A Book Review Of ‘The Crash Course’: The Unsustainable Future Of Our Economy, Energy and Environment

by John Atcheson

The first thing to say about The Crash Course is that it is an impressive work of scholarship.  It is reminiscent of Guns, Germs and Steel in terms of the scope and breadth of knowledge brought to bear by the author in support of his thesis – which is basically that we’re headed for hard times unlike anything humanity has seen.

The second is that it contains a few fundamental flaws.

The third is that you should read it anyway.  His thesis is more than plausible; his research is meticulous; and no matter how much you think you know about sustainability, you will walk away from The Crash Course wiser, if sadder.

Martenson is an intellectual omnivore.  From peak oil to finance to economics, he bores deeply into his chosen topics – without being boring.

His lens on the future centers on the three E’s: Economics, Energy and Environment, viewed through the remorseless calculus of exponential growth.  Let’s look at each in turn, although it is important to understand that for Martenson, it is the confluence of forces between the three that make the future so challenging.

We’ll start with his take on economics. For Martenson, exponentially increasing debt is the defining economic reality. And indeed, his characterization of where we are today, projected into the future, paints a picture of inevitable collapse.

Compounding the debt conundrum is the fact that currency, which economists treat as if it were real, tangible wealth, is — as Martenson puts it — merely “… a claim on wealth.” In short, money is not wealth.  Worse, it can grow indefinitely in a finite world.  But if faith in currency erodes, then it can no longer serve as a surrogate for real wealth and the entire construct can — and will — collapse.  And Martenson believes that exponentially exploding debt makes the crash inevitable.

He also notes that the books have been cooked in ways that could further undermine faith in our currency. Take inflation, for example.  Since the late 1970’s, a series of changes in how we measure it – things like tossing out food and energy from the index, or economic subterfuges such as the “substitution effect,” “hedonics,” and adjusted weighting of goods and services  — have worked to systematically understate inflation.  Here’s Martenson on the effect of this economic legerdemain:

The social costs of this self-deception are enormous.  For starters, if inflation were calculated the way it used to be, Social Security payments … would be 70% higher than they currently are.

He identifies similar economic chicanery used in our calculation of GDP.   Clearly, if these indicators are the instrument panel for understanding the economy, then we’re flying blind.

Altogether, he makes a strong case for the inevitability of economic collapse.  To read The Crash Course, one would think that it’s all been predetermined, as certain as it is inexorable.

Enter flaw number one.

Martenson dismisses the possibility of changing our policies in ways that might mitigate debt, mostly on the basis that more prudent policies such as tax increases and cost cuts are politically impossible, and the size of our debt is unprecedented.

But political winds change.  Our enslavement to debt remains a choice, not a life sentence.  There are viable solutions. For example, the Congressional Progressive Caucus recently released their Budget for All which would balance the budget by 2021 while preserving Social Security and the social safety net and investing in job-creating, prosperity-inducing infrastructure projects, using policies that are individually popular with the majority of Americans.  Only the combination of media malfeasance and the Democrats’ complete inability to communicate keep these kinds of strategies from being seriously considered.

In short, there are solutions to our economic problems out there, but Martenson is making an assumption that we will not use them.

Which brings us to energy.

Martenson believes energy plays a critical role not simply by providing goods and services, but in the far more fundamental role of holding chaos at bay. Complex systems need energy to retain order. Not enough energy means chaos — or at least a new complex system which results in a completely different equilibrium.  In short, the economy is subject to the laws of thermodynamics, particularly the second law, and the inevitable battle with entropy it implies.

Our economy, then, is an open, complex system that has been enabled and shaped by a plentiful supply of fossil fuels in general, and oil in particular.  Their availability and energy density is what has made the prosperous world we live in possible.

Martenson then goes on to document peak oil (and peak coal as well as other resources).  Here again, his research is exhaustive, complete, and compelling.  And here again, he introduces the power of exponential growth, this time in demand, to give us a sense of how little time we have left to rely on fossil fuels.

Net energy – what some call energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) – is inevitably declining and as it declines, the amount of real energy yielded per barrel or ton declines with it.

