Our Finite World


The following is taken from Gail Tverberg’s blog, Our Finite World.

See also Ugo Bardi’s The Seneca effect: why decline is faster than growth.

In a finite world, longer-term models need to take into account the fact that resources deplete and the population keeps rising.

Any modeler who tries to take into account the fact that resources deplete and the overall population keeps rising will quickly come to the conclusion that, at some point, every economy will have to collapse. This has been known for a very long time. Back in 1957, Admiral Hyman Rickover of the US Navy said,

Surplus energy provides the material foundation for civilized living – a comfortable and tasteful home instead of a bare shelter; attractive clothing instead of mere covering to keep warm; appetizing food instead of anything that suffices to appease hunger. . .

For it is an unpleasant fact that according to our best estimates, total fossil fuel reserves recoverable at not over twice today’s unit cost, are likely to run out at some time between the years 2000 and 2050, if present standards of living and population growth rates are taken into account.

Now, in 2021, it looks as if this problem is starting to hit us. But no one (since Jimmy Carter, who was not re-elected) has dared tell the general public. Instead, accrual accounting with more and more debt is used in financial statements, including GDP statements. Actuaries put together Social Security funding estimates as if the resources to provide the promised benefits will really be there. Climate change models are prepared as if business as usual can go on for the next hundred years. Everything published by the mainstream media is based on the underlying assumption that we will have no problems other than climate change for the next 100 years.

About all that can be done now is to start cutting back on the less necessary parts of the economy.

With the need to pull back, there is a much higher level of conflict, both within and between countries. The big issue becomes who, or what, is going to be “voted off the island” next. Is it the elderly or the poor; the military or the oversized US medical establishment; university education for a large share of students or classroom teaching for young children?

We don’t seem to have a good way out of our current predicament. Renewables and nuclear require fossil fuel energy for their production and maintenance. The powers that be don’t want anyone to know that nearly all of the “happily ever after using renewables” stories we hear are based on wishful thinking.

One of her commenters, Norman Pagett, had this to say:

Seems to me that the biggest and most immediate danger we face, is a point you touch on, but don’t accentuate enough, that democracy (as we currently know it) can only exist so long as current levels of (cheap)energy remain available to us.

That is borne out by the fact that democratic systems of government arose in tandem with the rise of fossil fuel output.

‘Democracy’ was forced on the powers that be, by the need for ever increasing numbers of workers to run factories and produce goods. Agricultural workers existed at a subsistence level, so could be held down by landowners who controlled the supply of basic energy (food).. Factory and mine workers became one step removed from the food control supply chain. They bought food (energy) that was produced by someone else. Pre-industrial farmworkers didn’t enjoy that privelege. That is the hallmark of all ‘developed’ nations. The removal of workers from food production.

Serfdom and factories didn’t work together (though the very early industrialists tried it). Instead the workers demanded a say in the way their country was run. Without workers, factories/mines would close and the industrial treadmill would cease to run. So they grudgingly got the vote. Even women–eventually.

Is it not likely, then, that democracy will collapse first in those places which run out of affordable energy first? Because the reality of the impending energy crisis trumps the emissions issue and because the ocean-atmosphere carbon cycle is still so poorly understood. I am deeply sceptical of the sort of carbon accounting systems which are likely to be used by the big, resource-poor countries to exploit small resource-rich countries like Australia.