaceful way to do this is to collapse world demand for oil by giving people something that does the same job for less money.

"You're vastly underestimating the resources an individual requires if you think they can be simply iterated."

I'm not iterating them, I'm showing how the treatment of humans as part of an ecosystem shows how your limitations can be sidestepped.  Ingenuity pays huge dividends.

I would argue that ingenuity be bent toward creating solutions which require skills and education to operate.  Education is key to reducing population growth, and making it essential for meeting daily needs forces people to do more than sit around at night and make babies.

"Passive solar is a great source of energy."

I did not mention the word "passive".

"Even harnessing all the solar energy in the world [1]--consuming 100% of the earth's photosynthetic capacity[2]--would not provide us with the energy we require."

I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt here, and treat you as if you're merely ignorant for conflating 1 and 2 - which could not be more different - instead of calling you a rhetorical trickster intent on dishonestly convincing people that there is no alternative to a die-off.  Because it is a rhetorical trick, it is dishonest, and there is an alternative.

The world's photosynthetic capacity is rather low, because most of it is done by higher plants and higher plants have better things to do than turn every last erg their leaves capture into biomass.  They're rather sophisticated things and they've got to swap for nutrients, defend against predators, watch their water supply and a lot more.  Blue-green algae and other water-borne phytoplankton are far more efficient because they have unlimited water, grab whatever nutrients waft by, and deal with predation more by reproducing fast than trying to be difficult to eat.  I understand that their efficiency can run into the tens of percent; that's what makes the UNH biodiesel scheme so land-efficient.  And that's before you get out of bio-conversion and into human tech.

Let's consider the US alone.  According to the Energy Information Administration, the USA used just about 100 quads (quadrillion BTU) of energy from oil, coal, gas, nuclear, wind, wood, geothermal, and all the other sources we consider "energy".  That's about 11.3 kilowatts (thermal) per capita or 3.33 terawatts, 24/7/365.  Most of the coal (23 quads) was converted to electricity at about 33% efficiency, a lot of the oil (39 quads?) went into vehicles at somewhere between 14% and 40% depending, and all the nuclear and wind went to feeding the grid.  The world as a whole uses about 400 quads total.

400 quads a year is chump change.

One recent study found that the world's wind power potential at 80 meters above ground is 72 terawatts.  That's electric, amounting to about 210 terawatts-thermal after conversion losses.  210 TW thermal is 6,280 quads per year, roughly 20 times the total energy consumption of the US and enough to supply 6 billion at US consumption rates right there... and that's just wind.

Wind is just solar energy after being put through the atmospheric heat engine; it's much more efficient to tap it directly.  For instance, a square meter of ground around mid-Kansas gets 1,550 kWh of solar radiation in the average year (other areas of the world get quite a bit more but I'm being conservative).  Quantum-dot cells using multiple-exciton generation may raise PV efficiency to between 60% and 65% someday, but let's assume that we don't have those and we're stuck with either silicon photovoltaic cells at 13%-17% or solar concentrators heating Stirling engines at 30%.  We have both of these today.

At 1550 kWh/m^2/yr of solar radiation and 15% efficiency, a square meter yields 232.5 kWh/year of electricity.  Getting 100 quads of energy out of PV cells would take 126 billion square meters of area, or 48,600 square miles.  This is less than 1% of the land area of the USA.  You could cut it in half using 30% dish collectors instead of 15% PV cells, you can cut the area needed to supply electricity by around 2/3 again (because it's produced as electricity and you don't have 2/3 conversion losses), you may be able to cut the area needed to supply transportation by more like a factor of 5... I could go on.

And you'd still have the wind.  And biomass byproducts of agriculture and forestry.  And possibly biogenic hydrogen, or solar photolytic hydrogen, or a number of other things that are in the labs but not yet on store shelves.

So let's return to your words:  "Even harnessing all the solar energy in the world ... would not provide us with the energy we require."  Do you comprehend yet how utterly ignorant that claim is, and how absurdly wrong you've gone by believing it?  If you're the victim of some charlatan instead of your own miscalculations, do the world a favor and do something nasty and publicly humiliating to him.

"So you agree that a smaller human population would be better, yes?"

Probably, if you're just talking about this planet.  An ever-growing population of peasants appears to create nothing but biomass; I want a world with room for lots and lots of nature as well as art, music, and genius and beauty of all kinds.  Of course, an off-earth population of a trillion would probably have a far greater total amount of genius and beauty; only the earth proper is limited to a handful of billions, and human ingenuity may find a way to make more nature on worlds like Mars.  It seems that our little problem with greenhouse gases here could be an engineering solution there.

"My girlfriend paints this as the best hope that our opponents can muster: becoming the alien invaders from Independence Day as we go from world to world, stripping it of every conceivable resource before we move on to the next."

Goodness, you both look at things with a jaundiced eye.  Consider a spacefaring civilization composed of neo-Zionists, devoted to bringing dead worlds to life as a logical outgrowth of the greening of the former deserts of Israel.  Would you condemn them?

"But there's an enormous difference between the active commission of such a genocide, and simply accepting the inevitable and trying to get out from under it."

Accepting it as inevitable without examining the premise is wrong.  If the premise of inevitability is wrong, you have acquiesced to a great evil.  And suppose it can't be forestalled entirely, but you can reduce its scale.  Suppose that development X would change the sustainable population from 600 million to 1.2 billion; developments Y and Z similarly double the sustainable population over the possibility without them.  Any of them would increase your own chances by leaving less to "get out from under", and all 3 of them would pretty much give you a guarantee of making it.  Oh, and everyone you know too.

What's your excuse for not putting effort into X, Y and Z?  Effort in this case can be as trivial as making sure people know about them, so those with the necessary insights and expertise start working on them and maybe make them happen.

Are you so suicidal that you don't want that bullet to miss?

"Our Mesolithic ancestors lived longer than we did."

Did they, now?  I thought they did things like leaving old people on ice floes, and exactly what did they do about infectious diseases anyway?  What was their infant mortality like?  IIRC the San people need about 4 births/woman to maintain population, so they're losing about half before adulthood.  That's not my idea of utopia.

"The average piece of food you ate today traveled 1,500 miles to reach you, and you expect the cause and effect to be observable on a local scale?"

I'm looking at it on a national scale, on which 1500 miles isn't all that large.  1500 miles on an electrified rail network isn't all that energy-intensive either, and can be entirely fossil-free.  (Back of envelope:  our freight railroads are using well under 400 BTU of fuel per ton-mile, and their diesels are probably about 45% efficient.  180 BTU/ton-mile * 1500 miles = 270,000 BTU/ton, or about 40 watt-hours per pound.  Moving a pound of lettuce 1500 miles with solar PV energy at 25¢/kWh would cost about a penny.  A penny more for lettuce... man, there's a tragedy.  NOT!)