The decrease in net energy is a function of “highgrading” – exploiting the richest, most concentrated and easily accessible resources first and then proceeding to lower-grade resources that are more difficult to find, and more expensive to recover and use.

To Martenson, this is yet another blow to the kind of social and economic structure we’ve come to rely on. Society will encounter the consequences of exponentially exploding debt and the need to make massive increases in the amount of wealth we spend on energy simultaneously. Worse, even with massive investments, we will have less energy to rely on.

He is not sanguine about renewable energy’s ability to fill in the gap. He even has a chapter entitled, Why Technology Can’t Fix This, again invoking the explosive increases in demand, the lower energy density of renewables, and the fact that they are intermittent.

Finally, he notes that historically, energy transitions — wood to coal; coal and steam to oil and internal combustion — have taken decades to accomplish.

Enter Flaw number two.

Towards the end of the book, he acknowledges that there is substantial potential to increase the efficiency with which we use energy.  But in his discussion on energy he fails to note how efficiency can be used to lower costs and buy us the one thing we need most: time to manage a transition.  Moreover, he understates the potential for the most bountiful source of energy of all, the sun.  Even with today’s technology we could generate more than 20 times the energy we now use from vacant, unused land in the world’s deserts.  Throw in improvements in solar technology, end use efficiencies, and improved energy density in storage systems, and solar energy is clearly capable of providing more than enough energy to fuel a modern, prosperous society for as long as the sun burns. And with costs coming down, it can do so at affordable rates.

And with electric cars becoming more viable and more widely accepted, wind and solar can directly displace oil.  EIA notes that the average car stays on the road for 15 years, so even this transition could be made relatively quickly. It wouldn’t be easy. It wouldn’t be cheap. But it is possible.

Here again, what Martenson presents as essentially a factually determined outcome is, in reality, a choice.  He may well be right in the outcome he’s projecting, but it won’t be because it was inevitable.  It will be because we failed to make the right choices.

The third E, environment: Martenson looks at the environment primarily as a source of natural capital.

And just as he did for peak oil, he outlines the remorseless effect of growth on finite resources. As with fossil fuels, the reality of highgrading will mean that both the cost and availability of obtaining new resources will go up and up.  The consumption of key industrial minerals, the availability of water and viable soils, the evisceration of fish stock, the depletion of oxygen-producing phytoplankton – on and on the list goes – is painstakingly documented. The message is clear: time is short.  We’re at DEFCON 2, and the clock is ticking.

Flaw number three.

Martenson all but ignores the effect of using the environment as a sink – as the repository of the wastes that inevitably result from our battle with entropy. And while he could be accused of overstating the inevitability of the adverse consequences of the first two Es, his choice to look at the environment mainly as a stock of resources means he barely addresses the impact of global warming.  In fact, it is mentioned only once, in a section entitled “Convergence,” as a “…potential demand on our limited budgets.”

Martenson has explained elsewhere that he avoided discussions of climate change because the topic is controversial and addressing it could detract from his message.  But for a book that purports to be based on facts and consequences, running from global warming because a few paid deniers have managed to scare up a faux controversy seems … well … counterfactual.

On the scale of things, it’s like watching for rocks in the trail, while a grizzly charges. As The Sterns Review pointed out, the consequences of global warming could erode global economic output by 20%, and this was based on assumptions in the IPCC’s 2007 assessment which have been shown to be unrealistically conservative.

The book concludes with a roadmap that tells us where we’re heading and why we don’t want to go there. And Martenson also provides us with some scenarios that will give us insight into how his forecasted future might unfold and what we can do to prepare ourselves to live in it. As with Bill Mckibben’s Eaath, a viable future will demand more devotion to values, and less to stuff; more capacity for self-reliance and a greater investment in living at the community scale.

So what are we to make of The Crash Course and it’s sobering message?

Some will dismiss it as just another doom and gloom diatribe – more informed than most, but a diatribe, nevertheless.  Others will treat it as fact.

In reality it is neither.

Perhaps the best answer comes from Martenson himself.  Way in the back of the book, he notes that we have the technologies we need to “… turn this story around.”  And the obvious conclusion from this observation is that most of the problems he so eloquently and comprehensively outlines have the same root cause – in the end, we have a socio-political problem.

