Energy in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex

I think it’s about time I paid my next visit to the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex. But first, news of another publication from the Small Farm Future stable – a piece entitled ‘Why Britain should protect and cherish its small farms’ published by the insurance arm of everybody’s favourite farming union, the NFU. When asked why the tone of the article was more moderate than that usually to be found here on this website, Small Farm Future CEO Chris Smaje replied, “Because NFU Mutual pay better than the punters on this blog. Though, since you mention it, the donate button is…oh, you know where it is. Next question.”

Anyway, let’s get back to Wessex. On my previous voyages there, I’ve learned that the republic’s population – some 20% higher than the region’s current one – can provide for their food and fibre needs using organic methods and tractive agricultural energy from home-grown biogas. Which is quite something, I think. But agricultural energy is the easy bit. Can the republic provide sustainably and indigenously for its wider energy needs?

To answer that question, it’s necessary to define both what sustainable energy production might look like and what the population’s energy needs are. On the first point, I guess I’d say that it really ought to be a low carbon source, which pretty much rules out any kind of fossil fuel. Ideally it would also have to be locally available and at a cost appropriate to a substantially agrarian society, but I’ll come on to that soon. It’s possible of course that by the time the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex comes into being circa 2039 there’ll be a whole new generation of hitherto unheard of clean energy technologies available. But I don’t think we can count on it. As a starting point, then, I propose to look at how much energy we can produce locally from existing renewable technologies.

To address the issue of how much energy we need – well, no doubt we could debate that endlessly. Let’s start by looking at how much energy we use currently – and the answer is 2.85 kW per person directly consumed in the UK (and, I shall assume, in its Wessex subdivision). Or, to put it another way, something like a domestic washing machine rattling away on its full power usage day and night,  year-round for each and every one of us.

Can renewables realistically furnish us with that level of energy? I think there’s a clear answer to that: no. We often get excited about the possibilities for generating electricity with renewables and perhaps with other low-carbon technologies like nuclear, but we tend to forget that electricity only constitutes about 10% of our total energy use. Currently, fossil fuels power a good chunk of our electricity production and the vast bulk of all our other energy usage. I think it’s realistic to replace existing non-renewable electricity generation with renewables. I don’t think it’s realistic to replace the entire energy economy with them, barring some major technological breakthroughs.

So if we’re going to have a hope of a sustainably-powered Wessex we’re going to have to make some energy cutbacks. Let’s take a look at where the energy is used currently in the UK and see where we might wield the knife.

This is displayed in the pie chart below. The largest component of our energy use is transport, of which the largest component is domestic transport (at 20% of total energy usage), with 9% devoted to air travel. So there’s the easiest initial hit – I can’t really see much of a role for aircraft in the Peasant’s Republic, except perhaps for a few scientific and meteorological drones and the odd air show to remind us of more profligate times, so I think we can lop 9% off our total usage straightaway. It’ll be a fillip for the tall ships industry that used to thrive here in the west country.

Energy use



Personal domestic transport looms large amongst the rest of the transport energy use. I think we can trim that pretty savagely. Farmers are never that keen to leave the farm anyway, and we can try to beef up rail and bus services a little. So let’s reduce car journeys by 80%. Now we’re getting somewhere. Or perhaps in fact we’re not getting anywhere much. But maybe if electric cars catch on, the 80% reduction in energy won’t have to correspond to quite such a dramatic fall in actual journeys.

A lot of commercial transport energy is devoted to transporting food, which will be locally available in the republic, so I think we can make some savings there. It’s often said that long-distance commercial transport has a low energy cost, which is true and is reflected in the figures here. But it’s still higher than if you don’t transport food long distance at all, so I’d suggest that some savings can be made. Besides which all sorts of frivolous items get freighted around these days. Hell, there’s no time for all of that on the farm. So I propose that we can cut commercial transport energy by at least 30%.

The next hungriest energy user is people’s homes, which command 29% of total usage – mostly in the form of space and water heating. My proposal is that we can reduce this by about 60% – firstly by investing properly in retrofitting insulation for older properties, secondly by using more efficient combined heat and power stations for energy supply (which lend themselves well to renewable feedstocks) and thirdly by using pricing structures and general exhortation to encourage people to conserve hot water, turn the thermostat down and just put a bloody jumper on if they’re cold. Investing more in solar hot water systems may also be a good idea.

We now come to industry, which uses about 17% of total energy. At 23,600 ktoe nationally, this is only about 40% of the industrial energy the country used in 1970. The improvement partly comes from the fact that industry now produces about 17% more product per unit of energy input than it did fifty years ago, but mostly from the fact that Britain no longer has a significant mining, steel, car or shipbuilding industry as it did in 1970, and so now effectively imports a good deal of energy in the form of industrial products bought from abroad. On the other hand, in 1970 Britain’s heavy industry was to some extent an export industry, and given the agrarian nature of the People’s Republic of Wessex (many fewer fancy cars, remember) the need for 1970s levels of industrial production is debatable. So it’s difficult to determine an appropriate figure for industrial energy use. My proposal is to leave it exactly at its present value.

To give an idea of what that might look like, I’ve plucked some figures for the energy embodied in various materials from the internet and constructed the following table to indicate the sort of material resources that an abstemious farm household might use. The table shows, for example, that a four person household might have five tonnes of wood in their farmhouse and associated buildings, which they’d expect to last for 25 years. And so on down the list, including a 2 tonne tractor to furnish their own needs and that of forty-odd customers for 40 years (my own tractor has another three years to go before celebrating its 40th birthday), and a car or small van shared between two households (which, as it turns out, has by far the heaviest energy take). Perhaps some of these materials could be recycled at the end of their expected life, but I haven’t taken that into account.

Table: Lifetime embodied energy costs

  Emb. energy (MJkg-1) Mass (kg) Users Expected life (yrs) Energy use per person per year (MJ)
Wood 2.3 5,000 4 25 115
Plastic 13.8 10 1 1 138
Glass 32.3 50 4 25 16
Steel (tractor) 55.30 2,000 50 40 55
Steel (car) 55.30 1,300 8 12 749
Total         1,074

At about 1,100 MJ per capita, the direct usage figures assumed in the table for the Wessex population constitute about 7% of the total industrial energy budget I’ve construed of 23,600 ktoe allocated out on a per capita basis (apologies for jumbling up the units – I blame my data sources). Obviously, the industrial energy budget also needs to supply various intermediate goods, including the replacement of stock, and public goods as well. Is the 93% margin here sufficient to cover that? I’m not sure – I’d be interested in other views. I think it probably is. Indeed, perhaps these figures suggest the industrial energy budget could be trimmed a little. On the other hand, maybe we should allow our household a bit more plastic, a few more trinkets…my vote as an organic grower would be for extra Enviromesh.

The final component of the total energy budget is services, constituting 14% of total energy. A mere 6% of this services component is devoted to agriculture, which just goes to show how relatively energy-light providing food is. The other main components are retail (19%), warehousing, hotel/catering, and education (all 13%). I’m figuring we can make a few savings on the shops, warehouses and hotels – so I propose to reduce the services budget by 25% overall.

If we trim energy use in the manner I’ve described above, we can reduce per capita energy use in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex by a little more than half its present value – down to around 1.3 kW per capita.

Now that we’ve got energy demand down to something halfway sensible let’s look at what methods of generation are available and see if we can meet it.

To start with, we have about 700,000 hectares of woodland that could be managed for fuelwood in Wessex, comprising the woodland areas on the neo-peasant holdings, woodland edges on field boundaries and non-farm woodland. Assuming a sustainable yield of 3 tonnes of fuelwood per hectare per year, that gives us just under 50 GJ of fuel energy per hectare – or about 8% of our total energy requirement. Some way to go!

Well, we can throw in the biogas from silage anaerobic digestion that I looked at in a previous post – that gives us another 6%, and every little helps.

Looking at current sources of renewable energy provision in the UK there are a few other relatively minor sources we can add – biogas from human sewage, energy from waste combustion (which I’ll assume will be half its present value, as I think there’ll be less waste in Wessex), geothermal heat (too expensive, I’d think, to significantly expand on present values in Wessex), and wave/hydro energy, which I’m assuming we could at least double (see further comments below). Adding all that together, we get another 4% of our total requirement.

Turning to wind energy, the UK is well provided with wind although it currently only furnishes about 3% of our total energy use. This is partly because of government foot-dragging, but also because of the huge dominance of fossil fuels in the overall energy mix mentioned above. I’m not convinced that the massive expenditures and engineering feats required of offshore wind installations will be feasible in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex (there are no major offshore wind installations in the southwest at present), but onshore wind is another matter and is now relatively cheap. I think it should be possible to expand onshore wind tenfold in Wessex from the current per capita level for England (a lesser figure than the UK as a whole, which is inflated by high levels of wind energy in Scotland) – in which case we could furnish about 17% of the energy requirement from wind.

Totalling what we’ve got so far takes us to just 36% of our (already greatly trimmed down) energy requirement. At this point my hands get clammy and an insurgent thought pops into my head: “Oh my God – the ecomodernists are right. Renewables are a delusion! We need to go nuclear.” Well, let’s at least look at a nuclear option. After all, the current government has, in its wisdom, chosen to build a huge new nuclear power station in the heart of Wessex, not forty miles upwind of where I now sit. Hinkley C is projected to produce 3.2 GW of power at a minimum cost of £30 billion all in. If it’s built, I doubt we Wessexers will be able to keep all that energy to ourselves, so let’s allocate it out to the UK population on a per capita basis. And if we do that we’ll add, as a maximum, the grand total of 4% to meeting our energy requirement.

I guess you could argue that nuclear isn’t as limited by space and natural energy input considerations as other low carbon forms of supply, but at £10 billion+ per gigawatt – plus decommissioning costs and various other downsides – I’m really not sure how well this stacks up. You could argue that after the capacity-building exercise of Hinkley, future installations will be cheaper. Or, after watching EDF scrambling around and potentially bankrupting itself in its bid to build Hinkley, you could argue that in the context of a chronically sluggish UK economy, Hinkley probably won’t get built, and even if it is there won’t be any more Hinkleys after that. Phew! The ecomodernists are wrong after all – we greentards can rest easy.

Another grand option would be a tidal barrage across the River Severn. Going the full monty on this could furnish about 10% of our energy requirements. But it’d be another massive and prohibitively expensive engineering project. The Severn is a handy and scandalously underused bit of local topography for energy generation, and I’m sure there’d be scope for getting something from it with more modest schemes (as very conservatively projected above), but perhaps – like the government – we should leave big tidal projects on the back burner for now.

The other main way to go, as mentioned in an earlier post, is photovoltaic electricity. Suppose we put 15m2 of PV panels on the roofs of Wessex’s 3.15 million-odd households (the panels wouldn’t necessarily have to go on every roof – perhaps we can just imagine 15 m2 x 3.15 million = 4725 hectares of panels on brownfield sites generally). Assuming a yearly energy input of 5.4 Wm-2 that would give us about 30% of our energy needs. Well, we’re beginning to get somewhere now, but we’ve still only met 66% of our needs. Maybe we could meet the rest of them by putting PV on farmland. We’d need about 54,000 ha, which we could take from our permanent pasture. We could run sheep on the solar farms, rather than dairy cows. I’ve seen it claimed that 95% of the grass on a solar farm is still accessible for grazing, but since photons can’t simultaneously energise both panels and grass, we’ll surely have to reduce the productivity of the grazing. I’ve been unable to find a figure for how much, but I guess there’s going to be a fair bit of incident and reflected light on the grass at different times of the day. So could we say 50%? On that basis, we can still feed Wessex’s population just about adequately and meet our energy target. It’s quite a PV dominated solution, with about 2.5% of Wessex’s land surface covered with panels (you could, I suppose, put them out at sea as Miles King suggests for a solar-hydrogen solution – though since the main enemy of PV panels is water, I’m not sure if this is such a great idea).

Of course, there’s an energetic cost to manufacturing and replacing panels – as indeed there is to all the other forms of generation. Assuming an embodied energy of 4070 MJm-2 and a working life of 30 years, we’ll need to devote 8% of the energy allocated to industry to panel manufacture. Sounds doable?

Well, there you have it. It looks to me like the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex might just about be able to get by with a tight but tolerable per capita energy availability. There’s probably too much reliance on PV in the model I’ve outlined above in view of problems like intermittency. I think this can be overstated, and there are various evening-out technologies in the pipeline – but in the meantime, it’s probably best if we Wessexers aim to do our smelting and welding in the summer. Countries that, unlike Britain, aren’t stuck in a permanent swirl of cloud somewhere not far from the North Pole may find the PV approach more congenial.

There are other possibilities like crop biofuels. The issue here is competition with food crops (and lower per hectare energy output) – possibly remediable with such emerging technologies as algal biodiesel. Ultimately there are a set of rather complex tradeoffs between energy descent measures, energy cost per joule, energy productivity per unit area, embodied energy costs and various specifics such as engineering complexity, decommissioning costs etc. It looks to me like they might be resolvable – just – through a mix of solar, wind and tidal energy with some biofuels thrown in and strong downward pressure on usage. What seems to me more likely in practice is that the government will persist with a high energy route of fossil fuel and nuclear with a smattering of renewables until it runs out of road. Well, never let it be said that Small Farm Future wasn’t here pointing it towards the path of righteousness…

93 thoughts on “Energy in the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex

  1. Harumph.

    You mention embodied energy, an aspect of Energy Return on Energy Invested, when you discuss the offshoring of manufacturing energy consumption and when you recognize that 8% of industrial energy must be allocated to make solar panels.

    But many other parts are much too kind. No, the ecomodernists are not right.

    It is not just the amount of energy that matters, but also the kind of energy. For example, metallurgical coal is used both to refine iron, but also to add the carbon that creates steel.

    Burning gas for heat is more effective to heat your home because the energy use results in the desired outcome. If you burn gas to heat water to make steam to spin turbines to spin generators to transform into high voltage to run through cables to step down to household voltage to power electric heaters you suffer losses at every step of the way (except the very last step)

    So, reducing carbon to the level needed to perhaps survive climate chaos is going to mean a lot more change than just insulating and switching to LED lightbulbs.

    There is a vast amount of fossil fuel use baked in the nuclear cake, for example. Huge amounts of concrete are made with cement baked in fossil-fueled kilns. Huge amounts of reinforcing steel the same, plus the extremely refined steels used in fabricating the actual nuclear vessel.

    The economies of scale matter here, speaking of extremely refined materials. We now use Moon Shot Materials as part of our everyday life. But, if we are cutting back on consumerism in order to meet our energy budget and fossil fuel constrictions, we won’t have that economy of scale.

    What this means is nuclear will be much more like a Manhattan Project or Apollo Mission, in which every single material has an entire manufacturing industry that needs to be specifically built just for it. Obviously, these nuclear and space programs were energy sinks that consumed vastly more material and energy than they ever created.

    Which means they will not appear in Peasant Wessex. If you use more calories than you eat, you fall down in the fields of starvation.

    Backing up a bit, just back to general industry…

    I am unaware of ANY solar powered HEAVY industry. Hoeing potatoes is not heavy industry, and can be solar powered. Manufacturing tractors is heavy industry, and currently is fossil-fuelled. I have never seen anybody, ever, anywhere try to figure out how to make solar powered heavy industry.

