Energy Conservation / Renewable Resources and Peak Oil25 Dec 2010 09:29 pm

It took me several weeks to make my way through William Catton’s Overshoot. It is not particularly long (about 250 pages, some of which are notes), but I was only reading it off and on.

It was well worth the time. This book is one of the most perceptive, far sighted, and important ones that I have ever read.

I feel like I’ve taken a course from a great teacher who has forever changed the way I look at the world. While very eye-opening (at least for me), the book was also quite sobering. That it was written over thirty five years ago is remarkable (written in the early to mid 70s, published in 1980). Aside from the occasional reference to contemporary politics, this could have been written last year – and still be ahead of its time.

The gist of Overshoot is that humans are living a very precarious existence on temporarily-available carrying capacity, and are soon in for a rude awakening. But it is how Catton arrives at that conclusion that makes the book so valuable.

Catton views the world and human history through an ecological lens. He makes a convincing argument that many aspects of our history that we like to think of as grounded in ideology or politics are, in fact, largely the result of ecological factors. For example, he explains why the US and western European tendencies towards democratic governance is the result of the opening up of the New World, which for many years was a relief valve for European population pressure as well as a trove of natural resources.

He does a fantastic job of explaining the different ways in which carrying capacity of an environment can be modified, and why some of those ways are sustainable and others are temporary. Man has been increasing the carrying capacity of his environment for thousands of years. The advent of agriculture was a major event in that history, The takeover of land from other species and less consumptive peoples has also been increasing carrying capacity for millennia. More recently, industrialization and the drawdown of resources (e.g., the use of fossil fuels in agriculture) has significantly – albeit temporarily – increased the number of people the earth can support.

The problem with these increases in carrying capacity is that they make us increasingly dependent upon them for our continued existence. To the extent that they involve the drawdown of finite resources or threaten to disrupt the complex web of life upon which we depend, we are setting ourselves up for a natural ‘correction’ in the form of a population crash. Catton spends some time discussing classic examples of population crashes in nature (snowshoe hare and lynx) and in human history (Easter Island, Ireland in the 1800s). He investigates the factors that influence how population crashes play out, and how we modern humans have fooled ourselves into thinking that we are exempt from such things. We ignore basic principles of ecology at our own peril.

As Catton recognized even in the 1970s, because we have been so successful at increasing carrying capacity, we behave as if there are no real limits (or that they are far enough away to not matter). Even now (thirty five years later) we seem to think that technology will rescue us, that we will be motoring on into the future in our battery-powered cars and solar-powered homes. That flies in the face of increasing evidence to the contrary, available to anyone who chooses to look.

When population pressure is low, life is good. When it is high, humans (like any other animal) are miserable, act with little restraint, and do things that we would characterize as barbaric. We are now in a transition from the former to the latter, and if you know what to look for you can see the signs all around you. That is not a happy message, but the more we put off dealing with the situation, the harder the fall will be. It is by studying the world through an ecological lens that we will be able to recognize the effects of population pressure and resource depletion, and hopefully mitigate them to some extent. It is by understanding the difficulties that are coming that we can act to minimize their de-humanizing effects and, I hope, leave some chance that our lives and the lives of our children will be well worth living.

Years ago, William Catton (along with some other pioneers of his time) tried to get us to recognize that we will soon be living dramatically different lives than we do now, whether we like it or not, and that it is better to move voluntarily in that direction now than to drown fighting a rip tide. He pointed out that we would be best served by assuming the worst and behaving accordingly, as opposed to the dangerous option of assuming the best and not acting. It’s a damn shame this message that has mostly been ignored in the intervening years, and is only now starting to be revisited by people clearly seeing the effects of peak Everything. Catton said that one of the biggest issues humanity would face would be sheer unwillingness to change, short of absolute crisis. He certainly got that right.

Cheers for reading this far, and I hope you have a good holiday season. If you have the opportunity, get a copy of this book and read it cover to cover. It is now required reading for my children. Below is a list of things that really got my attention as I read this book.

