Chris Martenson Podcast

I’ll cheat on my bi-weekly posting plan and slip in this podcast conversation between Chris Martenson and myself, covering many of the topics I have written about in the last year.

If you don’t have 45 minutes, and are a faster reader than I am, a transcript is also available—mercifully leaving out many utterances of “um” and “you know” (which is all I seem to hear when I listen to a recording of myself).  The original source and surrounding intro/write-up can be found on the Chris Martenson website.

47 thoughts on “Chris Martenson Podcast

    • I did see it. AL’s graph of declining energy required per unit GDP had me wondering – had he adjusted for inflation?! Even if he has, it clearly isn’t sustainable for the reasons Tom states in his post detailing his dinner with the economist.

  1. I think its interesting that you keep saying things like growth cant go on forever. For example:

    ” I think that is fundamentally important that we need to get over the notion that growth is just a constant of nature; it is part of who we are. It is part of who we have been for quite a few generations now.”

    or

    ” Energy can’t grow forever and I think most of us would agree that on a finite planet we can’t just keep ramping up the raw energy use. Then the fraction of our economy that is devoted to energy would have to trend toward absolute zero in order to keep the economy growing on top of a fixed energy supply. And that is just a non-starter for actual real activities that involve, for instance, eating. Nothing will ever go to zero energy. And as long as that is finite and occupies a finite fraction of our economic activity, then the economy is capped.”

    I agree with commenter Jim Glass on your post http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/07/can-economic-growth-last/#comments Who really believes that? What economist believes that growth will continue forever into infinity? It seems that you are demolishing a strawman, that, given a long enough period of time, growth must stop. But given a long enough period of time, the earth is destroyed by the sun going nova, so why do anything? The answer is that the time between then and now matter. Stretching the timeline out to infinity does not produce useful real-world results, yet you seem to be fond of doing just that.

    Id say that even you sort of admit that, saying:

    “I use words like “indefinite” and “forever” as placeholders for: “sometime in the future that may well be of concern to those living today.” ”

    Even setting aside the fact that ‘forever’ and ‘sometime in the near future’ are two totally different concepts, I think the jist of what you are saying in that comment (again, in reply to Jim Glass) is that you a really aren’t talking about infinity. And yet you keep making arguments that implicitly do just that.

    I admit, I didn’t carefully read all of your interview, so perhaps you cover this in more detail, but I every time I hear you say that growth cant go on forever because its a mathematical certainty, I think you are being dishonest.

    • I may be wrong, but I assure you I am making no attempt to be dishonest, as you suggest. At least I believe in what I say.

      I have no interest in talking about the purely mathematical end to growth, or in consequences on the timescale of our Sun puffing up to a red giant. I am more interested in the century-scale. In this timeframe, I show that energy growth must stop on the planet. So that’s something. Once energy is capped, I think economic growth at presently meaningful levels (few percent) will be seriously hobbled for all the reasons I explain in a variety of posts and comments. I don’t think this is a straw-man. How many economists would agree that economic growth ends inside of 500 years?

      • “How many economists would agree that economic growth ends inside of 500 years?”

        From 1950 to 2000, world per-capita GDP grew at a rate of approximately 2.8 percent, adjusted for inflation. Therefore, per-capita GDP doubled about every 25 years.

        Since current world per capita GDP is about $10,000, if the trend of 2.8 percent growth continues to 2110, the world per capita GDP would be about $160,000, and would be about $2,560,000 by 2210 (in year 2010 dollars).

        Are you saying this is not possible (i.e., that world per-capita GDP could never exceed, for example, $1,000,000)?

        • Real GDP growth (rather than the artificial inflationary sort) has historically been tied to increasing use of energy. Witness the fact that the world uses a great deal more energy today (per capita) than in 1950. Efficiency and innovation take the edge off a bit, but it is a certainty that an average millionaire today demands more energy than the average world citizen at $10,000. I wouldn’t claim it’s a factor of 100, in accordance with income [in this reply, I use millionaire to mean someone who brings in $1M every year]. But the important point is the positive coefficient. Markedly different from a negative coefficient (which would mean that the millionaire uses less energy than the lower-income ranks).

          For the sake of argument, let’s say the person earning $1M/year spends 10 times as much energy per year (large house, world travel, yacht, embodied energy in purchased items, etc.) than the average world citizen. Some might applaud the factor-of-ten less energy intensity (kWh/$) of the millionaire, and think this relieves pressure on the system: that the millionaire is a model citizen, spending a smaller fraction of income on energy-intensive things. “If we could all do this, wouldn’t that just work?”

          But this overlooks the actual situation that the millionaire uses more energy than the rank-and-file worker bee of the world.