    What do you want to build? Something with a concrete floor perhaps.

    Okay, the lime is mined with an excavator. The excavator is made of steel, cast aluminum and rubbers. These are all mined, refined, and manufactured using fossil fuels (except for aluminum which is often refined and cast using hydropower. Which comes from dams made of concrete and steel….)

    The excavator loads into a truck made of all the same materials with the same need for a whole manufacturing chain. The truck visits a crusher, with the same need for the whole fossil-fuelled manufacturing chain. Then off to a smelter, which adds the need for concrete to the steel and aluminum you have used so far. Now you have the raw materials to begin thinking about building something—this is just a discussion of the sort of industry needed to have in place in order to manufacture cement so you can pour a concrete slab let alone anything advanced like turbines or reactors, or the mining and refining needed for nuclear fuels.

    Massive amounts of fossil fuels.

    The ecomodernists are ignorant of the real world.

    There is a reason we saw broad application of industrial engines like tractors long before private automobiles—they pay off. The EROEI is positive.

    Furthermore, tractors can be built to lower tolerances and are wildly simpler than cars, without all the airbags and plastic trims and whatnot.

    Large bioenergy plants that feed into some sort of grid, then, also require this massive fossil-fuelled manufacturing chain, even if they are trying to burn bioinputs instead of fossil fuel. And the grid itself, of course, is fabricated of and with fossil fuels.

    Reducing fossil fuels to a survivable level will likely be a lot more drastic than anybody wants to admit. The great majority of energy used will have to be used much closer to its point of generation.

    Our cities have been built in a way supported by fossil fuels and will likely not function with lower energy density fuels. So that will be highly disruptive.

    All of this supports the need for peasant agriculture. But will give us no comfort that after a hard day peasanting we will be able to go home and relax with Netflix.

    • Good grief dude… the whole problem is simply solved by planting your trees on the south side of east-west running streets (and by zoning restriction, not allowing trees – except smallish fruit and nut varieties on the north side of said streets). If you need proof of this see the Small and Delicious Life guy… he’s a genius. [placing snark generator back in holster]

      I’ll acknowledge there is far more built in energy in the high tech than meets most eyes. But a fair deal of the investment has already been made in some locations. Clever applications may allow building out some future tech needs to tide some populations over while the evolution marches along.

      Your point about tractors is right on. Steam engine tractors were out and about before gas or diesel (though yes, the steam was generated by wood… not strictly fossil, but typically quite local and much lower tech).

      I’d like to think we will have a few advantages over our pre-industrial ancestors, without having to resort to forecasting technologies like hydrogen. Though a really cool hydrogen future might allow the Netflixers some respite… perhaps watching on even numbered evenings?

      • Clem, I can only harumph again.

        Your snark cannon must be getting a little low on batteries. Though (preens his feathers), I will admit my erudition, eloquence and casual good looks are quite hard on snark batteries.

        And what are you snarking about?

        You admit there is more to high-tech manufacture than meets the eye, and you suggest ingenuity will tide some of over at least some of the days.

        But in your response to Chris, you talk about the difficulty of getting parts for your old tractor.

        This is why it is called a supply chain. When one link breaks, the whole thing is useless. It is not a Supply Frayed Rope, it is a Supply Chain.

        Sure, you can wind a bunch of wire around to make a link, but that will be weaker. Or perhaps, your starter motor can be kludged with a lifter from some jet airplane ailerons. Great. Now you have welded on a giant huge ingot to your broken chain.

        These things extend the life of the system, and I am totally sure that is what humanity will be doing in various ways for centuries to come.

        It is true that I tend to think too much about sustainability, in the true sense of the word, so if we are trying only to be successful in Peasant Wessex in 2039, I doubt the grid will have fallen apart by then.

        But why would we invest in systems that are destined to fail? We could be working on the really good insulation and LED lights that would eliminate a huge amount of household energy use while still allowing comfort. We could be working on composting and micro-water utilities.

        We could be speculating again about how to truly slash energy and material throughputs by sharing traction power with travelling ploughs and harvest equipment.

        Let’s not waste our precious few resources on nuclear plants. We need to preserve industry for medicines, for insulation, for solar panels and lighting, and for some heavy machines.

  2. Chris,
    Your tractor is just a baby. Mine turns 60 on its next birthday (though “birth”day sounds inappropriate somehow). Anyway, biggest challenge with 60 year old kit is parts replacement. Fortunately for me the particular tractor I have was fairly popular back then – and there are bone yards. Most of what I need for typical maintenance is readily available (filters, sparkplugs). If I need something more serious I’ve either got to trek to the bone yard or improvise a replacement. As an example of what this latter entails – this particular tractor was built and sold without a starter (crank start). A starter was added after market (long enough ago that I’ll wager the starter is well over 50 years of age). Anyway, there are other pieces cobbled on and with some imagination I’m hoping this orange beast will last as long as I do.

    • Interesting. Do you think the tractors that have been turned out over the last decade or two will last as long? My instinct is that all the fancy electrics will weigh against them. Which perhaps touches on Ruben’s point – in what ways can we engineer resilience into products, and at what geographic levels can we expect such industries to occur?

      • Interesting question. I imagine there might come a time when fancy new technologies are imbedded into equipment such as a simple field tractor that upon failure will render the whole piece a mere pile of parts. But I’ve been ‘through the field’ so many times upon the back of an injured piece of equipment that was rigged into submission and goaded into life long enough to complete the task at hand and survive to the surgeon’s lair. Ok, so overly lyrical. Just preening for the camera.

        My point is fairly simple. A Supply Frayed Rope is still a rope. Beats starving. And really – accessing a bone yard for ancient parts is not such a frayed reality if one is within reach and mechanically capable folk are available. I have been fortunate in this regard. The 1957 Allis Chambers D-17 that I referred to was fairly common, and there are original parts in bone yards, and machinists capable of manufacturing pieces which on the surface would appear a Band-Aid but if cared for can outlast the remainder of the unit. Given the upfront investment (I bought the tractor a few years ago for less than $4,000 USD), have purchased a new battery, couple filters, fuel and oil etc. and if I compare the work it has rendered thus far to what I would have paid in tractor rental for a similarly sized unit I am close to having my total investment back.

        I should perhaps return to this thread later in the season once I’ve gotten the next needed repair accomplished. The left rear wheel is in need of some TLC and this may toss back the date of investment recovery. But I’ve no fear a repair can be made, and possibly even within a few miles of where it sits. A conversation with a local mechanic about the wheel situation sent his eyes all ablaze and his interest barely concealed. The chance to put one of these ‘back in the field’ made him seem gleeful. So I’m not alone in 1) being so cheap I’ll use what is ever to hand; 2) old enough to have used this same kit as a youngster when it was state-of-the-art; 3) proud to keep such beast in play… even if not totally economic (though how could it not be?) just for reminiscence of the time gone by.

        Sorry for rambling on. The newest versions of tractors can be engineered to outlast even the youngest investors… but I do think there are better approaches to some of the more fragile ‘new’ goodies. If an electronic component failure leaves a tractor dead in the water with little or no chance for a work around then the engineer has failed his customer.

        Oh, and Ruben… my snark generator doesn’t use batteries. A beer or two leaves it in the best of condition. 🙂

          • David:
            I think the Oggun looks incredibly similar to the Allis Chalmers G, check out:


            But aside from the physical resemblance I do want to keep looking at the Oggun page you’ve pointed to (and their other stuff) – so thanks for that.

            Earlier in the thread I mentioned my AC D-17 that is nearly 60 years old. We had a D-16 on the farm when I was growing up. The two a very similar and I felt like a kid again when I climbed onto the D-17 at the auction. There was an AC-G at the university research station when I was in college. A great piece of kit for small plot research. I know a place in southern Illinois where there are a couple G’s and have been toying with the idea of getting one of them. Now thinking I’ll also have a closer look at the Oggun.

  3. Ruben, you seem to be objecting strongly to something I’ve written above, but I’m not quite sure what it is. Just to be clear, in the post above I explicitly rule out any reliance on nuclear, offshore wind or major tidal power, which takes a fair bit of concrete and other high tech stuff out of the equation. I don’t think anything I wrote above could be construed as suggesting I consider it likely that Wessex neo-peasants will be watching Netflix, and I don’t think I said anything especially complimentary about the ecomodernists (I was kind of joking around with them, as is my wont).

    On other points – sure, nobody’s yet tried to figure out how to create a predominantly electric powered heavy industry. Why would they? Most electricity comes from fossil fuel anyway, and fossil fuels are generally better suited to powering heavy industry. But since renewables tend towards the electric and if needs must, then I’d guess that would be the way industrial developments would go. You can, after all, produce hydrocarbons using electrical energy. But again, just to be clear, nothing I’ve written above suggests that energy and industrial production would be as profligate as at present. Indeed, I explicitly suggested otherwise to the tune of more than 50%. If you’d like to push that figure downwards, I’d be interested to hear about it and could probably quite easily be persuaded that my assumptions were too generous, but I’d like to see some specific calculations. For my liking, discussions in this area tend too much towards a ‘what aboutery’ designed to prove we’re all screwed – in which category I’m inclined to place your point about the complexity of product chains and the difficulty of sustaining them in a non or post fossil fuel energy economy. It’s not that I think you’re wrong – it’s just that I think we need to start specifying these kinds of things a bit more precisely rather than invoking them as blanket truths to prove that the future is hopeless. A small example: while I doubt there’s much of a role for private cars in any kind of sustainable future, it’s not true that cars are intrinsically more complex than tractors, indeed if anything I’d say the opposite (no PTOs, 3 point linkages etc to worry about). I’m not sure it’s true that tractors predated cars either, though I think your wider point about industrial EROEI is valid – albeit then we get into some dodgy terrain about economies of scale and the purposes of industrial production. Still, my projections above are roughly in keeping with your argument here inasmuch as I proposed cutting back mostly on high cost domestic activities.

    I’d be interested to see some more detailed energetic and product projections for the industrial base of a future agrarian society, but I’m not inclined myself to go much further down that route – partly because I don’t have the expertise and partly because I think laying out detailed technological bases for the future is an intellectual hiding to nothing. All I intended with this post was to rough out some possible energy need and energy generation scenarios. I’m interested in seeing alternative suggestions, but your comments are quite generic and don’t really suggest to me anything that I’ve got fundamentally wrong.

    You write: “Let’s not waste our precious few resources on nuclear plants. We need to preserve industry for medicines, for insulation, for solar panels and lighting, and for some heavy machines.” Quite so – and that, surely, is exactly the implication of what I’ve written above.

    • I am sorry Chris; as I was writing this I was wondering if I had merely descended into incomprehensible rambling—but I couldn’t see any way out of it, so I just pressed Reply.

      I am going to blame most of my ire on the fact you even dared to ask if the ecomodernists were right and posited the possible addition of 4% nuclear power for Wessex. I know you later affirmed the ecomodernists are in fact wrong and that Hinckley stands a good chance of not being built, but I had already gone off the deep end by that point.

      So, I will try to make some sense, thanks to your gentle requests for clarity.

      First, some long quotes, from Bill Rees, one of the developers of the Ecological Footprint model, who wrote this in a news group:

      “To go back to the example, one frequently hears about German progress in renewable energy and that the country gets 30-40% of its energy from wind and solar or sometimes just solar.

      The reality is that all renewables combined account for about 30% of Germany’s electricity generation (not total energy output) and that solar contributes about 20% of that. In other words, solar contributes only 6% to Germany’s electricity output—and keep in mind that electricity represents only a fraction of total energy supplies and actual demand (there are differences between domestic production and consumption because of intra-Euro Union trade).

      So, what about actual demand (consumption) of energy in Germany? The important facts are that about 79% of Germany’s total energy needs are still supplied by fossil fuels. All renewable alternatives combined satisfy only 12.6% of demand and only 10% of this is solar (the residual is nuclear). In short, Germany gets about 1.3% of its total energy supply from solar not that impressive considering the tens of billions of Euros Germany has invested in solar installations (2016 data).

      Now, there’s a big difference between the 40% of energy from solar sources claimed by the CBC’s respondent and the actual 1.3%, yet the listening audience would go away deceived, misinformed on a major policy question. The more often such errors are repeated, the more difficult it is to have a rational discussion of energy prospects.

      This is why “show me the numbers” is a critical demand at every stage of the debate.
      As for your and Harry’s other points, you are quite right that adding the energy costs of chemical or physical storage further reduces the ERoEI.”

      “Part of the problem is that we must invest energy in order to produce energy—it takes a lot of energy to supply energy reliably.

      The critical factor is a ratio called ‘energy returned on energy invested’ (ERoEI). Analysts have suggested that an energy source needs an ERoEI of 5:1 to 7:1 to be able to power civilization. Thus, when considering the viability of any alternative energy alternative, the following question is paramount:

      “Can the proposed energy source generate sufficient output to produce itself—i.e., its entire supply chain, from mineral mine through refining and manufacturing, to equipment installation operation and maintenance—and still provide the surplus needed to fuel the rest of society’s needs.”

      Such a comprehensive ERoEI is called an ‘extended’ ERoEI. (Often, ERoEI’s for alternatives such as wind or solar are based on only the energy embodied in the solar panels or windmills. They ignore all the upstream energy inputs and thus greatly exaggerate the viability of the proposed alternative and are therefore inadequate for decision-making.)

      So far, only fossil fuels have an unambiguously adequate extended ERoEI to maintain civilization (but even petroleum’s ERoEI has fallen from 150:1 a century ago to about 15:1 today globally). By contrast, corn ethanol in the US barely breaks even and some analyses suggest it is actually a net energy sink (i.e., more fossil fuel energy is required to produce corn ethanol than is contained in the product). Similarly, recent studies of solar photovoltaics in Spain and Germany suggest that the ERoEI(ext) may be as little as 2.5:1 and less than one respectively. (Again, wind and solar energy technologies, like ethanol, are presently heavily subsidized by fossil fuels. )”


      •Global CO2 is now steady above 400, despite the world agreeing that 350 MIGHT preserve civilization.
      •What were once merely drastic cuts in fossil fuel use now require total cuts in fossil fuel use in order to reduce truly catastrophic results and shorten the number of centuries of recovery of climate stability.
      •Global fossil fuel use is 87%
      •UK FF use is about 80%. I chose this chart to be generous, even the official Govt. stats show less than half the use of renewables.
      •so in order to cut energy use in half, as you suggest, and run on renewables, global renewables would need to quadruple and UK renewables would need to rise 250%.
      •this is actually impossible, as the build-out of all that renewable infrastructure requires fossil fuels from tip to tail, which is probably the bulk of my ramblings above.
      •a paper which looks at the numbers on this is “Exploring the hypothetical limits to a nuclear and renewable electricity future” Benjamin K. Sovacool

      Now, as far as my mutterings about supply chain:

      A perfect parallel comes from my dear friends James and Alisa when they began eating locally. I said, “That is easy, there is a small bakery right there.” But the wheat was shipped in.

      This is how many people look at manufacturing. They see a factory that builds things and do not understand the depth or breadth of the industrial supply chain that feeds that factory.