"That doesn't change the fact that every time global food supply goes up, global population goes up accordingly."

In that case, warming-induced droughts across the Midwest will start reversing it post haste.

"You couldn't possibly have gotten that more wrong."

That statement is the second-best irony of my year so far.

"My facts remain unchallenged, as does my chain of causation, since your "corrections" were, themselves, wholly incorrect."

And that's the first.  Learn to do a little research instead of just re-arranging your prejudices; if you don't find things that make you sit back and go "Hmmm" you're not doing research yet, and if you can't be troubled to do math you're never going to be able to hear anything except the reverberations in your doomsayer's echo chamber.
 
Go back to your micro-econ (if you ever took any). Given a commodity market (and petroleum will remain a commodity for quite a while), demand always meets supply at some price.

Right ... but in the case of necessaries, the mechanisms by which that occurs are not always pretty. As Tainter pointed out, collapse is, above all, an economizing process. Sure, the market will correct for the shortfall. It may take 6 billion deaths, but the market will correct for it.

Your outline of how greater efficiency could save is all logically sound, except for the fact that it never works that way. That's Jevons' Paradox: overall demand will go up, not down. So what will be cut? All the extra things we want to do with the more efficient petroleum usage, or food for the Third World? My guess would be food for the Third World.

I want this to happen, because I believe Wahhabi Islam is evil and I want it bankrupted. The peaceful way to do this is to collapse world demand for oil by giving people something that does the same job for less money.

I don't disagree with that, and a move away from petroleum in the United States--even if only for those reasons--would be a wonderful thing to see. But I'm not sure how feasible your plan is. Would the batteries by storing solar energy? Wind is simply solar by other means--relying on the differential heating of the earth by passive solar. Much energy is lost in each conversion, but even if you harvested every last watt of solar power that reaches the earth at perfect efficiency, you'd have 10e22 J per day. You wouldn't have any plants, animals, oxygen or life, but you'd have 10e22 J per day. So, how many Joules do we use per day in petroleum? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure it's more than that.

I'm not iterating them, I'm showing how the treatment of humans as part of an ecosystem shows how your limitations can be sidestepped. Ingenuity pays huge dividends.

Not really--ingenuity is actually pretty limited, I think. We can innovate on scale, but very rarely do we innovate in kind. Oddly enough, I thought I was the one treating humans as part of an ecosystem--and you were not. As part of an ecosystem, humans are nodes in a complex system with needs that can only be generalized as "resources." Many of them aren't even entirely material: space, complexity itself, etc. Our population rises as a function of food supply, yet food is not our only need. For instance, we need biodiversity to maintain our food supply--yet our increasing population must make serious cuts into biodiversity. Should we affect the earth's ecology too much, we may find that food supply catastrophically ripped out from under us once the ongoing Holocene Extinction wipes out our staples. That, to my mind, is thinking of humans as part of an ecosystem. The belief that we are somehow made immune by the magic of innovation seems like the opposite to me.

I would argue that ingenuity be bent toward creating solutions which require skills and education to operate. Education is key to reducing population growth, and making it essential for meeting daily needs forces people to do more than sit around at night and make babies.

This is a conflation of correlation and causation, as surely as the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster's stance on pirates and global warming. More complex societies require more education, because they're more complex and thus more difficult to understand. More complex societies also reduce the ROI of child-bearing, by increasing the costs required to raise a child. So, higher education and lower birthrate are both results of greater complexity.

However, complex societies also pass a point of diminishing returns, after which they become increasingly expensive to maintain. They must then externalize their costs to maintain their complexity. Those costs can only be externalized to less complex societies. So, if we do succeed in making those societies which are not now as complex as us, as complex as us, then we will have succeeded in cutting our base out from under us--and we will become the less complex society, to which they will externalize their costs. Thus, the overall arrangement is also a result of complexity. The geographical distribution can be rearranged in any way you prefer, but the relationships are immutable. If you lower Mali's birthrate, you'll only raise it accordingly somewhere else.

I did not mention the word "passive".

No you didn't, but the solar energy being wasted on your rooftop is passive solar.

Because it is a rhetorical trick, it is dishonest, and there is an alternative.

Uhm .... the sun puts out a certain amount of energy, which radiates in all directions. Some small fraction of that happens to fall on earth. It's my understanding that that amount of energy is the "photosynthetic capacity" of the planet. Capacity usually indicates the highest possible limit. How it's actually apportioned would seem to be a very different thing. Your refutation is certainly irrefutable, but I fail so see how it relates to the idea of photosynthetic capacity.

One recent study found that the world's wind power potential at 80 meters above ground is 72 terawatts. That's electric, amounting to about 210 terawatts-thermal after conversion losses. 210 TW thermal is 6,280 quads per year, roughly 20 times the total energy consumption of the US and enough to supply 6 billion at US consumption rates right there... and that's just wind.

Hmmm ... OK, but how do you get that to power all the transportation we need? How do you put that into a tractor? How does that help replace the petrochemicals we use for plastics and fertilizers?

But, I'll take your argument for granted. I was wrong; we could get more energy from the sun than we currently use in oil.

Wind is just solar energy after being put through the atmospheric heat engine; it's much more efficient to tap it directly. For instance, a square meter of ground around mid-Kansas gets 1,550 kWh of solar radiation in the average year (other areas of the world get quite a bit more but I'm being conservative). Quantum-dot cells using multiple-exciton generation may raise PV efficiency to between 60% and 65% someday, but let's assume that we don't have those and we're stuck with either silicon photovoltaic cells at 13%-17% or solar concentrators heating Stirling engines at 30%. We have both of these today.

And a few decades ago, we were already using 40% of the earth's total photosynthetic capacity, just from all the farmland. In addition to those, for every square meter of ground you set up with these solar panels, that's a square meter where nothing's growing. Seems like a sure-fire plan to break 50%. We're already in the middle of the single worst mass extinction in the history of the planet; what will happen when more than half of all the energy the planet gets from the sun is taken up by one species? I don't know, but the thought of it scares the hell out of me--seems like there'd be a lot of catastrophic tipping points there.

An ever-growing population of peasants appears to create nothing but biomass; I want a world with room for lots and lots of nature as well as art, music, and genius and beauty of all kinds.

How could a complex society, with its cost costantly increasing, afford to leave any possible resource untapped for very long? I want to see lots of nature, too; as well as art, music, and genius and beauty of all kinds. These things have, in the past, always been antithetical to complex society--and they seem to be, by definition, mutually exclusive options. Complexity has a cost, and that cost is always increasing. It's a marginal return curve. If we can get all the energy we have now just by covering 1% of the United States with solar panels, why not double our energy and only cover 2%? Then the population rises to the new level, and we'll increase it to 4%. It won't take very long then before solar panels cover so much of the surface that plant species are going extinct, the oxygen in the atmosphere plummets, and we all suffocate on our own breath.