And this may be the book’s most serious flaw: accepting the current dysfunctional political environment as a fait accompli.

He may well be right.  But the capacity for change is fueled by hope, and by presenting our future as all but inevitable, he runs the risk of dashing our hopes and foreclosing on our ability to make the right choices.  One is reminded of Ebenezer Scrooge’s plea to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be, “Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”

Ironically, the mega-problem he ignores – global warming – is the one that has ventured into the land of irrevocable consequences, while the ones he focuses on have a slim margin in which we may yet act.

And as we begin to deal with a planet dominated by an essentially alien climate, we will need to act, and act in ways that are unprecedented in scope and speed. A little more emphasis on the rapidly dwindling opportunity we have to make the right choices in our current economic, energy, and environmental policies could have made this book a clarion call inspiring those needed changes, rather than a survival guide for dealing with our failure to make them.

But it is hard to argue with Martenson’s conclusions.  In the end, we are subject to this fundamental fact that infinite growth in a finite world is unsustainable.

The Crash Course, despite its flaws, posits our most plausible future.  It is an important book that adds even more evidence to the growing body of knowledge that tells us we’re on a collision course with reality, and that in the end – if we don’t change course – the crash will be mean, nasty, and brutish.

John Atcheson has more than 30 years in energy and the environment with government, private industry, and the nation’s leading think tanks. He is working on his own novel about climate change.

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38 Responses to A Book Review Of ‘The Crash Course’: The Unsustainable Future Of Our Economy, Energy and Environment

  1. Pythagoras says:

    I’ve recently been reading Dana and Dennis Meadow’s update to “The Limits to Growth” and I think John Atcheson should read it and then re-write this review.

    The insight of “Limits” is that our capitalist economic system is prone to oveshoot–and this is the key reason–due to a failure in the price signal which causes us to misallocate capital.

    To explain this scenario, one might look at the whaling fleet in the 1870’s. At the absolute time of maximum harvest, the whaling industry was expanding is capacity…more and bigger whaling boats were being built.

    Similarly we can look at our own situation, the capital markets are providing signals that the best place to invest capital is not in renewables, i.e. solar, but it is to chase harder and harder to extract minerals–which is why there is talk of more deep water oil rigs and exploration in the Arctic.

    So yes, there can be a transition to renewables and higher efficiency but only if the markets or government policies can be tailored to provide a true signal which avoids the misallocation of capital. So my tendency is to agree with Martenson solely because most criticism of these theories fail to account for the unstable dynamic situation that financial markets will see as they find that capital has been misallocated.

  2. CW says:

    So many writing about the problems, so few doing enough about them …

  3. todd tanner says:

    Spot on, John. I’ve been reading Chris for years, and you hit the nail on the head.

  4. fj says:

    Curious how authors of important books have been ignoring climate change; Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking Fast and Slow,” and Steven Pinker (“The Better Angels of our Nature”) as well.

    As we are part of the natural world, dealing with the natural world rationally would likely be much more self-regulating and ironically much more empowering; and ultimately we’d be much more successful.

  5. Atcheson writes:

    “Even with today’s technology we could generate more than 20 times the energy we now use from vacant, unused land in the world’s deserts.”

    And, it’s already beginning to happen. I urge everyone to visit the Desertec and Desertec UK websites to learn more about how concentrated solar power can quickly change our energy regime by providing 24/7/365 power for the whole planet.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks, John, good summary.

    Economists and Republican Senators treat debt as a problem in itself, not a symptom. Our economic system is based on 3% or more growth, which cannot be sustained. Since political leaders want to stay in power, and banks want to stay in business, the Ponzi scheme is parked in our public and private debt.

    We need to redesign our economic system, by allowing financial services industries to contract along with our annual output of goods and services. Steady state economies are not bad in themselves, as Japan has shown. What is described elsewhere as a stagnant economy may be viewed very differently by those living in it.

    Mandating debt, on the other hand, always has the effect of enriching banks and weapons manufacturers, and concentrating wealth at the top. Contraction needs to start there.

