Waiting for the climacteric: or, the return of the greentard

I left the issue of the agricultural energy supply for the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex hanging at the end of my last post. So, in keeping with the infuriating elliptical style favoured on this blog, I propose not to address it in this one. Instead, I want to broach some wider energy-related issues with the help of two acquaintances of this site, before narrowing the scope to agricultural energy in a future post.

The first acquaintance is, sadly, dead, yet so ebullient that his thought is setting tongues a-wagging in environmental circles even now. I refer to the late David Fleming, whose book Lean Logic has recently been published thanks to the excellent editorship of Shaun Chamberlin, and is garnering all sorts of critical plaudits1. There’s a lot of finely crafted stuff in the book, though I must admit that I’m not quite as wowed by Fleming’s thought as many others are. I have a review of the book coming out in the new year so I won’t dwell on all that now. Instead, I just want to mention Fleming’s approach to the concept of the climacteric.

Fleming defines a climacteric as “a stage in the life of a system in which it is especially exposed to a profound change in health or fortune” and goes on to predict an imminent global climacteric in the years between 2010 (the year he died) and 2040, comprising “deep deficits in energy, water and food, along with climate change, a shrinking land area as the seas rise, and heat, drought and storm affecting the land that remains. There is also the prospect of acidic oceans which neither provide food nor remove carbon; ecologies degraded by introduced plants and animals; the failure of keystone species such as bees and plankton; and the depletion of minerals”2.

Phew, well that’s quite a list – though nothing that most of us haven’t heard before, and endlessly debated across the whole spectrum of doom-mongering and boom-mongering. What interests me about it for present purposes is the rather quietist inferences Fleming draws from the concept of the climacteric towards contemporary socio-economic activism. “There is no case for dismantling the market,” he writes, “that will be done for us, all too soon”3. And again, “The task….is not about wrestling with the controls of economics to force it in the direction of degrowth, but about getting ready for the moment when the coming climacteric does the heavy work of degrowth for us”4.

Is this way of thinking the declinist mirror to those great 20th century progressive narratives of capitalism and communism which believed in unstoppable, positive climacterics delivered by human agency – whether through free markets or proletarian revolutions – which would inevitably deliver human betterment? If so, I suspect it may prove equally problematic. For one thing, it relies on a finely balanced quantum of crisis: too little, and the status quo ante is soon restored in elite interests until we lurch into the next crisis; too much, and all bets are off as to how humanity fares, or if it even survives as a species. For another thing, how will this balance be achieved? The work that Fleming says will be done for us seems to involve no human mechanisms, no politics, no history, by which humans might act upon the climacteric. This gives the concept a rather religious, millenarian feel – of attending to the end days, when human betterment may come. Through the ages a lot of prophets have thus gathered a flock and instructed them to await a new dawn. They haven’t always been wrong. But they usually have been, and personally I’m not much inclined to throw in my lot with them.

So suppose – just suppose – that humanity found, right now, a source of clean energy of an appropriate magnitude, which enabled us to avert at this eleventh hour the worst consequences of climate change, and to continue on the merry way of our present high energy, growth-oriented global economy. In such circumstances, the sting would be drawn from many features of Fleming’s climacteric. Would it then be a case of ‘job done’ for green politics, another end of history in which humanity could at last settle down and enjoy the fruits of a green capitalism for all? I don’t think so. I think the underlying problems of the capitalist growth model would remain – the deep and intrinsic inequality, the environmental degradations that continued to leak from our actions, the spiritual vacuity. Which is not to say that finding an abundant source of clean energy right now would necessarily be a bad thing.

There are those, of course, who are confident that the search is already over. And that brings us to our second familiar personage. I have to admit that since my jousting with him in the early days of this website, I haven’t been keeping up lately with the-world-according-to-Graham-Strouts. ‘Greentard’ (= ‘green retard’, I think) was one of the kinder, and funnier, insults he tossed my way as I learned, too slowly, that slipstreaming in someone else’s personal furies is bad for the soul. But I have to admit that I did take a peek at one of his recent blog posts, in which he invokes the authority of David MacKay, author of Sustainable Energy: Without The Hot Air – another book by a recently deceased author treated to a wide adulation that I can’t fully share. Strouts, like all good ecomodernists, considers the answer to the energy problem to be nuclear power, dismissing renewables as a ‘delusion’. To underscore the futility of renewable energy vis-à-vis nuclear, Strouts cites a table from MacKay’s book indicating the low power per unit land/water area of various renewable energy technologies by comparison with fossil or nuclear energy in the UK. And he includes a strapline quotation from MacKay “I’m not pro-nuclear, just pro-arithmetic”.

Let me digress briefly at this point to explain my misgivings about MacKay’s book. On pp.17-18, MacKay makes two important statements about the approach he takes in it: first, that it’s about physical limits to sustainable energy, not current economic feasibility; and second, that there’s a difference between ‘factual assertions’ and ‘ethical assertions’ and that his book is about facts, not ethics. On the first point, I’d assert (factually? ethically?) that a book which looks only at physical and not economic limits, while no doubt informative, is at best of limited use in making policy decisions about a society’s energy options. Thus, the table on power per unit area that Strouts reproduces conveys absolutely no useful information in itself about energy choices. And on the second point – well, the fact/value distinction can be useful, but it tends to be rather overplayed by ecomodernists and other technophiles lacking a sense that the way people live is always and inevitably cultural and ideological. Before we ask factual questions about energy options we need to ask another factual question, to which there can be no merely factual answer: how much energy is enough?

A further problem arises with MacKay’s fact/value distinction. The number of facts that are potentially relevant to a given issue is almost unlimited, so as MacKay sat down to write his tome he inevitably had to choose which facts he was going to assert and which ones he wasn’t. What was the basis on which he did that? A ‘factual’ one? I don’t think so. In his chapter on nuclear power, for example, he states that “nuclear power’s price is dominated by the cost of power-station construction and decommissioning”5, but he provides virtually no information on what these costs are which might help the reader decide on the viability of nuclear energy. He goes on to describe the amount of high-level nuclear waste in the UK in terms of the number of Olympic swimming pools it occupies (a fact). He continues, “the volumes are so small, I feel nuclear waste is only a minor worry”6 (not a fact). And then we have the “I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic” line – which is also very far from anything resembling a factual assertion. The problem I have here is that when a distinguished scientist sets out their stall by saying that they’ll be dealing in factual, not ethical, assertions, it’s easy to get swept up in this rhetorical trick and be led to believe that ‘the science’ tells us to adopt a particular course of action which the presentation of the data leads us to. But the fact is, it’s impossible to avoid ethical assertions. Much as the ecomodernists with their religious faith in scientism wish to believe otherwise, ‘the science’ never tells us to do anything.

Still, I’m not necessarily against nuclear power on principle as a potential part of the energy mix. I’m just against ecomodernists relentlessly favouring it on the basis of the tendentious use of spurious facts, as in Strouts’ post. Meanwhile, in another corner of the blogosphere there are others also arguing that the search for the magical source of clean energy is over – but for them the source isn’t nuclear, it’s photovoltaics.

Chris Goodall’s book The Switch is a good summary of the case from the PV corner7. One advantage of Goodall over MacKay (other than an extra seven years of hindsight) is that he’s an economist, so he tends to think in terms of £/kWh, which is ultimately the key driver of energy choices. Another advantage is that he thinks in terms of how much energy we should be using – 3kW per person by 2035 (fact!). He’s a bit sketchier than I’d like on some of the technical details, though pretty well informed for all that. But another big advantage is that he takes a global perspective. Being a cloudy country a long way north, Britain is one of the worst places in the world for generating PV energy. However, the ‘average’ person in the world lives less than half the distance from the equator than us benighted Brits. The scepticism about PV expressed by MacKay (and Strouts) may have some force in the UK, but it’s less plausible in most of the rest of the world.

By Goodall’s calculations, the UK would need about 16% of its land area to be covered with PV panels to provide for all our energy needs. Before we dismiss that as an impossibly profligate use of our scenic landscapes, it’s worth bearing in mind that we currently devote 75% of our entire land area to agriculture, a lot of it ryegrass and cereal monocultures, while still failing to feed ourselves by a distance, even though we could if we wanted. Still, it’s no doubt fanciful to suppose that we could or should cover that much of the country in PV panels. Whether that means it’s a good idea to build the Hinkley C nuclear power station to generate about 7% of the UK’s electricity at a build cost in excess of £20 billion, and then pay £92.50 per MWh for the next 35 years is less clear. The Intergenerational Foundation has argued that a PV solution would cost about £40 billion less than Hinkley C overall. For my part, I’d want to ask whether the UK might better spend some of the money earmarked for Hinkley C on trimming 7% from our energy demand. But I fear that the government has tied its hands through its agreements with French and Chinese energy companies (there’s a whole ironic backstory here about Britain’s inability to undertake its own energy projects, and its post-Brexit inability to flex its negotiating muscles, but I’ll pass over it here).

Whatever the ‘pro-arithmetic’ theoretical case for nuclear power, the economic case is looking increasingly thin vis-à-vis PV in most parts of the world, possibly even in Britain. But I’m not sure the nuclearphiles in government or among the serried ranks of the ecomodernists are really that interested in the economics of it. I think for political and ideological reasons that have little to do with arithmetic they’re drawn to mega-projects, the white heat of high technology, big grids and generating installations that require centralised control, and potentially dangerous technologies like nuclear that require lots of regulation, security apparatus and the like.

The advantages of PV are that it’s modular, dispersed, not grid reliant, and increasingly cheap. As Goodall shows in his book, there are numerous outstanding problems with it if it’s to become the global energy supplier of choice, but also numerous emerging solutions to them which could well hold greater promise than the solutions offered by the nuclear industry. In the end, I think it’s likely that globally PV will predominate over other energy technologies despite its unpalatability to politicians and opinion-formers through the fact-based arithmetic of £/KWh. But that’s not the main point I want to make. The main point I want to make is the thought experiment I mentioned above. Suppose that humanity solves the clean energy conundrum one way or another: Will that solution automatically solve the other environmental crises we face? And will it automatically generate equitable societies dedicated to human health and wellbeing?

No, I just can’t see it. But what I can see is the glimmer of a possibility – no more than that – that serious investment in clean energy (PV, mostly) might give us something of a reprieve from the worst of Fleming’s climacteric. And if it does, given that such a small proportion of current global energy use relates to electric power generation where most of the promising renewable technologies are clustered, I’d hope that we’d have to make do with a lot less energy per capita in the wealthier countries than we presently do, otherwise I can’t easily see how we’d create the kind of localised, low energy societies that seem necessary for human flourishing. But in contrast to Fleming, I don’t think any of this will be ‘done for us’. If we want to avoid the worst consequences of his climacteric and if we want to build decent, equitable, abundant societies, we’ll need to do the heavy work ourselves. For me, there’s no waiting for the climacteric – we have to fight for what we want, starting now.