And, like the Oxygen Holocaust (I'm not calling it that, the name was dubbed long before me), the mutants with carbon dioxide processing gills will inherit the earth.

Of course, an off-earth population of a trillion would probably have a far greater total amount of genius and beauty; only the earth proper is limited to a handful of billions, and human ingenuity may find a way to make more nature on worlds like Mars. It seems that our little problem with greenhouse gases here could be an engineering solution there.

All a matter of context; what's good in one context is terrible in another. But do you really want to see what we've wrought on earth exported around the galaxy? Even if the idea of galactic homogeneity does not disturb you, do you think that a system as complex as a planetary ecology might yield some unexpected consequences when we start trying to make it just like our planet?

Goodness, you both look at things with a jaundiced eye. Consider a spacefaring civilization composed of neo-Zionists, devoted to bringing dead worlds to life as a logical outgrowth of the greening of the former deserts of Israel. Would you condemn them?

Yes! Every empire has spread espousing such noble goals, and all have brought naught but suffering in their wake. If our view is jaundiced, it's only because we've studied too much history to be fooled by the pretty lies and propaganda anymore.

What's your excuse for not putting effort into X, Y and Z? Effort in this case can be as trivial as making sure people know about them, so those with the necessary insights and expertise start working on them and maybe make them happen.

Because I don't know about them. But if this is your case, then I've been doing precisely as you advocate for some time--and to audiences you and those like you could never reach. You will find permaculture as a frequent topic of discussion at Anthropik, for example, and while I am skeptical of its ability to feed 6.5 billion, I have often advocated it for personal adoption as a significant improvement over what we're doing now.

Did they, now? I thought they did things like leaving old people on ice floes, and exactly what did they do about infectious diseases anyway? What was their infant mortality like? IIRC the San people need about 4 births/woman to maintain population, so they're losing about half before adulthood. That's not my idea of utopia.

Not sure where you're getting that from, but there's a significant complicating factor in that foragers tend to have no problem with infanticide. What would happen to our average lifespan, if it were measured by a group that included aborted fetuses in the count? That's where the infant mortality numbers come from. If you correct for that, then their lifespans end up being as long as, and sometimes a little longer, than those of us in the modern West. As for leaving the old to die, I have no idea what you're talking about there. I don't know of any examples, though I'm sure it happened from time to time--everything happens from time to time, and we can certainly find plenty of examples of euthanasia today, as well. I do know of many, many examples of the elderly, the sick and the lame being well-cared for and dying of natural causes, after which they were given a very dignified burial. As for utopia, it's certainly not. The word doesn't just mean, "Good Place," it also means "No Place." This wasn't utopian, it was just a system that worked with human nature--rather than trying to deny it. If it looks like utopia to some, it's only by comparison to our current state of affairs. I'm not proposing this as a utopia; I'm proposing this as a vast improvement.

'm looking at it on a national scale, on which 1500 miles isn't all that large. 1500 miles on an electrified rail network isn't all that energy-intensive either, and can be entirely fossil-free.

It's an average, though. Some of your food is probably local; other foods come from entirely different continents. My point was not the energy problems involved in that transport, but the fact that in such a world, expecting the food-population dynamic to play out on a local scale is just silly.

In that case, warming-induced droughts across the Midwest will start reversing it post haste.

Very likely, yes.

And that's the first. Learn to do a little research instead of just re-arranging your prejudices; if you don't find things that make you sit back and go "Hmmm" you're not doing research yet, and if you can't be troubled to do math you're never going to be able to hear anything except the reverberations in your doomsayer's echo chamber.

I regularly find things that make me sit back and go "Hmmmm." There was nothing new in your first reply, and what there was, were things I already knew and which fit very easily into my argument. They were not refutations. This reply did teach me a good deal, though. I must confess, I'm neither a physicist nor an engineer; my education was in anthropology, and in computer science. I'll need to consider this new data point--that we have more energy from the sun than we use in oil--and think on it, to figure out how it fits in with the other data points I've collected over the years. I'm not sure it'll be a wave of the magic wand that will make me completely agree with every stance you take (frankly, I doubt that very much), but I have learned something from you today. Thank you for that.
 
I thought they did things like leaving old people on ice floes
I'm not sure it's a good idea for me to cut in on this debate, but I believe you're talking about the Inuit. The widely held belief that they coldly leave their elders on ice floes to die stems from the occasional practice of elderly suicide. In times of scarcity, the elders who could no longer contribute would sometimes choose to kill themselves - sometimes by sailing away on ice floes. Elders only chose to do this in extremely desperate situations, and the community would usually try to convince them not to. (The elders of the Inuit were highly respected and revered.) In some Inuit bands, it never happened at all. Like most things involving indigenous people, this occasional, desperate practice was twisted until it fit the "bloodthirsty savage" stereotype.
 
"... in the case of necessaries, the mechanisms by which that occurs are not always pretty.... It may take 6 billion deaths...."

There's a lot of luxuries which can be sacrificed before that happens.

"That's Jevons' Paradox: overall demand will go up, not down. So what will be cut? All the extra things we want to do with the more efficient petroleum usage, or food for the Third World? My guess would be food for the Third World."

How can demand rise when it's constrained by supply?  Ability to pay goes up, that's all.  And how, if you've got e.g. a 20% fall in petroleum supply but 2.5 times the efficiency, could you possibly have to cut anything?

Some efficiencies would be immediately transferable to the Third World.  The corn-stover system for running tractors (see below) uses technology used in both World Wars, and could be pressed into service immediately; oil prices are probably high enough to justify it.  Voila, you've destroyed demand and saved money while maintaining production:  win/win/win.

"Your outline of how greater efficiency could save is all logically sound, except for the fact that it never works that way."

Tell me how e.g. a 50% efficient PV panel with a 25 year warranty and costing $1.50/watt could fail to "save" California from soaring costs for gas-fired electricity?  Tell me how that plus cars that can run 80% of their mileage on electricity could fail to CUT transportation costs despite $200/bbl oil?

It is likely to work "that way" for people who embrace the necessity and get ahead of the curve.  People who lag will get burned.

"So, how many Joules do we use per day in petroleum? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure it's more than that."

The world uses about 84 million barrels a day; at 6.1 GJ/bbl, that's 5.1e17 joules/day.

"Much energy is lost in each conversion, but even if you harvested every last watt of solar power that reaches the earth at perfect efficiency, you'd have 10e22 J per day."

No, about 1.5e22 J/day.  Oil use is about 4.5 orders of magnitude less.

That should have been obvious to you; even using 10% as much energy as arrives by sunlight would raise Earth's absolute temperature by about 2.5%, and by far greater amounts where energy use is intense.  Cities aren't cooking at over 100 C, so total human energy use (all fossil, not just oil) cannot be anywhere near the total solar input.

You really need to start examining conclusions to see if they pass the sniff test.