As for me, time to sit down with my seed catalogs and plan for next year’s garden  :)

Here are some of Catton’s many interesting and valuable observations (in no particular order):

  • Humans have been increasing their numbers on this earth for a long time, but we’ve recently exploded. Back when modern tool-based agriculture took off (several thousand years ago), a person might see population increase by 1% in a generation. When the industrial revolution began, human population was growing about 14% per generation. At the time this book was written, we’d hit 27% per generation! It is that more-than-exponential growth, combined with our enormous drawdown of exhaustible resources, that makes this a very, umm, interesting time to live  :-/
  • When Columbus set sail for the New World, Europe was struggling with the effects of high population pressure; there were about 24 acres of land per person. With the technologies available at the time, it was difficult to support a population at that level. The introduction of the new hemisphere effectively raised the land per European person to about 120 acres. By the 1950s, we’d spread across the new hemisphere, multiplying rapidly, and there were only 11 acres per person. This population level was made possible only by the use of technology and massive drawdown of resources.
  • Here’s another way of looking at population levels: the number of people that live within an hour’s walking time. When Europeans arrived in the New World, the native population here – assuming uniform distribution – meant that about 17 people lived within an hour’s walk (in reality, it was a factor of three or four higher than that, because people lived in groups). In 1970, Alaska’s ‘uniform distribution’ number was 26. But that number (in 1970) for the entire US was over 2800 people within an hour’s walk. In New Jersey (the most densely populated state) the number was almost 48,000. And in Washington D.C., it was over 600,000! It is easy to see how population density makes the modern world fundamentally different than it was even several hundred years ago.
  • While technology can increase carrying capacity, in practice it typically enables excessive consumption of resources, which reduces carrying capacity (i.e., living less lavishly would allow more to do so). I think of this as a sort of analogue of Jevon’s Paradox.
  • One needs to understand the concept of ‘ghost’ or ‘phantom’ acreage, which is effective acreage that a country or region makes use of in addition to the contemporary growth of organisms within its borders. Both imports of food and the use of fossil fuels in food production (in fertilizer, pesticides, planting, harvesting, and transport) are examples of ghost acreage. A case in point: by the 1960s, Britain got over half her food either from the ocean or from other countries. At (then) current rates of production, her own acreage was not nearly enough to provide for her population, and so she relied (and still relies) on this ghost acreage. The same is even more true of Japan. What happens when fossil fuels become scarce enough that food cannot be cheaply produced and transported in huge quantities over large distances, effectively removing much of that ghost acreage? People will go hungry. In the past, emigrations to new lands could have eased this situation, but we are now out of new lands. By Catton’s measure, humans are now 90% dependent on phantom acreage.
  • The use of the word ‘production’ when referring to extraction of a resource (especially an exhaustible one) is a form of self-deception. An oil company talking about ‘increasing production’ is a lie in the same sense that I lie if I take more money out of my savings account and say my income has gone up.
  • An interesting point: In Japan, it takes about 90 person-days of labor per acre of rice field using traditional human-based farming. In the US, using mechanized methods, it takes about 2 person-days per acre. But in order to achieve that 88 person-day savings, it takes the equivalent of over 800 person-days of energy in the form of tractor, fuel, electricity, and fertilizer!
  • Another interesting observation: Proponents of a massive shift to the use of solar energy are fond of pointing out that all we need to do is capture a very small fraction of the energy of the sun incident on the earth in order to support human needs. Catton points out that, over time, diverting such an amount of energy may well be enough to change the environment in undesirable ways. I haven’t done any investigation into the likelihood of that, but it’s something that hadn’t even occurred to me.
  • The cumulative biotic potential of any species outweighs the carrying capacity of its habitat. In other words, lacking checks and balances, any species has the capacity to overpopulate. Malthus saw that this principle applied to humans; Darwin realized that it was not limited to humans, and was central to the mechanisms of natural selection and evolution. This effect is what allows the snowshoe hare population to quickly recover from predation-induced crashes, and what allows wheat to produce not only enough grain to reproduce but to feed humans as well.