  1. Fleming, D. 2016. Lean Logic: A Dictionary For The Future & How To Survive It, Chelsea Green.
  1. Ibid. p.43.
  1. Ibid. p.103.
  1. Ibid. p.189.
  1. MacKay, D. 2009. Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air, UIT Cambridge, p.165.
  1. Ibid. p.170.
  1. Goodall, C. 2016. The Switch: How Solar, Storage & New Tech Means Cheap Power For All, Profile.

85 thoughts on “Waiting for the climacteric: or, the return of the greentard

  1. You said:
    The advantages of PV are that it’s modular, dispersed, not grid reliant, and increasingly cheap.

    So as a curmudgeon of long standing, might I offer there is another energy source we continue to learn more and more about that fits these same advantages? It even has a somewhat similar name – re photosynthesis. If I’d be saddled with the dreaded ‘greentard’ appellation for suggesting this, so be it – will wear the same with pride.

    And within the realm of renewables, where has wind wound up in your research? Surely if one were to be housed in the neighborhood of Graham and his buddies you might expect a wind farm would work quite well. But enough with baiting.

    My favorite part of this latest edition – the erudite pondering of how much is enough. Indeed. And Jevons must turn over in his paradox for want of a counter to a civilization capable of answering that question.

    Another question – in discussing Goodall you wrote: Another advantage is that he thinks in terms of how much energy we should be using – 3kW per person by 2035 (fact!).

    I see how repeating something Goodall said can be considered a fact – what I’m not catching however is how something Goodall thinks is somehow then a fact. What background am I missing?

  2. Just a quick note about one of the ‘facts’ asserted by Goodall, namely that we should be using “3kW per person by 2035”.

    This is a very high rate of energy consumption. 72 kWh per day per person is far more than required for any subsistence agrarian society.

    Add up all the mechanized tasks desired on a rain-fed small farm (household water pumping, minimal tilling, refrigeration, grain grinding, lighting, etc) and the kWh requirements per person are in the single digits per day. For irrigated agriculture one must use gravity to move water around.

    To minimize transportation energy one goes nowhere and ships nothing. For heat one either lives further south or uses more clothing. Even using small amounts of wood energy for cooking will add up quickly. That’s where most of the energy budget should be.

    72 kWh per day per person is suitable only for the grossly extravagant, high-tech urbanized economy needed to produce PV modules.

  3. …to which the Advocatus will add:
    How large a chunk of those 3kWh/d will the emergy of those panels and all the short-lived other pieces eat up straight away?

    I say roundwood houses, made from pollarded hedge trees which will supply a decent man’s heating and cooking needs if he chooses their number wisely.
    And reading by the fireplace.

  4. I can’t believe that anyone could look at 500-year graphs of human population, primary energy production, percent of land primary productivity devoted to humans and total water consumption (as general examples) without noticing that the trend slopes have changed from being near zero to being near infinity.

    Any technician who looks at the control panel of a complex industrial system is relaxed when the trend lines are flat and alarmed by dramatic upward or downward deviations. We are living through the mother of all deviations. The system failure alarms have been blaring for years.

    Fleming is absolutely right about the climacteric. It now has the same probability of happening as … (insert any example of near-certainty here). The only question is in the timing. I personally think it will be well before 2040. It could be later, but it could also easily begin in earnest as soon as tomorrow.

    Horrific and “millenarian” as it is, this context should be the basis for everyone’s plan for the future. It may not help that much, since death rates will be very high even with the best of plans, but every little bit helps when it comes to surviving a climacteric.

  5. At the expense of going down the route already taken by McKay et al, in pre privatisation days the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB, for non UK readers or those who grew up post privatisation the body that used to generate electricity for England & Wales) were charged with providing reliable power at the lowest cost. If we can then link that to the US requirement for ‘least cost’ which brings in demand reduction/management we have an interesting way forward.

    However whatever results that might come up with, I suggest that the amount of useable energy that is available to us is in fact quite low by current standards although impressive by pre industrial ones.

  6. Well, we have this huge financial bubble on which everyone is dependent, hanging by a very thin thread, which includes everything from banking to real estate, we have a equally fragile thread when it comes to our vital and total dependence on transport of food, energy, clothing and all other vitals and non-vitals, we have an absolute loss of vital skills like food production and -conservation, we have no knowledge or infrastructure, both physical and social, left worth mentioning when it comes to local, small scale production of said food, drinking water,
    clothing, medication and other vitals etc.
    So yes, I would say that all the pieces are in place to create such a climacteric. All it takes is one of those threads snapping, and we all here know that that is just a matter of (little) time, to create a cardhouse effect and the outcome of such an event is anyone’s guess. Personally I see a massive “culling of the herd” so to speak, due to the almost immediate and total lack of anything vital within weeks; food, clean drinking water, power….. Famine, disease and conflict. A doomsday-scenario or simply doing the maths and connect the dots?
    As for the energy; to me there’s only one way: instead of wasting tons of it on producing substituting hitech gadgets, that need more input then generating output, we need to start by using far less energy and take it from there.

  7. Thanks for those comments:

    Clem – you’ve rumbled me. Goodall’s 3kW comment is indeed factual only inasmuch as it’s a fact that he stated it. Another example of my obscure Wessex humour. On wind – yes, here in the UK it’s a significant resource…or at least it would be if the government wasn’t so determined not to make use of it. But Goodall argues that globally wind has much less potential than PV. On photosynthesis, I’m interested if anyone has any figures bearing on this. A back of the envelope calculation suggests to me that oilseed rape in the UK yields about 0.2 W/sq m – which is nearly a factor of 10 less than renewable electricity generation – but maybe it comes out better with other comparisons.

    Joe – just to clarify the 3kW figure: according to Goodall, UK energy use peaked at 5kW/capita in 2001 and now stands at about 4kW/cap. He’s predicting that by 2035 a figure of 3kW is feasible on current trends. It’s not a normative figure. So yes, it’s hardly a radical change to current energy trends he’s assuming, but at least he’s revising it downwards rather than making current usage normative like most people do. I think you’re right that 3kW is still very high. But the more we lower the figure as a normative aim, the easier it gets to meet it – assuming that we still have the civilisational capacities to plan and organise, of course. On that point, you (and Fleming) could be right that a climacteric is imminent and unavoidable. But then all the more reason in my book for us to be organising for it and trying to reorient the economy now in ways that will tend to diminish rather than amplify the problem. I still don’t subscribe to the idea that we should wait for the climacteric to do the heavy work of degrowth for us.

    Michael – Goodall gives a minimum EROEI figure for PV panels in the UK of 3.75 – more of course in sunnier locations. Make of that what you will. Good question, though – he doesn’t to my mind address emergy issues as comprehensively as he should, though he does have some interesting things to say about it. I like wood too, though I’m not sure there’s enough of it to go around, or to produce higher grade energy in the quantities we’d need to avoid an unduly unpleasant climacteric.

    John – agreed.

    Ron – You could be right, but as per my comment to Joe the main point I want to make is that we’re better off preparing for a climacteric than waiting for it. I agree with you that reducing energy use is key, but I don’t think it’s a matter of EITHER reducing OR substituting new and better energy sources. PV panels don’t use more energy than they consume (see EROEI figure above). For the reasons you outline, we lack the ability to plunge immediately into a near zero abiotic energy world, so it seems to me necessary to soften the energy descent as best we can. Softening it may seem like denying it, but that’s the world we’re already in anyway (stand up President Trump!) so I can’t really see good reasons not to go with PV where we can.

    • “…though I’m not sure there’s enough of it to go around, or to produce higher grade energy in the quantities we’d need to avoid an unduly unpleasant climacteric.”

      But aren’t you having this backwards?
      Looking from the city out towards the land, this would be the adaequate view(point) – oh no, there isn’t enough wood to supply millions of people in our hyper-urban setting!

      Is that the correct question? Isn’t that typical of what the bureaucracy of any empire in history has demanded?
      “The periphery must increase its deliveries of energy sources to The City by x amount by next year.”
      Today, that kind of approach will leave you indebted to Chinese suppliers of nuclear power plants, and while that’s merely reversing the flow of capital from the times of the opium war, it solves nothing.

      Because “unduly unpleasant” (I know, it’s a turn of phrase :)) reeks of the decadence of empire (‘industrial democracy,’ in today’s terms), not one becoming of a peasant who can plant the trees that’ll be needed and who even knows a thing or two about agroforestry, which will allow him to farm her fields and grow her fuel at the same time (screw those artificial ‘forest cover’ statistics!).

      I’d also like to contend that every future peasant is well advised to seek out every possibility to have work performed as directly as possible – every form of storage of energy is adding layers of complication/fragility and is taxable.

      • Dammit, Michael – I spent ages coming up with ‘unduly unpleasant’, but if you prefer something earthier maybe a variant of ‘completely screwed’?

        You’re overlaying an urban-rural power dimension to the discussion, which is interesting but wasn’t implicit in my comments.

        Looking at it from a peasant point of view, in any kind of pre-2040 Fleming-style climacteric, there’s going to be a hell of a lot of pressure on land. Agroforestry, wood pasture etc. would doubtless emerge strongly but I don’t think it would be enough to bridge the energy gap to a ‘we’re screwed’ climacteric. A resourceful peasant community that was able to obtain PV panels would use them.

        I realise there are good reasons to think that PV panels won’t solve our underlying problems – indeed, that was my argument in the post above. I find it harder to understand the inference that somehow we therefore shouldn’t use them at all. But I think a bit of counterfactual or devil’s advocate thinking is always useful, even for those who are convinced that humanity faces a certain and imminent climacteric in which there will be nothing but biotic energy available. Suppose that the world could switch tomorrow, or at least by 2020, to a clean energy source at 3kW/cap – how does that affect your political and social thinking? If you’re an ecomodernist, you think it or something like it will really happen. For the rest of us, it’s a useful conjecture – and, to me, a reminder that I can’t rely on an eco-apocalypse to give me the kind of society that I’d like to live in.

        • Don’t get me wrong: I am expecting a kind of climacteric, but one of business.
          The reason I’m suspicious of PV and the like is not that I think it won’t be available – it’s that too few will be able to pay for it, let alone manufacture nearly enough of it to make it more worth our peasant whiles than to find a nice spot for the next row of trees.

          Because of course we have a clean source of fuel available to us – burning wood at high temperatures and storing the heat in properly designed thermal mass.
          What we won’t have is a political climate that’s conducive to the kinds of feats we’ve managed before: I’ve just watched another episode of ‘Wartime Farm’, a reminder of what needs to be done when most external supplies disappear practically overnight.

          We are busy deluding ourselves as to how little screwed we really are (Spinoza; exact quote unavailable).