          The point I’m driving at is that if we all became millionaires, we would use vastly more energy than we do today (a factor of ten more in the scenario I’ve painted). We’re having trouble keeping up our current power output. Fossil fuels will certainly not allow this future, and beyond that it’s just guesswork as to what we’ll actually manage to do in response to dwindling energy supplies. We have no good plan, so this should be a worry.

          So on balance, I think it is highly unlikely we will see soaring GDP, as a consequence of physical limitations. Any numerical limit I tried to put on it would be as meaningless as the next guy’s guess. But I know that the earth is feeling the strain at $10,000. That’s something we should not ignore.

          • Hi Tom,

            I don’t know what you’re saying here. You write, “For the sake of argument, let’s say the person earning $1M/year spends 10 times as much energy per year (large house, world travel, yacht, embodied energy in purchased items, etc.) than the average world citizen.”

            OK, let’s say that. Right now, the average world energy consumption is about 80 gigajoules per person, with the average per capita GDP at $10,000. So then let’s say that the people of the future who have a per capita annual GDP of $1 million use 10 times that much energy, or 800 gigajoules per person per year.

            Are you saying that would not work out? That somehow something would collapse if, in the future when people earned $1 miillion per year, they used 800 gigjoules per person per year?

            I think that would be a piece of cake. Let’s say they used photovoltaics and liquid fluoride thorium nuclear for their electricity. And let’s say that electricity cost 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, rather than the 15 cents per kilowatt-hour that is the approximate U.S. average now.

            And let’s say algae-based fuels cost $20 per gallon, rather than the $4 per gallon we currently pay in the U.S.

            What is the problem with this? Certainly people making $1 million a year can afford to pay 30 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity (that’s about the same as people in Hawaii are paying right now). And let’s say those people making $1 million a year are paying $20 per gallon for algae-based (i.e. no net CO2 emissions) bio-fuels, and that those algae-based biofuels are also being used for air travel and by ships. How is that an undue imposition on anyone?

          • See my post on the concept of sustainability to learn why I have misgivings about the viability of a 10× energy scale. These concerns operate on a quicker timescale than the centuries scale that I can “prove” to be trouble as a physicist. Could be wrong, but then no one can claim to be right about the future.

    • Whilst I am sure that few (perhaps even no) economists think that growth will go on forever I suspect that the vast majority think that it can continue into some unimaginable time in the future. The fact that a common go-to-response is “well of course growth won’t last forever, one day the sun will burn out” speaks volumes.

      The issue is that there is an apparent lack of economists talking about drastic slowing and even halting of growth within the next couple of centuries. There’s precious little in the cultural prevailing narrative hinting towards laying the groundwork now for that future.

      Aside: first time posting but Tom I’m a great admirer of this blog. I first stumbled upon it when Charles Stross linked to it but have rediscovered it and read almost all the articles now. It’s great to see some serious scientific rather than ideological thinking on this topic. I fear that by the time policy makers wake up and smell the coffee it will be late in the game and we’ll have far more strife trying to fix the problem as it happens rather than preparing for it.

      • Look, its a fairly straightforward thing, if this notion of ‘infinite’ growth is so widely held, then it should be easy to point to one of its major adherents, if for no other reason than so we will know what arguments you are refuting.

        • It’s rather the other way around. Economists who profess an end to growth are the rare ones. Most see no problem. I’ve talked to a random sampling to confirm this, but I won’t throw their names out publicly for your satisfaction. Generally, just look at the faculty listing in an economics department and you’ll have your list of folks who believe that economic growth (in utility, life improvements, if not scale) can continue into the distant future.

          And let’s not get hung up on the word infinite here. I focus on centuries time scales. Within this time, we run into mathematical hardships and absurdities. For instance, 99% of economic activity coming from non-energy-using activities already strikes me as absurd, as a mathematical consequence of continued growth on top of flat energy. So just because I speak of math and ultimate trends/limits does not mean I need go to infinity to see the problem.

          • Not very convincingly though. And he leads with a horrible example, of Bill Gates getting rich through transfers of wealth due to the artificial monopoly of software copyright.

            He doesn’t have anything new to add, just the usual “nuh-uh” about real goods and energy not being able to become an arbitrarily small fraction of the economy.

          • “And he leads with a horrible example, of Bill Gates getting rich through transfers of wealth due to the artificial monopoly of software copyright.”

            Microsoft made it’s money on two basic things: 1) the Windows operating system and 2) MS Office.

            In both cases, no one forced people under threat of arrest buy Microsoft sofware. Intel computer companies could have put another operating system onto their computers. And people could have bought another office suite (such as Correl’s Wordperfect/Quatro etc.)

