Monday, May 04, 2009

Blog Plans

Last week I wrote that the theme of this blog was to write about an improved set of operating instructions for human society.  Rather than specifically reviewing my successes and failures in pursuing this goal, I'll outline my post plans for the coming year and briefly explain why I'll cover each topic.  Hopefully a composite will emerge that outlines the future direction of this blog.

1.  The Renewables Hump.  In this series, I'll be discussing what I've referred to as the "bootstrapping problem" elsewhere.  Briefly, it takes an up-front energy investment to build renewable energy generation capacity.  It takes X amount of energy to build a 5 MW wind turbine, for example, and it will take Y years of that turbine in operation to pay back that up-front cost.  So what?  This means that we need a significant energy surplus to invest now if we hope to transition our fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy economy.  There are two repercussions of this.  First, the window of opportunity to make this transition is rapidly closing as we pass peak oil.  Second, the true EROEI of renewable energy generation is critically important as a result.  If the EROEI of photovoltaics, for example, is advertised as 15:1, but is actually 2:1 (I've argued in the past that it may be lower than 1:1), then the available transition window is dramatically smaller than we have been led to believe--possibly even closed.  In my mind, we  need to address this question immediately so that we can figure out if it's worth pursuing the promise of a green-tech future or if we need to instead pursue a more conservative, low-tech vision of the future...

2.  The international law of polar resources.  I anticipate this will become in increasingly important geopolitical flashpoint over the next decade:  who owns arctic and antarctic oil and gas, what is the existing international law precedent, an what are the practical (political, economic, and military) realities of potential ownership disputes.  It will also be an excellent platform to discuss the role of an evolving Nation-State system on future geopolitics.

3.  Revisit my ongoing writing on energy geopolitics in light of the current economic recession and longer-term catabolic collapse.  How will the current recession and longer term cycles impact my existing theory of geopolitical loops in oil production disruption?

4.  Green capitalism and religion--is salvation delusion or distortion of an authentic message.  I'm very concerned about the sales pitch of the "green" industry:  we can all continue our business as usual if we just screw in a different light bulb, or if we wear organic cotton clothing.  But there's clearly some authentic message in the "green movement."  It strikes me that this is oddly analogous to the historical development of Christianity (and possibly other religions--I'm just beginning this line of thought):  Read the actual words of Jesus, and then look at the actions of Christians, and especially Christian states.  Listen to how a camel will more easily pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man will enter the kingdom of heaven--not exactly representative of Christianity's actions from a position of power.  Seems to me quite a bit like the basic premise of sustainability and "green" economics compared to the "green capitalism" we see in practice...

5.  Charting the solution space:  I've written about this before, and won't belabor this here, but the process for optimal decision making in light of imperfect information and unknowable future outcomes will be critical.  We can't know exactly how the future will unfold, but we can assign probabilities to certain divergent possibilities and devise an optimal strategy for proceeding in light of this uncertainty.

6.  Three paths to sustainability:  enlightenment, control, and erosion.  It seems to me that we have three possible paths to a truly sustainable society.  First, we can all act in an enlightened manner--true and universal voluntary sustainability.  Is this possible?  Second, if this goal of universal enlightened action is impractical (hmmm...), then we can achieve it through the imposition of top-down control.  Do we want to live in this kind of a society (and do we have an alternative)?  Third, we can fail to attain sustainability proactively, and the inevitable (?) result will be an erosion of our ecological support structure to the point where society collapses to a point where, even operating at maximal capacity, we will be operating at an involuntarily minimalist level of subsistence--which would quite likely also be "sustainable."  Is there a fourth option?

7.  Collapse surfing:  lifeboats, monasteries, and pirates.  In light of the (proposed?) reality (discussed in #6, above) that we likely won't be able to achieve voluntary, proactive, and "true" sustainability, what are the options for selective groups/sects/individuals to build sustainability?  Can we realistically build "lifeboats"--exemplar communities that will help to pull others up to true sustainability when it becomes obvious to the masses that drastic action is necessary?  Are we better off building "monasteries"--similar to lifeboats, but walled off from the profane world until such time as they can open their gates ad re-colonize the destroyed terrain around them?  For what it's worth, "walled gardens" may be more appropriate--both in the computer architecture sense and the "Alamut" sense...  What about pirates:  piracy was a symptom of a "non-closed map" in the past, and will likely become one (in many conceptually-related modes) with increasing frequency in the future.  I'm not specifically referring to Somalis or swashbucklers here, but rather opportunists of all stripes that exploit the growing "edge" in the map--especially the formerly (nearly) closed map of the Nation-State system.