  7. Dano says:

    I haven’t read the book yet, but from an ecologist person’s point of view, I think we are acting just like any other animal that overuses its resources and crashes. The interesting part will be what we do after the crash, which no book today can discuss because it is unknowable. Will we change our natures or continue on as before, like every other animal on the planet?



  8. Leif says:

    The cost of solar energy is coming down and the cost of black is going up. Two things come to mind. First is that “We the People” must prevent individuals and Corpro/People from profiting from the pollution of the commons. That obviously will raise the price of black a huge amount. GOOD! Hold on, there is more. Second we should price the cost of all social services, everything from street sweeper to universal health care, government, courts, jails, the military, interest and pay back of the National Debt into the price of all energy. That will stabilize the combined money value of rich and poor alike and all military forays will be cash up front. Want war, pay for it with higher energy costs. More green production, lower cost of energy. Now you are talking bucks for BTUs. On the other hand NO TAX! NO IRS! No war? the cost of energy comes down. Healthy society, the cost of energy comes down. Use lots of energy, you pay a bigger share of social services, us less a smaller share. Burn 50g/h of fuel in your bimbo yacht, fine, you pay a fair share of social services. As is, I pay for the environmental disruption of your pleasures. The final piece of the pie is to price the cost of all green distributed energy development into the cost of energy as well. NOW my solar becomes REAL value to my home, community, country and the world at large. I do not need to rely on tax subsidies to compete with under priced tax subsidized ecocidal fossil fuel, and if I do not have potential for green energy, at least ALL my taxes are payed and home efficiency will reward my budget big time. Every one needs energy. Every one needs health care, clean water, air, dirt, oceans and functioning life support systems. Make everyone pay for them. World wide… Flood the world with green energy you flood the world with equality, health, education and a lot less rat race… Terrorism would be an aberration from the past.

  9. Tom says:

    The primary cause of all of these problems has been generally ignored by most writers and cultures; population. If the world religions and corporations would get out of the way we could reduce the world population by one half comfortably in a few generations. This would reduce pressure on energy, the environment, the food supply, and the “too many rats in the cage” psychological problems felt by the overpopulated. Granted that this is a severe oversimplification but there isn’t room here for a book.

  10. Raul M. says:

    Using the ecology as a sink could take volumes to begin as the ecology should include. It is a different inclusion when the bios is used as a sink. By adding things that don’t change the sink changes.
    One clue is if nature won’t eat it then.
    Then you have started with a distinction between nature and you. That distinction should only carry so much weight and be a give and take.

  11. Kitco says:

    This author just doesn’t get it. Balancing the budget in 9 years. How lovely. Perhaps the author can explain what happens to the interest on the principal should interest rates revert to a normal 6 percent during that period of time? Getting the budget balanced does nothing to the massive principal that is growing parabolic. We are seeing the end of growth as it has been for the last 40 years, and with it the currency. Your dream budget does nothing, as this country doesn’t have 9 more years left under the current paradigm.

  12. john atcheson says:

    Hi Pythagoras — I have read Limits and the Revised Limits … and I agree with you and Martenson … as my conclusion stated:

    But it is hard to argue with Martenson’s conclusions. In the end, we are subject to this fundamental fact that infinite growth in a finite world is unsustainable.
    The Crash Course, despite its flaws, posits our most plausible future.

    My only point is that it was not a result of inexorable physics, but a result of policy choices. One can be changed; the other can’t.

  13. Alex Smith says:

    Hear Chris Martenson on Radio Ecoshock this past week:

    In this 22 minute interview, I ask Chris what he thinks of global warming and it’s impacts.

    Chris accepts climate science, but he orders threats in terms of a time line. The economic crisis will come first, he says, followed by peak oil, and then climate change as a longer term threat which unfolds over decades. He expects an economic crash much sooner than that.

    Alex Smith

  14. Dave Kimble says:

    Each of the flaws in Martensen’s theory that you identify is wrong.

    Economically the system is incapable of correcting itself now – even if your innocent faith in Democracy was correct. You only have to look at the governments in Europe that have fallen this week to see that the necessary degree of Austerity is not politically achievable. And the debt situation in the US, UK and Japan is worse than in the Eurozone.