            When people are not forced by to buy something, they must buy it because they think they will be better off with it than without it.

            In the 15 years after Microsoft went public in 1986 it probably created more wealth in a shorter period of time than any company in history up to that point. And it used very little energy to do so.

        • While there may be few economists openly talking about “infinite growth”, with very few exceptions, I wish you good luck trying to find any economists that project (in an outlook or prospectus) anything but future growth in whatever variable is under consideration. Who knew economists were such good predictors…

          Consider the following:
          “…leaders of the world’s other top economies agreed that while Europe should still toil to reduce deficits, it must above all else promote widespread growth and job creation.”

          Grand ideas, now if only we can find the “growth” pills so they can be administered to the ailing patient.

  2. You must try to have a look at AL’s graph. You will have more information once u take a look.

  3. This was an interesting article to read.

    The difficulty I have with the thinking in the story is that you simply ignore potential solutions in favor of the narrative that a crisis is coming. You have evidence in front of you that enormous, tremendous change is possible. There’s the Manhattan project example, and the narrative of the broader war, where incredible amounts of material goods and infrastructure were produced in a few short years.

    There’s the incredible transition of China occurring today, where all the economic and government factors are set in a way that encourages rapid growth and development.

    The conclusion that I reach based on this evidence is that if there is a feasible means to replace our dependence on fossil fuels, some civilizations would build the hardware required. Now, the argument you are making is that many of the proposed means are not feasible. Corn ethanol isn’t energetically favorable, and lithium ion batteries are too expensive to mass electrify the vehicle fleets.

    The problem I have with most of the articles on your blog is that you simply ignore a method that WOULD work in favor of your view that nothing will work. (without reacting to the problem like it’s a severe crisis)

    So, do the math. What’s wrong with liquid methane as an energy source? Sabatier reaction is ~80% efficient, and electrolysis of water to hydrogen is ~50-70%

    Liquid methane is energy-dense enough to run almost all cars and trucks, and it’s cheap and reasonably easy to store. Off the shelf vehicles are sold that burn LNG instead of gasoline, and someone doing this saves money in the long run today.

    Better still, it makes economic sense. With the development of fracking, there’s all this cheap natural gas that will be around for a few decades until it runs out. Design the infrastructure appropriately, and you can keep using the same infrastructure when the gas becomes expensive. (by building plants to pump syngas into the system)

    Would these energy transport and conversion losses be better than the higher cost of better batteries?

    Or, for your “why not space” blog post : again, you didn’t bother doing the math on a method that would have a real chance of working. No one would be dumb enough to use disposable, kerosene/oxygen burning booster rockets to put solar panels in space. The energy costs don’t even make sense. But would a mass driver work? Using hydrogen gas or electromagnetics? That calculation was missing from your article.

    Or another thing : we’re talking about a problem that will take decades to develop. The reason those lithium ion batteries are too expensive is because the raw materials are costly. I recall it’s actually cobalt that is ~80% of the manufacturing cost. Other cell chemistries that bypass this fundamental resource cost exist. Why not factor those in?

    • Umm, I left something out of this post. I am assuming that very cheap to purchase solar cells will continue to be developed. I’m assuming that one of the 50 different ways to make a better solar cells that needs less rare earth and less refined silicon will “stick” over the next 25-100 years and those cells will become commonly available. We’ll cover an area the size of that dot on your maps of the United States, and use that energy to make the syngas for the vehicles. Even right now, those $1/watt cells from China are cheaper than the price of the batteries to store that energy. (that is, 4 watt-hours of batteries are more expensive over the 20-30 year lifetime of the solar cells).

    • I hope we do have a technological solution to see us through this unprecedented transition. Do you not agree that it is worth treating this issue seriously—exposing the hidden hardships? If much of the perceptions surrounding alternative approaches are hyped to sound better than they are, then we instill a sense of complacency, that the problem will solve itself. Your post also largely tries to re-assert this complacency that solutions will naturally fall into place and folks like me should not get all worked up.

      My fear is that we are a species that only really responds to crisis. I have less faith that the problem will smoothly work itself out—especially given the utter scale involved, the dependencies on a resource that is going away, the disappointing shortcomings of non-fossil alternatives (and the CO2 cost associated with continued fossil sources), etc. Walk away thinking this is easy, and the chances of landing in crippling crisis tick upwards.