8.  Reviews.  I may also write a series of reviews on the works of a few authors and theorists I've considered highly influential:  Hakim Bey (reference the map discussions above), Aldous Huxley (consider "Brave New World" and "Island" as book ends to our future options), Robert Anton Wilson, Daniel Quinn, and--yes--even James Bond as Ian Fleming's alchemical tale of the struggle between genetic and memetic ontogeny in human civilization (that one may take a bit of explaining!).

9.  I'll also be working on building a web-based litigation checklist.

Suggestions are always welcome... 


Theo_musher said...

I think Christianity plays more into peak oil doomerism. We have all been "sinners" (In Quinn's lingo "takers"). Now the end of the World is coming where we will all be judged for our wasteful selfish ways.

Anonymous said...

What about the state of the oceans as a result of both human misuse and climate change? I hear dire things lately about the oceans and whether or not they are past recovery and how that will affect all land life... Got any plans to talk about that here?

Theo_musher said...

Floods, famine, pestilences....God's wrath is upon us!

gaiasdaughter said...

Great list, Jeff! I'm looking forward to reading your posts.

janus said...

exploring the idea of "collapse surfing" (what a great term!) is really fascinating. the first concern in my mind would come in terms of defending against chaos outside the walled garden..

Theo_musher said...

Ok, one last comment of the day unless Jeff resopnds to me:

The goal is
Green FeudalismIts been the goal all along. Two of the main Spokesmen for it and engineers of it are pictured on page 63 of the recent issue of Time Magazines 100 most influential people. Ted Turner who made Daniel Quinn's career and T. Boone Pickens, who made billions in leveraged buy outs of Oil companies.

Hippies and anarchists are just "useful idiots" being used to spread the Climate change and Global Warming memes, until feudalism can be put in place.

Gregory Wade said...

Quite ambitious! But I like it. I'm going to have to see if I can find the time to play along.

TH in SoC said...

Jeff, regarding point #4, I have a lot to say about how the political expression of Christianity has diverged from the actual teachings of the Bible. One word that sums up a lot of it is the term, "Constantinianism." If you think it would be a good contribution, I can say a lot more...

Flagg707 said...

I look forward to your treatment of those themes. Very interested to see a treatment of R.A. Wilson's stuff.

One request, if you can work it in. With your background in the law, maybe a treatment of how the legal system might morph to address different sovereignties that cover the same geographic space. If/as we shift to a point where 4GW type entities acquire some sort of formal, legal status of their own, outside the existing State system, how might they develop? Would it be a separate apparatus, like the Ecclesiastical courts of Medieval Europe? Something else?

Thanks again for taking the time to post on these topics.

Jeff Vail said...

Thanks for all the comments.

- Anon: no plans to write specifically about the problems facing our ocean ecosystems. Not for lack of interest or thinking it's not important, but I just don't have enough knowledge to feel like I can contribute to the discussion... it's on the list to investigate, but unfortunately my time is already too short.

- Janus: I've written before about efforts to defend the "walled garden" (e.g. here), but it is certainly problematic. From a conceptual perspective, Hakim Bey's writings on periodic and permanent autonomous zones are informative but certainly not a blueprint. Look for more on this topic in the coming year...

- Theo: I don't think that what Ted Turner and T. Boone Pickens are doing is the way feudalism will shape up in the future (and I think it will only be green by "erosion" as discussed above), but I do agree with you that feudalism will likely be a prevalent organizational form in the medium to distant-future. We need to be careful using such a historically-charged word here: it's probably more accurate to say that many future organizational models will exhibit many similarities to historical feudalism in places like Northern Europe and Japan--as the saying goes, history doesn't repeat but it does rhyme. My problem with suggesting that Turner's and Pickens' form of capitalism will be green feudalism is that I see their enterprises as uniquely modern reactions to 1) the ongoing ability to leverage energy surpluses into massive, hierarchal organizations, and 2) the need to provide a green-tinge or opportunity to exploit this need to make a profit. As long as we have sufficient energy surpluses to support that scale of organization, I think we'll also have sufficient "civil-society" forces to keep up democracy, the middle-class, etc. Where I think we'll see feudalism is in the more medium to distant future where such organizational scope is no longer sustainable. Rather than "Spanish Empire," think pre-2001 Afghan warlord: local or bioregional players who use force, connections, and local efficiencies to build locally-stratified societies. Or think highschool social structures. Doesn't matter how popular Kid A is, his popularity reaches minimally, if at all, to other highschools because of the conceptual topology that poses high burdens on efforts to maintain influence beyond the scope of a single school. I think we'll see the same thing with future economics--especially in those parts of the world where natural resources base doesn't exist to support more complexity (read: dry, no natural connectivity via rivers/harbors, etc.)