          • Since no agrarian peasant can craft build a PV module, its long term future is nil. But they do last for 20-30 years (in my long off-grid experience) and they are so powerful in comparison with hand labor, that I plan to keep using them as long as possible.

            Just having enough electricity to move water and wash clothing (a task that occupied up to 40% of a woman’s work day in the pre-washer era) will make for more time for food production. Refrigeration (especially a freezer for meat) will help save on food waste, especially here in the tropics where I live.

            One can live without electricity (I have for several years in the past), but it will help make life bearable, especially in my neighborhood, with demography skewing toward the elderly and away from having lots of young folk to work the land.

            You are absolutely right about cost. My family is lucky enough to have sufficient money to more fully prepare for the climacteric. In that world to come, having a few kWh per day of exosomatic energy will be a fabulous luxury. Most people, especially the young, can’t even afford enough arable land, much less an independent power system. Their destiny is uncertain; tenant farming perhaps? It may well be that “three hots and a cot” will be enough to induce legions of landless young to go to any farm they can find that will take them on.

            But that scenario might mean we are more likely to segue into agrarian feudalism than agrarian populism. If so, the PV owner will be the lord of the manor, with all the benefits, and risks, that status entails.

    • Hi Chris, preparing is something I am working hard on, both in creating my own homestead and in creating a community, where things like that and cooperation are keyfactors.
      How about the energy consumed during the production process of PV’s, incl. all transports and delving of resources?
      I never said either or. I said reduce, where possible and work our way from there, meaning looking for alternatives to supply what’s really needed. Our ancestors made it through centuries without all that power and thrived. Our problem is our total addiction to fossil fuels and electricity. Going cold turkey might just be the way to eradicate that addiction. No half measures.
      And Trump or Clinton… what does it matter? Like choosing the firing squad or the guillotine. With the latter you know you face imminent death. With the first you can hope the aim is off, but that might inflict other, more painful wounds with the same end result.

    • >On photosynthesis, I’m interested if anyone has any figures bearing on this.
      Net primary production is ~112 Pg C/y (1). “photosynthesis utilises 15.9 kJ per gram of assimilated carbohydrate” (2). If this is the appropriate conversion factor (3) that means global NPP is 1240 PWh/y. Compare this to human energy consumption of 140 PWh/y (4), and human food consumption of 9 TWh/y (5).

      (1) 50% ocean http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/gbc.20074/abstract;jsessionid=6E89C9090CE0FA13EA60411E5E4A9FCE.f04t03 and 50% land http://science.sciencemag.org/content/281/5374/237.full
      (2) https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=I4g0mlQI7HcC&pg=PA82&lpg=PA82&dq=energy+requirement+photosynthesis+per+gram+carbon&source=bl&ots=IeqcvEClci&sig=hJJTlgKG5fYCVNPxzFmHER_c7gk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjumdS24t_QAhVqBsAKHXzKAtwQ6AEIPDAI#v=onepage&q=energy%20requirement%20photosynthesis%20per%20gram%20carbon&f=false
      (3) I can’t figure out from the information presented in (2) whether this needs to be multiplied by ~1/1.5 to account for conversion from carbohydrate to total C in biomass: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=VAQMCAAAQBAJ&pg=PA126&lpg=PA126&dq=energy+requirement+photosynthesis+per+gram+carbon&source=bl&ots=OtTnv8fXLY&sig=Zz-i-J8mkyjiQ12riCrqks-f2l0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjumdS24t_QAhVqBsAKHXzKAtwQ6AEIGzAA#v=onepage&q=energy%20requirement%20photosynthesis%20per%20gram%20carbon&f=false
      (4) http://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy.html
      (5) http://www.fao.org/docrep/005/AC911e/ac911e05.htm https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population million

      • Interesting, but I guess in trading off between PV and photosynthesis we’d want to look at the quantity of the final form of desired energy generated per unit area, and the costs (financial and environmental) of doing so…so I’m still not sure!

        • I think it only makes sense to ask that question when we have a technosphere in sight where we’re building solar panels using solar energy and broken solar panels.

          At the moment, the questions to ask are whether we can replace fossil fuel use by bioenergy, and if we can’t whether replacing them by PV saves fossil fuels. I think you’re right to say that replacing fossil fuel powered electricity generation by PV and wind makes total sense. Whether it makes sense to replace fossil fuel cars by electric cars I don’t know. And I don’t care because I think that bicycle and electric train are the choice to go for.

          • At the moment, the question I want to ask is whether PlankTOM10 considers a sufficient number of plankton functional types. And what about baleen whale consumption of krill in the Southern Ocean?

            Maybe we could domesticate some whales and through iron fertilization of the Southern Ocean to bump primary productivity we could ranch the whales (with a possible side benefit of whale feces removing some carbon from the upper layers of the sea).

          • No fish? That sounds fishy. Whales and dolphins, penguins, sea birds, and the occasional Homo sapiens fisherperson… they must all have too much imagination then. Pity.

            Up to 13… that’s progress. Does the incremental increase in the number of species considered add complexity to the model in a non-linear way??

            As for my being an ecomodernist – some labels may be accurate in one context, yet seem silly in another. I’m always in search of a context where I’m most comfortable.

  8. Yes Chris, you’ve identified my own biggest misgiving about David Fleming’s Lean Economy scenario (speaking as the editor of his posthumous books) – I struggle to see it thriving in a destabilised climate.

    As you say, in that context “all bets are off”, and for my money a destabilised climate is where we’re headed. Mind, I don’t know of a better scenario than his to shoot for in that context. But that doesn’t take away my misgivings.

    I must highlight though that while Fleming indeed doesn’t advocate trying to hasten the market’s demise, that certainly isn’t because he advises sitting back and passively observing it unfold. Rather it’s simply because he sees another far more urgent priority for our action – rebuilding the informal economy of community and culture that he foresees we will have to again rely on after the market economy fails us: “The foundation assets of our civilisation will take time to recover, but our need for them is immediate. We have a timing problem … It may be too late … It is not too late to try”

    In his view, and mine, that task gives more than enough for us to be going on with, and indeed David was one of the hardest-working people I’ve met (he personally felt this urgency to change the direction we are headed viscerally, and pushed himself to the detriment of his health because of it). And indeed his work gave birth to the Transition Towns movement, also not renowned for a “sit back and watch the world burn” approach.

    Contrary to your claim, his work is full of details of the human mechanisms, politics and history that have shaped and are shaping our future, and leading us to the climacteric. I perceive no sense in his work of waiting for a better world to be delivered, nor a desire for a ‘just right’ climacteric – just a sad recognition of where we are headed, as per Joe above, and a strong urging and working for a change in direction.

    Sadly, the Lean Economy was his strong preference, but not his prediction.

    ps Incidentally, he addresses what he terms the “Millennarian Fallacy” on pp.487-88 of Lean Logic.
    As you put it: “(Fleming) could be right that a climacteric is imminent and unavoidable. But then all the more reason in my book for us to be organising for it and trying to reorient the economy now in ways that will tend to diminish rather than amplify the problem.” Absolutely.

    • Shaun, what percentage of the people you meet at conferences, in discussions etc. (in themselves already a highly motivated subset) do you think are able to comprehend “rebuilding the informal economy of community and culture” as the abyss that it is, breaking with everything they might have imagined about the future of mankind?

      The only persons in my “field of influence” which could immediately grasp what that means experienced WWII and its aftermath of, shall we say, “lean years”, as children.
      Each time I’m talking to other subsets of the populace I’m either getting effervescent enthusiasm without practical talent or blank stares.

      • Thanks for the question Michael.

        First I should say that my overriding experience so far has been that David Fleming’s work – and specifically his writing – speaks directly to a common inchoate sense of loss. A sense that we have gone wrong and lost so much of what actually makes life convivial and enjoyable.

        I’m hearing a lot that his work helps people articulate and make sense of that, and reassures that the rebuilding of it (in whatever way makes sense to them) is not just some quaint and obsolete sharing longing but an absolute practical priority. As Jeremy Leggett put it, “less what we stand to lose and more what we’ve lost already and stand to regain if we do things right”. Not many blank stares in that regard.

        If of interest, you can gauge reactions for yourself at these recent events (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DOldfjUkElc ,

        I do agree that many (myself undoubtedly included) struggle to appreciate just how different the coming half century could be from the last. But actually one thing I really like about David’s work is that while he certainly doesn’t shy away from the climacteric, he doesn’t bash people over the head with it either, being much more focused on what we can do to make things better than on predictions of just how bad it could be.

        Hence I won’t venture the percentage you ask for because, for me, the fact that his work inspires also those who don’t necessarily see the abyss as darkly as I do is a real strength. As per his dictionary’s nourishing entry on Success (http://www.darkoptimism.org/Success.pdf), what matters is to make the intense commitment and get to work, not seek certainty on where we might be heading.

        I guess I’m yet to meet anyone without the practical talent necessary for strengthening the informal economy, but I meet plenty whose effervescent enthusiasm has been dulled by our culture’s continual messaging that they are wasting their time in doing so. For me, acting as an antidote to that is one of the great values in Fleming’s work.


        ps Of course you’re right that all of us can only speak to the subset of people who we have access to, but I was particularly heartened by one young Indian woman who professed her determination to spread Fleming’s work in her homeland, on the basis that she thinks her countryfolk are eagerly discarding much that is good in their culture in favour of the dead end of mainstream ‘development’. She sees Lean Logic as a tool to help them to see what is good in their traditions. All power to her.

        • I think I may be in the wrong (geographical) place here to expect something as profound as a sense of loss; neither the gooey sentimentality nor the equally pervasive cynical doomerism will contain any of it.

          I regretted writing ‘practical talent’ as soon as I’d posted the entry 🙂
          The suitable term is ‘stamina’.

          A wave of Transition Town washed over these shores a few years ago; today all that’s left are people busily registering a new website every week with ever more ridiculous-sounding neologisms denoting visions of an ever-greener future, competing for funding and attention with the older “green aristocracy” of the conservation societies.

          Re India: Is a warning against ‘plastic money’ included in Lean Logic?

      • That’s a fascinating point Michael – the experience of WWII and the attendant rationing… but I would expand on it a bit in two ways. First, here in the U.S. at least, the second war came as we were digging out from the Great Depression and it found a population already reeling from great disaster; almost a climacteric in a sense. Survivors of the depression may have been somewhat hardened for the experiences of WWII.

        Secondly – and perhaps more significant – both the depression and the war occurred within a single generation. My point then goes to the resilience of the human spirit. And I’m not advocating that a climacteric will be good news to force our better angles to the surface once again… just that if it does come to it, there may well be some pathways worth dusting off and reexamining. To your point that very few of us living today have any memory of that period… so true. But I’m inclined to imagine that faced with less than rosy choices downstream, those present will have to reflect their ancestor’s stoic determinism. If they don’t, they might find that life’s reboot is a touch meaner than rebooting some electronic game.