  4. And a broader statement. Do you earnestly believe that humans will not develop self-replicating equipment, fitting Eric Drexler’s definition of “molecular manufacturing”, within the next 100-200 years? (the time scale you are concerned with, and the one that you claim economic growth will stop over)

    While the fine details of said equipment are of course something that must still be discovered and developed, here are the broad strokes for how the equipment would work. Machines about the size of a desktop printer and scaling upwards in size will exist that internally will have arrays of many trillions of nanoscale parts. These machines, if fed pure intermediates, coolant, and a tremendous amount of energy will be able to control atomic bonding, creating near-arbitrary molecular structures consisting of any element that a particular model of machine can handle. (most won’t be able to handle the whole periodic table, just limited subsets). While there are trillions of nanoscale parts, each subunit is a perfect copy of every other subunit – the same pattern repeated over and over across the machine. Each subunit consists of a few million atoms at most, and is able to cause atoms to bond to a work surface according to a digital pattern.

    Essentially, it’s a 3d printer accurate enough to make the parts used in itself. So the first printer might cost many billions, an effort requiring decades of time from an army of scientists such as yourself. However, the first working model can duplicate the parts used in itself (some assembly required : I’m saying the printer can make very flat, incredibly complex objects but will have trouble with large volumes) within some time period, and so on.

    You’d use the printers to create more printers, and solar panels to power them, and machinery to gather the raw materials. You’d use strip mining, or plasma furnaces, or get the raw materials right from seawater – energy costs would not be so important if getting more solar cells is a matter of shoveling in rock and waiting.

    You do the math on this. Assume that creating a chunk of material accurate to the molecular level costs 10x the energy of making a silicon chip that masses the same? How fast could these machines be used to cover the planet? What would stop us from strip mining the entire planet and converting it to more self-replicating equipment? Or destroying the moon?

    One last comments : I think energy would be the limiting factor. Evolved organisms, such as yeast, can self replicate in 40 minutes given the right nutrients. One would expect that a molecular printer would be theoretically capable of the same feat. But I don’t see these devices covering the planet overnight, so the limiting factor must be either energy supply or heat dissipation.

    • Molecular manufacturing already exists in the form of genetically engineered bacteria producing all kinds of organic molecules.
      Non-biochemical “gray-goo” nanotechnology, supposedly far more efficient than naturally evolved biochemistry, is a wild speculation. We should not base our expectations on the future and hence our current policies on something so vague and hypothetical.

      Anyway, as Tom pointed out in his many posts, the efficiency of our energy-intensive economic activities (food production, manufacturing, transportation) is already close to the physical limits, at most within a factor of two.
      Whatever nanotechnomagic you can envision, it will still be subject to those physical limits. It will not support exponential economic growth for a long time.

      The fastest growing bacteria can double their population in 10 minutes. Yet they haven’t strip-mined the planet or destroyed the Moon. I think that answers your question.

      • Speaking as someone with a masters degree in nanotechnology (albiet in medical nanotechnology) I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve said V.

        Too many people seem to think that universal assemblers capable of breaking down and rebuilding matter atom-by-atom are an invention that’s just over the horizon. The reality is that the sheer complexity of what is being proposed is ludicrous. That’s not to say that one day it might not happen but “one day” certainly isn’t any time we can see soon.

        That said biotechnology and bionanotechnology for molecular manufacture is a facinating field. I have no doubt that molecular scale manufacturing will become far more prevelant and sophisticated in the future but it will keep to the current factory paradigm (vats of synthetic bacteria, machines that cycle materials through different bioartificial devices etc) rather than arriving in a desktop box.

      • Grey goo drextech isn’t the only self-replicator. There’s macroscopic “clanking replicators” or Von Neumann machines, which I think are a lot more likely (Note: not the same as being likely any time soon) being big enough to cover large distances to collect and trade diverse resources, rather than trying to grow in a particular piece of rock. Perhaps in a eusocial factory-and-robots configuration.

        “The fastest growing bacteria can double their population in 10 minutes. Yet they haven’t strip-mined the planet or destroyed the Moon”

        Not comparing like to like. Earth is occupied by life — strip-mined, even — which resists any new ambitious replicators; the Moon is basically sterile culture. If you had a replicator that could actually function on the Moon, even at one replication per year, it could cover the Moon in a few decades. For Earth, imagine heat-sterilizing it, then dropping some algae. I think you’d find pond scum all over in several decades.

        • But algae wouldn’t turn the planet into pond scum. They would at most cover it.
          “Gray-goo” narratives of nanomachines turning rock into more nanomachines without any energy constraint, are just (bad) sci-fi.

          And isn’t “clanking replicator” more or less a fancy name for “industrial automation”?

          • Yes, that particular narrative is bad sci-fi. Solar and metabolism powered grey goo turning the surface and biosphere into grey goo is less bad.

            Industrial automation that can work entirely without human input and replicate on a scale much smaller than a national economy, yes. Which is to say, very different from the industrial automation we have.