TH: I'm definitely interested in your thoughts on this point--in fact, if you're interested in writing a guest piece or a synopsis for inclusion in my post, email me. I'm marginally familiar with the Counsel of Nicea, the politicization of Christianity, etc. Just enough to draw the connection with what we're seeing today with "Green" everything. But I'm by no means an authority. Generally speaking, I don't think I'm an authority on much of anything--I think my role is more to draw connections where others haven't than to provide depth in specific areas...

Flag707: Good point--I left this topic off my list, but I do plan to investigate the future of law. In very broad strokes, law, lawyers and the legal system are a reaction to complexity. As complexity necessarily diminishes with collapse, 1) there will be less of the legal system, but 2) in the short-term there will be more because it's *change* in this kind of societal complexity that creates the most demand for lawyers, and 3) the future of law will--very broadly--be more peer-to-peer (read tort law and other civil constructs) than top-down (read criminal law and state enforcement). There will also be an increasing presence of "private" or "third-party" law--e.g. what we'd call mediators or arbitrators today. If you go backwards in history to less complex societies you see exactly this--of course the future won't look just like the past, but there will be some similar models and structures that I think we'll find informative as we move forward...

Neven said...

I still need to respond to last week's blog post, but I have to ask this now: Jeff, have you read Huxley's 'Ends and Means'? It will come in most handy if you want to write something concerning point 6.

Whatever it is you'll be writing about, I'm sure to read all of it.

Brian said...

I definitely agree that when push comes to shove many societies will break down along religious and ethnic lines. Could be interesting to look at the hierarchies we improvise when social services break down?
Holder was definitely on to something when he called us a nation of cowards.

This is basically why I think leftists need to drop the anti-god stuff (particularly Dawkins et al.) Religion is going to be a powerful force in the future whether atheists like it or not, and we might as well try to reconcile ourselves to the more congenial believers (many of whom I think also have an interest in putting aside differences with the left).

Brian said...

Sorry for the double post.

Any "solution" that doesn't include mass transition is essentially a blueprint to build a fortress. That said, I'm not sure that mass transition is possible, and one of the gradual transitions that I am making is to put myself in the position to make a sudden transition when possible and if necessary...In other words, it seems doubtful that humanity will develop political programs capable of organizing this transition in a peaceful manner. That said, what would these programs resemble in our ideal case? Are there historical or contemporary touchstones? I ask because building these programs should be our top priority. I think bridging the rational humanist/religious gap might be one important element.

Great blog by the way, I've been luring for a while.

Al Eggen said...

Very interesting post. A few comments
1. A decent EROEI is critical – too bad nobody was paying attention when they were pushing corn ethanol as a green solution. However, I can't picture PV as that bad. We've got some panels on our off grid Vermont place that I bought used many years ago (they probably go back to the 70s) and they still are generating power.
4. There's a ridiculous level of optimism in parts of the green movement. Solar Today's March issue gave us Dan E. Arvizu (NREL director): “Breakthrough technologies will enable the global transition to carbon-free solar energy, providing plentiful, low-cost energy for all.” The same issue has a glowing report on a residence anointed as LEED Platinum. Check further and you'll find it's a 3 bedroom, 4-1/2 bath, 4,422 square foot house on the market for $3,400,000. Is this supposed to be some kind of model for the future? Who's future? Religion can be a good or a bad thing – It seems that the further right and the more structured it gets the worse its influence.
6. Hard to be optimistic on this one. Widespread voluntary is hard to imagine, top down isn't going to happen because it would be against the interest of those on the top.
7. Successful Utopian communities are hard to pull off – the Shakers did it for a while. It gets even more problematic if the community is doing much better than its unenlightened neighbors. The comic strip Monty just had him visiting his fortune teller. She's doing well, dumped her AIG, GM and Citigroup in 2006, Lehman in 2007, converted her 401k to T-bills and gold futures. What's she investing in now: “canned foods, assault rifles and biodiesel fueled electric generators”

Geoff said...