  • The concept of succession is important, and is relevant to this subject in multiple ways. Succession – natural progression of an ecosystem from one state to another – is what you see when a barren lot first becomes overrun with pioneer weeds, which in turn yield to later-stage plants. Eventually this may result in a ‘climax community’, which is a stable, diverse ecosystem. In succession, organisms in one seral stage modify their own habitat, eventually making it unfit for themselves and fit for their successors. Fighting or undoing succession is possible, but is generally difficult and expensive. Farming and gardening are examples of keeping succession at bay; the farmer or gardener is involved in a never-ending struggle to protect crops from hardier and more competitive wild plants and predators. The climax community is sustainable and self-sufficient, and in principle can support humans indefinitely; farmed land is inherently unstable or precarious, but has a higher human carrying capacity. Catton also has a fascinating interpretation of the history of Colonial Williamsburg as an example of a deliberate and very costly undoing of succession in a human environment.
  • A population crash can be thought of as “an abrupt instance of succession with no apparent successor.” Like a typical succession, however, the crashing organism has modified its own environment to the extent that it is no longer suitable to itself. Think of the exploding hare population causing an irruption (sudden rise in population) of lynxes, which in turn causes a predation-induced crash in hares. Or the yeast in a wine vat, whose population explodes in the rich, inviting environment, until the yeast byproducts literally kill off the yeast. Or think of humans…
  • Population crashes are more abrupt in systems where there is less diversity and competition. Simple systems in which there are fewer players and fewer sources of competition have more abrupt and deeper crashes. An extreme example of this is the Brown Lemming; with virtually no competitors, the ratio of population in peak to crash years can be as high as 500 to 1. Other cases? Lynxes (who feed almost exclusively on rabbits) can see population swings of 30 or more to 1. In the case of Ireland in the 1800s, their over-dependence on the potato for food resulted in a population reduction of 2 to 1 (although much of that reduction resulted from emigration, not starvation).
  • Catton points out that modern humans are essentially a detrivore. Detrivores are organisms that live on a previously accumulated store of detritus. An example is pond organisms that feed in the spring on last year’s accumulated leaf debris. Detrivore populations expand far faster than the detritus accumulates; they irrupt and then, as they exhaust the supply of detritus, they crash. Yeast in a wine bottle is a manmade detritus ecosystem. In a similar fashion, man is a detrivore ‘feeding off’ the accumulated stores of organisms from the Carboniferous period (fossil fuels).
  • Catton’s clever depiction of modern, consumptive man as ‘Homo collosus’, and the imagery he uses around this concept, are very effective. I’ll leave the details to the book.
  • All other things being equal, population pressure can decrease when ecological niches are available; conversely, a loss of ecological niches increases pressure.
  • Catton’s discussion of human tool use and environmental manipulation as generalized forms of prosthetics is really interesting. These prosthetics – everything from simple tools to cars, modern buildings, aircraft, and so on – have allowed humans to quasi-speciate and fill many more ecological niches than would otherwise be possible. So in that sense, we’ve increased the carrying capacity of our habitat. But most of our modern ‘prosthetics’ rely on unsustainable drawdown of resources; as resources diminish, carrying capacity will follow, and population pressure will increase.
  • Carrying capacity of a combined area can be greater than the sum of carrying capacities of the parts. This is because in any one local area, carrying capacity may be limited by lack of one particular resource. If neighboring areas have carrying capacities limited by different resources, then trade between the regions will raise total capacity. This is one effect that globalization has had. Globalization, however, relies on fossil fuels for transport of goods; price them out of the picture and carrying capacity will decline. Related to this is the fact that when you have interdependent areas that trade to increase carrying capacity, then that carrying capacity can be diminished by things other than resource constraints. For example, if social unrest disrupts that trade, then carrying capacity will suffer. Catton makes some very interesting arguments about the ecological causes of the Great Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany (that I won’t get into here).
Family Life and Life and Self Sufficiency01 Jun 2010 06:48 am


Here are some recent gardening pics, as well as some from earlier this year and late last year.