      Now, I absolutely respect and love the tack you are taking with this series, though it differs from the tack I take in some ways.

      Personally, I am greatly concerned about the time, money, energy and material resources we are sinking into projects that have no future. So, I would rather we try to understand what limitations we will have, and then focus our resources on strengthening the parts of our world that we will have left.

      So, for example, I think there are multiple factors that suggest more high-labour, low-inputs, locally grown and processed food will be a big part of our future. Therefore, I support local food, and love this series.

      Some people look at some of those multiple factors and decide that high-tech vertical farms is the answer. I think that would be a massive waste of resources.

      So, when you suggest that a a big chunk of Wessex be covered with large solar, it immediately necessitates a grid, which then means then we need big power installations to balance that grid. We can use hydro for that, but we are right back into the fossil-fuelled and globally interconnected supply chain. After all, you can’t make steel in the UK, because you already burned all your own coal.

      Okay, I feel like I have returned full circle to helpless rambling, so I will press Reply again.

      • Ruben, you have pointed out the unaknowledged externalities in Chris’ text and Clem’s comment. Defining the scope of a task without being under any illusions as to what the appropriate technology to achieve it will be can’t be a form of pessimism.

        • Unacknowledged externalities…well, maybe. There’s quite a large cushion between need and supply in the figures I outlined above – abolishing it by fiat in relation to largely unquantified assertions about implicit costs doesn’t go a long way to defining the scope of the task in my opinion. I’d prefer to see an actual alternative scenario. Still, I’d acknowledge that the heavy reliance on PV in my scenario above is probably unrealistic. Then again, there’s plenty more scope to cut demand in the scenario. I don’t have much use for the optimism-pessimism couplet, but I find the rather generic comments here about externalities or implicit costs more rhetorical than germane to the scenario I outlined. It’s a common problem whenever anyone sticks their head above the parapet and dares to quantify some kind of future scenario – assumption-assassination trumps model refinement. I’m starting to feel that I’ve done enough parapet-protruding with this whole Wessex thing, so I’m inclining towards abandoning any further attempts to specify what the material-technical shape of such a society might look like and turning my attention to broad political economy, which is ultimately where the material parameters get set.

          • But saying that we’re ‘abolishing by fiat’ a system that’s not based on the belief that fossil fuels are either inexhaustable or can be replaced without major disruptions in the few years that petroleum will still be able to deliver high EROI … I don’t know… what is it we believe in?

            The first part of that couplet is something you attached to Ruben’s thinking by the way, hence my defence of him (yes, that was sticking out his head.)

            To go even further: I’d like to assure him that even if he himself thinks of his writing as pessimistic, it doesn’t come across this way.

            And in that thoroughly positive vein: The only topic we might really want to abandon talking about here forever is climate change. Deliberation of this topic can be performed by useless people.

          • Michael – the ‘abolishing by fiat’ I’m referring to isn’t about assumptions concerning smooth energy transitions or fossil fuel inexhaustibility. It’s about quantifying the externalities to which you refer rather than assuming a priori that they’re insuperable within various possible transition scenarios.

            On pessimism, with all due respect I didn’t use the word to characterise Ruben’s position. Quite simply, I’m not criticising him for being ‘pessimistic’. I think you’ve misunderstood my position.

          • Oh, they are not insuperable. But I most heartily agree with you that any calculation of the how and when is an exercise in futility compared with attempting to lay out the political foundations of resilient, regenerative landscape.
            No amount of man-made climate change can do much harm to a landscape mosaic created by peasant farming societies.
            Firewood has a tremendous EROI – provided it’s being used by people in that kind of landscape mosaic.
            Not a single seed paid for by Bill Gates is needed to feed anyone but him, provided the mosaic is kept intact.

            And of course, the easiest part is planting and tending the mosaic.
            The most difficult one is step one on that way – not allowing interference by the “altruistic globalist elites” to drive us even one step further in the wrong direction.
            Right now, on the Balkans, 500 year-old trees are being grubbed out of pastures because EU satellite imagery says they’re in the wrong place, while NATO is busy staging the next war against imaginary enemies.
            Yes, more politics please.

  4. Here we are in the full bloom of industrial civilization and industrial agriculture. Huge amounts of energy cost very little. If we assume that the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex is ‘just’ an aesthetic preference for small, cute farms rather than huge agri-business ventures, I don’t see why we should worry about energy or where it comes from. Peasantry would then be just another life-style choice, albeit a rewarding and creative one.

    If the Republic is intended to be an example of a sustainable form of agriculture that can supplant industrial agriculture for the very long haul, then I see an inherent contradiction in having such a “sustainable” Republic relying on energy systems that only industrial civilization can supply and support. To be truly sustainable, the Republic must rely on energy equipment produced in the Republic, allowing only the odd bit of imported specialty material such as, for example, wrought iron for sleeve bearings or perhaps some fasteners like bolts and screws which might come from the next republic over. Don’t even think about something like a hydraulic line for a tractor. For a peasant’s republic, that’s about as high tech as a computer chip.

    If the Republic is to be a halfway house between industrial agriculture and what comes after civilization collapses, then we can consider energy systems that can only be produced by industrial processes, but which can be kept functional for a few decades (perhaps) after those industrial processes are long gone. This strategy means being very careful to keep everything as simple as possible and have gobs of spares on the shelf, since industrial supply chains might fail at any time.

    This is the approach I’m taking with my small farm’s energy systems. I know that my PV panels can never be fabricated on a craft basis by anyone in an agrarian peasant society, but with lots of spares, long lived batteries and expert maintenance, an off-grid system might be kept going for a long time.

    Some energy sources, like diesel fuel, can be stockpiled for decades and still be usable. My backup diesel generator is now fueled with inherited diesel that was purchased by my father-in-law in 1999 for Y2K, “just in case”. For the amount of time it runs, a few drums would last for decades. The same goes for my diesel walk-behind tiller.

    Figuring out what kind of energy is a “must have” and how to keep it available without relying on industrial civilization is a very intriguing challenge, especially for a retired renewable energy engineer like me. There might be enough of us around to do the same kind of thing for a peasant’s republic.

    But I think that the effort to manage a transitional energy system is only justified because manual farm labor is now very expensive and might still be problematic during the chaos of the transition. Once the dust has settled, there will be plenty of people willing to toil behind horse drawn plows and spend day after day swinging a scythe or jumping on a broadfork. Life is now too easy to count on that kind of farm labor, but, as it always has been, the desire to eat will become quite an incentive for people to engage in long days of back-breaking work.

    All this has been a long-winded way of asking, “What is the ultimate goal of creating something like the Peasant’s Republic?” The answer will go a long way toward determining realistic sources of energy.

  5. Joe, Ruben – thanks for those interesting comments. I’ll try to sketch a response.

    First, I think we face an interlocking set of crises – climate, economic, political, ecological, resource among others – which singly or in combination are eminently capable of destroying much of how we now live. If we carry on with our present ways, that possibility looms large, to say the least. That’s kind of my base assumption. But I’m more interested in addressing myself to how to avoid that outcome than in simply dramatizing it. So while I accept that we don’t face these crises singly but in combination, nevertheless I don’t really see the point of trying to refute future clean energy scenarios with reference to atmospheric GHG levels and suchlike. As a starting point, why not look at the analysis in its own terms?

    Second, Joe asks the interesting question ‘What is the ultimate goal of creating something like a Peasant’s Republic?’ I can see the attraction of defining some kind of normatively appropriate future society and then figuring out its entailments in various sub-systems – agrarian, energetic, political etc. But of course that’s not how societies ever actually form, and such casting forward only has value as a kind of thought experiment to clarify the choices available to us in the here and now. Sometimes I think I’ve gone about this the wrong way by starting with food and energy production scenarios before looking at the political and economic issues. But I first wanted to consider whether the kind of society I’m construing is materially plausible – which I think it probably just about is. So soon I’ll move on to looking at how it might conceivably emerge, or (more likely) won’t emerge, from the socio-economic present. There’s no goal as such, there never really is in social processes, just a set of ever-changing choices in relation to present pressures. I’m not sure that anything exactly resembling a regional peasant’s republic is likely to emerge in practice – but I think some of the choices we could make would propel us in that kind of direction, and they’d be among the better choices available to us.

    Third, and to put all that another way, societies are always built on the backs of their predecessors. So that prompts me to ask some questions about energy in relation to Ruben’s quotation from Bill Rees. Now, quite a lot of that quotation makes the same point I did in the post above – we’re very reliant on fossil fuels, and we have a job on our hands to dispense with them. Quite so. But his comment “only fossil fuels have an unambiguously adequate extended ERoEI to maintain civilization” is self-undermining inasmuch as civilisation according to any sensible definition of the term long predated fossil fuel use. Perhaps he means “…to maintain contemporary civilization as it currently manifests”? But that’s not what I’m discussing! Or maybe the issue is that a world with a vast population bloated by cheap energy availability won’t be able to transition to a different state. This is where I think we need to start having rather more specific debates than blanket statements about what ERoEI levels can ‘maintain civilization’. Likewise, on the complexity of product chains – their complexity is surely due in part to the fact that the contemporary economy allows them to be complex. So the question in relation to any particular technology then becomes whether that complexity can be reconfigured in a less energy dense and economically complex world. With something like PV panels, I’d like to know exactly what you think the deal-breaker is – embodied energy, technical knowledge, materials, distribution? I’m a little impatient with blanket dismissals. Likewise, in a substantially agrarian post-industrial future I don’t think most people would need to be grid-connected, but having access to certain goods that required substantial (grid?) energy to manufacture them would be a boon. So, how much of a grid could be retained? How many people could be sustained in non-agricultural pursuits from the agrarian base? Perhaps fewer than the 75% or so I’m construing… I guess these are the kinds of things I’d like to learn more about – not so much statements that the existing grid and product chains are over-complicated and non-resilient. I already know that. And is there not something a bit self-defeating about insisting on the unsustainability of something like a PV transition on the basis of its upfront fossil fuel costs? All the more reason to get on with it! The difference with the ecomodernists is that they believe that technical transitions of this sort will in themselves enable our present ‘modernist’ world to renew itself. That’s absolutely not what I’m arguing. But I would argue that we’ll do ourselves a favour if we use what we can of our present resource base to make contraction and simplification as painless as possible.

    Finally, on the structure of agrarian society I’d suggest that ‘peasant’ doesn’t imply ‘economically completely autarkic’ – a situation that has applied to very few people globally for a period stretching far back into pre-antiquity. However, I think Joe is right to see tensions between agrarian sustainability and energy-intensive/labour-substituting industry. It’s a highly complex question, because social ideologies, agrarian and industrial technologies and exogenous drivers all change simultaneously in ways both co-dependent and independent. Ultimately, I’m most interested in what happens in the relatively short-term – on what might conceivably be built on the back of a decaying global capitalism starting now. Even that is impossible to answer, and in the longer run clearly nothing is ‘sustainable’.

    Ah well, got to get out onto the farm so like Ruben I’ll avoid a redraft, shut my eyes and hit the ‘reply’ button.

  6. I’ll take an easy one first. You ask, “With something like PV panels, I’d like to know exactly what you think the deal-breaker is – embodied energy, technical knowledge, materials, distribution?” The simple answer is materials (and equipment). Just read up on the manufacture of a PV module and you will find out that everything in them required the full capabilities of modern civilization, from the doped silicon of the cell itself to the aluminum frame and the encapsulants and sealants. I’ll grant that the glass cover is simple enough that it might be possible for a peasant’s republic to make float glass, but even that is quite a stretch.

    The hard bit that we all are struggling with is a strategy for deciding what products of civilization to keep and what to avoid. As you put it, “clarify the choices available to us in the here and now”. If we choose something that cannot possibly work without all the energy and complexity we now enjoy, it will immediately become useless should things simplify even a little.

    One can start with very complex systems, like the electric grid or the internet, and ponder how to keep them going as long as possible, but I doubt that anyone really knows how much industrial simplification they can take. Having once worked at a combined cycle power plant helping to power a smallish island-size electrical grid, my hunch is that any electric grid will be tough to keep going.

    Even though it’s “not how societies ever actually form”, my suggestion is to start with the basics of any future society (water, food, shelter) and work backwards from the simple to the more complex. We have no experience or even any example from history with a transition like the one we are about to experience. I think it is prudent that we must be ultra frugal in our assumptions about what systems and equipment will be available to help people procure food and water. (If one has a house in the country, shelter, including clothing, is taken care of already). Food and water are the links in the chain that can never be the weak ones. If we start from the assumption that food and water are able to be produced without any reliance on the industrial world outside the republic, then anything coming in from that outside world is pure gravy, nice to have, but not life threatening when absent.

    Here in the US, we already have an example of a possible version of a peasant’s republic that can provide food, water and shelter. The Amish and Mennonite populations in a few counties in Pennsylvania are still close enough to their pre-industrial roots that they could probably keep going without any of industrial civilization’s niceties. I recently bought a wood cooking range that was manufactured by the Amish, so I know that some of them buy steel and use welders, but I suspect that those stove manufacturers could drop their tools, walk home and still keep body and soul together.

    I think my rule of thumb for deciding whether I am too dependent on civilization is a good one. I figure my family has to be able to survive without any money. That rule could also be applied to a peasant’s republic. If they need commerce with the surrounding civilized world to provide the essentials necessary for survival, they’re still far too entwined with that civilization to be a Republic.

    • Good point about the money. What about interest, and how to handle? Crucial to any idea of sustainability, IMO.

  7. Chris, I was baffled by the numbers, went over it several times, still am unclear. Are you saying it’s 36% for everything else you list first, and then 64% for solar panels? If that is true, I am thinking… your estimates of use per person needs to come down. My gut sense of it. I figure, basically, that we need to come down to more or less the Amish levels, plus some extras while they last. If lucky and inventive, perhaps a bit more rather than less.

    The other thing that occurred to me is that we need to build technologies that last forever (ceteris paribus) with just some local repairs, like waterwheels of yore. While we still have the heavy machinery and high tech labs that cannot be built with solar, and that make the building of such old fashioned gizmos super easy.

  8. Thanks for the additional comments. And apologies if my own snark generator is running high this weekend.

    Joe, to follow up on PV, when you say that the problem is materials, to me you imply that it’s not energy availability or EROEI, and the materials themselves don’t seem scarce, so the real issue you’re pointing to seems to be manufacturing complexity. To my mind that amounts to a sociological thesis – societies of the future will not be sufficiently complex to undertake manufacturing of that order. That may turn out to be right, but are you not making an a priori assumption of societal simplification as a social process, which isn’t being inherently driven by technical constraints per se? There are any number of reasons to think that will come to pass, but I don’t think you can assume it to be so from where we currently are.