    Global warming, which I believe is real, is not going to be as bad as IPCC or Stern say it is, because the oil and coal consumption envisaged in the “no policy change” future is hopelessly unrealistic when you know about Peak Oil and Coal. When you run the IPCC model using peakist numbers, the temperature increase predicted is +1.4°C, peaking in 2045 and falling slowly thereafter. This may still cause a big problem, but it is nowhere near IPCC’s predictions based on EIA modelling.

    Your faith in the abundance of solar energy is unfounded when you consider the EROEI of solar PV and its alternatives. A true reckoning of the EROEI of solar PV is about 3 (when you consider ALL the energy expenses of manufacturing and rolling out PV internationally). This means it takes a lot of energy to make a solar panel, and before the panel can repay that energy, you are going to want to build more panels. The cumulative energy debt for a rapid roll-out is far more than we have available under any scenario, let alone with Peak Oil and Coal bearing down on us.

    I fear you, like most people, are suffering from “cognitive dissonance” – the inability to comprehend how bad things really are. Tainter’s “Collapse of complex societies” shows that the collapse, when it comes, (and it could be tomorrow) will be very fast. Once the electricity goes off, it will take out the telephone system, the internet, reticulated water and sewerage, banking, TV, and the ability to organise a way out of the problem.

  15. Geoff Beacon says:

    Prudent policies such as tax increases and cost cuts are politically impossible

    If denier-scale budgets were available to those that cared about environment and employment this might not be true.

    There are some plausible policies that could be sold to the public such as taxing carbon to subsidise jobs. This is outlined in the latest Fraser Economic Commentary. See Tax carbon. Subsidise the jobs of the young.

  16. NJP1 says:

    There is much to criticise in this interesting criticism of Martenson’s book, but to pick up on a couple of the more important points.
    Atcheson advocates job creation. You cannot ‘create’ sustainable jobs without input of primary energy, that means burning coal oil and gas. Roosevelt’s ‘new deal’ created thousands of jobs, but only because he had access to virtually free energy. If you doubt that, imagine building the Hoover dam with picks, shovels and horses. By 1939 the new deal had slowed, then WW2 kicked off, providing the biggest job creation scheme of all time. But it was still an exercise in energy burning.
    There is much talk of ‘shovel ready’ jobs. What this actually means is ‘earthmoving machine’ ready jobs.
    Atcheson advocates alternative energy. Yes the sun provides more energy than we can ever use, but unfortunately to eat sunshine it has to go through a bio stage first. Oil has become our food, too many people are hungry and you can’t eat electricity. Every aspect of electricity generation needs hydrocarbon energy input to make it happen. As to running vehicles on electricity, fine but the batteries consume fossil fuel energy to make them, as does the car itself, on a colossal scale. Like so make advocating ‘alternatives’ Atcheson sees energy from a single perspective: we can make ‘energy’ so where’s the problem? Strip (hydrocarbon) insulation from wiring and we are back in the dark ages. Literally.

  17. Geoff Beacon says:

    Climate Progress often has predictions that sonn renewable energy will be cheaper than hydrocarbon energy.

    We can still use some for hydrocarbons for insulation.

    Jobs is easy – with the right economics incentives. (See above)

  18. Leif says:

    Austerity does not mean that humanity has to do without. We just have to do without lots of crap that often takes longer to produce, ship from Far-off-i-stan and sit on store shelves than the life span in the consumers hands before being tossed in the dump. Purely because profits are to be had for the already rich. That must change for starters. Corporations need to focus on long term product usage and generational lasting products for all. Along with that, Capitalism needs to stop the ability of Corpro/People to profit from the pollution of the commons and get some money into the hands of the starving masses the world over so that all can eat, learn, and live meaningful healthy lives. Currently Capitalism and Corpro/People excess is based in the ability to use the commons for a toxin dump for profit! I, a real “people” get fined for throwing a paper cup out the car window. How come Corpro/People get to pick and choose? That is not viable in the long run. Even the bottom of an out house is utopia to some life forms but that does not mean I want me or my progeny sentenced to adapt to that life style acceptance. Especially when we know how to turn effluent into food, fruit and flowers. We all are at the point in history where we will have to learn to live green and enjoy it or live black and endure it. Quibble about the time frame if you want. Reality bites! Your call.