Economy and Energy Conservation / Renewable Resources and Peak Oil15 Jan 2010 10:02 am

I just finished reading Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller (Oil and the End of Globalization), by Jeff Rubin. Mr. Rubin is one of the few economists out there who truly understands peak oil, one whose viewpoint is not corrupted by a blind belief that the global economy is without resource constraints.

Mr. Rubin provides some of the best, most balanced coverage that I’ve seen of many of the serious problems facing us.

This is a guy who was ignored by some and derided by others when he predicted in 2000 that the price of oil would break $50 / barrel by 2005 (at the time it was at an all time high of about $30). He was proven correct. In 2005 he predicted (to similar reception) that it would break $100 by 2007. He was proven right a second time.

In this book, Mr. Rubin shows that he wasn’t just making lucky guesses, or that he simply believes the price of oil will continue monotonically upward. He has a deep understanding of the reasons why oil prices have behaved as they have (including the 2008 peak and subsequent drop), and the impact of those prices on the global economy.

He makes a number of points that have been well-covered by others, but are worth repeating (apologies for all the bullet points, but I’m too lazy to put this into a more coherent format):

  • Cheap energy (mainly in the form of oil) has pervaded our lives for decades, and is responsible for many of the things you probably associate with a ‘normal’ life. New car, big house, nice income, traveling, cheap goods from distant lands, affordable food, and so on.
  • Energy prices were the cause of some hallmarks of the last two decades: low interest rates and easy credit, followed by the housing bubble and subsequent subprime mortgage implosion, and the current recession. Many people still do not get this – mistakenly believing that the recession was primarily due to shoddy or fraudulent banking practices and overreaching homeowners – and Mr. Rubin does a great job of explaining it.
  • The end of cheap energy will have a major impact on our lives. No longer will we have access to amazingly cheap goods from China and other faraway lands, and food will become pricier. Your dollar will buy less all around. On the bright side, as shipping becomes more expensive, we will see the local re-birth of many industries, and a return of many jobs that had gone overseas.
  • Neither unconventional sources of oil nor alternative sources of energy will make up for the decline in conventional oil. All of the major oil fields are nearing peak or are already depleting rapidly, and the new finds don’t nearly make up for the losses. Mr. Rubin does a good job explaining why unconventional oil and alternative energy are the equivalent of finding loose change under the couch cushions when we are months behind on our mortgage.
  • There will be no large-scale transition to electric vehicles, for a combination of reasons (the biggest being the inadequacy of both energy sources for generation of electricity and the electrical grid itself).
  • The energy return on investment (EROI) for Canadian tar sands, deep water drilling, and biofuels is far lower than the returns we are accustomed to, and demonstrate how desperate we are becoming for energy. In the case of biofuels, we are also directly driving up the price of food (feeding corn to our cars).
  • In the last century, the US (driven in large part by the interests of Detroit) squandered an opportunity to build infrastructure for, and a society friendly to, public transportation. Instead, we invested in a system that favored, even required, the automobile. That was a huge mistake in the long-term picture.

Some of the things Mr. Rubin discusses are not so well covered elsewhere (or maybe are just not so familiar to me):