        • But then that reboot can always be deferred as long as possible by working that wealth pump as hard as it will go.
          That’s regarded as the local prerogative.
          Nothing, nothing but ever more regulations and consumption forecasts.
          Nothing lost, nothing to be changed, ever.

          Describing this, I am feeling weirder than ever 🙂
          Ah well, Italy has had its say yesterday, and in another year’s time this eye of the storm-effect will have passed and we’ll be moving into some direction.

  9. Chris:
    ‘Tis true that PV already outstrips good ol photosynthesis from an efficiency converting incident radiation. This fact gives nod to human creativity on the one hand, but overlooks a salient feature of photosynthesis on the other. Photosynthesis is linked to incredibly diverse storage systems. Indeed the fossil fuels we’re addicted to are photosynthetic products. Photosynthesis occurs across oceans, from sea level to the tree line on the highest mountains. At the risk of wearing out my welcome over repeated indications that plant breeding is a human endeavor to the rescue I will offer that we can (and have) made small increases in photosynthetic rates per unit incident radiation. PV technology has improved far faster in conversion of incident radiation to electricity – but it still requires quite a bit of externality (to Ron’s point). Oil seed rape is ok I suppose. But there are much better alternatives for broad acre production. And of course small farm production of veges and more human diet friendly plant materials is clearly one way forward. But continued plant breeding progress needn’t be cast as some overly technical or unobtainable futuristic scheme. We’ve done it in one form or another for thousands upon thousands of years. I for one think we might even be getting good at it.

  10. Thanks for the further comments. A few responses:

    Joe: “Since no agrarian peasant can craft build a PV module, its long term future is nil” – that would only be incontrovertibly true if we assume future societies will be comprised entirely of agrarian peasants working alone. If we assume agrarian populism, agrarian ‘feudalism’, or various other possible scenarios then it ain’t necessarily so. But you’re stealing my thunder for Part II of this analysis… I agree with you on the extraordinary versatility of electricity – washing machines, food processors, angle grinders, drills etc. all run off PV on my holding and saving a deal of work. Oh, and then there’s the tractor…

    Michael: I’m not so sure about relative price. If there were a major turn to wood energy in the UK with its 60+m population any time soon, then I suspect that the price (however measured) of land, including woodland, would go through the roof. I appreciate that the plummeting price of PV is causing people to hail it as the answer to all our problems, which it isn’t, but I think it’s worth incorporating its possibilities into a neo-peasant vision. Wood is great, but the problem with it is the rather low grade energy it provides. The modularity and grid-independence of PV is such that it would be an attractive option for the neo-peasant to spend their few miserable pennies of surplus money on. Maybe you’re right that we delude ourselves about how screwed we are – but if we’re sufficiently screwed that it’ll be impossible to manufacture PV panels, then I doubt that agroforestry will save too many of us either.

    Shaun: yes, I’d accept your characterisation of Fleming’s position which perhaps I elided a bit too much – I’m glad you’re around to keep me on the straight and narrow… Your comments help to sharpen the focus on where I probably disagree with him, which is on prioritising building local informal economies over systemic economic change. That way of thinking certainly motivated me to get into farming, and I still respect it – but ultimately I can’t agree with his view that the work of dismantling the market or moving towards degrowth will be done for us in any positive way: without political activism grounded in a systemic socio-economic vision of common interest, I fear that preparing for the climacteric won’t achieve much. Maybe you could argue that Fleming advances such a vision…I’m not sure…his way of thinking doesn’t always chime too well with mine. So maybe it’s just a question of a couple of extraneous lines – but I think there’s a wider problem in green thought of invoking ecological crisis as a solution to political crisis.

    Ron: I concede that Trump/Clinton is an especially dispiriting choice, but yes I think it does matter, if not necessarily in that particular choice (though I do struggle to see how the world is going to be in any kind of better shape to face its challenges after 4 or 8 years of Trump) then in the need to build macro political movements to improve such choices in the future. On PV, there are various EROEI figures available, almost all of them positive; I guess we have to interpret them as best we can, but to me it looks like PV shapes up better than most other options. And they don’t necessarily have to be made in China, if we’re willing to pay more for them. But given the type of global interdependencies you mentioned in your first comment, I can’t see that going cold turkey would be anything other than disastrous in the short-term. Longer-term – well, maybe PV could be a useful bridging technology. You’re right that our ancestors made it through without our level of energy use – but there weren’t 7 billion of them, and the proportion of clueless urbanites was lower too.

    Clem: may have to come back to photosynthesis vs photovoltaics in more detail anon, it’s an interesting issue. But I’d be interested in your suggestions for better broadscale options (at high latitudes) than rape. Storage indeed is a problem for electricity, though there are developments in that field. Then again, turning stored plant energy (other than of the fossilised sort) into high grade energy-in-use is also a problem. I like the idea of our better angles BTW – mine are a touch flabby and obtuse these days.

    • Not sure why you think wood is only capable of making low-grade heat, Chris. You can make steam at very high temperatures and pressures using wood as the fuel. Some of the woody biomass power stations in Europe do this already. Some woody biomass thermal systems are used in industrial thermal applications although for a number of reasons this is uncommon at present. By using the flue gases directly in a woody biomass system very high grade heat can be utilised. It’s easier using flue heat from fossil gas combustion for high grade heat as there’s less gunk in the flue exhaust. For some industrial high grade heat applications a slightly dirtier flue gas doesn’t matter. Heat exchangers can be used up to take heat off an exhaust stream that’s been tempered with ambient air down to, from memory, about 500C maximum. Blacksmiths use charcoal with a forced air supply to get metal hot enough to work.

      Most residential scale woody biomass systems deliver heat for uses such as hot water and heating. These are very useful applications for wood energy but by no means the only ones.

      On a related topic, anyone that thinks the Olduvai Gorge scenario is way too optimistic might benefit from perusing the wealth of information available on pre-industrial revolution energy systems. Wood was an important contributor but so were humans, animal traction, wind and hydro driving mechanical systems and even fossil fuels in the form of sea coal, for example.

      And I don’t see any evidence to suggest that we won’t have an electricity grid in one form or another for the rest of my life. The doomer and gloomer cohort have been predicting the imminent demise of the grid for at least ten years, saying that renewables can’t make useful contributions etc This is just nonsense. There are existence proofs already of grids with high renewable energy penetration. More broadly deployed grids with high penetration of intermittent renewables will have different characteristics but electricity will still be available.

      The only reservation I have about grid availability is concerted cyber infrastructure attacks through state-sponsored or other entities. This can be prevented IMO but it takes effort and cost.

      • And I don’t see any evidence to suggest that we won’t have an electricity grid in one form or another for the rest of my life.

        This assertion is true only if you are very old.

        The wiring of an electric grid is very durable, from the high voltage transmission lines to the local medium voltage distribution system to the wires in a home. But everything connected to the grid, especially on the supply side, needs not only a fully functioning industrial economy, but the financial system that mediates the transactions that make the economy work.

        The history of any major grid involves more and more efficiency as a result of more and more technical sophistication of generating units and user equipment combined. The only downside to that history is more and more fragility and complexity. It will be very difficult to keep a modern grid operating if our world-wide industrial economy simplifies even a little.

        As an example, even the biggest power plant in the world has relatively few people operating it. All are computer controlled, with all of the monitoring instrumentation and control equipment requiring very advanced manufacturing techniques from all over the world. The days of fly-ball governors and bare-backed men shoveling coal into the boiler furnace are long gone.

        The grid and modern semi-conductor manufacturing operate together. You can’t have one without the other. It wouldn’t take very many bankruptcies in the world of power plant control technology to make even the maintenance of existing power plants difficult or impossible. When they go down, so does the grid.

        And then there’s the fuel…

        • Well, I’m not so sure about this. Demand for the technology would be high, so bankruptcies would prompt other market entrants. I’d guess that this kind of technology (like PV?) is skills-intensive more than materials or energy intensive, so I’m wondering what the drivers for the disappearance of the technology you predict are – perhaps some kind of civilisation-ending generalised system breakdown: rapid climate change, energy descent, global economic and political meltdown? It’s a definite possibility. But at the risk of being one of those mentioned by Michael who doesn’t realise how screwed we are, I’m not sure that anyone’s in a position to claim that it’s a definite certainty. And regarding the energy descent – well, doesn’t your argument buttress Goodall’s case for making a large-scale switch to PV (or MacKay’s case for nuclear, if you prefer) asap? Unless you go with Ron’s cold turkey argument – a step too far for me, I think.

          • It is difficult to know exactly how much a forced reduction in complexity would cause a very complex system to fail utterly. I do know that the technologies that underpin the electric grid (and the internet) are among the most complex we have created. There are certainly redundancies in the suppliers of those technologies, but there are also single points of failure.

            I worked in a combined cycle power plant for about eight years. It had a custom distributed control system (DCS), with lots of built-in on-site redundancy, but by the time I left that facility, we had to check with aftermarket control card re-manufacturers for parts. OEM parts were no longer available. In addition, the software that ran the system was obsolete. We had to fly an expert in from thousands of miles away if we wanted to make a programming change. The software was so complicated that no one on site knew how to modify it.

            Check out Wikipedia’s entry for “distributed control system” for an overview of how complicated these systems are. This document https://library.e.abb.com/public/293177ca65704c5e85e78ca75da6f10a/3BUS094420%20en%20Automation%20Sentinel%20Life%20Cycle%20Management%20Program_rev%20N.pdf describes the program that ABB recommends to keep a DCS going.

            All this means is that to keep these complex systems going requires a great deal of specialized support. Given enough time and effort, any particular system can be made simpler and require fewer specialists and computerized equipment, but to do such a thing in advance would be very noncompetitive, so no one does it. Industry is trying to reduce human labor inputs, not increase them.

            It’s an old metaphor, but still accurate, that as we have climbed up the ladder of technology we have also cut off the rungs below. There’s no going down except by free-fall.

    • > “I think there’s a wider problem in green thought of invoking ecological crisis as a solution to political crisis.”

      Hell yes! I agree wholeheartedly.

      And yes, as per my preface, my primary motivation in spending the past few years working unpaid to bring Fleming’s books to publication is because they lay out by far the most compelling systemic socio-economic vision I’ve yet encountered, so you can rest assured I agree on the importance of that too! (even if the books don’t particularly do it for you)

      We do disagree though if you believe that Fleming saw an impending climacteric as somehow desirable or positive. I feel quite sure (having had the pleasurable advantage of many a drink with him) that he saw it as a most regrettable circumstance which he had indeed spent decades working to address – as Green Party economics spokesman and press secretary in the 70s, setting up The Other Economic Summit to counter the G7 in the 80s, etc. But also as a regrettable circumstance that we had likely irrevocably committed ourselves to now. As such, in his book he challenged himself to get real about starting from where we are, rather than where we might wish we were.