  19. Anne van der Bom says:

    Do you have a source for that EROI number for PV? It seems to be outdated.

    The EROI is more like 10 to 20, the latter number for thin film panels which can be produced using very little energy. If one tries to crunch the numbers on the energy required for roll out (mostly transport), they mostly turn out to be negligible.

  20. Tim says:

    I thought the same thing. The number cited here is 6.8 and it goes back to 2005. Unfortunately, when you look around, the number is all over the map.

  21. Anne van der Bom says:

    “As to running vehicles on electricity, fine but the batteries consume fossil fuel energy to make them, as does the car itself, on a colossal scale”

    ‘Colossal scale’ that’s just useless rhetoric. We need numbers. More numbers.

    No. This supposedly colossal energy use in production (energy that can and must come from renewable sources btw) is not a showstopper after all.

  22. Anne van der Bom says:

    It very much depends on where the panel is produced and what type of panel it is. 2005 is very ancient technology in PV land. Wafers are getting thinner and thinner and thus more can be sawed from the same ingot, reducing not only cost, but also energy use.

    REC claims to have the shortest, independently verified energy payback time for crystalline PV panels: 1 year. Inverter and mounting materials add another few months.

    Since the life time of pv panels is easily 25 years, that’s where the high end 20x EROI comes from.

    The EROI of gasoline is at best ~5.

  23. NJP1 says:

    the numbers are ultimately irrelevant. You cannot build a windfarm from the energy output of a windfarm, or run a battery production facility on the output of batteries, or build a nuclear power station from the output of a nuclear power station. Neither can you plough a field with an electric tractor or deliver food with a battery driven truck or sustain a supermarket with pv cells.
    Gasoline has 1000 times the energy value by volume as hydrogen so dont even go there.
    I can only suggest that you google prof David Mackay, his book ”Energy without the hot air” explains things far better than I can and its a free download pdf. do take the trouble to read it.

  24. NJP1 says:

    sorry, but ‘shovel ready’ means earthmoving machine ready, they run on oil which is getting more expensive. All employment ultimately depends on energy input; Dont believe me?
    Here’s a perfect analogy: You havent eaten anything for 2 weeks, and I come along and offer you $1000 to dig my acre of veg patch. You get the money at the end. but Before you can do that—you need some of the money—only $10 to buy food. But I say no—ill pay you at the finish.
    Without buying food (energy) you cant output the effort to dig my veg patch and earn $1000, Whatever the job, it needs energy input before it is sustainable

    perhaps you can illustrate the ‘economics’ that gets around that problem? I really do need another take on it, but please real economics, not wish economics

  25. Geoff Beacon says:

    Tax carbon enough and we will use solar and wind energy – there may be a transition period using hydrocarbons before we kick the carbon habit. The higher the tax the quicker the transition will be.

    Tax carbon enough and we will extract carbon dioxide from the air. That will become necessary.

    Cut the cost of employing labour with the revenue from a carbon tax and we will reduce unemployment. Economists call it supply and demand.

    We need to grow food near our homes and cut out supermarkets who fly in exotic fruit and veg from around the world.

    If you think these things aren’t necessary, you don’t know how bad the situation is.

    You can build the next wind farm with the energy of the first.

  26. john atcheson says:

    Mr. Kimble and NJP1 need an elementary physics lesson.

    This idea that PV doesn’t have sufficient net energy to produce PV is all over the place on right wing outlets, and it is flat out wrong, as several commenters have pointed out.

    Moreover, even if it were right, base load power systems such as Hydro, geothermal and nukes (assuming we could afford nukes) do, so it’s not only wrong, it’s irrelevant. We could simply dedicate them to manufacturing PV and CSP.

    As for debt and deficits, they’re certainly scary and Martenson’s numbers are sobering. But they are not irrevocable. Climate change does result in irrevocable changes, and the more we wait the more dire these changes are.

    Mr. Kimble’s bias is betrayed by the fact that he equates dealing with debt with austerity only. The budget I cited — The Budget for All — uses both revenue increases and budget cuts, and each of the elements it uses is popular with the public. It simply hasn’t sold since Democrats and Progressives can’t construct a winning message to save their lives.