  5. I agree with Tom on this question. There are no easy answers to a substitute for petroleum in transportation in particular, and fossil fuels in general. If there was, we would be deploying it already as the price of oil went from a Saudi-guaranteed $28/barrel earlier this decade to now over $100 with $150 not far from imagining. Surely, a several-fold increase would spur alternatives if easy alternatives existed!? I posit that the fact we haven’t seen such a response to this massive price increase is proof that the is NO easy substitute for oil. Now just how hard the transition will be and the question of what will be our best options to get through this is up for argument. But, the fact that we are facing a problem of incredible scale, given such in-your-face evidence, should not be up for debate. Especially given Tom’s exhaustive exercise in “doing the math” on alternatives.

    I’m all for raising the alarm as complacency is our worst enemy at such a turning point in human history – and I think we should all be able to agree that the beginning of the end of the age of oil (and all fossil fuels for that matter) is such a turning point, even if one disagrees on the exact date.

  6. Hi,

    If you think the world economy can’t expand infinitely, what do you think the limit is?

    Currently, the world per-capita GDP is about $10,000. What do you think the limit is (in year 2012 dollars, purchasing power parity)?

    $20,000? $50,000? $100,000? $500,000? $1,000,000? More?

  7. Hi Tom,

    I recently came across your blog. I have really enjoyed it, but I think I have spotted some overlooked possibilities. Specifically, in “Got Storage? How Hard Can it Be?” you dismiss pumped storage hydroelectricity as “not even worth the effort,” even though the US already has about 20 gigawatts installed — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pumped-storage_hydroelectric_power_stations — and that figure is growing very quickly. Essentially any mountain reservoir with a pumping station can be converted very inexpensively. This solves the intermittency problems with solar and wind.

    In “Putting the Genie Back in the Toothpaste Tube” you don’t consider sequestration in structural plastic lumber and other plastics from seawater carbonic acid feedstock. I have been corresponding at length with Dr. Matt Eisaman of Brookhaven National Lab, who recently did work at PARC in Silicon Valley written up at http://pubs.rsc.org/en/Content/ArticleLanding/2012/EE/c2ee03393c to improve on the US Navy’s process to produce carbon neutral transportation fuel for less than $1 per gallon — multiply their bottom line on page 28 of http://ceramics.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/mcare12-rath.pdf times the electricity prices quoted at e.g. http://bloomberg.com/energy — Sequestration in structural plastic lumber also results in reforestation.

    In “Why Not Space?” there is no discussion of vitrification cryonics for suspended animation. Vitrification freezer technology operable on several kilograms at a time has been pioneered recently by the Japanese soybean industry, and the demand is high from organ transplant surgeons. There is no reason to believe that vitrification cryonics will not progress to human-sized capabilities in the coming decades. Resuscitation of frozen mammals is can be performed today on mice, rats, and small rabbits, and depends entirely on whether they can be frozen and thawed without ice crystal damage.

    Please let me know what you think of these possibilities

    Best regards,
    James Salsman

    • Did you see the more extensive treatment of pumped storage I did sometime after the personal home storage page? Pumped storage indeed is impractical for a home solution. Larger scale applications certainly exist, as you point out. And the potential is not completely tapped out (thus growth). But it is very far from “solving” the intermittency problem for solar and wind, as you assert.

      All for plastic lumber. Not sure how big this can scale, but it may help more than it hurts.

      As for cryogenic stasis, I do not perceive this as the primary bottleneck in our space ambitions. More that space is a desert offering little refuge for the human race. When I see people living on the bottom of the ocean, or the Gobi desert populated with the density of New Jersey, I might say it’s time. Harsh conditions don’t offer a draw for humanity.

      • Tom, I am new to your blog, and I am so happy to see that you’ve covered municipal and larger scale pumped hydro. I think we still have a lot of capacity to build out, everywhere there’s a reservoir in the hills or an opportunity to build a pipeline behind a dam, but I’ll agree it won’t solve all our storage problems.

        The use of waste carbon and carbonic acid in seawater for carbon neutral methane (and thereby kerosine jet fuel, gasoline from the Mobile Process, diesel, etc.) is a much more interesting storage possibility. In addition to the Eisaman team’s work linked above, here a more detailed source for that: http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?Location=U2&doc=GetTRDoc.pdf&AD=ADA539765 and the competing companies http://www.windfuels.com/ and http://www.airfuelsynthesis.com/ are working on commercialization. I hope you can cover this possibility in the future.