    I understand where you’re coming from in wanting to make ultra frugal assumptions about future technical options, but I’m not sure how to go about such an exercise and what it would mean. Assume 7 billion people and essentially zero technology – where do you go from there? I can see the appeal from an individual prepper perspective – assuming no money and no outside resources, can I provide for myself and my family? Well, good for you if you can – but in that kind of scenario, you’ll most likely soon be overrun by people who are organised into a stronger collectivity than you are, however handy you are with a rifle. Unless you live somewhere very remote, in which case your situation is essentially irrelevant to almost everyone else. So we get back to sociology. For that reason, the discussion under this post suggests to me there’s a certain pointlessness to construing future productivity scenarios in relation to food, energy and so on because actually it’s going to be driven by the sociology and we’ll just end up diverting ourselves in pointless debates questioning the parameters of various imagined futures. Maybe that’s a useful lesson to learn, which chimes with Michael’s ‘more politics’ comment. I have, conversely, received various requests for less politics and more hands on stuff on this blog. Maybe I’ll just keep on juggling, but I’ll aim to turn to the politics/sociology soon.

    Vera, yes 64% PV, and yes you’re right it’s probably too much. Though there are ways of reducing it, not least through reducing the still quite profligate demand I’ve modelled above. I don’t especially agree with you – and Joe – that the only technology admissible in a ‘peasant’s republic’ is what a peasant could produce in the home workshop. But that, again, is a matter of politics, to which everything now seems to point…

    • I agree that the political effects of reverting to a very low energy economy are going to be very important to anyone’s survival. Yes, the food producer will tend to be at the mercy of the politically strong, but I would still prefer to be a food producer rather than a food pillager.

      I can just imagine a group of strong young men, all of whom are put out of work by economic decline, discussing their prospects for getting food. They go through the options, including toiling in the fields for their meals, but end up deciding to form a gang and pillage their way from place to place to fill their bellies. That is not a risk free proposition though; in the US practically everyone in rural areas has a gun.

      Such a nasty scenario is always possible, even probable, but we should remember that the utility of an independent small farm doesn’t depend on who the owner is. If my family is killed by marauders, the house, the fertile gardens, the fruit trees, the water systems and other useful attributes of the farm are still likely to remain. Someone will make a living out of it. Sure, I would prefer that the people living on it are my family and friends, but if I die, I will have known that I have helped create something that will save a few lives. I’m willing to play the politics by ear when tough times come. The same cannot be said for producing food.

      And the corollary is that all the political cooperation in the world can’t make a ham sandwich. You have to have the ham and bread. So the first step is to establish facilities (small farms for example) that can create the makings of a meal and then have the operators of those facilities get together and decide how to best manage things collectively, if need be.

      In today’s world, it seems that little can be done ahead of time in preparation, even locally. I can just imagine going to my county council and asking for support to build market stalls for the innumerable little local farmers markets that will be needed after grocery stores go out of business. Or perhaps I could ask for support to pre-position huts on vacant tracts of land (with total disregard for the owner’s wishes) to enable unemployed people to live near the new gardens they can start. After the council members jaws drop, hilarious laughter would ensue.

      Sure, it would certainly be nice to have a supportive political system working to make sure that preparations for a low energy future are made well ahead of time, but as yet I have seen virtually nothing happening. And it’s not as if we have all the time in the world. So, my view is that we should forget about the politics for now and concentrate on the soil.

      • All the political cooperation in the world can’t make a ham sandwich. You have to have the ham and bread.

        If (when) I use that one I’ll give you credit Joe. Obvious, genius, and succinct.

    • are you not making an a priori assumption of societal simplification as a social process, which isn’t being inherently driven by technical constraints per se?

      I can’t direct you to any theoretical work that would support me, except perhaps for Charles Hall’s EROI analyses, but I think that there is a clear correlation between a culture’s energy throughput and the technical complexity possible in that culture. This means that people in subsistence cultures are not likely to send travelers to the moon, no matter how much technical information is provided to them.

      The products of our civilization possible at maximum energy throughput and therefore with maximum complexity and maximum specialization are going to be impossible to produce when available energy declines, even if all the “technical constraints” have long been resolved and even with all technical knowledge necessary available at the local library.

      PV modules, GPS, fiberoptic cables, space travel, computer chips and other high-tech products of “that order” will not be available. It’s not because the technical knowledge will disappear, but because the energy needed to support the complexity (specialization) needed to act on that knowledge will not be sufficient.

      Leonardo da Vinci imagined the construction of a helicopter, but it took almost 500 years of increasing energy production to enable a civilization that could actually build one. Even if we could send Sikorsky back to instruct Leonardo, he wouldn’t have been able to construct such a craft.

    • Chris, just a clarification. I was not saying the only admissible technology in Wessex would be one produced in the home workshop. I think we should (and will) use much of what is available as long as it is available. But I think that a culture that really cares about the 7th generation would make some investment into sophisticated-simple technologies that can be so repaired. It enlarges the survival repertoire…

  9. Wow, this conversation is getting thick fast.

    Chris, I think there is a vanishingly small amount of daylight between our positions, far less than one might guess from the length of this discussion.

    I can try to explain myself more, but I am not worried if you agree with me because I know you will continue on with great thinking and writing that explores this topic.

    For what it is worth, I think you made the right choice in the structure of your investigation. The first question people have is nearly always if we will be able to feed ourselves. Energy comes soon afterwards.

    And the political and economic both hinge on the former. Do you have enough food surplus to allow for larger structures? As you wrote in the first posts, a very small bit of liquid fuel can greatly increase the amount of food surplus, allowing for still greater political organization.

    So, to be useful futurism, speculations about political arrangements must incorporate the social limits set by how much time must be used to feed yourself, and keep warm.

    Which I am sure is well-incorporated into your thought. I may grouse a bit in the future if I think your political structures rely too much on energy I don’t think we will be able to produce, but I am sure you will continue to interrogate this question in a way that no other writer does.

    So I will do my best to provide answers to your request for specific numbers, though sadly that is well outside my expertise or ability to research on my unpaid basis.

    But first I want to argue against the idea of specific numbers.

    Numbers are the realm of the complicated, but we are discussing the realm of the complex. Without massive research backing it is very difficult for armchair theorists such as ourselves to do the dynamic modelling needed to approximately calculate numbers for complex systems.

    So what we can try to do—which I think is still useful, and which I think you perfectly do with your writing—is approximate not the numbers, but more the shape of things to come.

    So, I greatly appreciate the rigour you bring to your investigations. I positively delight in you shutting down ecomodernists with your math.

    But there are some questions which I don’t think we can calculate, but which remain important. So, if we insist on numbers, we shut down investigation and risk being part of the past instead of the future.

    I base my concerns on the fragility of manufacturing on my experience with product design and manufacturing, which, though my experience is very limited, helped me physically understand Joseph Tainter’s work on The Collapse of Complex Societies.

    Tainter talks about not just diminishing returns, but negative returns on complexity. Collapse is greatly caused by social factors, which are very difficult to quantify, and yet which we see all around us.

    As an example, climate change is very technically solvable, and, I believe, it is solvable with quite a lovely outcome and rich human experience. But the social factors arranged against these changes are proving overwhelming. The negative returns on the GHG-producing complexity we have built is dragging us under.

    So, let us imagine a feudal society that mysteriously has some fine tractors. The monarchy has built its power on the fact it controls these fine tractors and can dispense them to the regions that are most pliable, as rewards which greatly increase ag yields.

    Except the production of biofuels needed to run the tractors actually produces negative returns. So each year, the society is ground closer to the bone. The royals refuse to consider a different way of being, and collapse is the result.

    We have seen this pattern, with a less fanciful presentation, many times over. Tainter’s book is full of them.

    But when will the monarchy fall?

    I see this dynamic all around us. For example, real estate is currently rocketing to the moon in Vancouver, and to a lesser extent in Victoria. Despite the 2008 real estate collapse just a few dozen miles away, across the US border, and despite local collapses all across Canada, people will ignore the shape of the issue unless you can tell them precisely which week the collapse will occur in.

    An issue that has been building for decades, which has clear parallels, and which fails all manner of sniff tests—and yet you are dismissed as a wild-haired idiot if you cannot provide the day collapse will occur.

    Now, some people see the collapse and are trying to game it, to get rich and get out as near the peak as possible. For me, I am not interested in that. I like to imagine how our choices might unfold over centuries.

    And your thinking about Peasant Wessex is a beautiful piece in that unfolding.

    Again, I think trying to discern the shape of things to come matters. We already do not have enough resources, and we certainly do not have enough atmospheric dumping ground for CO2. So, I would really prefer as much of our production as possible remain useful into the future, instead of being stranded.

    To discuss stranded resources, and argue against numbers in a different way—

    The United States no longer has the capacity to launch people or satellites into orbit. They rely on their arch-nemisis, Russia, for this.

    How can this be? The US remains the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, the most broadly technically capable. NASA still houses the greatest scientists and engineers ever focussed on space.

    And yet some meandering of their society has stranded this vast resource, and left them unable to launch.

    Meandering is a nice word. Perhaps the river will swing back, and cut a new channel that will free all those resources again. And then it will swing away again. Usually, each of these cycles leaves the stranded assets in a lower and more degraded state. Each cycle reduces the institutional memory.

    As a side note, did you all read the story of the original videos of the moon landing? NASA had the tapes, but didn’t have the machine to read the tapes anymore. It took a crazy lady who found several old players in a storage locker in Australia, along with a guy who could piece them together into one machine.

    I have also heard half the Library of Congress is illegible, because they no longer have the machines to read the format the files exist in.

    So, what numbers would have told us when and to what level NASA would descend?

    I am sure some people had them, and perhaps some people did quite precise calculations. But I don’t have them, and I don’t know anybody who does.

    And yet I still think contemplating the shape of things to come is useful. For example, climate scientists, or geologists, or foresters all use satellite data quite heavily. They may not have access to the inner workings of NASA, but from outside observations they may be able to speculate that NASA would not be launching satellites for much longer, and that maybe they should consider how that might impact their field and where they should shift resources.

    The fact we can’t know what the course of the river will be in twenty years does not diminish the fact we know it will be headed downhill.

    As a last little piece of defence for the value of speculation uninhibited by numbers—The Archdruid introduced the fact that after the withdrawal of the Roman Empire, Britain lost the potter’s wheel for 300 years. I blogged about this atPiece of the Puzzle: Britain loses the potter’s wheel.

    The thing that most amazes me is that an established technology, a useful technology, and a profoundly simple technology disappeared. The potter’s wheel has one moving part! That is as simple as a machine can get.

    And how could this come to be? There must have been a situation where an actual human potter, who had used the wheel for years, was watching people hand-building pots and telling them it sure was a shame they didn’t have a potter’s wheel.

    How could we ever assign numbers to that dynamic?

    And yet I believe that understanding the shape of that dynamic is some of the most important work for folks like us reading Small Farm Future.

    I believe that shepherding useful knowledge, practice and culture through collapse will greatly increase the quality of life of our descendants. So, if someone had been able to see the shape of the pottery industry and understand that conserving the technology of the potter’s wheel would be a great benefit, it would have saved a huge amount of time and effort for the next three hundred years of potters.


    I personally do not have the numbers that would likely satisfy you. But I remain concerned that trying to understand the shape of our future energy use is more than dramatization. I especially think that is the case in forums such as this, in which the audience is friendly though demanding, and many people are contemplating different facets of a problem we largely agree on.

    Obviously I have zero success being taken seriously by the mainstream. Does the fact I am ignored change the course of the river?

    Anyhoo, facts:

    1. Rees’ use of civilization does look lazy out of context. This discussion of the EROEI needed to sustain civilization is well-established in the EROEI circle, and they have spent quite a bit of time trying to be specific about what they mean by that.

    Here is what Charles Hall said in an interview published in the Smithsonian:

    •If you’ve got an EROI of 1.1:1, you can pump the oil out of the ground and look at it.
    •If you’ve got 1.2:1, you can refine it and look at it.
    •At 1.3:1, you can move it to where you want it and look at it.
    •We looked at the minimum EROI you need to drive a truck, and you need at least 3:1 at the wellhead.
    •Now, if you want to put anything in the truck, like grain, you need to have an EROI of 5:1. And that includes the depreciation for the truck.
    •But if you want to include the depreciation for the truck driver and the oil worker and the farmer, then you’ve got to support the families. And then you need an EROI of 7:1.
    •And if you want education, you need 8:1 or 9:1.
    •And if you want health care, you need 10:1 or 11:1.

    Hall estimates The Real EROI of Photovoltaic Systems to be about 2.5:1 (and has lowered it since then).

    Here is a critique of this view, with a graphic of the hierarchy.Cassandra’s Legacy: Why EROEI matters: the role of net energy in the survival of civilization

    Here is a chapter by Hall, in which he calculated the impact of declining EROEI, and thinks our discretionary spending will drop from the current ~50% to about 10% by 2050. (section 5.8)
    Peak Oil, EROI, Investments and the Economy in an Uncertain Future

    The point I was trying to make about supply chains relates to this. There are massive amounts of solar-powered consumable—watches, lawn lights, calculators, battery chargers, Christmas decorations, etc.

    The bottom falling out of consumer consumption will also impact solar electricity. The economies of scale will matter, and we cannot be sure where the true numbers are and where the chips will fall. I think it is safe to say the future is not as rosy as the solar boosters would have us believe.

    Furthermore, supply chain disruptions can also be black swans. All the Detroit automakers faced slowdowns because they couldn’t get parts from Japan after the earthquake and tsunami.

    G.M. to Shut Plant for Lack of Parts From Japan – The New York Times


    Okay, I think that was all about civilization, with a slight digression at the end.

    As I said, I can’t provide numbers, and I don’t have the modelling power to run systems dynamics scenarios.

    But the Limits to Growth did.

    Here is an article showing modern statistics compared to LtG predictions.Limits to Growth was right. The Guardian

    Here is another one.

    Here is a remake of the Limits to Growth forecast, which shows resource use nearly bottomed out in the 2040 timeframe, of which energy infrastructure would presumably be a part.

    So this model might reasonably suggest that working towards a system that provides 50% of our current energy is too generous. This is not precise numbers, but the model had huge resources behind it and is tracking well to current measured reality.


    Apologies. I started this several hours ago, then took a break to prune an old cherry tree back into a recognizable shape.

    Which means, Chris, that I missed a whole bunch, and that the discussion with Joe about the future of PV I hope will be treated somewhat by the stories of complexity and collapse above.

    Again, my main concern is that we not strand or waste assets. And, as a subset of stranded assets, I am sure I have used the escalator/elevator example here before.

    Either method will take you up to the next floor. But an elevator breaks into a useless deathtrap, whereas an escalator breaks into stairs.

    I would like us to spend much, much less time, energy and resource on elevators, much more on escalators, and the most of all on simple, direct functionality.

    So, as I once again circle around to total rambling, that means I think we should install PV on top of everything we can, while we are still drunk with industry, but we shouldn’t build PV in giant solar farms that need a grid. PV on every building collapses into lights for that building. PV farms go through an awkward gridless phase, before the scavengers steal them.

    I don’t know about cars and tractors, but reading the wikipedia pages suggests something like:
    •motive power was widely used on farms first, through travelling machines and operators that first provided cable hauled ploughing and stationary power for operations like threshing, then onto to tractor mounted plough and harvest operations, still mobile and travelling with the seasons up the country.
    •automobiles became widespread around WWI.
    •individually owned tractors would have become widespread after that.

    I am of course most interested in the first model, even down to the neighbourhood shared rototiller scale—though I don’t know how to deal with soil pathogens in a deindustrialized future.