"ingenuity is actually pretty limited, I think."

Speak for yourself.

"... humans are nodes in a complex system with needs that can only be generalized as "resources." Many of them aren't even entirely material: space, complexity itself, etc."

You were the one claiming that energy (specifically oil) was going to be the "limiting nutrient" and cause a human population collapse when it peaked.  Now you're backpedaling.

"Our population rises as a function of food supply..."

Faulty logic.  US food supply far outstrips what's needed to feed the population, so most of it goes for animal feed, export and even motor fuel.  Native-born populations are at below-replacement birthrates despite abundant food over generations.

Increased food supply is necessary for a greater population, but not sufficient to create one.

"we need biodiversity to maintain our food supply--yet our increasing population must make serious cuts into biodiversity."

Finally, something I can agree with.  Mostly.  What cuts into biodiversity is our increasing "footprint", and there's good reason to believe that it can be cut.  Indeed, cutting the ecological footprint could become a growth industry. ;-)

"So, higher education and lower birthrate are both results of greater complexity."

Fine.  That points the direction to go, then.

"The geographical distribution can be rearranged in any way you prefer, but the relationships are immutable. If you lower Mali's birthrate, you'll only raise it accordingly somewhere else."

How does that happen?  Pheromones in the atmosphere?  Magic wands?  (Everyone reading along, a chorus for Penn and Teller:  BULLSHIT!)

"... the solar energy being wasted on your rooftop is passive solar."

It isn't anything; it's being wasted.  Solar energy systems can be active or passive; when you have no system, it is neither.

"Uhm .... the sun puts out a certain amount of energy, which radiates in all directions. Some small fraction of that happens to fall on earth. It's my understanding that that amount of energy is the "photosynthetic capacity" of the planet."

Did it ever occur to you to check your understanding?

Total human energy consumption:  ~400 quadrillion BTU/yr (4.22e20 joules/year)

Rate of energy delivery from the Sun:  equal to disc area times delivery rate per area.
Area:  Earth's disk is roughly 6,380,000 meters radius.  Area = πr^2 = 1.28e14 m^2.
Solar constant:  ~1360 W/m^2
Power delivery from the Sun to Earth:  1.74e17 watts (joules/second).

In other words, what humanity currently uses in a year, the Sun delivers to the Earth between the stroke of midnight on New Year's and 12:41 AM.  That's less time than it takes for some people to fully feel their champagne.

Another check you could have done is to compare the wind values.  Wind power does not use or significantly interfere with photosynthesis, so wind power can be considered a pure addition to available energy.  72 TW is 2,150 quads per year, or roughly 5.5 times total human energy consumption from all sources.  (Since there are large conversion losses in the production of electricity from fossil fuels, it's equivalent to two or three times that much.)

The simplest checks would have proven to you that your understanding could not possibly be right (it's off by more than 4 orders of magnitude)... but you have been basing claims on it anyway.  Whether you're careless or dishonest, it's obvious that nothing you've written is trustworthy.

"Capacity usually indicates the highest possible limit. How it's actually apportioned would seem to be a very different thing. Your refutation is certainly irrefutable, but I fail so see how it relates to the idea of photosynthetic capacity."

Sometimes it helps to parse words:  photosynthetic.  What is actually intercepted by plants, directed to chloroplasts, kicked down the electron transport chain, and eventually fixed as biomass (the synthesis) instead of being lost or used for housekeeping is a tiny fraction of the total sunlight hitting Earth.

How tiny?  Check the latest superstar biomass plant, hybrid Miscanthus.  Reported yields are as high as 60 metric tons per hectare per year (dry mass), and a metric ton carries 17.4 million BTU (5100 kWh) of heat energy; the total is 306,000 kWh/ha/yr.  If we use the mid-Kansas insolation value of 1550 kWh/m^2/year, that hectare received 15.5 MILLION kWh of sunlight to make that 306,000 kWh of biomass; the net photosynthetic efficiency is a measly 1.97 percent.  If you convert that biomass to electricity in a combined-cycle plant at 40% efficiency, the throughput drops to 0.79%.

You can buy, today, a silicon PV panel rated at 12.9% efficiency.  That's about 16 times as efficient as the biomass-to-electric pathway; 62 square meters of these panels will yield as much electricity as the hectare of Miscanthus, and leave 94% of the sunlight for other things.

It's been calculated that 8% of the land area of Illinois devoted to growing hybrid Miscanthus (at the 60 t/ha/yr yield) would supply all the electricity required by the state.  This figure drops to about 0.5% using the aforementioned PV panels.  It would drop further to 0.13% using 50% efficient quantum-dot panels, or you could quadruple electric consumption instead.

The simple answer to "Photosynthesis can't do the job!" is "Don't use something as inefficient as photosynthesis."

"Hmmm ... OK, but how do you get that to power all the transportation we need?"

Wires and batteries.  Batteries are mostly good enough for personal vehicles, but long-haul freight would benefit from electrified rail.  Dual-mode trucks cruising on dedicated rails and drawing power from overhead wires (both for propulsion and to recharge batteries for local runs) would need no liquid fuel at all.

"How do you put that into a tractor?"

Tractors can run on gasified crop wastes if batteries can't manage.  The surplus of corn stover alone runs to about 2.5 short tons/acre; at 15.8 mmBTU/ton and 50% gasification efficiency that's equivalent to about 3.4 barrels of crude oil per acre (6.1 GJ/bbl).

"How does that help replace the petrochemicals we use for plastics and fertilizers?"

It doesn't, but
1.  Those quantities are very small compared to consumption for fuel.
2.  They're also high-value and far less sensitive to price.
3.  The feedstock chemicals can be synthesized directly from CO2 and hydrogen, which you can get in turn from gasified biomass, hydrogen from electrolysis or photolysis of water, or a host of other sources.

"But, I'll take your argument for granted. I was wrong; we could get more energy from the sun than we currently use in oil."

Great.  What will it take to get you to check your own assumptions before basing your entire future on a mistake?

"... for every square meter of ground you set up with these solar panels, that's a square meter where nothing's growing."

There's a whole lot of roof area that grows nothing, but is just perfect for solar panels.  There's even more pavement that would benefit from being shaded.

The typical household uses about 1 kW of electricity on average; assuming the 1550 kWh/m^2/year value and 15% efficiency, this full demand could be met by the sunlight falling on just 38 square meters (~410 square feet) of roof.  Add two vehicles driven 13,000 miles/year each and using 350 Wh/mile, and you'd have to cover another 39 square meters (~420 square feet) to supply the required 9100 kWh/year.  You're not even halfway to covering the roof of a typical 1800 ft^2 ranch house yet, and you haven't touched commercial real estate or parking lots.

"How could a complex society, with its cost costantly increasing, afford to leave any possible resource untapped for very long?"