  • Some of the biggest oil exporting nations are massively subsidizing internal prices. This is driving increases in internal consumption and decreasing exports (to, say, the US and Europe). As a result, you cannot consider the global market for oil as a traditional economic marketplace. Supply constraints for developed nations will cause price spikes that distort the market. The global economy will repeatedly see the price of oil spike (as it did in 2008), in turn crushing demand and causing prices to fall. Then the economy begins to recover, and demand causes the price to spike again. Meanwhile, every time demand implodes, the expensive exploration and recovery projects to bring in low-EROI oil will be shelved, further constraining future supply.
  • Jevon’s Paradox states that increases in energy efficiency do not lead to lower energy consumption, but to higher consumption (!). This has played out numerous times in the last 150 years. When technical advances increase efficiency, it opens the door for new uses of the energy source as well as increasing the number of people who can afford access to that energy. Policy goals should not focus primarily on increased energy efficiency but on lower overall consumption.
  • The politics of climate change will be shifting. Consumption of fossil fuels in the developed world will decline (because of supply constraints) while that in the oil exporting nations will increase. The first implication of this is that the developed nations will not be in control of climate change. The second is that, according to Rubin, it is in the interest of the developed world to use carbon tariffs to mitigate climate change, pushing exporting countries to lower emissions while creating a ‘green economy’ in the developed world.

Some miscellaneous crazy shit I wasn’t aware of:

  • Iran subsidizes oil for internal consumption to the tune of tens of billions of dollars per year. As a result, consumption is growing. When the government tried to raise prices in 2007 to stem growth and curb financial losses, people rioted. The government backed down.
  • Countries in the Middle East are using increasing amounts of (heavily subsidized) oil to generate electricity.
  • Countries in the Middle East are rapidly exhausting their water supplies. They are increasingly using subsidized oil to fuel the energy-intensive process of desalinizing sea water.
  • The (in)famous indoor ski slope in Dubai (which serves roughly 3000 people per day) burns the equivalent of about 3500 barrels of oil a day to keep the place refrigerated and snow-bound. That amount of oil could alternatively be used to fuel about 100,000 cars (driving a typical 35 miles / day)!

Mr. Rubin does take some positions I’m not sure I agree with:

  • He believes that the sweeping bailouts and fiscal priming that nations around the world have undertaken will send us into an inflationary period. Stoneleigh makes a very interesting argument that we could see a deflationary descent down the energy curve.
  • Given how well Mr. Rubin ‘gets it’, he remains remarkably optimistic about the prospects for simultaneously weaning ourselves from oil and maintaining (modest) economic growth. He points to living conditions in Europe now (with $7 / gallon gas, including heavy taxes) as a lifestyle we could achieve. Maybe that is because he is only thinking out a decade or two, or maybe it is just that the economist in him demands the last word on growth ;-) Or maybe my long-term outlook is just too pessimistic… Here’s to hoping he is right!
Life15 Oct 2009 10:00 pm


Ever since moving into our house nearly a decade ago we’ve seen chipmunks in the yard or nearby in the neighborhood.

Since expanding our gardening experiment this year, though, they either multiplied or spent more time in our direct vicinity (or both).

I’ll walk out onto the deck, and hear one shooting off the stairs onto the lawn. I step into the garden, and just barely see a pair of them dart behind the water barrels. They are so stealthy, so amazingly quick, that it took me several months to realize they were present almost underfoot. I finally learned to recognize when something briefly visible in the corner of my eye (“did I just see something over there?”) was actually a chipmunk scampering to safety.

Yesterday one of our local chipmunks died  :(

Tonight I dug a hole in the warm, active part of the compost pile and laid her body there. Over time it will be worked on by the organisms in the pile, broken down into the basic components of life. By next summer, the elements of her body will be nourishing the same plants that once fed her.

That’s the way it should be, I think — you know, the circle of life.

And that, now that I think about it, is what I want to happen to me when I die. No preservation by chemicals and burial in a box. Not even incineration, with ashes spread somewhere nice. After I’m dead, I would like my body to be returned, as directly and beneficially as possible, to the natural world from which it came.

I want to be composted, broken down to my constituent parts and returned to the land. I want to be laid where my body can nourish the plants that once fed me, and now feed others.

That’s the way it should be, I think.

Family Life and Life and Peak Oil and Self Sufficiency22 Sep 2009 10:29 pm

Lots of new pics in the gallery:

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