    • Soil pathogens in a deindustrialized future… I’m glad you asked (and suspect I’ve been set up… but anyway):

      Tillage can deal with soil pathogens in the absence of chemical treatments (which I presume is what we’re doing without once deindustrialized). But soil tillage comes at a serious energy cost – even if, or especially if, one wants to do the tillage by hand (human labor). Tillage is also not the friendliest of practices for soil carbon sequestration. So tillage should be used sparingly. Low tech, politically unobtrusive, so not to be thrown out altogether… just used as necessary.

      Crop rotation. This should be the first tool out of the box. Crop rotation is a marvel, and has been respected for millennia. There are lots of potential crops, lots of potential varieties of said crops, lots of extant knowledge about crop improvement. This makes me optimistic even in the face of ugly political maneuvering. And of course legumes are the fanciest of good guys in the crop rotation scenario (personal bias not withstanding). If figures are wanted, please ask. A near 40 year career with this incredible life form has packed my library with a copious supply.

      Crop breeding. You knew I had to go here; how could I disappoint? The current political/economic models for how plant breeding delivers benefits to society may not survive into a moribund future dystopia. But they needn’t. Breeding can be as simple (technologically) as holding a tweezers in the case of most of the legumes, or a knife in the case of many of our grass domesticates. Sure, a computer and some real sparkly biotech kit can be useful. But if that technology is too complex (or complicated) no fear, we merely revert to what our distant ancestors had on hand (though some simple books on paper might be of benefit for future schooling – still this is relatively simple technology to enable).

      Participatory breeding efforts move toward the least expensive modes of application – not relying on multi-national corporations for distribution.

      So there are all sorts of low tech, future sustainable means of continuing to work with all our current domesticates and continue to wage the conflict with soil borne pathogens. This issue disturbs my sleep to no extent.

      Thank you Ruben for the set up – which I suspect you intended all along. 🙂

      • Ha! Any time you want to ramble on at length about plant breeding, I will be happy to sit back and listen. I am fascinated, even if I may never apply many of the lessons.

        But what I meant was actually not a set-up. I volunteered on a farm where the farmer had patches of both club-root and symphylan. This means that he should not loan his tractor to the young farmers next door because he might spread his infections.

        So that is a drag, because the big mechanized tools are expensive and spend most of their time sitting idle. Sharing them would be a great benefit today, let alone in a resource-constrained future.

        Do you have any thoughts on that sort of “bio-security”?

  10. I agree with most of what Chris has written in this post and comment thread but I do have doubts about how useful the exercise is. I appreciate that we can’t know what will be contributed by as-yet undeveloped technology but, for me, the fact that there is undoubtedly scope for new technological development makes the future intrinsically foggy so … as Ruben says ‘not the numbers, but more the shape of things to come’.

    On the conclusions we can usefully draw from the trajectory of past technological development, I think we always have to remember that it happened in the context of social and political distortions which, hopefully, won’t be present in Chris’s realm – distortions which, certainly for many hundreds of years, and quite likely far longer, have tended to favour development which suited central control of productive activity rather than the kind of localised, autonomous production that we’re looking for.

    Joe makes the valid point that Sikorsky would not have been able to make a helicopter in Leonardo da Vinci’s time, and that the production of most modern technology depends on complex energy-intensive societal networks. But if we’re trying to imagine what might be possible, I think there’s more to be learnt by looking at the complexity that biological systems can produce from locally available resources.

    On the politics/subsistence argument, Joe says ‘the first step is to establish facilities (small farms for example) that can create the makings of a meal and then have the operators of those facilities get together and decide how to best manage things collectively, if need be’. That’s perfectly true, and totally appropriate – if we were starting from scratch. But we are currently in a position where, in the western world (in the short term), the basics are largely taken care of. The problem, as Joe goes on to illustrate, is that current political structures and processes block the emergence of new ways of living which would be long-term sustainable. If we’re talking about what reforms must come first, my view is that it has to be the politics.

    “Sure, it would certainly be nice to have a supportive political system working to make sure that preparations for a low energy future are made well ahead of time, but as yet I have seen virtually nothing happening. And it’s not as if we have all the time in the world. So, my view is that we should forget about the politics for now and concentrate on the soil.”

    From where I’m standing, the trouble is not that nothing is happening, it’s that everybody’s energy is going off in different directions, trying to solve specific issues but doing nothing to address the fundamental problems. To me, forgetting about the politics is just another manifestation of that.

  11. Plenty to discuss (and read up on) in Ruben & Joe’s comments, thank you. I agree that we agree on a lot of things. But as ever, it’s the disagreements that prove most interesting. Thanks at any rate for agreeing and disagreeing so courteously. A few comments:

    Ruben, on quantification: Yes, I largely agree. Possibly the source of the original friction on this was different understandings of the context of the scenario. I’m not saying, “Here’s how we grow the food, here’s how we get the energy – job done”. It’s more a case of construing some figures to enquire as to whether such a scenario is even remotely plausible. If you think it’s not on the basis of the intermediate costs, then I guess I’m going to be looking for some kind of estimate of what those costs are (or some alternative parameter estimates) before being willing to abandon my model – otherwise intermediate costs just becomes something of a gambit.

    On stranded assets: also agreed, except this can surely only ever be an unknowable and unsolvable dilemma for which your example of the housing market is a good metaphor. Should I buy now? What if the market crashes? But what if it doesn’t, I can no longer afford to buy and I end up lining my landlord’s pocket for the rest of my life? I agree with you on the over-zealous claims of the PV boosters. Still, I suspect that a large solar farm in a post-grid situation is less of a stranded asset than a nuclear or coal power station. And I also suspect that if we don’t push for renewable energy on stranded asset (or any other) grounds, we’ll get by default the stranded liability of the fossil fuel industry. If I knew for sure that civilisation would come crashing down next year, then I’d say there are better things to be doing than investing in PV. But I don’t… It would help of course if the PV investment wasn’t accompanied by a fanfare proclaiming it as the solution to all our civilisation’s problems, which it clearly isn’t.

    On EROEI: The Hall analysis still seems very stuck in contemporary economy assumptions of diesel truck drivers distributing grain and buying education, healthcare etc. I don’t really see it applying to my analysis, though I’d be interested to figure out what kind of EROEI might. The logic seems to be that civilisation without fossil fuels is impossible – kind of like arguing that, aerodynamically, it’s impossible for bumblebees to fly?

    On collapse and potter’s wheels: My reading of Tainter’s main argument is slightly different to yours: complexity is functional up to a certain geopolitical and historical point as a means of information-gathering and risk-pooling, but when it becomes dysfunctional people give up on it and revert to simpler polities – often by going somewhere else to escape the exactions of a decaying core. Thus, collapse is a conscious strategy – but only when there’s somewhere else to go, as there usually was with premodern collapses. For most people in the contemporary world, there isn’t anywhere else to go so collapse of that sort is unlikely. Decline, fast or slow – yes. The potter’s wheel example strikes me as a more plausible exemplar of collapse a la Tainter than a harbinger of what might happen to PV or other technologies in our own future. First, I’d say that Ward-Perkins, on whom Greer bases his analysis, seems to occupy a somewhat extreme position on the usual revisionist/counter-revisionist swing of the historical pendulum. Britain was at the edge of the Roman empire, scarcely fully Romanized, and quite reliant on trade with Gaul for the finer things in life. I don’t know if it’s true as Greer alleges that peasants in Roman Britain had access to finer tableware than Saxon kings, but it strikes me as highly unlikely. I’m inclined to put the potter’s wheel example down to a mix of Tainter-style collapse (‘We don’t need that highfalutin Roman crap – only the posh folk, those darned urban liberal elites, could afford it anyway, and look how they screwed up’) and the endemic, trade-disrupting violence associated with the jostling of the successor kingdoms. I struggle to see it as a transhistorical truth about the impossibility of retaining all semblance of complex technology in declining societies. Though of course fast and violent decline does increase those odds – another good reason to invest in PV now? Anyway, it’s certainly an interesting example that I’d like to learn some more about. In a wider sense, though, I agree with Ruben and Joe that there’s an association between energy availability and technical complexity. I’m not sure if I agree we can be so sure a priori as to which bits of the tech portfolio will go. Nor do I think that energy availability was the only thing between Leonardo and his helicopter, though it was certainly one of the things. An interesting thing in the context of Rome and collapse was how much of the knowledge of the classical world survived into the medieval at all sorts of different levels.

    On ham sandwiches: well, I’d say that without political cooperation there’d certainly be no ham sandwiches – at several different levels. First, both ham and bread are complex technological products, and therefore social products, which no individual could simply invent. Second, a ham sandwich is kind of a weird cultural artefact that you have to learn to like socially – Georges Duby writes nicely on how northern Europeans slowly and somewhat reluctantly acclimated to Mediterranean peculiarities like bread in late antiquity and the early middle ages. And finally, you need political cooperation to provide sufficient stability to devote yourself to ham and bread production. OK, so I’m an anthropologist by training – I don’t think anyone will ever convince me that individuals precede society, despite the obsession with the idea in the west that has launched a million social contract theorists. But perhaps I’m being pedantic. I guess Joe means that there is an extra-human ecological context that needs attending to if people are going to eat. And also that attempts to change the course of our crazy world politically often seem futile. Agreed on both counts, which I guess is why I got into farming. But I’m not sure that the soil really needs my attention to make it better. Maybe there are soils that need our attention to stop them getting worse at the hands of other people. But why do we care about that? Politics, I’d say, and behind that some kind of human impulse to endure, collectively.

  12. I tend to err on the side of pessimism. My mother, who saw the US economy “turn on a dime” at the beginning of WW2 tends to err on the side of optimism. As a pessimist, I think it is foolish to depend on the favorable outcomes that optimists count on, but I would certainly welcome them if they do happen after all.

    If anyone can come up with a successful strategy for creating even a nascent politics-of-collective-preparation-for-collapse, they will surely be an optimist, since a pessimist like myself wouldn’t even try. But I must still have a tiny kernel of optimism buried in there somewhere, I guess, or I wouldn’t even pay attention to those trying to create such a strategy. I’m willing to watch, wait and learn. I thank you for trying and appreciate the difficulty of the effort.

    I do have some expertise in the kind of energy scenarios you are considering, so I will also try to provide some response (with numbers) to your energy calculations soon. I will start at the small farmstead and work outward.

  13. ha-HA! I am going to be able to finish my comment BEFORE I go out to prune. Sunny days, my friends!

    And I also suspect that if we don’t push for renewable energy on stranded asset (or any other) grounds, we’ll get by default the stranded liability of the fossil fuel industry.

    I agree—but just because we are going to get a bunch of stranded FF assets doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to avoid stranding a bunch of renewables. If we focus on direct use—PV on the house, windmills to pump water on the farm, woodlots—we are much less likely to strand them. And there is huge opportunity to put PV on houses, Google even has a new tool to assess your house.

    I say this without any disagreement with Joe about the capacity of humanity to manufacture PV into the future. But if we are going to leave artifacts for our descendants, panels seems likely to be one they will be grateful for.

    The logic seems to be that civilisation without fossil fuels is impossible – kind of like arguing that, aerodynamically, it’s impossible for bumblebees to fly?

    I think this cuts both ways. We can see that in fact it is quite possible for bees to fly, as they are right there flying in front of us. So the fact our calculations do not describe reality does not ruffle reality on bit.

    The miscalculation in this case comes from the mainstream economists and other acolytes of the inevitability of progress who proclaim the market will always substitute and provide, and that there is no trajectory option but up.

    Hall dares to question that, and tries to use actual numbers to do so, unlike Tainter, who tends to use artifacts more than numbers.

    Hall also does not say fossil fuels are required for civilization. Again, we see civilizations right in front of us and in the historical record that do not require fossil fuels. One of the requirements of civilization is simply surplus energy, whether that is food, oil, wood, or coal.

    But he does say FF are required for this civilization.

    So, a key task, if one wants to have a conversation with anybody outside this very small bubble, is to show that life can still be wonderful, joyful, delicious and long, even if we don’t have iPhones or Netflix. I think this is a big part of what you do with your writing.

    when [complexity] becomes dysfunctional people give up on it and revert to simpler polities – often by going somewhere else to escape the exactions of a decaying core

    That is a fascinating finer point to put on it. As Greer says, “Collapse early and beat the rush.”

    So, you are describing a bit of the internal dynamics of societal collapse. Some people, say the peasant farmers, withdraw from the society and go elsewhere. Their life may change very little with that move, but the small surplus they provided becomes noticeable to the centre, which relies on other people producing the surplus energy and materials.

    This is a fascinating and cheerful point to me. Though as you point out, this is much less possible in a crowded world, and few of our neighbours still live at the level of subsistence farmer—so collapse may bite all of us harder, though will still bite the centre hardest.

    I struggle to see [the loss of the potter’s wheel] as a transhistorical truth about the impossibility of retaining all semblance of complex technology in declining societies.

    I agree, and would never suggest that. But it does show that an incredibly simple, useful and productive tool can be lost. This narrative simply does not exist in our culture, outside of s a few fringe internet conversations.

    As I say, “the internet is just a fad”. The common attitude is that something that is so awesome—cat videos, pornography!—will assuredly last forever.

    But what Joe and I are arguing is actually highly numbers-based—even if, like the old calculations about bumblebees, we don’t have all the numbers.

    We are saying yes, the internet, or PV, or cars, or windmills or medicine, are all very fantastic. But looking fantastic does not keep the fox from starving if it doesn’t catch any mice. What is required to keep things operating is energy, materials, labour and knowledge. And all of these things require vast support of energy, materials, labour and knowledge, layers and layers deep.

    Just imagine the education it takes to analyze and repair “the internet”. That requires a university, with professors, and buildings and libraries and laboratories. All these require food and maintenance, which is still another layer of people that must be fed, housed, clothed and kept happy enough to not rebel.

    Layers and layers of institutions, requiring vast surpluses of energy and food energy—and that is just for schooling the analysts. We haven’t even talked about how the diagnostic machines or the replacement parts are made.

    So, the potter’s wheel, or the common shortage of spare parts for older model cars or tractors, or the examples of NASA show that progress is not an arrow that inexorably shoots up.

    And while I agree with you, I do not think we should dismiss the lessons of the loss of the potter’s wheel too cavalierly. Today we might think we are much less likely to lose the wheel because we have books, and anybody who wants to make a wheel can simply look in a book. But as I imagined above, I am positive there was a time when someone who had used a potter’s wheel was telling hand-builders that it sure would be easier if they had a wheel.

    So what that says is there were factors arranged so that it made sense to not build this extremely simple, useful and productive machine.

    That is somewhat chilling, and I don’t think we should forget that possibility.

    Yes, I would not speculate, looking around my world that we will lose the potter’s wheel. I have no idea what will go first, though I will be entirely unsurprised if I die without access to the internet.

    But you know how much agricultural knowledge has been lost, for example. Knowledge has been lost that never was printed in books, or that cannot be reconstructed from what is printed in books.

    As we need to grow more food for ourselves, we face a huge barrier in that several generations of people have no relationship or education with the land, let alone the nuanced knowledge of place and meaning.

    It is sure going to be hard for them—and is hard for me—as they try to provide more for themselves.