Eh?  We left wind barely used for many centuries, and solar untouched except for heat.

"I want to see lots of nature, too; as well as art, music, and genius and beauty of all kinds. These things have, in the past, always been antithetical to complex society--and they seem to be, by definition, mutually exclusive options."

Art, music and genius are mostly produced by complex societies where there is a surplus to allow for their creation.  What little is made by subsistence societies appears to get lost very quickly; the only such art that survives for centuries is mostly cave and rock paintings, and the music is never preserved beyond the memory of those who hear it performed.

No Rembrandt.  No Da Vinci.  No Mozart, no Dali, no Gershwin, no Ansel Adams, no Christo; that's what a "simple society" means.  Thanks, but no thanks.

"If we can get all the energy we have now just by covering 1% of the United States with solar panels, why not double our energy and only cover 2%?"

We're already covering close to 1% with roofs and roads and such.  Why not raise the efficiency to 60% and quadruple our energy?

"It won't take very long then before solar panels cover so much of the surface that plant species are going extinct, the oxygen in the atmosphere plummets, and we all suffocate on our own breath."

Any society with 4 times our per-capita energy supply will have easy access to space; that opens up enormous opportunities.  Using 1% of the sunlight hitting the US is one thing; using even 0.01% of the Sun's light means multiplying human energy by a factor of 2.9 billion, from 400 quads per year to 36 thousand quads PER SECOND.

"But do you really want to see what we've wrought on earth exported around the galaxy? Even if the idea of galactic homogeneity does not disturb you, do you think that a system as complex as a planetary ecology might yield some unexpected consequences when we start trying to make it just like our planet?"

I'd like to see it exported, period.  If it eats airless rocks and balls of ice from deep space, what does it matter what people choose to make?  It would be new, like everything else that life on Earth has come up with.  Some good, some bad, some indifferent (and many of those evaluations depending on the critic).

Some might try to re-make the Great Plains in space, complete with buffalo herds; others might make mountain villages or Mediterranian islands, and still others might want their whole micro-world done in Industrial Chic.  You wouldn't have to live in it, so why do you even care?

"Every empire has spread espousing such noble goals, and all have brought naught but suffering in their wake."

And there was not even more suffering where this did NOT happen?  (Some empires were particularly good at creating suffering, I admit; the Soviet Union and Maoist China are unprecedented in human history.  The suffering in and around Israel appears to be mostly due to the efforts of those who fought it, not those who promoted it.)  I think you're mistaking certain initiatives for the general human condition.  How did that line go?  "Life is pain; anyone who tells you different is selling something."

"If our view is jaundiced, it's only because we've studied too much history to be fooled by the pretty lies and propaganda anymore."

Anyone who has studied history yet failed to recognize progress is missing something important (or reading the wrong historians).  The past is ugly, but the very fact that we point to elements of it and call them abhorrent and never to be repeated represents progress.  Dispelling the fog of lies and propaganda is progress.

"Because I don't know about them."

That excuse is not consistent with your behavior.  Even when options are pointed out to you, you deny their value.  You don't seek ways to avoid catastrophe (or at least shove it off to a time beyond your reach), you promote it as a desirable outcome so people can live "better".

"Not sure where you're getting that from, but there's a significant complicating factor in that foragers tend to have no problem with infanticide."

So your preferred future includes the likely necessity of infanticide.  I'm feeling all warm and fuzzy about it already.  (NOT!)

"I regularly find things that make me sit back and go "Hmmmm.""

But you don't examine your own assumptions - even basic factual things that don't add up - until someone comes along and challenges them for you.

I was quite surprised when I found that a human could potentially have a good diet of animal protein drawn from a mere 87 square meters of algae pond feeding tilapia.  (Think about the radical REDUCTION in impact on photosynthetic capacity that would represent!)  That was a "Hmmm" moment, documented in the record available to you when you first read this thread.  I've seen nothing similar from you, and a great deal of resistance to considering (let alone looking up) easily-available facts which call your conclusions into question.

Why don't you do something I haven't done yet?  Look up the productivity of real algae tanks and shrimp farms and anything else you can think of.  See how much humanity's ecological footprint could be reduced, how much farmland could be returned to nature, how much the average family could enjoy just from the production available from a 66 by 150 foot city lot.

See if there are any alternatives that might be worth experimenting with.
 
I see what you mean. I didn't know you had this conversation going on along with the one on my web site.
 
Hyperlinks are powerful and beautiful things, aren't they?
 
How can demand rise when it's constrained by supply? Ability to pay goes up, that's all.

Price is set by the point where supply and demand intersect. If supply remains constant and demand goes up, then the price goes up. Simple as that; econ 101 stuff right there.

And how, if you've got e.g. a 20% fall in petroleum supply but 2.5 times the efficiency, could you possibly have to cut anything?

Because you have a rise in demand due to the rise in efficiency. Because the supply is falling and the demand is rising, the price goes up. If the price goes up, then you have to cut things. This is pretty much the most basic economic analysis possible, and I have to admit that I'm shocked you're having such a hard time with something so basic.

Tell me how e.g. a 50% efficient PV panel with a 25 year warranty and costing $1.50/watt could fail to "save" California from soaring costs for gas-fired electricity? Tell me how that plus cars that can run 80% of their mileage on electricity could fail to CUT transportation costs despite $200/bbl oil?

Jevons Paradox. See "The Coal Question," one of the great economic classics. It's about precisely this problem--that trying to preserve some resource by making its use more efficient results in more, not less, use of the resource. It increases the marginal return for use of the resource, so more people want to use more of it.

It is likely to work "that way" for people who embrace the necessity and get ahead of the curve. People who lag will get burned.

In the long term. In the short term, it's a game of prisoner's dilemna. Whoever "embraces necessity and gets ahead of the curve" first will be bulldozed by the rest who are still taking advantage of the current, more wasteful paradigm.

That should have been obvious to you; even using 10% as much energy as arrives by sunlight would raise Earth's absolute temperature by about 2.5%, and by far greater amounts where energy use is intense. Cities aren't cooking at over 100 C, so total human energy use (all fossil, not just oil) cannot be anywhere near the total solar input.

That would only make sense if all energy were heat. Your "obvious" explanation doesn't "pass the sniff test." The numbers, though, I'll believe. I'll cede you that--the photosynthetic capacity of the earth is greater than our current petroleum usage.

(Photosynthetic capacity is a very different thing from the total amount of energy generated by photosynthesies. Photosynthetic capacity is how much photosynthesis could, potentially, use; in other words, it's the total amount of solar energy that reaches the earth, not how much of that energy is converted into sugar by plants.)

Speak for yourself.

See Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, where he discusses the marginal return curve on scientific research. Or, his 1996 paper, "Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies," where he writes:

Contemporary science is humanity's greatest exercise in problem solving. Science is an institutional aspect of society, and research is an activity that we like to think has a high return. Yet as generalized knowledge is established early in the history of a discipline, the work that remains to be done is increasingly specialized. These types of problems tend to be increasingly costly and difficult to resolve, and on average advance knowledge only by small increments. Increasing investments in research yield declining marginal returns.

We've already passed the point of diminishing returns for scientific research. We're pouring more and more money into R&D, for fewer and fewer really significant innovations.

You were the one claiming that energy (specifically oil) was going to be the "limiting nutrient" and cause a human population collapse when it peaked. Now you're backpedaling.

Never have I made such a claim. Peak Oil has never been central to me; the overall marginal return curve on complexity has. Peak Oil is just one of the many aspects of that marginal return curve that may do us in--a particularly lethal one, to be sure, but by no means alone. If you check my outline for my "Thirty Theses," you'll see that #22 is "Peak Oil may lead our civilization to collapse," followed by #23, "Global warming may lead our civilization to collapse." Both are probabilistic statements. I find both problems to be significant threats, each posing a significant threat of collapse. But thesis #24 is, "Complexity ensures our civilization’s collapse."

It's a systemic problem. I've always said that. I've never said that Peak Oil was necessarily insurmountable (only probably insurmountable), or that it was the main problem. Ultimately, the problem of Peak Oil is just one facet of the much larger problem we're facing, having passed the point of diminishing returns for complexity itself.

Faulty logic. US food supply far outstrips what's needed to feed the population, so most of it goes for animal feed, export and even motor fuel. Native-born populations are at below-replacement birthrates despite abundant food over generations.

That would be empirical, not logical.

Logically, it's self-evident. What are all these people made of, fairy dust and happy thoughts?

Your argument is exactly like saying that population among medieval kings was steady, so there was no connection between food and population in feudal Europe. As I wrote in my :

Finally, industrialism is our own adaptive strategy. Many see the Industrial Revolution as the source of all our current woes, but in fact, industrialism merely represents an exponential increase in agriculture's scale--such that previously ignorable problems become very noticeable. Industrialism allows for the modern city, worldwide populations measured in the billions, and the kind of ecological devastation it takes to create the worst mass extinction in history. At the same time, industrialism allows the vast majority of the population to become specialists. These specialists are then able to dabble in things maladapted to their subsistence strategy, such as believing themselves to be part of the natural world, as foragers do. Interestingly, at this extreme, two forager correlates--the nuclear family, and the Inuit kinship system--return to the fore. The complexity of industrialism reduces the ROI of child-bearing while also lowering the death rate and extending the expected lifespan to very near forager levels. Europeans only reached the stature of their Mesolithic ancestors once again in about 1950, for example, thanks to "affluent malnutrition"--the state of nutrition that Steve Brill characterized as "overfed and malnourished." This results in a significantly lower birthrate for industrialized counties.

Unfortunately, like pastoralism, industrialism is also incapable of existing on its own. This extreme level of complexity is very costly, and can only be maintained by externalizing costs. This generally requires a less complex area--an agricultural region--that can serve to pay those costs. Despotic regimes in the Middle East (like the House of Sa'ud) maintain low energy prices for industrial society. Industrial consumer goods are manufactured in sweatshops. Industrial lifestyles--the size of our ecological footprint, and our concomittant low birth rate--rely on the poverty of agricultural areas (i.e., their small ecological footprint) and their concomittant high birth rate. During the Cold War, the face-off of two industrialized societies created the "First" and "Second" Worlds. The "Third World" was the un-industrialized rest of the world. The collapse of the U.S.S.R. has left only the First and Third Worlds. The Third World is where the First World externalizes its costs. Foreign aid and military support to
various Third World dictatorships have maintained them in situations where they would otherwise have fallen to popular revolt. The Third World debt crisis is "a symptom of an international economic system that tolerates growing and abysmal poverty as a normal condition." Through the World Bank, the IMF, and outright military support, we have shown that we will go to great lengths to keep things as they are in the Third World, because these conditions maintain First World prosperity. We maintain conditions where sweatshops are the best alternative available, and where it's better to grow cash crops for First World consumption than food for your starving family.

In
The Historical Jesus, John Dominic Crossan provided a brilliant sociological analysis of the early Roman Empire. In it, he shows that the Pax Romana was peaceful and prosperous only for the heart of the empire. Its peripheries suffered constant war and poverty. This was, in fact, by design. The overall level of turmoil could not be lessened, but Italy could enjoy such a Pax Romana by exporting its ills to the provinces.

So, if the Third World
does succeed in becoming like us, who will grow the cotton we clothe ourselves with? Who will grow the coffee beans? If democracy comes to power in the Arabian Penninsula, what happens if they decide their national interests are best served by charging us the actual cost of their oil, rather than externalizing our costs in the form of oppression and terrorism?

Thus, we see that industrialism cannot exist on its own. It can only exist on top of an agricultural system, by exploiting the lesser complexity of that system to offset its own costs. The First World needs the Third World--and so, industrialism can never succeed in replacing or eliminating agriculturalism. Industrialism and greater complexity are no solution to the current crisis of the diminishing returns on complexity.


We're talking about the world of the 1,500-mile salad, a world where all those exports you mention are going to feed the same Third World countries we exploit for the energy resources we need to grow all that food in the first place. Then you expect to see local population results, to global food patterns? It's absurd. You can't look only at the elites of a given society and make any useful conclusion about the population growth of the society as a whole.

Even if your argument made any logical sense, you can't deny the simple fact that global world population has always grown in lock-step with global food supply. See Russell Hopfenberg, "Human Carrying Capacity is Determined by Food Availability," [PDF] 2003.

Increased food supply is necessary for a greater population, but not sufficient to create one.

Yes it is, because every animal--including humans--will rise to their carrying capacity. Because every animal--including humans--is competing to reproduce to the best of their ability. If their ability expands, enough will. As Charles Galton Darwin put it: "It may well be that it would take hundreds of generations for the progenitive instinct to develop in this way, but if it should do so, nature would have taken her revenge, and the variety Homo contracipiens would become extinct and would be replaced by the variety Homo progenitivus."

Anyway, the idea that humans can limit their reproduction by use of intellect is entirely hypothetical as of yet. Every localized success has only been met with increased fecundity in another region. Failed attempts to date include: appeals to conscience, education, contraceptives, legal measures, religious dictates and eugenics programs.

Fine. That points the direction to go, then.

Ah, then we agree! We need to scale back our complexity, and adopt a simpler way of life.

How does that happen? Pheromones in the atmosphere? Magic wands? (Everyone reading along, a chorus for Penn and Teller: BULLSHIT!)

No, it happens through intenerational trade, through food aid to foreign countries, through the World Bank and the IMF. It happens through "free trade" and the international food market. It happens via the 1,500-mile salad.

C'mon, now, how many times do I have to explain this very basic mechanism before you stop saying there's no mechanism? You yourself pointed out that most of America's food is exported to other countries.