        As for interstellar travel, soon http://lmr.nasa.gov/ will allow lunar heterodyne terahertz VLBI of exoplanets in the 9-10 micron range (“interstellar missions … planetary surfaces”) where we should be able to see ozone, which is a likely marker of the sort of life we can eat, and therefore the right amount of water. Sleeper ships with shielding build from asteroid fragments should be able to hibernate for hundreds of thousands of years at cryonic temperatures with no energy use but the redundant timer wakeup alarm system. Barring an uncharted black hole or rogue planet, even a slow Jupiter slingshot trajectory should be able to achieve interstellar sleeper transport with enough fuel to park in the destination solar system, and maybe even continue on to a secondary destination if the first is unsuitable.

    • “you dismiss pumped storage hydroelectricity as “not even worth the effort,” even though the US already has about 20 gigawatts installed”

      Did you miss the distinction between niche, useful, and abundant resources? Hydropower in general (primary or pumped), or hot springs geothermal, are niche. Where opportunity for them exists, they’re certainly useful, and thus your 20+ GW. But there’s not enough of them to matter globally, thus “not worth the effort”; they’re irrelevant to solving the global energy crisis.

      “There is no reason to believe that vitrification cryonics will not progress to human-sized capabilities in the coming decades”

      There’s no reason to believe that it necessarily *will*, either. Size matters, things don’t always scale, and have mice really been frozen solid and stored for a year and revived? And as Tom points out, then what? Getting people to Mars orbit isn’t the hardest part of Mars colonization.

      • Damien, I think it is very likely that a source which provides 20% of our current electricity will be able to provide sufficient demand shaping to counter the intermittency of a 100% wind and water grid, based on my conversation with the General Electric executive who is in charge of converting Oahu, Hawaii to maximum wind. Has anyone “done the math” and shown otherwise?

        There is plenty of reason to believe that vitrification freezers for cryonics will continue to increase in capacity. The Japanese soybean industry is making great strides in vitrification capacity because of the premium crisp soybeans command with Japanese consumers. Please see http://www.google.com/patents/about?id=H3CAAAAAEBAJ and http://appft1.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO2&Sect2=HITOFF&p=1&u=%2Fnetahtml%2FPTO%2Fsearch-bool.html&r=1&f=G&l=50&co1=AND&d=PG01&s1=20090199577&OS=20090199577&RS=20090199577 for recent developments. A frozen sleeper ship has reasonable energy requirements on its way to a destination exoplanet. There is no way we could provide for the energy budget of a generation ship for even a fifth of a light year.

        • There is a great difference between freezing a soy bean and a human body: In order to achieve vitrification you need very fast cooling, and cooling speed is limited by the surface-to-mass ratio, hence you get a square-cube scaling problem.

          As far as I know, no mammal has ever been successfully cryopreserved and revived.

          And even if cryopreservation was possible, I don’t think that sleepers starships are viable: You can’t just launch them in the general direction of their target and wait. Without frequent course correction they would drift away. So you will need to engineer a device that operates continuously, firing rockets, for at least tens of thousands years, without any external source of energy and materials, in an environment flooded with cosmic radiation.
          We can’t even make a clock that will run for 10,000 years, much less a starship.

  8. I read the transcript, presumably made using voice recognition software, which is getting pretty good. Little defects that are petty annoyances crop up here and there, but I loved “lunar laser raging” and those certain laws so incontrovertible that they are “in violet”.

    • I loved those speech-to-text do-funnies, too. But with my hearing limitations (which cannot be helped by a hearing-ear dog), I have such misunderstandings all the time, often amusing, sometimes quite unpleasant. So I appreciate the “translation” being available.

  9. Tom, despite my negative comments earlier, I realize there’s a BIG problem with any effort to transition to renewable or non-polluting energy sources that are not less expensive in the marketplace.

    I thought of this with a simple thought experiment. What would happen if all of the good people of California collectively all went out and bought Priuses? If every citizen in the state did it, and perhaps in the neighboring states as well, it would affect the gasoline consumption of the United States enough that prices would change.

    Gasoline would become slightly cheaper at the pump. With slightly cheaper gas, those farmers in Nebraska and those rednecks in Texas (I’m stereotyping because it simplifies the problem) will purchase more fuel guzzling trucks and SUVs than they otherwise would. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox

    Because the total miles driven wouldn’t change, and gas has to be cheaper to drive this change, worldwide gasoline consumption would still be lower if California did this, but the amount of change would not be as large.

    This basically stops efforts to stop consuming fossil fuel resources as quickly as possible.

    One final comment : if the country as a whole were becoming desperate, with gas prices skyrocketing to 20 bucks a gallon because the actual oil reserves were finally running low, why not bring back electric trains and electric streetcars?