    I agree…there’s an association between energy availability and technical complexity. I’m not sure if I agree we can be so sure a priori as to which bits of the tech portfolio will go. Nor do I think that energy availability was the only thing between Leonardo and his helicopter, though it was certainly one of the things.

    Energy was certainly not the only thing between Leonardo and the helicopter. But without surplus energy in various forms you cannot deal with any of the other things that stood in the way.

    Someone pointed out our story of innovation and technology clouds the history. In fact, we had knowledge and some use of fossil fuels for 2000 years before the industrial revolution. We must have the surplus first.

    I agree we can’t a priori know what technology will be lost in what order, kind of a reverse calendar of de-innovation. But we can definitely guess at the shape of things.

    Highly complex things will simplify soon. Useless things will simplify soon.

    But yes, there will be vast pressures arrayed. So, Eurovision is both complex and useless—but perhaps it will be seen as a bulwark against barbarism or rebellion. Perhaps huge resources will be poured into televised song contests, because if we don’t have them we finally must face the fact our lives are worse than our grandparent’s.

    It is impossible for us to know the future. But if Eurovision is propped up, a dozen things like Eurovision will quietly slip below the waves.

    The association between energy and complexity is very strong. I think one of Greer’s very best paragraphs is:

    The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

    The Archdruid Report: As Night Closes In

    And lastly, Joe, I look forward to hearing more about your expertise in the energy side, and what you will offer for us to think about.

    Today I will prune the espaliered peach.

  14. Do you have any thoughts on that sort of “bio-security”?

    Biosecurity. Excellent topic. One of the complexities borne on top of the industrialized nature of current husbandry practice. Where we are here occupying our time and thought on a less complex future due to energy supply issues I’ll offer that some (most?) of the issue solves itself. Without vast expanse of the same genetics or a crowded house full of the same chicken or turkey genetics the risks are much smaller.

    But to the specific point of the infested farm (infected meaning something different) loaning thereby infested kit to a less capitalized neighbor – care and communication, awareness… these can assist. The ‘farm’ ecology of the whole area under cultivation with shared resources should be considered. Indeed the shared tractor needn’t be isolated as the likely culprit. The farmer’s boots may well serve to transport enough inocula to create a problem. So back to the prescription above – judicious husbanding through crop rotation, resistant or tolerant domesticates, a cornucopia of various domesticate, tillage if necessary, awareness (ability to notice issues such as an infestation at the outset rather than once well established and far more dangerous). The ability to make tradeoffs in the face of incredible pressures. I don’t know this for fact, but I’d suppose chickens will eat Symphylans. If they do, put them to it. If not, there should be some means of dealing with them short of chemical warfare. Chickens aren’t a friendly addition to a spinach patch, but to the tradeoff concept… pick your poison.

    On a tangent – I was heartbroken recently when following the link early in the previous post here at SFF. In the article in Statistical Views (I think that’s the publication) our fearless leader proposed a future built without any recourse to the potential benefits of breeding. He specifically chose to not include such in the analyses. I was crushed. It took many towels and hours in direct sunlight to dry my keyboard of the tears.

    You think you know someone.

      • I am sad to hear of the tragic drenching of your keyboard, and I hope our host will be more considerate of the feelings of his loyal readers.

        and thank you for your thoughts on the sharing of equipment.

        If you are starting italics with ““, then you close it with … now let’s see if my example will show up, or if it will italicize…

  15. I have lived off-grid for many years in a temperate climate (Olympic Peninsula) and also in the tropics (Hawaii), where I live now. There are several important differences between the two climates, but in my opinion the most important difference is in the need for household heating up north, followed by the short day length effect on solar power availability.

    Regardless of climate, my choices have always been to have wood available for heat, cooking and water heating. I used a lot of wood for those things in Washington and use little wood for them here in Hawaii, although I do have a wood cookstove installed on the lanai in case propane availability is lost and a wood space heater in the living room for chilly mornings.

    If small hydro is available, that is far to be preferred over solar PV. If the hydro can meet peak farmstead power demand, no battery is required, which is a very nice benefit. I had small hydro in Washington but needed to have a battery and inverter for peak power requirements. Wind should be avoided at all costs. I have lots of experience with small wind turbines and they are far worse than PV as a dependable electricity supply. Large wind turbines are more reliable, but they are only appropriate for a modern electrical grid.

    My long experience in Hawaii indicates that a “normal” American style house can function just fine on as little as 3 kWh per day, but using no electricity for any heating appliance except a toaster and microwave. My consumption now runs about 4-5kWh per day, but I am now a profligate since PV has gotten so cheap.

    A 4 kW array is more than enough, even in the cloudy mountainside location I live in. Your suggestion of 15 square meters of PV panels should be more than enough to supply the electrical needs of a small farmstead, even in gloomy Britain. There may be periods when it is not enough for everything one would want, but there are ways to adapt to periods of low electricity supply.

    I think a peasant’s priorities for available electricity would be: Water pumping, lights, tool use (and household appliances) with refrigeration last. A little electricity saves huge amounts of time and effort needed for moving water and washing clothes, for example, and provides enough light to work at indoor tasks after dark, saving the daylight hours for the fields. Electrical power tools are damn convenient and use little energy overall.

    There are many different configurations for supplying solar electricity to a farmstead but I won’t go into that now except to say that the battery is the most problematic aspect of a typical off-grid system, especially if one is assuming that no fossil fuel backup generation is included.

    As my choice is wood for any required farmstead heat (except perhaps for solar water heating) I think wood is the most realistic option for powering any heavy machinery a farm community would require. If you’re not going to use animals for dragging wood around and plowing fields, then my choice would be for a steam tractor or two to be available for use by the community. They could drag logs around, cut them up by acting as large drag saws and still do all of the other things we rely on tractors to do.

    The big problem is that they don’t exist, except in museums and in enthusiast collections. The smartest thing anyone could do is somehow facilitate a rebirth of the manufacture of steam powered equipment for use on farms and woodlands.

    I was born too late to see steam equipment in use in the field, and have direct experience only with industrial steam turbines, but I think there are numerous advantages to steam, aside from being able to be fueled by wood. Although far more cumbersome and less powerful than the modern diesel engine, steam engines (not turbines) are mechanically simple and capable of being repaired by the kind of facilities that are likely to be found in a peasant’s republic after fossil fuels are gone.

    The most important non-residential electricity need for the Republic will be to run the small machine shop and the blowers in a nearby foundry. These facilities will be the repair heart of the community. Since plenty of scrap steel will be available for centuries, the machine shop and foundry will be able to fabricate or repair any part of the steam machinery used by the community. In theory, they would even be able to replicate themselves by going to steam (or water) driven line shafts if necessary.

    I do not see any need for an electrical grid of any kind, except for micro-grids that run electricity around a farm or repair shop complex. All of the myriad farmstead electrical devices we would depend on for the next few decades can be run by off-grid systems until they finally break down and disappear, after which we will be left with muscle, steam and water power (if we’re lucky).

    I also think that bio-gas and bio-fuels should be avoided. Not only do they interrupt the nutrient cycle needed to maintain soil fertility, but they are usable mostly as a substitute for fossil fuels in equipment that will likely break down sooner or later and not be as repairable as steam equipment. I agree that old tractors can be very reliable, but I think time and effort would be better spent converting to steam rather than trying to convert to other biomass derived fuels. Though, if someone comes up with an easy way to convert wood to diesel fuel, I might change my mind.

    So, not as many numbers as I might have included, but I think the main thing is that the energy system of an agrarian community should be off-grid solar PV (for as long as possible) accompanied by wood for heat and wood fired steam for larger machines.

    Of course any hydro potential should come first. Water is heavy and gravity is reliable, making for lots of continuous power. That is the reason why villages built up around water driven mills in the past. But hydro is very site specific, as are canals, wonderful though they are for heavy transportation. Wessex should concentrate on water based infrastructure first where it is available and then add in the PV and the steam immediately thereafter.

  16. Really interesting discussion – Thanks Chris for pushing your thought experiment forward into the area of energy, I’m sure sketching out a possible farming future is child’s play compared to this. 2039 is just 20 odd years away so its very possible that things won’t be that different to now. It’s also possible, given that conventional oil production peaked in 2005 and that globally we’ve been making up the difference with sources with pitiful eroi (tar sands) or incredibly high depletion rates (shale oil/gas), that 2039 will look very different to now. Given that energy (oil primarily) underpins most of what we do and how we organise it, it seems to me that this makes the uncertainties about the future too large to make mapping out possible futures all that useful. I think it might be more useful to try and develop some principles for the generation/use of energy in said Peasant’s Republic .

    I was listening to David Murphy, a student of Charles Hall’s, on the whole EROI thing ( Well worth a listen and it does seem like the field is adopting far more consistent methodologies that make comparisons of alternatives more useful. I do wish the powers that be would take the time to look at this stuff – Murphy suggests that nuclear has an eroi of about 14 but that doesn’t take into account decommissioning or storage of wastes which would probably make nuclear and energy sink – not something an energy constrained future could afford. I digress.

    10 is the magic number (or maybe 8) – once eroi falls below 10 then the net energy starts to decrease exponentially – in an energy future where we’re relying on lower eroi sources relatively small drops in efficiency could have quite large effects on the utility of the resource. Chris has suggested biogas as a means of powering farm machinery (I must go back and read that paper) – so as a (somewhat poor) example: if a small part of the digester – a seal or some such (i know nothing about the technology) had to be made in an artisanal rather than high tech way and so reduced the efficiency of the digester you might see a quite large jump in the amount of land/time/energy needing to be assigned to generating your biogas. Given that net energy cliff I think prioritising higher eroi sources makes sense – onshore wind and small scale hydro would be my choices – although wessex doesn’t offer that much opportunity for the latter the water in it’s rivers can be used multiple times – its what they did in the early part of the industrial revolution. Chris suggested increasing onshore wind to 10x the national average – was that an arbitrary figure or based on some analysis of available resource?

    Distributed generation has better eroi – for instance US shale gas may have an eroi of 60 at the well-head but force it through a pipeline to be burnt in a power station to generate electricity and that falls to about 10 (those figures may well be high in the longer term because of high grading ie. going after the best resource first will mean that when the eroi for the entire resource is calculated it will be lower). That might be an extreme example but siting industries adjacent to their power source makes sense as do things like combined heat and power and community owned wind.

    Murphy also gives solar pv an eroi of 10 (this and the above figure are calculated to energy delivered to the grid) – however that figure doesn’t include any storage which, while domestic users could manage with intermittent supply, would be required to provide constant power for industrial use. This paper suggests that eroi of solar pv might be lower still for installations in northern latitudes for a variety of reasons – it was a while since i read it but I think they were showing not just climate/weather effects but also shorter working lifespans that those advertised.

    All that brings me onto complexity. I see a few problems with here. The first is political – Many of our renewable technologies do presuppose quite complex technological societies – the efficiency of wind turbines is greatly improved by rare earth metals which require…… etc., etc. Such a society will inevitably have a class of people able to work with and derive a living from complex technology and I fear they’d end up with sufficient political clout to undermine the political power of the agrarian populists. The second problem is the metabolic costs of complexity. More complex systems have greater energy costs simply for their maintenance. In a world where our energy sources have eroi’s of below 10 how much energy is available for the maintenance of complexity given that an increasing proportion of the energy is being used simply to generate the energy itself.

    On a related note Rueben mentioned not investing in resources that may be susceptible to disruption of either supply chains or source. I think as a general principle that’s very sound. Starting in the late 80s and continuing into the 90s the UK invested heavily in building a gas distribution network because we had lots of gas in the North Sea. Shortly after completion of the network North Sea production peaked and twenty years later is about 30% of what it was. We now import LNG in ships from the Middle East and someone is now importing US shale gas – which may be a money making arbitrage opportunity but is probably a loser in terms of energy. Its probably not possible to avoid such risks entirely but a low energy agrarian society should probably be alert to them and prioritise energy sources that don’t carry that risk.

    Apologies if the above is disjointed – I’ve a small baby that keeps requiring my attention. And apologies to Chris in that I’ve not really offered/added anything concrete. My thoughts are that a low energy future might be a much lower energy future than even the cut to current consumption that Chris based his calculations on – I wonder when the per capita energy use was last that low in Wessex – probably not as long ago as one might first think.

  17. Thanks for the further comments. As I said above, I don’t much like the optimism-pessimism couplet, but of the two I much prefer pessimism, in which category I usually find myself defined. Or to put it another way, you’re always welcome here, Joe – especially for letting us in on your own energy scenario. And likewise Bruce. I need to have more of a think about all this, and then perhaps will have another try. I’d be thinking of a scenario with much less transport of goods and with more transport focused around water and (steam/electric?) rail, which I think could alter the energy surplus figures somewhat. Probably we’d need more than ~20% of people to be farming, but maybe not full time.

    And then Clem…did I really exclude plant breeding from my analysis? Gosh, I can’t keep up with myself sometimes. Well, dry your tears – I can assure you that plant breeders are as welcome in the Peasant’s Republic as pessimists. And so are those who speak up for politics or peasants, so a warm welcome also to Malcolm, Michael and Vera.

    Likewise to peach pruners. Not much I disagree with in your further comment Ruben, but hell it’s fun to try so let me make a couple of points. On Leonardo, I’d be cautious about making energy availability key to a teleology of what ‘stood in the way’ of constructing a Renaissance helicopter – I’d suggest such thinking buys in too much to the economistic logic of progress that elsewhere you rightly criticise. I’d like to speak up for social logics of complexity – in your neck of the woods, for example, the prodigious amount of BC forest that was logged using axes and handsaws prior to the invention of chainsaws or forwarders. I won’t dispute that it still required a fossil energy-fuelled surplus, but I would dispute that that surplus was a sufficient or primary condition for it.

    The late, great Claude Levi-Strauss’s book ‘The Savage Mind’ argues for acknowledging the many different forms of complexity in human societies. Personally, I’m comfortable as he was with the notion of a complex subsistence society that produces no surplus. As you, Joe and Clem have all pointed out here in different ways, it’s not desperately difficult to produce a living from the world around us. That’s not what I lose sleep over. What I lose sleep over is how we’ll learn that truth from where we’re at and manage the descent – for which your example of Eurovision is a nicely chosen, dread reminder. Or, to put it another way, I agree with you that there are layers and layers of precarious industrial complexity in contemporary society. What I’m less sure about is – as with David Graeber’s nice analysis of ‘bullshit jobs’ – how many of them are dispensable bullshit, either in the sense that we don’t need them or in the sense that they’re only complex because they can be. Still, I think you and Joe’s warnings not to underestimate the level of dependency is salutary. Likewise with the Greer quotation you cite. Though while I agree that knowledge isn’t convertible into material resources, or only very partially so, I do think it’s quite convertible into conviviality, if only we can find the ideologies – political, ethical, spiritual – to help us.

  18. I’m definitely a pessimist, perhaps overly so but then if the only place where the possible outlines of a low energy future (which is almost certainly coming) is being discussed is on relatively obscure online forums I think pessimism is pretty justified.