It isn't anything; it's being wasted. Solar energy systems can be active or passive; when you have no system, it is neither.

It doesn't suddenly become energy just because humans are using it. Nothing is ever wasted; we're not the only things in the world, after all. The sun that beats down on your rooftop is still heating your house--even if you're just cranking up the A/C all the more to counter it.

In other words, what humanity currently uses in a year, the Sun delivers to the Earth between the stroke of midnight on New Year's and 12:41 AM. That's less time than it takes for some people to fully feel their champagne.

I admitted you were right on this point.

I'm curious, though, how do you find these numbers? I've looked for them from time to time in the past, but I've always had a hard time finding them.

The simplest checks would have proven to you that your understanding could not possibly be right (it's off by more than 4 orders of magnitude)... but you have been basing claims on it anyway. Whether you're careless or dishonest, it's obvious that nothing you've written is trustworthy.

I mostly write on anthropology, rather than energy--precisely because I've never really studied the matter (the way I have anthropology). So when someone who has, like yourself, provides a certain point of fact, I tend to bow to that. Previously, I had heard claims from many who have studied renewable energy for quite some time that no combination of them could ever replace our petroleum usage. I thought that was because our petroleum usage had outstripped the photosynthetic capacity. I see that is not that case. Now, I'm not sure why renewable energy wouldn't be sufficient; but then, I've gotten the definite sense from your writing that your views on this are hardly mainstream, and are typically described as "rosy" by others.

No one can be an expert on everything; we all rely on experts to inform our opinions of those subjects that don't sufficiently interest us to warrant further investigation. I study cultures and economies, not necessarily energy sources. For that, I rely on experts. That's why I've taken your word for it on the matter of how solar power and our own petroleum usage compares.

Sometimes it helps to parse words: photosynthetic. What is actually intercepted by plants, directed to chloroplasts, kicked down the electron transport chain, and eventually fixed as biomass (the synthesis) instead of being lost or used for housekeeping is a tiny fraction of the total sunlight hitting Earth.

Yes, I know what photosynthesis is. I also know what "capacity" is--not necessarily what is used, but the total that could, potentially, be used. I have always heard photosynthetic capacity described, not as the total energy generated by plants, but the total solar energy available that could potentially be used by plants--i.e., all the solar energy that falls on the earth. Your usage differs from the usage I've heard from everyone else. So what term would you prefer? "All the solar energy that falls on the earth" is a very clumsy turn of phrase.

The simple answer to "Photosynthesis can't do the job!" is "Don't use something as inefficient as photosynthesis."

Never said to use photosynthesis. Hooking up a photovoltaic panel is using a certain amount of photosynthetic capacity for photovoltaics. Still photosynthetic capacity--it's energy that might've otherwise been used for photosynthesis, after all. But if that term offends you, what would you prefer? Everyone else seems to call it "photosynthetic capacity," but if you'd like to develop some Ergospheric jargon to replace that, I'll be happy to use it here.

Great. What will it take to get you to check your own assumptions before basing your entire future on a mistake?

That should be obvious: pointing out where my reasoning is flawed. I'm perfectly willing to accept a reasonable counter-argument. I can be swayed by a convincing argument. I once thought very much like you did, until I was convinced otherwise. If you'd like to try to convince me back, I'm certainly willing to listen.

Eh? We left wind barely used for many centuries, and solar untouched except for heat.

ERoEI and the low-hanging fruit. You go for what gets you the highest marginal returns. I doubt you'll find any large-scale adoption of these alternatives until their ERoEI becomes higher than petroleum's.

Art, music and genius are mostly produced by complex societies where there is a surplus to allow for their creation.

Absolutely not. The argument about "liesure time" is complete, Victorian, ethnocentric bullshit. In fact, complex societies have some of the least liesure time of any. The polyphonic complexity of Pygmy songs was not matched by Europe until the 1500s, and while Michelangelo was certainly impressive with a ceiling, I'm not so sure he could have matched the brilliant use of light, shadow, and three-dimensional rock face that you find in Lasceaux.

What little is made by subsistence societies appears to get lost very quickly; the only such art that survives for centuries is mostly cave and rock paintings, and the music is never preserved beyond the memory of those who hear it performed.

The same songs may well be performed for centuries--or are you saying that we can listen, today, to Beethoven's original performances?

No Rembrandt. No Da Vinci. No Mozart, no Dali, no Gershwin, no Ansel Adams, no Christo; that's what a "simple society" means. Thanks, but no thanks.

So what you mean isn't "art," but "my art"? Because if we're talking about music, you'll find more beautfiul melodies among simple societies than Mozart could ever dream. You'll find greater poetry than Gershwin, greater art than Rembrandt, more surrealism than Dali. But if we're going with an enthnocentric definition of art where it's only our art that matters--art that sublimates the misery of existence, rather than celebrates the joy of life--then you're right. Without a steady stream of constant suffering, you won't have very much art that's born of that suffering, the way that Mozart, Rembrandt, Gershwin and Dali sublimated their suffering into art. Instead, you'll only find art that celebrates the profound mystery of life and tries to bring us all more tightly together.

We're already covering close to 1% with roofs and roads and such. Why not raise the efficiency to 60% and quadruple our energy?

Now you're thinking like Jevons!

Any society with 4 times our per-capita energy supply will have easy access to space; that opens up enormous opportunities. Using 1% of the sunlight hitting the US is one thing; using even 0.01% of the Sun's light means multiplying human energy by a factor of 2.9 billion, from 400 quads per year to 36 thousand quads PER SECOND.

OK, which would succeed in buying us a century or two. When we're staring down the barrel of "Peak Solar," with every last inch of land covered in PV panels and a population of a few trillion--and we've seen to the extinction of nearly all life on earth--we'll be right back where we are now. Only with even more people facing genocidal die-off and massive suffering, and a very real possibility of wiping out all life on earth.

This is your solution.

At the end of the Bronze Age, civilization nearly collapsed for lack of available wood. Forests still existed, they were just so far away that, well, the ERoEI of a piece of wood was rapidly falling. Then they discovered charcoal, I believe it was. That gave them a second wind.

If the Bronze Age had been the end of civilization, there would have been no crusades, no Inquisition, no smallpox ravaging 99% of North America's native population, no Holocene Extinction threatening some 50% of the earth's species with extinction, no catastrophic global warming, and no 6.5 billion facing the very real, very grim possibility of genocidal die-off.

Every time a deus ex machina saves us at the brink, it makes the next time all the more horrifying. It doesn't fix the underlying, systemic problems of a complex society; it only allows us to continue our rampage a little longer.

Thousands of years ago, people like you scrambled to find a fix to the Bronze Age crisis--and found it. They saved millions, and in the process, damned billions. I doubt you'll be able to find a similar "techno-fix," but if you do, you'll succed in saving billions--and in the process, you'll damn trillions.