Could item 1, the renewables hump, be expanded to include the various nuclear options? A lot of people are putting their eggs in that basket without considering the full lifecycle costs, bootstrapping issues etc, the same things that plague renewables as solutions.

Mark Moore said...

I'm looking forward to your articles. Thank you for sharing your ideas in this fashion.

Rice Farmer said...

These are all worthy topics, and I look forward to what you have to say on all of them. However, the most urgent by far is, IMHO, the first one.

It appears to me that fossil-fuel bootstrapping is needed not only to get renewables going, but also keep them going. Behind this is the fact that the fossil fuel energy system allows us to access many, many years worth of stored solar energy at once, while renewables basically allow us to access solar energy only in real time. So the crucial difference between the fossil fuel energy system and the renewable energy system is the difference between "stored solar energy" and "real-time solar energy."

To get right to the conclusion, I think that unless some totally new source of highly dense energy that can replace fossil fuels is found, we are ultimately headed back to a pre-industrial existence. I go into this in a little more detail here

if you are so inclined. Definitely let us know what you think.

Rice Farmer said...

I just notice what Geoff said in his comment about nuclear power and bootstrapping. My view is that nuclear is the same as renewables in this regard. The fuel cycle is of course dependent on fossil fuels, but consider the obvious impossibility of building a nuclear power plant and manufacturing all its equipment without oil and coal. So nuclear is no more our savior than renewables.

Jeff Vail said...

Agreed, Rice Farmer...

I don't know the specific order that I will approach these topics, but I do know that #1 (The Renewable Hump) will be first. I spent some time outlining it yesterday--it's a very expansive topic...

Theo_musher said...

I think your poin number one is based on a flawed premise and goes downhill from there.

Jeff Vail said...

Theo: I think you miss the point on two fronts:

First, the bootstrapping problem isn't an electricity issue, it's an issue of the amount of energy required to build the renewable generation source. If you take the amount of energy required to produce one PV panel from "mine to installation," for example, you'll find that it comes from a wide-variety of sources: oil, coal, gas, nuclear, etc. The fact that the majority of electricity in the US is not generated by burning oil is entirely inapposite.

Second, energy is fungible, and the bootstrapping problem is an issue of peak energy as much as it is an issue of purely "peak oil." While only 2% of US electricity may be generated by burning oil, the vast majority of global energy in total is fossil-fuel derived. So, to be blunt, no, you can't easily transition our existing fleet of mine equipment, manufacturing equipment, transportation infrastructure, etc. to run purely off electricity, and even if you could you run right back into your tail because this extra electricity demand would 1) come increasingly from fossil fuels, and 2) this equipment would require massive amounts of largely fossil fuel derived energy to produce from the mine to operation.

Your example of SunEdison's installation of solar power with "no upfront costs" also misses the point--this is an artifact of our financial system, and cannot be scaled without running into exactly the kind of bootstrapping problem we're discussing. Their existing solar installations have been extremely tiny compared to the transition that will be necessary to keep up with peaking fossil fuel supplies, and really provide no insight into the ability to scale this type of operation in light of either financial or net-energy constraints...

Robert Martini said...


I also share your skepticism of renewable EROI. I believe that "renewable energy" is incredibly "subsidized" by fossil fuels. For instance, a wind turbine has very specifically shaped composite blades that are optimized by computers to get as much power as possible while accommodating for other circumstances out of the wind. The complex processes behind this and many of the production processes behind the construction of a wind turbine and its infrastructure require many complex systems of their own to be produced. Much of this production volume and flow is dependent on the widespread availability of ENERGY DENSE fossil fuels. This energy density translates into a lot of production times and processes that would not be possible without it. for instance

try using these equation to figured out much wind speed, time and area it might take to get one barrel of oils worth of energy.

last of all, I've always heard that renewable energy has a magnitude larger infastructure footprint than fossil fuels and it also is orders of magnitude less energy dense, so how do you get an EROI similar to oil and gas? Also, EROI/time is a consideration that really matters. I theorize that a negative wide boundary EROI would show up as a phenomenon some call as the law of receding horizons. In other words, production cost rise in level with price of the output product, therefore, as in renewable energy doesn't actually doesn't get more economic as oil prices rise, its just rises even high because of the high fossil fuel investments are more expensive.