      But perhaps the root of your disagreement with his work is that he saw that climacteric as inevitably approaching over the coming decades, for all the reasons explained in his book, and so saw the priority as working to prepare for the fallout and shape how that is perceived, rather than to hasten its arrival.

      I can see that *if* your view is that the growth-based market economy could stumble on for the next 100 years or whatever, with all the additional devastation that would imply, then the appropriate course of action might look very different.

      And yes, as above, I totally share the misgivings with any approach that involves the destabilisation of our climate. I just don’t see any remaining alternative. But let’s save the rest for that drink we have planned, lest we risk straying into that tiresome favourite argument of environmentalists:

      All best, and all power to all that you do,

      • Chris
        just to say that I also have read lean logic and my reading of it matches Shaun’s rather than yours.

        Mind you I’d say it’s a somewhat gnomic work, overall, so easy to misread-between-the-lines – and maybe I’m even reading into it some of my own views?

        The best section, which I want to keep quoting at people is: “How to cheat in an argument: a berginners guide”

  11. David: thanks for the interesting info. I guess the conversation took a turn towards what kind of energy technologies can easily be managed or maintained on the individual homestead, and in that context I was thinking of simple wood stoves or boilers essentially as providers of low grade energy. But I take your point that technologies are not intrinsically limited in that way by wood as a fuel source. In the grid-connected, non-Olduvai future you discuss, I suppose the question then becomes how much wood energy can a society sustainably furnish for itself, especially in terms of the trade-off between combustion and its many other uses? I’d be interested in any thoughts on this. In such a future, I’d have thought that PV panel manufacture would be a high priority, as it would give a large, low cost boost to energy availability. Still, if it gets too easy to furnish all this energy, maybe we get back to the mess we’ve started with?

    Shaun (& Martin): I didn’t intend to imply that Fleming welcomed a climacteric – I appreciate that he didn’t. And I agree with you about the futility of the radical/gradualist debate. Maybe a topic for our drink could be the source of the macro-politics around a shift to lean thinking – for Fleming, I’d venture to say a (politically somewhat conservative?) reinvigoration of culture and religion, for me a (politically leftist) mobilisation around equality and class interests of the kind that he’s pretty sniffy about in his book. But there are points of convergence between our rather different worldviews nonetheless, and I’d gladly commend his book to any would-be reader as an original and endlessly thought-provoking contribution. As Shaun recently said to me, it can be easier to zoom in on the parts of someone’s thinking that we disagree with rather than the ones that we agree with – certainly a danger for me in Fleming’s case…I agree with a great deal of what he says, but I find the points of disagreement significant and thought-provoking. Anyway, I’ll publish my full review of his book on this site after the trimmed-down version has been published elsewhere – I’ll be happy to debate his thinking further in response to that, but I think it’s otherwise best for me to keep my powder dry on this.

    • Still, if it gets too easy to furnish all this energy, maybe we get back to the mess we’ve started with?

      What?? It may have a ‘kick the can down the road’ appearance I suppose – but another cliché for now: any port in a storm. No, not even going there. If we can replace our present energy consumption levels off of fossil and onto renewables then I think we have a chance to turn our attention to other dragons worth slaying.

      • I guess this is the kind of debate to which Shaun was referring. This post and its comments run the gamut from those who think human liberation is about harnessing as much energy as we possibly can, to those who think it’s about single households creating their livelihoods from the natural world around them with nothing but their own biotic energy. I guess my position is a possibly ‘have my cake and eat it’ intermediate one. But I do think our economies need to be more fundamentally grounded in our localities if we’re to get the right kind of feedback signals that will stop us screwing up, and I can’t see how that will be easily achieved with energy available at present quantities and prices. Then again, I don’t really subscribe to the Ian Morris view of the world that human history is really just the story of increasing energy capture – the socio-economic arrangements involved in capitalist production are a contingent fact. So, er, it’s complicated – but I’ll have all the answers coming up in Part II of this cycle.

        • I’ll have all the answers coming up in Part II of this cycle.

          I have already set up my monitor with a garland of roses and some gilding around the edges. I will turn on my recording of a trumpet fanfare the moment Part II is posted. Please forgive my hesitancy, but I’ll wait a bit before arranging to have the post carved in stone.

          • Very wise. I’ve often been described as the Fidel Castro of neo-peasant activism (albeit only by myself) and, as with Fidel, a policy of strict non-monumentalism is probably in order.

  12. I’ve never been convinced of PV as a long-term useful technology both for the reasons mentioned above and because efficiencies are so far below solar thermal systems. My instinct is that there’s significant scope for improvements in heat-engine-based heat pumps and, given that much energy use takes place in enclosed spaces where it dissipates as heat, I think there’s considerable potential for energy recycling. In principle, if the envelope of a building was made up of transparent inward-sloping, vertical air-spaces channelling air to a heat-pump, it could act both as a solar thermal air-source collector and as a very effective heat recovery system.

    Having said that, I’ve been flirting with the idea for quite a while without coming up with a viable design (and it may be be that there are intrinsic limits to the efficiency of heat pump/heat engine combinations which would prevent recovered heat being converted back into power). But it seems to me that, at the very least, that route could considerably reduce the amount of wood needed.

    • Well, I don’t have a technical background in this but I’m not so sure. The main reason given above for the unviability of PV was the manufacturing complexity – wouldn’t that be the same with heat-pumps, heat engines and efficient solar thermal collectors? On efficiencies, how would the efficiency of converting sunlight into a given amount of kinetic energy compare between PV/electric motor and solar thermal/heat engine?

      • Well, I’m not totally sure myself, Chris, and I’m happy to concede that there might be a place for PV in the long term. But I don’t think PV will contribute anything to thermal recycling (which surely has to be a core element of sustainable energy use), whereas a recycling system of the sort I’m envisaging would naturally absorb solar radiation just by making the outer layer relatively transparent.

        And, for whole-house systems, there’s a huge difference in the amount of high tech needed. PV is high tech at the point of collection whereas the solar thermal system would simply be channelling air towards a central pump; the collectors themselves are fairly low tech and they would make up the bulk of the system.

        Having said that, I tend to be a glass-half-full person and, looking at what biological systems are able to produce, I’m not sure that high tech is necessarily intrinsically incompatible with small-scale, local production. The fact that, currently, we can only produce certain things using hugely expensive processes that are only viable on a very large scale doesn’t necessarily mean that those things, or equivalents, couldn’t be produced using smaller, more local processes. Though whether that kind of development is possible in time for a managed descent is another question … which, quite apart from the technological challenges, brings us back to the obstacles in the current socio-economic framework.

    • I’ve never been convinced of PV as a long-term useful technology both for the reasons mentioned above and because efficiencies are so far below solar thermal systems.

      The main advantage of PV is its full-spectrum scalability. From the tiny module on a calculator to a grid-intertied multi-megawatt facility, it acts the same. PV just lays there and puts out electricity when light hits it, all with about the same efficiency. That’s why it’s so great as a distributed energy source and why people can easily substitute it for grid supplied electricity on just about any scale desired, including the agrarian homestead.

      The worst part about PV is that it is a very specialized and high tech industrial product. It needs a fully fledged advanced industrial economy to exist at all.

      Solar thermal has major scaling problems (except for low temperature systems) . Concentrating solar power (CSP) really only works at scales that require a fairly large grid to take any electricity generated. The large land footprint of CSP means that it is unlikely to be located near enough to population centers to become part of a combined heat and power (CHP) facility. CHP is needed to take full advantage of the heat collected. Without it, CSP rejects the vast majority of its collected heat to the surrounding environment. This means that the overall efficiency of solar thermal as a generator of electricity is not much higher than PV.

      The big advantage of CSP is that heat is far cheaper to store than electrons. Thus CSP can easily become part of a grid’s baseload generation, unlike PV, which requires expensive batteries to store PV output. Another big advantage is that it is fairly low tech. Frank Shuman built a parabolic trough CSP plant in Egypt in 1912 that would fit right in with any modern facility. It ran steam powered irrigation pumps, but was far more capital intensive than newly available diesel pumps, so the technology didn’t spread.

      As to your comment about a heat engine driven heat pump: you will never be able to increase the amount of heat available by such a device. It would violate the second law of thermodynamics. A heat pump will move around a lot of low temperature heat, but it will always sum to less than the heat used to operate the heat engine that drives the pump, regardless of the Carnot efficiency of the engine or the COP of the pump.

      • “you will never be able to increase the amount of heat available by such a device. It would violate the second law of thermodynamics.”

        Well, yes, Joe, but it’s not a matter of increasing the heat available; it’s a question of how efficiently it’s possible to recycle it, in order to minimise the amount of new energy that needs to be brought into the enclosed environment. What matters is how steep a thermal gradient can be achieved with how little input. And, in a speculative exercise like this, I find looking at what can be done with current technology more of a hindrance than a help.

  13. Chris, in your response to Shaun’s comment, you stated:

    “Shaun: yes, I’d accept your characterisation of Fleming’s position which perhaps I elided a bit too much – I’m glad you’re around to keep me on the straight and narrow… Your comments help to sharpen the focus on where I probably disagree with him, which is on prioritising building local informal economies over systemic economic change.”

    This seems to me to be an excellent example of Greer’s recommendation of dissensus as the most sensible contextualization as we move into the future.

    After all, one cannot at this point know which path is ‘best’ – working toward near term policy changes in the present system, or devoting one’s energies to local community building efforts. And so the answer, of course is not ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and,’ and the idiosyncratic answer depends on where one’s reasoning and inclination and talents and circumstances lie.

    In fact, we see this throughout this very engaging thread of various comments and responses. As far as I’m concerned, it has less to do with which path – PV vs wood, trying to alter present political trajectory vs building community and carnival structures for the post-climacteric period, etc – and more to do with choosing a path and getting the hell on with it! It’s in this sense that endless debate about which is the ‘right’ path serves us so poorly.

    The plain fact is that the uncertainty bars of the future (or, hell, even the present!) are just too big – we have no idea what’s going to work, what’s going to prove adaptive to future circumstances. That’s why I think your Wessex thought experiment is so important – it’s a detailed thinking through of a set of responses to one possible unfolding. We need a lot more of these thought experiments to address other possible unfoldings!

    Accordingly, those comments and responses that attempt to assert whose *vision* of the future is right or wrong, certain or not, miss the point and are actually – IMHO – worthless if not harmful. Instead, I find quite useful those comments along the lines of ‘OK, let’s say your overall vision is reasonable – here are the challenges I see with the way you’re planning to respond.’

    The distinction between these two approaches is, IMO, a vitally important one – I often see forum threads on various blogs (especially Resilience, ugh…) devolve into pissing contests (and yes, I’ve sadly participated in my share!) rather than engaging in genuinely productive discussion. I suppose that’s one reason I enjoy this blog so much – we get fewer of the ‘I’m right/you’re wrong!’ and more of the ‘interesting idea – but had you thought about X?’ here.