    More than that I think that the effects and the speed at which those effects impact will not be evenly spread. Past the peak of oil production (and to a lesser extent other fossil fuels) the remaining resources will be of ever lower quality/eroi with net energy falling faster than absolute production. In such a scenario exporting whatever oil one does have becomes a questionable proposition – a greater proportion is needed to simply maintain extraction and it probably makes more sense to utilise the rest within one’s borders than to export it. So those with energy resources may experience a relatively slow energy decline while for those without such resources the decline may be much faster. As I said before the uncertainties in all this are huge and I don’t know where that leaves the Republic of Wessex in 2039 but (as ever) I’m not optimistic ;-).

    • Interesting. I suppose an issue there is the economic drivers. A lot of oil-producing places need the foreign exchange – to what extent would it make economic sense for Saudi Arabia, say, to keep its remaining oil to itself? Still, in these multiple crisis situations the economic and political structures would doubtless also be shifting unpredictably…

  19. Yes I agree that many oil producers need the foreign exchange – I believe Saudi Arabia subsidises things like food which helps keep things politically stable. But in most oil producing countries, Saudi Arabia included, domestic use is growing while production is mostly flat or declining so the oil available for export is decreasing, there’s definitely a tension there. I was listening to something yesterday that suggested that that downward trend in oil available for export would reach a critical point remarkable soon. I think the Chinese have seen this coming and have entered into bilateral trade deals for oil rather than taking their chances in the global markets.

    Saudi may well have little option but to exchange it’s oil for other goods – can’t grow much food in the desert – but it in an uncertain world trading directly for the things one needs may make more sense that selling on the open market – to an extent that’s what they did – they needed security and traded their oil in US$ in exchange for it.

    • Yes the Saudi’s have made and continue to make investments in food. A couple links to what they’ve already made public:


      I was originally hoping to get some hard figures on the size of their current Ag. investment portfolio, but so far have come up short. It would be interesting to see what level of investment the Saudi funds have made into agricultural pursuits on a per capita basis. One might compare that to the Wessex modeling projections.

      • Thanks for the links. I was thinking a bit more about this and how things might play out last night. No doubt there will still be trade but I still think energy producers will prioritise domestic use. For instance the UK imports LNG from the a few countries in the middle east – they take that money buy food etc. Might we see a situation where those countries use that LNG to manufacture fertiliser, a manufactured product that will be in short supply in an energy constrained world, and trade fertiliser for food. I think (but don’t know) that in energy terms the second scenario would be better than the first for the producer.

  20. Wow, excellent discussion, and I’m only just chiming in, so I’ll try to add a couple things and try to be brief. One thing I don’t see mentioned in the blogs I follow that are trying to prepare for our coming descent is emergy analysis of our various artifacts. Some discussion above mentions embodied energy, and complexity, but I think Odum’s full theory helps assess which technologies ( or suites of technologies) are worth plowing our last fossil fuel surplus into, and which ones are destined to be scavenged from.

    As I understand it, emergy takes in to account the knowledge input, or the complexity, if you will. Some inputs might be small in purely BTU sense, but have high emergy values. Taken as a rough guideline, I would steer toward technologies that are low in emergy.

    Applying this screen will probably preclude PV long term, but at least if set up in a distributed way, is a small investment, with more redundancy and flexibility than a centralized nuke or the like.

    Add in the resilience and anti fragile considerations, and I anticipate a lower energy use rate than your first pass is currently guessing.

    In the end, while your exercise is specifically aiming at Wessex in 2039, I see it as a stand in for the calculus we all need to be making for the local carrying capacity of wherever we live. The end of the golden age of transportation will allow little subsidization of cities like Phoenix, Los Angeles, or London for that matter. Those populations will decline to match the local carrying capacity, so It makes sense to begin adjusting long term infrastructure investment with that in mind ( so of course we won’t!).

    Politically, as you all have also pointed out, malinvestment of our current surpluses seems the most likely outcome, and confirms that our predicament is not technical, it is sociological. Wessex’s food production capacity and ability to prepare for the future is linked to the social behavior patterns it has, so a realistic scenario needs to take this in to account.

    • confirms that our predicament is not technical, it is sociological

      This would be true only if, as was the case 40-50 years ago, there was sufficient surplus available to create a whole new energy delivery system based on renewable sources and sufficient to support our existing population. Since this is no longer the case, our predicament is most definitely technical as well as political.

      The sociological conundrum is centered the general ongoing refusal to even admit the existence of the predicament, much less make any significant effort to prepare for mitigation of its worst effects.

      Here’s an anecdote that illustrates our situation. Last evening I participated in a roundtable discussion with about 60 well educated, middle aged to elderly progressives who were agitated about our current national (US) political situation.

      The moderator asked everyone to express their most pressing concern in no more than five words. There were lots of concerns about corporate oligarchy, health care, political divisions, attacks on media, etc etc. I expressed my concern as “Resilience to impending civilizational collapse”. Pretty clunky, but I was limited to five words after all.

      The meeting continued for another hour or so, with small group discussions about tactics and optimizing resistance to the Trump administration. Not a single person asked me why I would say such a thing or what it meant. No one was offended, argumentative or even curious. No wonder I have little optimism for political solutions to collapse preparation.

      I don’t think that “social patterns” are going to change voluntarily. We will probably need to wait for major suffering to appear before most people will even pay attention, much less thoughtfully consider the practicalities of low emergy living. By then the suffering will be beyond our ability to reduce it very much.

      • Not a single person asked me why I would say such a thing or what it meant. No one was offended, argumentative or even curious.

        I’m not surprised. A whole book has recently been written about this phenomenon – when one’s words just evaporate into the air, as if they had not been spoken – but in the context of climate change.

        What it means is that the idea is present, in the air, all right, people heard it but pretended to themselves that they didn’t and then ‘forget’ that they are pretending as it were – as a society we almost can’t hear them. (Socially constructed silence)

        • One writer I follow has explored this aspect of the human condition for years now, and has come to a pessimistic conclusion. (In fact, I get the impression he is ending his blog shortly)

          He comes off as a real grouch sometimes, but his analysis of ongoing events is I think original and well done.

          This is why I think our predicament is sociological. Yes, it will manifest itself in the technical arena, as overshoot and resource depletion result in system breakdowns but if we had the will, even now means are there to climb back from the cliff edge, it simply isn’t happening.

          As Joe says, a major wakeup call will be needed to cause course change, but too late to avoid a lot of hardship.

          • I just had a quick skim through his first Flatland essay – have to try and find time to take a proper look.

      • The trouble is anyone saying “Resilience to impending civilizational collapse” is obviously a crank who inevitably turns up at well meaning progressive get-togethers Smile nicely at such people but don’t make eye contact or they’ll corner you and bore you all night with disturbing facts and figures 😉

        My partner works for an environmental charity whose primary work is on energy – everything from fuel poverty to advising government departments on policy. As far as I can tell no-one there is really engaged with this stuff – there’s lots about promoting renewables and energy efficiency which is all good stuff but the aim seems to be to assure everyone that with a few tweaks we can continue as we have been. No one seems to be looking at net energy, at the metabolic cost of our current system, at the fossil fuel subsidy that renewables require etc etc. In fact I’m reminded of Chomsky’s propaganda model – that organisation stands on one boundary of acceptable discourse – beyond that boundary there’s no funding and no one listening.

  21. Joe laments:

    Pretty clunky, but I was limited to five words after all.

    And truth be known its not likely I’d have engaged Joe if I were one of the other 59 folks at that gathering. His start with Resilience would have gotten my attention, but ending with civilizational collapse… I might have given him up for a crank. And it’s not that I have a serious beef with what I’ve come to see from his thinking – but that 5 words is a pretty goofy way to represent a serious matter. And I’m guessing he had only a handful of minutes to even compose this much. Not fair.

    And there’s the elevator pitch. Distil all your experience, hopes and dreams into a catchy and definitive 20 second verbal outburst. Really?

    Sound bite. Another modern age sociological mine field. Right there along side fake news. I mean there’s a fine line between careful parsing of one’s message to keep it brief and to the point vs. rambling on incessantly. But over simplification does too much damage IMHO.

    I seriously hope that if I had been there with Joe I might have had the notion to object on my turn with: “Five words are too few”. But I’d likely have done something simplistic and no more effective than Joe’s.

    If there’s a silver lining we might hope at least one or two folks who did “hear” Joe were so struck they took the message in and on their next hearing of something along the same vein they’ll start to absorb the message. So even if your only allowed 5 words, keep tossing them into the conversation. Beats burying the head in the sand.

  22. I was trying to think of something to say about this – probably good that I had a busy weekend.

    But as far as I can see it our Peasant Farmers will have a modest supply of firewood, sufficient to keep their well insulated homes comfortable in winter, and solar hot water in the summer.

    Transport will be rather like rural dwellers of the inter war period mostly on foot or bicycle with the occasional bus or train ride. The Doctor or Vet might have a car or motorbike but that would be it.

    While George Monbiot & Centre for Alternative Technology in Zero Carbon Britain have outlined some ‘low carbon or no carbon scenario’s I have some doubt about how some of these will work in practice.

  23. Thanks for your good wishes, Clem. And thanks for the other comments too. Many things to think about. On the sociological vs technical issue, I’m happy with the notion that it’s both, but technical limitations are socially experienced, and social patterns affect the nature of the technical constraint. I agree, though, that the prospects for social change don’t look too rosy. But I have a few tricks up my sleeve on that front to try out on you all soon and test your pessimism – if this post is anything to go by, you’ll be utterly unconvinced. Oh well, fair enough…

  24. David’s link to the Oggun tractor interests me in several ways. It doesn’t negate Ruben’s point about the vulnerability of the intermediate economy, but it does start raising the question as to, well, can we start to build more resilient infrastructures along such lines? Coincidentally, I’m just reading some of Chris Wickham’s histories of the end of Rome and the early middle ages – he confirms the point about the collapse of ceramics in Britain, but links it essentially to the rapid reversion to a tribal society in a weakly Romanised Britain, in which kings had very restricted revenue raising powers so that the society was unable to fund a significant division of labour or a professional artisan class. On the upside, that’s not a situation that most people in the contemporary world are now in…though it’s also a downside, since so many of us are so deeply dependent on a technical-capitalist economic nexus. I’d expect to see a lot more Oggun type innovations emerging – though whether it’s enough to forestall a potter’s wheel type scenario longer term, I wouldn’t like to say. As Joe said, there’s no historic precedent for the kind of collapse we possibly face.

    One other thing – there’s a delightful irony in the name ‘Oggun’. He’s a fierce Yoruba god associated with metal-working, who found his way into Caribbean religions like Santeria and Vodoun as part of a slave plantation system which represented capitalism at its most nakedly violent and exploitative moment in relation to human labour. How apt if he gives his name to a technology that may help to negotiate the aftermath of capitalism, when its nakedly violent exploitation of the natural world undermines the conditions of its own possibility.

    • Hey Chris,
      Thanks for the depth of analysis and pertaining numbers. I think this level of thinking through the predicament is really important. Having said that, I also think you are right that the action is going to happen on the cultural end. Politics, if you must call it that.
      We have a perfect example of how & why right in front of us: the failure of the environmental/climate change movement. Everybody knows the problem and the solution, and none of us will make any (large enough) changes because we are all too comfy. You can call me a pessimist if you like.

      But that is not why I am writing this here, you get enough of those ‘I just know stuff…’ arguments as it is. What interests me just now is that potter’s wheel. If I were going to build a potter’s wheel, I would scrap together some lumber chunks, a pipe & a pair of flanges, and a pair of flange mounted bearings, a plate of aluminum for the top, and a tire filled with concrete for the flywheel. This would cost me about $100 and take a couple of days to assemble. But the only item on my list of materials available to the British Romans was the lumber.

      Before I consider undertaking the labor of making bearings, journals and top plate out of wood, and flywheel out of stone, let’s add up what this piece of technology gains me.

      I can make a passable hand-built pot in an hour. My wife can throw and trim a pot in about that same amount of time using a wheel. Between my wife and me, the use of a wheel is not a time savings, but a style decision. I cannot throw a decent pot at all. It is a special skill that takes many hours to get proficient at, and that is why it still takes my wife about an hour, instead of the 15 minutes that a production potter would allow for throwing and trimming. That level of proficiency requires either much leisure, as we have today, or labor specialization driven by a thriving market.

      How many pots does our village need in a month? In 2 or 3 days, I can build by hand at least as much ceramic ware as my family is likely to need in a year. And my village is not going to do a wood firing more than once a year – because it is a vast expense of energy. It seems to me that you’d need a market that is large enough to support a skilled potter working at least a few days a month, and a firing about every month, before a potter’s wheel made sense. The larger community certainly uses that many pots, but they must coordinate their demand to focus upon a dedicated supplier.
      Politics again.

      • Thanks for that Eric – interesting. As with many issues we discuss, it comes down to how much is enough and where do we draw the line? I think Ruben made the point here a while back that there are some things the industrial economy can undoubtedly do better than the homesteader (though there are many it can’t), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that an industrial system is better than a small farm system.

        The material collapse of the Roman empire was doubtless patchy as per Bruce’s point – radical in places like Britain, less so elsewhere. It’d be interesting to know more about what ordinary people thought about it – how did they trade off weak state coercion with low quality crockery? I think I might take the poor crockery as the price of weak kings…though the increased violence may not have been so great. I suspect such occurrences will hit us moderns a lot harder, however…

  25. We’re thinking about growing some small areas of grains at our block. This was very common in European and NA small-holder farming up until cheap grains from broad acre farms in places like Australia, NA and Canada became available with cheap ocean shipping etc

    The standard response to growing small amounts of grains is it won’t work because you need big tractors, headers, silos etc I spent quite a bit of time on a large grain farm in Victoria’s NW as a lad so I’ve seen that model in some detail.

    But farmers used to process grain pre big machinery. The question to me is how I can process small quantities of grain with minimal expense and effort using what used to be called appropriate tech kit. This may be of interest to others and I think it fits within Chris’s ambit.

    These folks have done some interesting stuff with human-powered threshing etc:

    As I have no intention of spending considerable amounts of time providing human power to a machine like this I like the idea of hooking up a small electric motor. We’re about to put 5kW PV on our shed with 8KWH nominal (about 5.5KWH at 80% depth of discharge) of good quality Li batteries and a smart off-grid inverter. (Selectronic if anyone is interested; made right here in Melbourne.) In beeyoodiful SE Australia at about 38degrees latitude we’ll get over 6MWH annually out of the PV after system losses. (Round trip losses in the Li batteries will also take some of the energy we store and use therein. I’m going to log that loss with considerable interest.) Good quality PV should last at least for the third-party warrantied 20 years with about 0.5% output degradation per annum. Which is more than enough to keep the batteries topped up and supply the projected load. And if we get 30 years out of them that will probably see me out. The battery degradation and lifetime will be also be of some interest but I would expect conservatively to get 10-15 years. How to keep them cool is exercising some design considerations as Li has a nasty habit of thermal runaway if they get too hot.

    So do we have any small-scale grain farmers who have experience with onfarm processing who could comment on the farmhack tool? And we have a cascade with reasonable flow and height on our block. Does anyone have experience with an overshot or undershot water wheel delivering mechanical power?

    While on the Farmhack topic, does anyone have any experience with some of their other gear? I like the recumbent weeders but again its all about how it works in practice.