Why doesn't anyone ask these questions, is it because the outcome might possibly be very disappointing or depressing? Wouldn't anyone that came out with a study saying no conventional renewable's have a positive EROI, be regarded as a Casandra or Copernicus?

Theo_musher said...


If we only derive 2% of our electric power from oil why do we need to replace all of our power generating infrastructure within some narrow window that "may have already passed"?

You still have this overall premise of this looming disaster of peak oil that requires us to replace all of our infrastructure with renewables. Why?

Theo_musher said...

Peak Coal is not for a hundred years, When is peak Hydro? Peak Nuclear? That's 98% of our electricity right there.

Theo_musher said...

I think you are thinking too linearly. You are setting up this scenario of having to rebuild all our power generating infrastructure, in an environment of total depletion.

No Coal, no water no Nuclear, no gas in the trucks. Why would anything happen like that? Everything happens together not in a straight line from point a to point b.

Robert Martini said...


coal may peak in as little as 20-30 years. Also the EROI of coal is declining along with natural gas and oil, because the relative effort per btu to extract these products has been increasing, due to the fact we used the easiest energy sources first.

while a lot of electricity generation is something other than oil in the united states, much of the INFRASTRUCTURE to carry out the logistics of running these coal power plants, natural gas plants, nuclear and oil fired facilities are all intricately linked to cheap transportation fuels.

Jeff's concept of fungibility kind of explains why these relationships may impede each other.

"No Coal, no water no Nuclear, no gas in the trucks. Why would anything happen like that? "

The finite nature of these resources dictates that these resources will deplete, so such a situation is inevitable. Also net energy concepts point to problems with net energy that may present themselves long before the actual resource runs out. While coal production may rise, the BTU content might not, or the actual net energy surplus for society may simultaneously decline because of the degree to which the fossil fuel and energy industries cannibalize their own production.

"We have only two modes - complacency and panic." — James R. Schlesinger, the first U.S. Dept. of Energy secretary, in 1977, on the country's approach to energy.

there is in my opinion good reason to believe that we may not act on these issues until they are acutely aware to the public, in which case it may be too late to invest in a renewable future that may or may not be feasible in the first place. Also, once societys net energy surplus is subject to increasing constraints, we will likely appropriate that energy surplus in ways that will continue the status quo which is unsustainable or we will throw lots of energy at solutions that are unfeasible like ethanol. You wouldn't go to a racetrack and bet on every single horse, because there is not as many winners as losers, you have to back the winner unless you want to loss everything. You might not want to imagine this, because psychologically, people find it easier to ignore difficult to accept uncomfortable realities than to actually confront them rationally.

terrapraeta said...

Hey Jeff --

Its been a while, huh? Looks like you're working on some really good stuff these days! Hopefully I'll be a little more around 'cause I want to see where you go with all these topics.

Hope all is well with you:-)


byron smith said...

Hi Jeff,
I'd be very interested to know any published discussions expanding on paragraphs 6 and 7 (your own or by others). I'm a PhD student researching responses to the threat of social collapse and I would love to find a more detailed discussion of the metaphors you raise. Can you recommend anything?

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Roy Smith said...

Regarding #4:

It is my observation that the central truths of religion (both the conventional kinds and ones that are organizing principles for how to live one's life/organize society, such as the "green movement") have several common characteristics:

1) They have some deep level of truth.
2) At their heart, the ideas are very simple.
3) Although the ideas are simple, implementing them in the real world is very hard work (although not impossible) and usually has to overcome our own selfishness and fearfulness.
4) They are all subject to dramatic misinterpretation or misapplicaion, but those misinterpretations and misapplications are quicker and easier to live with than the consequences of the real core idea.

In a nutshell, most prophets speak truths, and most of their listeners miss the point.

how to make solar panels said...

You are right Jeff, we need to live a self sustainable lifestyle that is not dependent on fossil fuels but alternative sources of energy.