    As in this case.

    Also, wanted to thank Shaun for his contributions here. Shaun, I still owe you a review on Amazon for StF – I haven’t forgotten, just taking me some time to get to it. 🙂

    • While I certainly agree that the “error bars” around predictions of the future are large, some judgement must be made about the future in order to prepare for it.

      I think that in line with a conservative precautionary principle, forecasts need to err on the side of doom, especially if, as today, there is an error bar that includes it. If one prepares for the worst and the best happens, life goes on. If one prepares for the best and the worst happens, life doesn’t go on (for too many).

      Really wide error bars include catastrophe for the whole planet, something that’s pretty hard to prepare for. A smaller bar includes those who are committed to a long term residency in a city. That is a danger that requires a loud and clear warning about the dim prospects for urban life, followed by a thoughtful discussion of what to about heeding the warning.

      This site is better than most on all counts, but I’m more interested in the thoughtful discussion, since I’ve already taken the warning seriously. I wish more people would.

      • “If one prepares for the worst and the best happens, life goes on. If one prepares for the best and the worst happens, life doesn’t go on (for too many).”

        Joe, it’s my contention that statements like this – these kinds of oversimplified abstractions posing as guideposts to action – do us, IMHO, no good whatsoever.

        After all, what is “the worst”? I can think of at least a dozen different ‘worsts’ that each call for multiple and radically different responses. Which worst should I prepare for?

        That said, I agree with you that some judgment must be made – but I do NOT agree (if this was your implication – ??) that we should all agree to what that judgement should be.

        That’s my point.

        What I’m critical of are those who insist that their judgement is ‘right’ and we should all get on board (consensus); those who insist on seeing certainty where there is none. Probabilities, after all, multiply.

        So, again, for my part, I recommend dissensus, not consensus. Pick your vision – pick your judgement – and don’t worry about others who pick a different vision – else, it’s ego. Just get to work.

        • I have a vision and have been working on preparation for “the worst” for many years, long enough that when I began it was certainly not the consensus to do so, nor is it part of the mainstream consensus now. I am definitely not a slave to consensus. And I would have thought from the context of the discussion that you would know what my vision of “the worst” amounts to.

          Though I am not a slave to consensus, nor I hope to my own ego, I do believe that it is the function of informed discourse, especially on sites like this one, to make an attempt to narrow the range of probable scenarios for the future. It is then possible to evaluate the pros and cons of different responses to those scenarios.

          The very heart of communication includes not only the exchange of information, but persuading others as to what that information means (for the benefit of all). I am interested in communication, therefore I am interested in both information and persuasion.

          Agreeing to dissensus, agreeing that differences of opinion cannot, even should not, be reconciled, is admitting that no amount of evidence or reason can affect another’s understanding or judgement. It is an admission of a premature impasse, the truncated end of discussion.

          An impasse may be where any spirited discussion ends up, preferably after long and exhaustive exchanges of information and attempts at persuasion, but there is no reason to celebrate one. I guess we still might not have consensus on the value of dissensus, but I’ll remain open to persuasion.

        • Allow me one last attempt to persuade you that my comment about “preparing for the worst” was actually helpful rather than not.

          Assume that there are three general scenarios for the future: fast collapse, slow collapse, no collapse. Since you’ve been reading Resilience and Greer, we both probably have a fair understanding of what those scenarios represent without going into detail. I can describe them more fully if necessary.

          I agree that we cannot know for sure which one of these scenarios will happen, but we can attempt to estimate the relative probabilities. I really think that those probabilities are about 66%, 33% and 0%, but for the sake of persuasion, let’s assume that they are much more favorable for “no collapse” and that the probability is low for “fast collapse”. So let’s assume 16% for fast collapse, 33% for slow collapse and 50% for no collapse.

          I think it is obvious that a prudent person would still prepare for fast collapse. Note that at 16%, the odds of fast collapse are the same as dying in one attempt at Russian roulette, which a prudent person would never do.

          Also, if one prepares for fast collapse and what actually happens is no collapse, what is the harm? Nothing but wasted effort and ridicule from neighbors. I would gladly trade being ridiculed for having no collapse happen.

          So unless one believes that the prospects for fast collapse are virtually zero, it should still control the planning process for someone who is preparing for the future.

          I do realize that there are additional aspects to making plans based on this kind of assumption. Is it fair for some to prepare when others can’t? Should we make collective preparations rather than individual ones? But I still think that this kind of analysis is useful rather than “no good whatsoever”.

          • Joe, that seems quite reasonable to me, except I can’t really conceive of what preparing for a fast collapse would look like…other than maybe trying to prepare for a slow collapse more quickly. The issue is made easier for me by the fact that, while I certainly don’t wish for a collapse, I generally dislike contemporary capitalist society and prefer the way that I think certain kinds of post-slow collapse societies might look. So I prefer to discuss the shape of those societies and how we might approach them without getting too caught up in debating the speed and nature of a possible collapse.

    • My pleasure Oz, and thanks.

      In total agreement with your comments, btw. Greer’s ‘dissensus’ was definitely in my mind as I wrote my preface to the paperback version of Fleming’s work, Surviving the Future:

      “It is only appropriate that society should explore a diversity of paths in response to the challenges of our times, but I for one hope that the future that comes to pass is tangibly inspired by that laid out here…”

  14. Thanks for the additional comments – very informative. And for the meta-comment, Oz, which is encouraging – apart from the occasional aberration, we do strive here at Small Farm Future to find common ground out of dissensus. I appreciate the input of everyone who comments on here who generally seem to approach things the same way. I agree on the importance of construing different futures.

  15. I hope I’m not repeating what others have already said — I haven’t found time to read the comments on this post yet — but I wanted to say how much I appreciated your point about all the “science-based” B.S., as if science alone could direct us to actionable policies. I’ve come to despise every occurrence of the term “science-based” but, as a farmer, perhaps most of all in “food safety” legislation and pseudo-regulations like our so-called GAP standards. In a roughly similar vein, I also recently enjoyed re-reading Animal Farm and particularly this little bit: “‘Comrades!’ he cred. ‘You do not imagine, I hope, that we pigs are doing this in a spirit of selfishness and privilege? Many of us actually dislike milk and apples. I dislike them myself. Our sole object in taking these things is to preserve our health. Milk and apples (this has been proved by Science, comrades) contain substances absolutely necessary to the well-being of a pig. We pigs…”

    • Agreed – I think ‘science’ can be a variant of ‘evidence’ in the political world – as in ‘policy-based evidence making’. Shame, because it undermines the real importance of science, to our collective peril. Nice Orwell quote, spot on.

      • Indeed, very similar to the way “evidence” is used. I hadn’t thought about the similarity before.

        And I think you’re very right to also point out how the kind of language we’re talking about undermines the real importance of science.


  16. Late to the party, sorry. Good dissection of MacKay and others who would wield the bludgeon of science poorly or deceptively.

    I see PV as a rational ( and really only by default, with little else to choose from) direction, with the understanding that it is merely an extender for the fossil fuel era. It may only be be useful for the next few generations, but still able to soften the decline from our current energy use levels.

    I just don’t think that the overall complex manufacturing network is viable without the large fossil fuel input or resulting economy. Some technology suites can scale down, but those that can’t, will decline as groups, with clean room chip manufacturing being one of them.

    Am looking forward to the other boot dropping in Wessex, as I think the energy question will be the lynchpin to your peasant scenario, especial has it pertains to the relation of Wessex farmers to the rest of the “nonproductive” population.

  17. I just don’t think that the overall complex manufacturing network is viable without the large fossil fuel input or resulting economy. Some technology suites can scale down, but those that can’t, will decline as groups, with clean room chip manufacturing being one of them.

    Exactly! My son works for Intel, so I got a tour of Fab 11x in Albuquerque a while back. It was very impressive, but the complexity of that kind of production is amazing. Just to build a chip factory costs billions. It needs the entire world of high tech tooling, communication and specialized resource supply to function.

    When that world is disrupted microchips will disappear. When microchips disappear so does everything that needs them to function, which is….everything.

    An interesting fact I ran across the other day: Google’s power consumption is about the same as the city of San Francisco. And this doesn’t count the equipment of the people that use Google.

    • When microchips disappear so does everything that needs them to function, which is….everything.

      I dunno Joe… I still have a hoe and scythe, and I don’t think either one of them has a chip inside. I still know how to make them function too. Just sayin’ 🙂

      • OK, OK, almost everything. Your hoe and scythe are hopelessly old fashioned.

        As for myself, I can’t wait to have the IoT connect to my garden production. Just imagine, an RFID chip in every carrot with a monitor on the nearest fence post!

        • A chicken in every pot, and an RFID chip in every carrot. And dreams of sugarplums…

          I do want to push back against the notion that a hoe is “hopelessly” old fashioned. Old fashioned yes… but as weeds evolve resistance to herbicides I’m not sure hopelessly is the appropriate adverb. When the weeds evolve resistance to steel – then our control efforts will get really complicated. For me then there are times when I consider my hoe “appropriate technology”, even if it still isn’t connected to the IoT.

  18. Interesting discussion. So, leaving aside what any of us thinks should happen and focusing on what could happen, my question is what are the main grounds for doubting Goodall’s projections? There are various different forecasts for oil, but Smil for example considers reserves adequate for at least several more decades – so might it be possible to fund a switch to Goodall’s 3kW PV world from those and other fossil reserves? Once there, maintaining that infrastructure mightn’t be so impossible energetically, no? The main obstacles I’d then see to that scenario would be rapid climate change overwhelming human efforts to adapt, or human inertia/bad politics in failing to try to adapt, ie. not really energetic issues as such. I’d be interested in other views.

    • Main grounds for doubting Goodall’s projections? They’re projections. But they appear as reasonable as any others I might point to. If I compare your two scenarios I come down imagining inertia and politics will bite us more than anything else. Procrastination is very powerful in the Homo sapiens way of life. So long as we successfully kick the can down the road there will be those happy to stick to that strategy. The issue at hand is not new – Aesop wrote about it many centuries ago. Read the ant and the grasshopper. Does the question then become – do we need more ants and fewer grasshoppers?

    • I do believe the main threat to any future involving mass use of PV would be finance. Sure, we are seeing an ever expanding use of PV, but demand will inevitably push up prices.
      Governments the world over struggle with their budgets, so any benefits or support from them to promote further use will be less and less.
      And then comes the long awaited and anticipated hammerblow, when the bottom falls out from under the financial world. It would simply become too expensive to manufacture, transport and above all buy PV in enough quantities to somehow supply western populations with electricity. Given the current state of financial affairs, I expect that to happen in the not too distant future.
      The switch from fossil fuel to PV, wind, tidal or nuclear power is just not possible, given the extent of which we use electricity and in what way.