    Do I think we’ll get responsible and deal responsibly with debt?

    Not while we vilify government and follow Republican dogma. There’s a chance that will change. Not a big chance, but it is possible.

    Energy density can be manipulated in many ways– one simple experiment might help you understand one aspect of this simple fact. First, hold your hand in the sunlight for ten minutes. Now, take a magnifying glass, focus that sunlight to a point on your hand and hold it there for ten minutes.

    It should help focus your mind, as well. In about a minute and a half.

  27. NJP1 says:

    you still haven’t answered my question on the fundamental economics of energy input/work output.
    the world economy is founded on and sustained by energy input: the more primary energy you have, the more you can go on producing, ie digging coalmines and drilling oilwells. the problem with that is, you have to produce more each year just to sustain your industry.
    that is clearly impossible, so our politicians and economists reverse that equation and insist that the world economy sustains our energy production system. Which means if you throw enough money into well drilling, you are bound to strike oil.

  28. Anne van der Bom says:

    “You cannot build a windfarm from the energy output of a windfarm,”

    How’s that? Because you say so? Tell me what fundamental law forbids that. Let me help you: there no such law. And you can build a nuclear power station too using only renewable energy.

    You seem to be unaware that most production facilities are driven mainly by electricity, which can be easily provided by renewable sources.

    “or run a battery production facility on the output of batteries”

    Huh? You’ve completely lost me there. Batteries are energy storage devices, they do not produce energy, they only store it. But they can store renewable electricity, if that’s what you want to know.

    Didn’t it occur to you that perhaps you might have a little more success if you tried to power that battery factory with, errr, say, a wind farm?

    “Neither can you plough a field with an electric tractor”

    Oh yes you can

    “or deliver food with a battery driven truck”

    Really?. They’re not the only one. And Daimler is working on this too.

    “or sustain a supermarket with pv cells”

    Why would that be necessary? Luckily, we have this invention called ‘the grid’, that can transport all the clean energy to the supermarket that it will ever need. From all kinds of sources, not just pv.

    I know the MacKay book and although it doesn’t contain any outright errors, it is misleadingly using 2 different benchmarks. In the first 100 pages or so he painstakingly builds up a 200 kWh pppd consumption stack which is the benchmark for renewables. Much later in the book when he starts talking about nuclear, he quietly swtiches to a benchmark that is an order or magnitude less: 20 kWh pppd (current electricity consumption in the UK). Now, why would he do that?

    There are more such distortions. Like for instance where he inflates car use by a factor of 3 (you know, using his ‘moderately affluent Briton’) and then treats the thermal energy content of gasoline as being equal to electricity to overestimate by more than a factor of 10 the amount of renewable energy we need to power our cars. And yes, at least one website didn’t know that he was using some virtual scenario and therefore took away the message ‘we would need to cover all of Wales in wind turbines to power half our cars’. No, not true. It is this kind of misleading quotes that the book lends itself to.

    And afaik, he didn’t adapt his book to the latest development in renewable energy. I believe he’s still calling PV too expensive.

  29. Raul M. says:

    but isn’t it a very large percentage of that energy lost to the air.
    And because it is not renewable on a human timescale is lost to the future generations.
    Such a frustrating example of earth engineering.

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I would say that over-consumption is a greater problem than over-population. The excess consumption of the rich to ten, twenty, one hundred times as great a degree as the subsistence consumption of the poor, is the real global disaster. And radically unequal consumption is a symptom and a consequence of radical inequality, of income, wealth, opportunity and life prospects. All our problems will remain intractable and unresolved as long as hideous and cruel inequality pertains across the planet. And, of course, as a direct consequence of the global triumph of the Right, inequality is growing ever greater, and those who argue against it, in line with every religion and philosophy worth the names, are abused by the rich’s propaganda thugs as ‘communists’, ‘socialists’ or merely envious.

  31. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Time for a Jubilee. Just default, then start again.

  32. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Well, in my opinion, he’s bonkers. No climate stability (leaving aside the surfeit of other crises)means no economy. That’ll solve the debt problem, all right. The priority of ecological considerations is absolute, and the need to address them was several decades ago, not decades in the future. Such arguments are radically deluded.