This is a very good-intentioned thing, but there's a road paved with such intentions....

Some might try to re-make the Great Plains in space, complete with buffalo herds; others might make mountain villages or Mediterranian islands, and still others might want their whole micro-world done in Industrial Chic. You wouldn't have to live in it, so why do you even care?

As nothing more than a flight of fancy, I pretty much don't. But the vision is horrific. Like every frontier, fancy would hold it for a time. However people wanted to live, they would.

Then, the expansion would begin. Economic necessity would use every resource on every world as intensely as it could be used, and when it was over, we wouldn't just wipe out ourselves--or just all life on earth. We would leave nothing alive in the entire universe.

Basically, our "best-case scenario" is to become the aliens from Independence Day, moving from world to world consuming every natural resource, like a swarm of Biblical locusts.

Obviously, this would be much better than returning to the simple peace, prosperity and freedom that humanity enjoyed for two million years.

And there was not even more suffering where this did NOT happen? (Some empires were particularly good at creating suffering, I admit; the Soviet Union and Maoist China are unprecedented in human history. The suffering in and around Israel appears to be mostly due to the efforts of those who fought it, not those who promoted it.) I think you're mistaking certain initiatives for the general human condition. How did that line go? "Life is pain; anyone who tells you different is selling something."

A profound realization--for a civilized person. Life is pain, and life is joy. Complex societies create much more pain than is necessary; and allow for much less joy. That's why people in complex societies kill themselves, and people in simple societies don't (or at least, it's damnably hard to find an example, even when we go out specifically looking for one).

Tribalism isn't utopia; only by comparison to our own state of affairs can it be called such. Every empire has spread suffering in its wake. Not that suffering was unknown before it, but that what was once a state that one would pass through as often as joy, became an unremitting state of affairs, and joy an increasingly distant memory.

Even today, we find our joy in our most simple moments--and our misery in our most complex.

By every standard of quality of life, the dawn of complexity has been a significantly negative force. In terms of health, it's given us epidemic diseases and malnutrition--things never known before. Europeans have only recently caught up to the heights of their Mesolithic ancestors, and our life expectancies are finally matching those of hunter-gatherers (I'll allow you to count in infanticide for foragers only if you allow me to count in abortions for us--this is a matter of ethnocentric skewing, by accepting our cultural parameters of when a child is "alive" but not theirs). Greece and Turkey are still lagging behind their Mesolithic ancestors today. We achieve this by "affluent malnutrition"--we're still malnourished, but we eat it in sufficient quantities to stay alive. And this is still only among the elites--if we include the 90% plebian class our patricians require to continue their way of life, then we see those numbers plummet. Interestingly, you get the same numbers looking at medieval kings and their serfs. And throughout history, medieval kings, modern-day Americans, and hunter-gatherers have all had about the same life expectancy.

In terms of science, we're close to "maxed out" now. We've passed the point of diminishing returns, so scientific research comes at greater cost now, and with less utility. In terms of art, what we produce now is positively vapid compared to the cave art of Lasceuax.

Anyone who has studied history yet failed to recognize progress is missing something important (or reading the wrong historians).

Anyone who has studied history and thinks that progress has anything to do with it isn't reading history, but propaganda.

The past is ugly, but the very fact that we point to elements of it and call them abhorrent and never to be repeated represents progress.

No, it represents smugness--because we do keep repeating them. In fact, our belief in our own "progress" protects us from such lessons--we believe we're "better" now and would never do such a thing again. And then we go and do such a thing again.

For all the glory lauded upon human intelligence, history is certainly lacking for any evidence of it.

Dispelling the fog of lies and propaganda is progress.

I have found this notion of "progress" to be, perhaps, the single biggest lie and piece of propoganda of all.

That excuse is not consistent with your behavior. Even when options are pointed out to you, you deny their value. You don't seek ways to avoid catastrophe (or at least shove it off to a time beyond your reach), you promote it as a desirable outcome so people can live "better".

I don't accept half-baked, nonsense "options," if that's what you mean. 99% of all the "options" that have ever been presented have been naive and, ultimately, even worse than the problem they sought to solve. See, sugar-cane farming for ethanol fuel in Brazil.

We cleaned up the cities to cure diseases like cholera, and in the process, created polio. Now there's some indication that . I just want to make sure that in the course of solving this problem, you don't create another one that's even bigger. Historically, most of our complex solutions have suffered from that problem.

So your preferred future includes the likely necessity of infanticide. I'm feeling all warm and fuzzy about it already. (NOT!)

No, not necessity. I didn't say it was necessary, I said they have no problem with us. We debate whether a child is alive at conception, or at birth. Well, foragers have decided it's their second birthday. They view infanticide the same way a pro-choicer views abortion.

But you don't examine your own assumptions - even basic factual things that don't add up - until someone comes along and challenges them for you.

I accept most statements--particularly the most radical ones--only after I have failed to dismantle them after a long, sustained attack. As I mentioned, I once thought like you. I became as I am now only after spending five years attacking the primitivist philosophy from every angle, and failing to find any argument that held up.

Now, as I mentioned, I'm an anthropologist; I don't study these things. I've tried to find numbers on these things before, but I've never been able to come by them.

I'll admit, the comparison of solar and petroleum available is something I haven't exactly spent much time on, because it's very peripheral to my case.

Why don't you do something I haven't done yet? Look up the productivity of real algae tanks and shrimp farms and anything else you can think of. See how much humanity's ecological footprint could be reduced, how much farmland could be returned to nature, how much the average family could enjoy just from the production available from a 66 by 150 foot city lot.

Oh, good Lord, why would I want to do that? The reduction of ecological footprint is one of the main factors driving the Holocene Extinction! Foragers have enormous footprints; agriculturalists have tiny footprints. It's Jevons' Paradox; more efficient use of land will mean that more land will be used. The incredible land efficiency of agriculture (bought at gross caloric inefficiencies) has led to an incredible growth in the amount of land we cultivate. Now, that system's about to collapse. A collapse now would leave most of the world intact--and allow humanity a very good chance of survival If we adopt any of these scenarios, we may actually succeed in wiping out all life on earth, but it will almost certainly mean sealing the fate of our species.

See if there are any alternatives that might be worth experimenting with.

Oh, indeed there are. Permaculture would be a very interesting hobby for a foraging tribe. I plan to have my yurt decked out with photovoltaic panels.

But any alternative that (1) requires more complexity, or (2) allows our current level of complexity to continue any longer, would be, from the point of view of life on this planet and the point of view of humanity's own chances for survival, utterly disastrous.

I agree, a die-off of 6.5 billion is a horrific thought. But the alternative is even more horrific.
 
Apologies for the mangled HTML...
 
I suggest that you paste that into an editor, fix the HTML, delete the original and re-enter.
 
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