    • Funny to find myself in the unusual position of being on the ‘techno-fixer’ side of this debate – not that I think PV really ‘fixes’ anything, but I’m not seeing strong arguments against Goodall’s ‘switch’ other than the longer-term possibility that high-tech industry is screwed, and a good chunk of humanity along with it…which still isn’t a strong argument against a switch IMHO. On the price of panels, increased demand is lowering rather than raising price as we’re currently seeing, and as standard economic theory would suggest (funny to find myself invoking standard economic theory too…) I agree that a big financial meltdown is likely – but the way I see it, the implications of that for the amount of PV in the global energy mix are probably neutral to positive. I agree with Clem that the most likely fly in the ointment is human inertia and self-deception. But I also agree with Ron that we tend to forget how deeply fossil-fuel reliant we current are, so any plausible switch isn’t going to deliver us into a business as usual world.

      • Considering the various interesting worst-case scenarios outlined in this discussion, it sounds as though off-grid domestic PV arrangements are a wiser long-term bet than grid-tied. I understand the latter suffers power-out during power cuts regardless of the weather, though there may be exceptions to this?
        Regarding off-grid PV power in general, does anyone know if, once the PV panels have topped the batteries up they could automatically switch to run a device directly while the sun is shining (ie a ceiling fan in summer, a boiler in winter)? I am not aware of any products that perform this function, hence the question.

        • I’ve got an off-grid mostly PV system – yes, as I understand it the charge controllers can divert energy directly to a device and can be programmed in various ways accordingly. But here at 51 degrees north, you wouldn’t get much heat from a boiler out of them in winter … probably better to go with solar hot water heating, supplemented in winter with some other kind of fuel (a woodstove in my case) and keep the electrical energy for stuff you really need to do, such as writing blog posts on long winter evenings…

          • Thanks Chris – bad example on my part. PV-enabled hot water in the depths of winter! I was obviously dreaming again. Perhaps a device to hoist a little flag up a short pole should signal full batteries in winter. For some reason I like the idea of a visual cue other than a small LED on a charge controller that’s tucked away somewhere.

          • They are called “load diversion controllers” and many PV battery charge controllers can operate in that mode (as Chris points out). The best place for them is in small hydro, due to the cost of needle valves for the control of water flow. It’s cheaper to keep the water flow constant and divert un-needed electricity to a dummy or waste load.

            The main reason that load diversion controllers are not used more often is that very few loads are suitable for irregular and variable amounts of DC power. Resistance heaters are OK (for water heating perhaps), but if one uses a solar water heater, excess PV output is likely to come at the same time as excess hot water production.

            I have a neighbor who uses excess PV power to run a DC water pump that he uses to spray water in the air to aerate his fish pond. The fish can live without it, so the sporadic nature of the sprayer is acceptable.

            The best way to use “excess” PV power is to time the use of electricity, where possible, so that some loads can use it rather than take energy out of the batteries. We always do laundry when we are sure that enough amps are flowing into the battery that the battery will not be discharged (avoiding another battery cycle). Even better would be to wait until the battery is charged completely, but that can be inconvenient.

            Another good strategy is to never charge a battery with a generator if there is even a chance that solar can do the job. Always top off the battery in the evening rather than earlier in the day. If the battery is charged with a generator too soon, solar PV may have to be rejected, which is a waste of fuel.

      • Ouch, someone agreed with me… I feel my curmudgeon cred slipping. Oh well.

        To Ron’s point of increasing demand for PV pushing prices higher (and Chris’ counter that it isn’t currently working that way) – there is also the consideration that the price is also subject to alternatives. If oil and other fossils run low (or we include costs for externalities) their prices increase. If PV price increases, but not in step with alternatives, then it will continue to take market share.

        To Simon’s question regarding PV in an off-grid situation – I don’t know of a specific commercial product I could point you to, but the situation you’ve described seems to be a relatively easy one to accommodate with readily available gear like a raspberry pi. Briefly, you connect a sensor that gives you the current charge status of the battery, another that gives you the current status coming off the PV grid, still other sensors tell you whether you need more hot water or a breeze in the kitchen. Software in the raspberry pi would then be able to switch on a heater or fan when the batteries are charged. If you have a weather forecast system you trust you could even have software anticipate coming charge and allocate power accordingly.

        But Joe makes a good point about hoes… my hoe can’t do any of the things I just described. But I’ll hang onto it anyway.

      • Gail Tvergberg at ourfiniteworld.com makes the case that the energy scarcity/peak oil problem is not a problem with a lack of energy (there’s plenty in the ground) but a lack of purchasing power (it’s expensive to get the energy out of the ground). Fossil fuel extraction needs to be profitable to continue, but diminishing returns in extraction and increasing social complexity impinge on the profitability of extraction from both sides.

        The big-picture view is that the energy budget for running our society is provided by the gap between the cost of extracting fossil fuels and the utility that can be derived by using those fossil fuels. PVs narrow that gap because:
        1) There’s a large up-front cost for making solar panels (analogous to the cost of extraction)
        2) The marginal cost of electricity from PVs is close to zero, PV installations are heavily subsidized both directly and through debt, and as a result, the price per unit of energy is very low

        So in this view, production of PVs undermines the profitability (and therefore viability) of the fossil fuel extraction industry. This would be a good thing, except that the production of PVs is wholly dependent on that same fossil fuel extraction industry. It becomes a race with an element of feedback — can we build out a self-powered PV infrastructure before catastrophic failure of the fossil fuel infrastructure considering that the economics of the PV infrastructure contribute to the likelihood of such a catastrophic failure?

        • Thanks for that. Interesting comment…but I’m not sure I entirely follow the logic. Surely the gap is not a fixed quantity which is necessarily determinant of anything in particular – the up front cost depends on volume and technology, and saying that it’s ‘large’ depends upon what it’s being compared to, which won’t be fixed. I can’t exactly see why the marginal cost should be close to zero assuming given levels of insolation – surely it will be a function of installed capacity? And if there’s a price-driven substitution of PV or other power sources for fossil fuels going on, I don’t see why this is potentially catastrophic. The economics of it would surely suggest that rising PV prices caused by a fossil fuel squeeze would tip the scales back towards fossil fuel extraction?

          The comments on this thread about energy futures haven’t yet convinced me that there need be anything necessarily ‘catastrophic’ about it. Climate change seems to me a better candidate for catastrophes…

          • It’s a long and complicated argument and I don’t want to misrepresent it too badly, but I’d encourage you to take a look at the last few months of posts on ourfiniteworld.com and to seriously consider the arguments there. I think it’s an important perspective on the intersection of economics and energy and provides an interesting framework for thinking about the “great recession” and the subsequent jobless recovery.

            To try to answer you as best I can:

            “Surely the gap is not a fixed quantity which is necessarily determinant of anything in particular – the up front cost depends on volume and technology, and saying that it’s ‘large’ depends upon what it’s being compared to, which won’t be fixed.”

            No, it’s not fixed, and in fact it needs to be variable for this model to make sense. Profitability of fossil fuel extraction can’t go down to zero unless the price is variable. Also, Gail is pretty up-front about the fact that we don’t know either how big the gap is or how small it needs to get before we run into problems.

            Also, the model allows that a more equitable distribution of income could forestall the economic problems caused by a reduction of the “energy profit” from fossil fuel extraction. The problem is as much about middle and lower class folks having the spending money needed to buy houses and cars, which in turn depresses prices for commodities (esp. fossil fuels), which is where the problems come in.

            The idea is that if fossil fuel extraction ceases to be profitable, then it simply won’t be done for the relatively obvious reason that it’s a losing proposition in terms of money. That’s the catastrophe –the idea is that the change of fossil fuel extraction from net profitable to net unprofitable is a radical discontinuity in the operation of the industrial economy.

            “And if there’s a price-driven substitution of PV or other power sources for fossil fuels going on, I don’t see why this is potentially catastrophic. ”

            The specific argument against PV is a bit ancillary to the overall model — PV itself isn’t causing the catastrophe. But Gail argues that it contributes to the problem by undermining the profitability of fossil fuels. This is because:
            1) The substitution is not actually price-driven because the PV solar industry is heavily subsidized; since the fossil fuel industry pays taxes on net, this means to some extent we are funneling fossil fuel extraction profits into PV deployment, making energy more expensive (and therefore reducing the “gap”) on a global net basis.
            2) You may need to help me understand how the marginal cost per unit of energy from PV solar could be anything but near zero. Sunlight doesn’t cost anything, so once a solar installation is in place the operator doesn’t really pay anything for each unit of energy subsequently produced. Perhaps I’m misusing the term?

            There’s a lot more to the story and I don’t want to give too misleading of a view. I think this post might give a pretty good overview of some of the problems with renewables from the perspective of Gail’s model: https://ourfiniteworld.com/2016/10/27/how-researchers-could-miss-the-real-energy-story/ It’s a pretty summary and focuses on how this story differs from the usual peak oil stories.

          • I’m not an economist, so maybe I’m missing the point here. When I read Tverberg it always sounds to me like she has important things to say, but I’m never quite sure what they are. To my mind, the article you link makes a cogent case for the likelihood of a major economic collapse in the future, but the link with energy remains a bit obscure. A situation in which most people are too poor to buy energy may be catastrophic, but the catastrophe lies in the poverty and not the energy production profile as such. As you say, the specifics of PV seem a bit ancillary to all this – especially since present economic arrangements around PV are mostly contingent rather than intrinsic to them.

            On marginal cost, it’s all about the comparators. If it was cloudy yesterday but sunny today then the marginal cost of the extra energy I got from my panels today is zero. But the weather evens itself out over a year or two. If last year I got 1 MWh from my panels but next year I want 2 MWh then the marginal cost of the additional 1 MWh won’t be zero.

            Anyway, thanks for the comment – I probably need to think about this some more.

          • Thanks, Chris and Shaun. Tverberg’s analyses are pretty complex and are at odds with the conventional wisdom in economics (probably less of a deal for us than for others), so I can absolutely understand the feeling you’re talking about. I’m not entirely sure I’m completely on top of her arguments either, and in almost every post she makes there’s something to make me think she realizes she hasn’t yet found a great way to make her model legible to other folks who aren’t as steeped in the relevant subject matter.

            Re: marginal cost — I think the difference of opinion is entirely semantic — if you needed to expand your solar installation to go from 1MW to 2MW I would describe the physical installation as a fixed or capital cost and the cost of producing the extra 1MW as a (near-zero) marginal cost. I think either way you end up with a situation where the up-front costs of solar are more than for fossil fuels (but are subsidized, disguising the true cost from energy consumers) but the long-term costs are much lower (pushing consumers from consuming fossil fuels, which are cheaper on net, to solar energy instead — which makes fossil fuel extraction less profitable).