    • If we had an accountable political system (and a general understanding of the energy predicament by the populace) then they’d raise gas taxes accordingly to prevent that Jevon’s Paradox.
      This is why I don’t think the “free market” which many so passionately argue for will be at all appropriate for dealing with our overshoot. For perspective, I like to bring everything back to ecology, and this will provide as close an example of free markets as we could get. We need only look to animal populations because they operate without any official rules beyond what their interpersonal behaviors deem to be appropriate — the ultimate free market. Inevitably, if a population of animals (or plants, or yeast) is afforded a supply of excess resources (energy) then that population WILL grow to use up that energy. This will inevitably happen. Then that population will adjust itself once the resources exhaust, to what’s sustainable long term. This will be effected either through increased predation, increased infant mortality rates, decreased birth rates, increased disease, or mass starvation.
      Never will this occur as a result of the population voluntarily choosing to harvest less resources, and in a human free market economy any personal decisions to throttle back individual consumption for the sake of the betterment of the collective future, even if those resources are privately owned and supposedly protected from the “tragedy of the commons”, will not make any difference because then any of the other 7 billion people will then just maximize their own microeconomic situation by consuming those resources you just didn’t. And the owners of the privately owned resources will just sell them to the rest of the world that’s running out, for profit — that’s indeed what we are seeing in the Alberta oil sands.
      So when I hear people arguing for free market solutions to our problems, all I can think of is grizzly bear or wolf populations which have infant mortality rates of like 75% to keep their populations in check. We have reached such a stage of overshoot that we will likely see something similar going forward, although we might also have to factor in “adult mortality rates”.
      We are no different than any other animal species expanding to consume new sources of ecological productivity — we just figured out how to harvest productivity from millions of years ago in the form of fossil fuels, and now we’re fighting over how to divide up the last remaining scraps of that.

      • Thought experiment : space aliens arbitrarily start destroying oil wells, 10% of them a year, in a consistent and predictable manner (but the aliens destroy nothing else). We know beyond any doubt that in 10 years, 0 new fossil fuels will be available world wide.

        Would this result in an unstoppable mass die off of the civilized world? Or is there something that could be done?

        Physics says there is. While there’s a lot of speculative energy sources that could take the load, there is one real one that we don’t use because of the drawbacks.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breeder_reactor

        We’d build a bunch of these, and probably would shift to electric streetcars and trains because of the non existence of liquid fuels for mobile vehicles.

        It would cause some of the weaker members of the herd to die off. Those nations without large numbers of scientists and engineers, without robust manufacturing capabilities to rush build the thousands of nuclear reactors that would be needed to take the load, would have mass die-offs. But China, Germany, Japan, etc would be just fine.

        • I think given your scenario civilisation would collapse. Most of the time would be wasted trying to fight (which I assume you are proposing wouldn’t help), arguing over what to do and panicing. Panic will be a huge problem and will help trash the global economy.

          But if we tapdance past these points we’ll still be in trouble. Oil accounts for ~35% of global energy, that’s 5TW. Assuming a really good nuclear reactor (IIRC they average 2GW but some let’s propose 5GW) you would have to build two a week for ten years. Not only that but you would need finished products as soon as possible. It takes on average a decade to build a reactor but it has been done in less, as little as 5 years in some cases. But after 5 years you would have a 2.5TW global deficit and would now need to be building four reactors a week.

          It get’s worse if we take into account coal and gas, that number more than doubles.

          Of course there are other factors to take into account like nuclear proliferation, lack of engineers and infrastructure for mass construction etc.

  10. Check this out,
    http://gas2.org/2008/10/13/lithium-counterpoint-no-shortage-for-electric-cars/
    Karen Pease says that there is enough lithium in the oceans to make about 18 trillion Tesla type battery packs (evidently,she did some math too). Thus, we should be able to realistically extract just a few/1,000ths of that for use until the “solution to lithium” is invented without adversely affecting the oceans, and extraction efficiencies.
    I believe that the lifepo4 uses less lithium because it requires iron instead of the other, more rare elements of the normal li-ion… And that machine automation tech (not nanoscale) can already be developed to the point of making such batteries and solar panels, CST, CPV, etc, cheaper than oil.

  11. Well I just “Did the Math” and completed my global biosphere energy analysis, “World Energy Use and Ecological Productivity — an Order of Magnitude Perspective” which readers will probably find interesting. The title is pretty self-explanatory.

    It is similar to Tom’s Biofuel Grind post, but I present the data a bit differently and delve further into ecological productivity to asses how close we are to a collapse that would bring down humanity. The numbers paint a scary picture. We are sooo close to collapse, and the only thing holding that back now is fossil fuels.

    In the discussion with Chris Martenson and in the comments of this post, there seems to be a discussion about whether the end of growth is on the century time scale, “infinite”, or merely decades into the future. But we are much closer to the end of growth than people realize; indeed, it arguably already has ended. The planet will not be able to sustain further economic growth, basically at all, as of today, assuming we are at Peak Oil and not too far off Peak Coal and Peak Natural Gas.