  33. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Dave, your predictions of future temperature rises seem to me to be Panglossian, to be polite. Even so 1 to 2 degrees will be catastrophic enough. I’m with you on Peak Fossil Fuels, but the research I have seen states that there is enough coal, oil and gas left to cause more than two degrees, whereupon we are stuffed. Then consider other consequences, like methane release from submarine clathrates, release of CO2 from dying forests and megafires, from peat bogs and nitrous oxides etc, and things look pretty dire. I’m with you on rapid collapse, which will be worse in the USA and similar states because of reliance on cars, poor public transport, loss of experience in growing food at home, and widespread gun ownership (US only). And it is close, as Europe does show. Market fundamentalist capitalist economies, based on a febrile drive by the rich elite to install a neo-feudal dispensation, they having come to believe that technology, surveillance, ‘tittietainment’ and police repression in the name of anti-terrorism make their dominance impregnable and eternal (ie, for their purposes, as long as they live), are radically unsustainable, as we are learning.

  34. Ric Merritt says:

    Mulga’s comments are always lively, but sometimes not very useful. We have enough troubles without proposals to wipe the slate clean. Didn’t work too well in Cambodia a few decades ago, and wouldn’t smell any better scaled up to global dimensions.

  35. Ric Merritt says:

    At least NJP1 and Anne van der Bom are arguing about the right points, which is more than I can say for 99.9% of the blog hot air going around.

    Anne is right is some deep sense that energy is fungible. Sort of, if you try hard enough to rechannel it. I suppose somebody, somewhere, is working quite earnestly on early versions of battery power or other renewable strategies to accomplish big brawny tasks.

    But let’s take a glance back at the real world for a few moments. How close are we to powering all those marvelous things we are used to without burning fossil fuels, especially oil? You know, ocean transport, mining, manufacturing, personal cars, big trucks, and so on? Some lovely inroads here and there, over the last 40 years, but really, how close are we? Going awfully slowly, and only minor progress so far, is the true answer.

    And how close are we to reaching some kind of breaking point with FF depletion, especially oil? Hard to say exactly, but we know the last decade has been truly rocky, in the teeth of very high prices.

    And how close are most of us, out in the big world, to a deeper insight that, if spread over billions of people, would lead to greatly increased efforts? Answer: most people are unaware or barely aware of the issues, and gargantuan efforts are spent denying there could even be issues.

    Point being, the increases in population, expectations of wealth, and usage of finite resources threaten to overwhelm, within a shortish time span, the nascent investments in our still vague hopes for sustainable wealth. This will maim investment in *everything*, emphatically including your favorite sustainable technologies.

  36. NJP1 says:

    there seems to be a problem in that the world is divided into two camps, the realists advocate that you need primary energy (oil coal and gas) to drive the economy and produce wealth and infrastructure that we need to survive.
    the cornucopians say that the world economy and its financial clout is the driving force behind our ability to produce energy, in other words if we spend more and more money (theyre printing it right now)we will produce more energy and we will keep our oilwells pumping and our windfarms turning forever.
    I leave it to the reading public to decide who is right.

  37. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Ric, there have been hundreds of defaults over the centuries. The Babylonians soon learned that compounding interest on debt became unrepayable, and instituted twenty-five and fifty year ‘jubilees’ of debt forgiveness. The Christians and the Moslems outlawed usury, and I’m sure some schools of Judaism do, too. The current debt crisis is destroying whole societies, while showing all the signs of becoming steadily worse. There’s no way out from ever more feverishly pushing on a piece of string of cosmic, but undetermined, length. Time for radical measures. Debt repudiation, followed by massive redistribution of wealth, and a reduction in the overbearing power of the psychologically disturbed rich is the only hope to avert economic disaster piled on ecological catastrophe. You know I’m correct.

  38. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And why has investment in alternative energy sources and modes of mass transport been so slow? Because the vested economic interests of the currently dominant forces in market capitalism have waged an intense propaganda and political campaign to ensure that it is so. They have trillions at stake. If human ingenuity had been properly focused on these problems we would have had a chance, but now it is too late, and Rightwing obstruction and venomous hatred of environmentalism is only growing.