            “To my mind, the article you link makes a cogent case for the likelihood of a major economic collapse in the future, but the link with energy remains a bit obscure. A situation in which most people are too poor to buy energy may be catastrophic, but the catastrophe lies in the poverty and not the energy production profile as such.”

            An important part of Tverberg’s analysis is that almost all economic growth is due to increased consumption of energy. That is, the economy only grows when we use more energy than we did the year before.

            Extracting and refining the energy for use requires some amount of economic output. All the remaining economic output after energy production is what I’ve called the “energy profit” in one of my previous comments. This “energy profit” goes primarily to two destinations:
            1) maintenance of infrastructure, servicing of debt, rents, and more generally the costs of operating the economy as it exists today
            2) economic expansion; in Tverberg’s view, this share is basically equivalent to GDP growth.

            For the sake of completeness, I’ll add the costs of energy production back into the list as item number (3).

            So in Tverberg’s view, the economy grows more complex as it grows in size, and the costs of managing that complexity cause an increase in (1). At the same time, we are experiencing diminishing returns with respect to the cost of energy production — we’ve used the cheapest sources of fossil fuels and now we’re using fracking and deepwater rigs. Thus, (3) is also increasing.

            This means that the share of the “energy revenue” (not profit now that I’ve incorporated costs into the list) remaining for fueling growth is reduced. Note that this is also the share of the “energy budget” from which wages are derived. It’s also the share which is used to pay for the clothing, housing stock, and food produced year on year. Economic growth is fueled through consumer income ultimately, and so the declining share of the “energy revenue” budget making its way back to consumers translates directly into a slowing of economic growth — which hypothetically leads into the deflationary spiral that renders fossil fuel extraction unprofitable.

            This is, to my understanding, the link between energy and economic collapse in Tverberg’s model. To a point you made earlier, we don’t actually know how small (2) as a proportion of the total “energy revenue” budget can get before we run into problems. Tverberg seems to have argued on different occasions that $30 per barrel is too cheap (for profitability) and $50 per barrel is too expensive (for consumers to afford given the current wealth and income distributions). And to your current point about poverty being the real problem, it is entirely possible that a more equitable distribution of wealth and income would result in an increase in purchasing power and forestall the problems that Tverberg is predicting. However, this strategy would amount to kicking the can down the road because it doesn’t solve the problems with (1) and (3) crowding (2) out of the “energy revenue” budget in the long term. Another way to say this is that we’re not trying to decide whether the problem is declining wages or how we produce energy — because wages depend on producing and consuming energy (again, on Tverberg’s analysis) these are really different sides of the same coin.

            In this light, PV is bad because it takes up even more of (2) and we need as much (2) as we can get right now. But Tverberg’s view is also pretty hopeless in some ways — the only way out is a game changer energy technology that profitably produces energy equivalent to being between $30 and $50 per barrel of oil AFTER taking into account the cost of retrofitting our entire industrial system to operate on whatever the new fuel happens to be. I don’t want to suggest Tverberg’s analysis is absolutely true, or that there’s no reasons to invest in PV solar even if we take this analysis seriously. But you asked for serious arguments against PV, and that’s what I’ve tried to provide, even if I’m playing devil’s advocate to a certain extent.

            Chris, I really appreciate the chance to discuss this issue on your blog. (Frankly, the atmosphere at Tverberg’s comment sections makes serious discussion a little difficult.) This back and forth has helped me digest Tverberg’s analysis a bit and given me a lot to think about. I’d love to know whether the energy connection is any less obscure in light of the (most likely flawed) explanation I’ve tried to provide.

            PS: I thought the Dark Mountain manifesto was great, and I’ve really been enjoying your archives since I found your blog a few days ago.

          • Thanks wysinwyg and Shaun. I think I need to think about this some more, but thanks for drawing these economic arguments to my attention. The issue of the association between energy growth and economic growth is interesting – especially in the light of debates about pre-capitalist Chinese economic growth, ‘industrious revolutions’, high level equilibrium traps and the like, which I’m planning to discuss next year – in those cases, economic growth wasn’t specifically associated with increased energy capture. Anyway, something to ponder over Christmas…

        • Heh, that’s a very good description of how I often feel with Tverberg too Chris! Not specifically related to your current discussion of PV, but the other night I read someone describing Tverberg’s views second hand in a way that I found most enlightening as to the basic argument. Perhaps you will too, unless you’ve already got your head around this part:

          “SECTION TITLE: Peak oil may manifest itself in a low oil price

          Most people naturally believe that if we encounter oil limits, the impact will be high oil prices and shortage of supply. As is noted by Tverberg (2012), this view may be completely backwards, however, because the world economy is a networked system, and the way feedbacks work is not always obvious. Tverberg has argued that oil limits may manifest themselves as low oil prices and a “glut” of oil supply [4]. Her reasoning concerns the productivity of investments in general, when the cost of oil production is rising.

          When oil costs are rising, it is taking more workers, and more resources in general, to produce a given amount of oil, say one ton of oil. This is precisely the opposite of a gain in productivity; it is a loss of productivity, because the process is now more complex, and thus more expensive. More workers, more capital goods, and more resources of many kinds are required because deeper or more complex wells are needed, and more advanced technology is required. Therefore, Energy Returned on Energy Investment is falling [43].

          Economists often talk about the importance of growing productivity in producing higher wages for workers [44]. Here we are encountering the opposite effect: falling productivity of workers. This type of falling productivity is not generally measured in usual economic analyses, because these typically look at the efficiency of a particular step in the process, say, the cost of drilling one foot of oil well. The problem here is that the nature of the process is changing, so that many more feet of oil well are needed to obtain a ton of oil, and many other steps are also needed to be added to the oil extraction process. Viewed in terms of how many tons of oil a typical worker (or a ton of steel) can be expected to produce, productivity falls.

          As the cost of producing many types of commodities is rising, due to, in some cases, the diminishing returns (similar to the problem for oil), the world economy is reaching a situation where the cost of producing many commodities is rising, in a way that represents the need for more workers and other resources. This situation might be described as falling productivity of workers and resources. In such an environment, wages are likely to remain stagnant, or even decline, even as the cost of many commodities rises. This combination of rising costs and stagnant wages is likely to lead to a slowing of economic growth and even recession [4].

          One particular problem for workers with wages that are lagging behind is the difficulty of purchasing “big-ticket” items such as new homes, furnishings, or cars. As these items become less affordable for many workers, demand for commodities (such as oil) is reduced for two reasons: (1) Oil is required to make these big-ticket items. (2) These big-ticket items also use oil and other energy products in their operation. It is this lack of demand (really lack of affordability) brought about by falling productivity that can be expected to lead to low commodity prices, such as we are seeing today. These low prices are likely to eventually lead to the end of oil production.”

          Extract copied from “The Debate and Reality of Peak Oil in China”, Ke Wang, Yi Xiong, Yan Hu, Xutao Rui, Lianyong Feng, Yongmei Bentley. published in The Oil Age, Vol 2, No.3, Autumn 2016

  19. wysinwyg,
    Thanks for pointing to the ourfiniteworld link.

    In your comparison of PV to fossil above you make a statement about subsidy support for PV, and debt is included. I’m not clear how debt financing is considered a subsidy. IF debt is forgiven, then I can wrap my head around the subsidy angle, but otherwise I imagine debt service to be a fixed cost.

    And I agree that the marginal costs for PV are VERY small, but I’ll not agree they go to zero. Sunshine is not entirely free. There is an opportunity cost associated with it and in many instances the opportunity cost will drive the locating of panels. The arguments and models are not turned over by accounting for opportunity costs – just as fossil fuel use isn’t accounted precisely without consideration of what we now call externalities. Tradeoffs, substitutions, alternatives… necessary in many contexts, and not without costs we tend to overlook or ignore.

    • “In your comparison of PV to fossil above you make a statement about subsidy support for PV, and debt is included. I’m not clear how debt financing is considered a subsidy.”

      Sorry, this was my mistake — it’s difficult to try to summarize all the relevant aspects of what is actually an incredibly complex argument.

      There are ways in which debt acts like a subsidy — basically, it’s subsidizing the present at the expense of the future, or a way to “bring forward in time” future revenue. This was the sense in which I conflated them. But they are definitely distinct concepts and I should have been more clear for that (more on that at bottom).

      “And I agree that the marginal costs for PV are VERY small, but I’ll not agree they go to zero. Sunshine is not entirely free. ”

      Fair enough, though I claimed they would be near zero, not exactly zero. The relevant part is that the capital costs of solar (which are typically higher than the capital costs for fossil fuel extraction and refinement per unit of energy IIUC) are subsidized and/or purchased with debt (which is then serviced by growth derived through fossil fuel use) while the cost of energy to consumers is much lower than that for fossil fuels.

      In some sense, the subsidies constitute “sweeping under the rug” the true cost of solar-derived electricity. The true costs are not born by those buying the electricity, but drawn instead from taxes collected by either states or federal government (please forgive my US parochialism). Since consumers are not bearing the full costs of solar, they preferentially use solar instead of fossil fuels. But the extra costs of solar don’t disappear! They just get dispersed to the point where they can’t be accounted for very well in a market context.

      Debt financing of the capital costs involves a different set of problems, but (unlike solar subsidies) those problems are identical to the ones in fossil fuel extraction, so the distinction I failed to make between debt and subsidies is important and real — thanks for calling me out on it.

      And to be clear, I am not convinced Tverberg’s analysis is the be-all end-all of peak oil narratives. To some extent, I am playing devil’s advocate in response to Chris’ call for serious arguments against deploying PV solar (I suspect he did not expect one from this direction, though).

      • Agreed – subsidies do effectively “sweep away” and obscure real costs. Two things come to mind… we touched on externalities, and the other would be technological age (experience) – which I can’t think of a better way to abbreviate.

        I don’t want to directly conflate externalities with subsidies – they deserve their own considerations. But if we get down to trading costs for benefits and comparing apples to oranges, perhaps setting subsidies along side externalities might have a bit of merit. I don’t have statistics to hand, so I can only wonder how much of an upfront carbon footprint is made in producing PV infrastructure. Once produced the footprint shrinks incredibly. Fossil fuel’s footprint doesn’t appear to shrink at any point along the value chain.

        The other point – technological age – where I’m going on that front is the direct comparison of capital costs… are the capital costs per unit energy extracted for fossil fuels the same today as they were a hundred years ago (in inflation adjusted terms)? I’m guessing it’s much less expensive to pump and refine oil (and or coal for that matter) today than it was in the past. From this I’m going to suggest there may be sufficient technological improvement in PV technology as we spend a comparable time with it to improve the capital investment (per unit energy obtained).

        A mea culpa in advance for suggesting a technocentric future possibility in this space… but my scythe didn’t seem to be up for the PV part anyway.

        Oh – and thanks for linking the latest from Gail… she does have quite a bit on her mind. 🙂

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