    The most amazing piece of data I think is the observation that total global Net Primary Production has actually gone DOWN 10% as a result of the Industrial and Green Revolutions! Our modern agricultural system, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, merely transforms ecological productivity from one form to another. It does not produce additional biomass (food). When fossil fuels run out, agricultural production will drop and humanity’s share of global NPP will rise from its current 24% to something closer to 100%, well as close to 100% as will be feasible since it would be an amazing feat to even reach 50%. Then use your imagination to come up with specific end scenarios.

    • So you earnestly believe that if it’s a choice between scary nuclear breeder reactors and starvation, people will choose to starve?

      • I’m all for nuclear if it can be done responsibly. I agree, a choice between mass starvation and nuclear waste is a pretty easy one to make.

        I really can’t comment on nuclear’s feasibility beyond what I read on this site. I think Tom summarizes well the biggest issue, in that nuclear implies a high degree of centralized social organization. And as far as I know breeder reactors haven’t even been demonstrated yet. One really has to wonder if it will be at all possible to bring these things to market in time, get them built, maintain them, and safely dispose of the waste, and do all of this in a realm of energy decline in which society is falling apart and people are becoming less educated because they can’t afford school.

        On the other hand, we already crank out millions of solar panels, and electric drive is now making its appearance; all we’d need to do would be to crank out even more and get them distributed into a decentralized energy mix. It seems like a more feasible task, since no new technology is required. The question is scale: will we be able to ramp up in time to make any difference. I think technically we could; politically it’s a different matter.

        • Point of clarity: breeder reactors were used heavily in our build-up of plutonium in the great nuclear arms race—in this case, breeding U-238 into Pu-239 via neutron absorption.

          Commercial nuclear power does not employ the uranium breeder approach because the resultant plutonium is too easily separated from uranium, and becomes a proliferation risk.

          Thorium breeding (into 233-U) can be done in a way that greatly reduces proliferation risk (by poisoning with nasty U-232). Plans for thorium breeders tend to use molten salt as the medium. There have been some proof-of-concept demonstrations, but technical challenges still need to be solved before thorium will be ready for prime-time commercialization. I can’t offer much insight as to how well accepted the technology will be. And at the end of the day, it’s yet another way to make electricity—of which we are not short options.

  12. Hi Tom
    I’m a new reader of your blog and I find it really interesting. I’m economist and I think your point of view about limit resource of energy is really interesting. Economist love to talk about efficiency (I guess you already know about it) and even more about productivity. I shared your point of view about limit growth but, although we live under physics rules, we need to talk about the human factor. You mention that even though we use more efficiently energy we will not sustain economic growth, well we have even a worse problem, we don’t know what to do with efficiency. An economist name Jeremy Rifkin explain in his book “The end of work” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_End_of_Work how we are more productive, we are using less human capital per productive resources but we are reducing wealth in society, producers are hiring even less and less people each day, that means we are asking people to buy things that they can not pay for. The main idea is that we will reach a point where we will produce a lot with just a few capital units and there will be no one capable of consuming this goods.
    Now, about natural resources and energy we have an other big problem, we keep speculating with natural resources even though there is a limit number of it, we are betting in non existing food, energy, etc.
    We have even a great problem to solve, in order to make the transition of constant growing economies to stable development with a new “knowledge economy” (and less energy intense) there will be a lot of high cost that we will not be able to afford.
    I find challenging your point of view about a new era of economics that doesn’t have to do with growth but with development but maybe we should ask if the actual system will not fall down because is unsustainable before we reach a depletion of energy resources.

  13. “See my post on the concept of sustainability to learn why I have misgivings about the viability of a 10× energy scale.”

    In your post on sustainability, you show a timeline from 6000 BC to 10,000 AD. So of course, on those timescales, the fossil fuel era will look very short. But the fossil fuel era isn’t necessarily short on the timescale of technology change. Consider that shale gas was less than 2 percent of U.S. gas production in 2001, and only a decade later was about 30 percent of U.S. gas production.

    Also, the U.S. went from essentiall zero percent of its electrical energy from nuclear in 1960, to about 20 percent less than 30 years later. The buildup of nuclear power in France was even faster than in the U.S., in terms of the percentage of electricity from nuclear power in 1971 versus 1996 (25 years later).

    Here are some things I think are pretty clear about the future:

    1) Conventional oil will peak at not substantially above current production levels.

    2) Coal will abandoned by the end of this century…not because it’s not available, but because it’s too dirty.

    However, if world per-capita GDP is $160,000 in 2110, that buys a lot of alternatives to oil and coal.

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