    For anyone interested in shop-scale equipment there’s a heap of Maker stuff online that covers a range of technology stacks. I like what these people are doing:

    but my French is poor so I need to use Google translate on parts of the site … which can be entertaining.

    This is a very ambitious approach:

    but I’m not sure how much they have actually delivered as against working on development. And probably having a hoot while they’re doing it. Good luck to them.

    And there’s a load of other material online re technology stacks. You can even make earlier generation IC’s with much lower cleanroom and input purity requirements than is needed for Mr Intel’s latest whopper IC count beauties.

    My two bob’s worth


    • Hi David,
      As with everything, it all comes down to scale.

      If you are growing wheat on a plot smaller than about 200 square meters, I would recommend threshing using a sheet of 10 – 12mm hardware cloth fixed in a frame and rubbing the seed heads through the screen using heavy gloves. Then take that somewhat separated mess and feed it through a fanning mill. Check out Clipper seed cleaners. You will need one whatever method you use, and they require little enough power that they can be bike or small motor powered.

      I have a friend who harvests about 2000 square meters by hand (with volunteer help). They use sickles to cut the heads, and drop them into a bucket they drag along with them. Then he flails the cuttings the old way, except that he does it on a heavy piece of expanded metal set on concrete blocks so that the threshings drop through. He then rubs that mess through the hardware cloth screen, and runs that through his seed cleaner. Flailing is a terrible mess and I don’t recommend it, but it doesn’t require much technology.

      If you are talking about a plot of more than 5000 square meters, I’d recommend an old Allis All Crop pull behind combine. Here in the middle of North America, they are easy to find at auction for less than $100. Mine still works pretty well even though I have let a fair number of the hundreds of belts and chains fall off.
      I built a small bike powered thresher that worked pretty well. It was basically a set of large metal washers on metal bolts that were small enough to let the washers flop around some. Four bolts, about 25cm long, set parallel to the rotating shaft at about a 12cm radius. I used a big flywheel, which is necessary for any bike power unit, and geared the whole business to maybe 600 rpm. One person pedaled and another fed grain into the thresher. It went just as fast as my friend flailing, but took two people to his one. Except that it was much more pleasant then flailing, so the volunteers would actually do it. They enjoyed working in pairs too, it was sociable.

      The thing I didn’t account for was air movement. Any rotating machine that goes fast enough to thresh well will act as a fan. That moving air can be put to use separating chaff if you do the design well.

      Photo of my bike-thresher:

      Good luck.

      • I’m just reading (slightly) more at and it certainly sounds like a good approach. I like the simplicity of having no batteries, a stumbling block for me with PVs. I’ll look into it more as I get the time.

    • Thanks for that Simon. Very interesting – though I have a few queries. Fundamentally, my question would be is there some threshold of unsustainable industrial complexity that, say, a DC motor or a NiFe battery doesn’t cross, whereas an AC motor/inverter and lead acid battery does, along the lines of the debate in the comments above? I’m not convinced. My feeling is that the article somewhat overstates the problems with mainstream off-grid energy and somewhat understates the problems with battery-less DC power. But it’s great to home in on examples like this, which helps to focus us on specifics.

      • Harumph again Chris. You remind me of my best friend—always the cynic.

        As you know, I have opinions on this topic…

        I don’t know about an industrial complexity threshold, but yes.

        So, LEF notes DC motors have been largely unchanged since the 1800s, so we can assume the technology is mature and robust.

        The internet says DC motors are the most used under 1kW in size, so there are economies of scale. These are the motors that are used in computer fans, cordless tools, and electric vehicles of all sizes.

        LEF notes many great features of running straight off solar panels, which means you do not need a battery bank.

        You simply don’t need it. All of that lead and acid, all of that cost, all of the maintenance, all of the charging and diagnostic apparatus—simply unnecessary.

        Further, by using DC instead of AC, you don’t need microchips for the inverters. So, the whole industrial infrastructure of mining, super-refining, and micromanufacturing in factories cleaner than what was needed to put people on the moon is simply not needed.

        The ecological rucksack of this sort of manufacturing is enormous. Estimates vary, but a laptop that weighs a few pounds required several tonnes of material to manufacture. So, removing the high tech parts from your power system is very good for the planet, not to mention cheaper, which means your farmer can work less and relax more, and more durable.

        To me, this is one of the first things I have read that actually demonstrates a hopeful scenario. We always say the first step is to reduce. We say that in recycling, we say that in solar power, we say it for electric cars. But these folks have reduced a huge chunk of their infrastructure.

        You might want to read the about page on their website—they take that philosophy and apply it on all their projects. Very thought provoking.

        So, I am sure their technology choices are frustrating, and harder than they let on. But we don’t have a choice between the Jetsons future, and some modicum of greenness. We have a choice between a very crappy future and truly horrifying future.

        There are many questions still left unanswered, like about manufacturing solar panels themselves and LED lights.

        But much of their system relies on technology that is a century, or a couple of millenia older, so we know it can be made with rudimentary and local manufacturing systems.

      • It’s good that we have questions and I am tempted to get in touch with LEF to clear up some of mine. Their website has a couple of years of newsletters linked to it so I will check there first. But the simpler approach has its appeal for me; though I have read that some lead acid battery manufacturers use recycled plastic battery housing, etc etc, I still wonder how realistic is it that any of these recyclable components will be reused in some way down the line – doubts I wouldn’t have if a system could simply do without what I read somewhere called off-gridders’ ‘dirty secret’. In Hungarian PV panels translate as ‘sun batteries’ and I had a small one here pumping water into a pond with the cable running direct to the motor. ‘Why can’t all PV systems be this simple?’ I have long wondered. Meanwhile a big battery and a larger panel have lain unused as I just haven’t raised enough enthusiasm to defeat the nagging thought that this direction just ain’t achievable for all, hence to me it’s not particularly desirable to go there.

  26. Ruben, Simon – it seems like there are two evaluative frameworks in play here. One is the notion that it’s good to use less inputs for a given output – to ‘reduce’, as Ruben puts it above. I agree. I’m not sure it’s always simple putting that into practice because there are always numerous tradeoffs – in the case of batteries, for example, there are tradeoffs involving weight, volume, safety/toxicity, scarcity of components, durability, recharging time, cost, embodied energy etc – so I’m not sure any single battery technology ever presents itself as the clear choice. There’s also the output problem that while for certain operations it’s fine if the motive force varies with the solar input (like the milling referred to in the link) there are quite a few other ones around the farm where it isn’t – sawing, grinding, drilling, welding and various types of food processing etc. So I don’t think I agree with Ruben that batteries are ‘simply unnecessary’ (maybe I’d agree if he argued that they were ‘complexly unnecessary’). It also seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for developing battery technologies because they can reduce the amount of scarce or non-renewable resources that might otherwise be used to generate electricity. But in general terms I don’t have a problem with the idea of input minimisation.

    The other framework is determining what level of technological development is sustainable in a resource-constrained post-industrial society. Here, I do struggle to see why you’re so impressed by Living Energy Farm and so unimpressed by my post above, Ruben. Doubtless you’re right that removing the high tech parts of the system is a good idea, but there isn’t some binary distinction between high tech and low tech and things that were made only as recently as a century ago (like most electrical items) aren’t necessarily rudimentary or low tech. Today’s inverters are full of microchips because microchips are cheap and efficient in the present economy, but you don’t need a microchip to make an inverter. So then we need to start spooling backwards – could a postindustrial economy make a transistor? Copper wire? How can you be sure that an economy that can’t make an AC motor will be able to make a DC one? And, when it comes down to it, AC technology isn’t especially high tech and has various efficiency advantages over DC. Do we need to go back to Joe’s scenario and use only steam engines? Or your potter’s wheel scenario. OK, the simpler the better, but where do you draw the line (especially when there isn’t a ‘line’ as such)?

    I don’t mean to be cynical about what the folks at Living Energy Farm are doing. I don’t want to criticise anyone who finds a way to reduce their impact and who experiments with different ways of doing things. But, well, in their set-up they have PV panels, batteries, LEDs etc. Why do you find this hopeful, and yet the scenario sketched above implausible? OK, so there may be issues in the scenario above around grids or the need to reduce energy demand still further from the 50% cut I construed…but I don’t see the grounds for such a firm and finely-balanced dividing line between hopefulness and implausibility.

    I guess what I’m looking for in this debate is a more fully grounded analysis of the second framework, so that we don’t just assume that some slightly less energy-intensive or more technically simple technology will necessarily be sustainable in the future. That, I realise, isn’t easy to do – but without it I’m not sure we’re going to get too far in finding an agreed technological baseline. To my mind, the criticisms you levelled at my analysis above might very well apply to the PV/DC/NiFe/LED stuff being promoted here.

    • Thanks Chris, I think we largely agree. I will try to get more details out of LEF as they also use PV direct to saw logs (I also wonder if they’d let folks charge up their batteries while the PV panels are sitting idle?). I think the main point with the NiFe battery is its indefinite lifespan, though technology in this field continues apace: Hyundai are working on a ‘solid state’ battery for EVs that they say won’t be prone to thermal runaway. Thanks also for clearing up my ley query. For some reason I’d honed in on Eliot Coleman’s recommendation on page 52 of my copy of Growing Green of a 1:1 ratio in situations where hay-made compost is the only source of fertility.

  27. Briefly back to what I’ve learned of DC solar direct (no battery, but a DC breaker or a fuse, and apologies to the already clued up). First, the disclaimer: you cannot power heavy motors or other large power loads with low voltage unless you have large wires and a carefully designed system.
    Both Living Energy Farm (LEF) and ‘DIY 12 Volt Solar Power’ author Michel Daniek give positive reports of using solar direct. LEF uses a high voltage 1400 watt solar rack (6 x 30-volt panels in series, giving 180 volts). LEF added, “All of the voltage numbers are nominal. Actual voltages are higher. One of the amazing things about our DC economy is how tolerant of voltage change it is. AC equipment has a very narrow tolerance for voltage fluctuation. DC equipment tolerates huge swings in power output, which make it well suited to renewable energy systems as their output is variable. Our high voltage rack powers a wide range of equipment, including grinding grain, cutting firewood, running the heating blowers for the buildings, and running any of the many tools for cutting and shaping wood and metal that you would find in any well tooled shop.
    Because of the enormous flexibility of DC equipment, we do not have to be terribly careful. We can turn on motors that are rated for 2 or 3 times the total output of the panels. We can run motors in cloudy weather. They slow down, but they still work. The one exception is motors under continuous, heavy load. For our compressor or our grain grinder, we have to make sure we have sufficient power or they will overheat the control switches.” LEF will next be experimenting with threshing their own grain through a high voltage DC modified household scale chipper/ shredder (and report their woodgas tractor is now operational).
    As for Daniek, in southern Spain, solar direct powers his tool sharpening grinder, washing machine and spinner-dryer (24v motors and four 90-watt panels – the same panels also charge his electric bike), and using cheap step up or step down converters, run a 12V compressor fridge and charge 18V tool power packs.
    Chris, I took the liberty of putting your ‘industrial complexity threshold’ question to LEF. They acknowledged the difficulty of “choosing which machines are virtuous and which are not”. LEF’s Alexis Zeigler pointed to their solar direct set-up is simpler, and much cheaper, than a conventional off-grid design set up to run AC power: “DC brush motors are very simple. They could be made at the village level. The design has not changed in over a century. (Brushless DC motors require less maintainance, but require much more sophisticated electronics.) As for an energy source, photovoltaic (PV) panels are great in that we always get some power. Even on the cloudiest of days, we still get 10% of full power. That is plenty enough. We simply alter our work schedule to do heavy work requiring full power direct drive on sunny days. PV panels last a long time. The limitation of PV panels is that the manufacturing process is a complex industrial process that would not be easy to imitate locally. The standard off-grid design also uses inverters, and often a host of other electronic messiness. That stuff is hopeless to produce, not very durable, and not necessary.”
    Zeigler also mentioned the following figures, which I think I understand but might need to clarify: “Total global installed PV power is already at 40 watts per capita. At LEF, our PV supply is 200 watts per capita. The number for total renewable energy production is harder to calculate, in large part because of lot of what is called renewable probably isn’t (large scale biofuel, for instance). It’s hard to say for sure, but with our modest economy at LEF, I think we are already very close to using the equivalent of the existing per capita renewable global energy supply.”

    • Thanks for that, Simon – very interesting. I think where I’m stuck with this is not the technologies themselves that people are experimenting with, but the wider inferences people are making about how it fits into an uncertain future. It’s doubtless true that DC brush motors are very simple and can be made at village level, but if village level is all there is then I strongly suspect that DC brush motors probably won’t be being manufactured. And if that’s so, then I’m not sure they constitute some kind of technological ‘answer’. To put it another way, Ruben above raised the problem of ‘stranded assets’ at the high tech end of the spectrum, eg. nuclear fusion may be the ideal low carbon power source, but if we assume an imminent and rapid decline in societal complexity then it may not be a wise current investment. My fear here is that there may also be stranded assets at the low tech end of the spectrum, in the sense that pure village-level organisation won’t be able to sustain a DC motor manufacturing industry – so if we assume that’s the future we have in store, then DC motors are the wrong technology and probably likewise if we assume that it isn’t. Just to emphasise again, this isn’t a criticism of LEF and their interesting work, or the virtues in general of going for simpler over more complex technology – I guess it’s a criticism of supposing that DC technology is necessarily ‘hopeful’ in a way that AC technology isn’t.

  28. No technology lasts forever but my impression is LEF have looked at what’s available and taken a route towards having the benefits electrical power using the fewest components which they believe will have the longest serviceable life. You’re right that it is just another approach that carries the same caveats as almost any other industrial technology at the fate of an uncertain future.

  29. Bur seriously though folks, it would be interesting to see a feminist perspective on the whole PROW. There are a lot of underlying assumptions or limitations in the idea – which probably none of us have considered yet which will have a significant impact on womens lives

    PROW Obstetric & Family Planning service anyone?

    • Good point. I’ve thought a bit about gender roles and agrarian populism without being able to give much shape to the question. I’m probably not the best person to talk about the roles of women in an agrarian populist society for various reasons in addition to the obvious one. But, strangely, no one else seems to be filling out the details about the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, so I’ll make a (manful) attempt to say something about gender presently.

        • I hadn’t thought of that until you suggested it, but I followed up on it and here is how the conversation went:

          ‘Darling, would you like to write a blog post about the role of women in a future agrarian populist republic?’
          ‘No, you do it.’
          ‘Oh, OK then. Should I submit it to you for prior approval before I publish it?’

          So there you have it.

          • Domestic Facilities Management had a good laugh over this……………….

    • That does make a great point John. Especially along the metric of ‘happy wife/happy life’.

      But curmugeonousness* suggests that in absentia a feminine viewpoint one could observe that women have been amongst us since the beginning. Family planning needn’t require sophisticated drug regimens, and midwifery among peasants is common. Still, I would imagine these and other subjects could do with some additional torchlight from the fairer sex.

      * Germanic word coining… just add more syllables…

  30. Pingback: Of Solutionism and Anti-Solutionism: Interim Thoughts on Wessex and Londinium - Resilience

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