The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The End of the Age of Oil

Has the last oil boom ended?

Electric cars will be cheaper to own than conventional cars by 2022, according to a new report.

The plummeting cost of batteries is key in leading to the tipping point, which would kickstart a mass market for electric vehicles, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) analysts predict.

This is very good news for the world, and though the technology is certainly not carbon neutral, it is better than oil, the energy used to charge the battery can be kept relatively clean. Once upon a time, that energy was coal and other conventional energy sources, but coal is now more expensive than solar, and the price of solar is continuing to drop.

While this is good for the world, it’s going to be very, very bad for many countries. The oilarchies’ days are numbered. I will state right now that I doubt that Saudi Arabia’s monarchy will survive this.  Countries that are heavily reliant on oil, especially expensive oil, are going to be in trouble. The same is true of natural gas.

All resource booms end. Eventually resources are replaced. Once there was a huge rubber boom in Brazil: Then we learned how to make synthetic rubber.

We might get one more oil boom, but that’s it.

So: Alberta oil sands oil? Done. The Alberta-dominated Conservatives damaged terribly the Canadian manufacturing sector during the last oil boom by refusing to acknowledge that the high Canadian dollar affected manufacturing sales, but the good days won’t be coming back to Alberta.  It’s possible that Alberta has a key resource which will boom in the future of which I’m not aware (entirely possible), but if it doesn’t, Alberta’s high-flying days are done.

Go down your list of major oil exporters and look at the prices they need per barrel to make a profit. A lot of them are going to have to reduce production of the most expensive wells. This process will continue for years. Saudi oil production costs per barrel are under $10, but the price they require to keep their society running is much higher.

Cheap energy is an economically good thing. But the effects of dislocation will be immense.

Unfortunately, while this is great news for the environment, it is all too late to stop runaway climate change. Methane locked into land and ocean will be released now. It is too late, we have passed the point at which the process of global warming became self-reinforcing. It is now a vicious cycle and cannot be stopped by simply reducing carbon emissions.


We knew this would be the case, and we decided not to do anything about it. Let no one tell you otherwise.

A large amount of the world is going to become essentially uninhabitable due to heat. Climate change will change rainfall patterns and many areas will experience a decrease in agricultural productivity. Combined with aquifer depletion, conventional agriculture will take a huge hit.

This is a fixable problem. We can grow ten times as much food as standard agriculture in small, intensely cultivated plots, even indoors. We will have cheap energy. The remaining oil can be used for fertilizer until we have better solutions.

The next problem is water. Large parts of the world will not have enough fresh water. Water reclamation, desalinization, and other technologies around water are key here.

Geopolitically, there will be water wars. Watch nations where major rivers cross borders, and the up-river nations will want to take “more.” Canada, which has most of the world’s lakes, is in great danger from America, who will want that water in amounts and at prices for which we should not settle. Meanwhile, the US may drain the Great Lakes faster than they are replenished.

The mass migrations of this period will make the current “immigration crisis” look tame. It will be worse even than it is for the countries taking the biggest groups now (none of which are European).

Sea stocks are collapsed already, and will collapse past commercial fishing viability. Essentially, all the fish you eat will be “farmed.” Ocean acidification has killed the Great Barrier Reef, but the greater risk is that the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon may effectively end.

Combined with our continued deforestation, the lack of carbon fixing capacity, along with these various vicious cycles, could lead to a runaway climate change worse than virtually all the models I’ve seen are predicting.

If we had sense, we would be transitioning from conventional to intensive agriculture NOW (well, ok, 15 years ago minimum). We have spare workers–we do not have a spare Amazon. If we had sense, we would pay Brazilians and other mass deforestors more to stop what they’re doing than they get from continuing. We must mass-reforest, and re-wild land, and do so NOW.

This is also to avoid collapse of the biosphere, an event which is within the realm of possibility. If such a collapse occurs, humanity will go with it.

Our continuing reliance on very non-competitive markets to create what we need in time may wind up dooming our race. Markets are great and useful in this situation, but market support (such as was used for decades to create the computer industry) can jumpstart industries, cutting years to decades off the time it takes for prices and costs to drop sufficiently for mass adoption.

However, in general, the way we do Capitalism is going to have to change. Capitalism may need to be replaced with something better, but even if it continues the vast waste must end. The doctrine of planned obsolesence, for example, must go.

A world where we aren’t constantly producing crap we either never needed in the first place or wouldn’t need if we allowed engineers to design products to last will be a much nicer place to live, anyway. Yes, there’s a lot of work to be done to mitigate the coming disasters, but there is so much work going on which shouldn’t be done at all that we would most likely wind up working less and living better.

Those who survive, anyway.

The Age of Oil is coming to end. Did it last 20 years too long? Is the Age of Humanity also to end?

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What Matters Is Character (Terrorism and Rights Edition)


Will Capitalism Be Replaced By Something Better?


  1. V. Arnold

    Humans can adapt quickly to almost anything; but the rest of the species cannot. The rest of the species are every other living thing on planet earth.
    I’m of the school that we fix what’s wrong or we die. Stupid human tricks, such as engineering our way around, to band-aide what’s wrong, will lead from bad to worse.
    Either we face reality or we deserve to self extinct; which is exactly the course we’re on. Turn the ship or sink it, so-to-speak.

  2. tony

    “We will have cheap energy. ”

    From where? Nuclear is only workable due to oil. Same with solar. Hydroelectric is limited. Cheap gas and coal will run out around the same time as oil does. The whole post assumes energy will be plentiful and cheap, which is dubious. You claim that Saudi oil cost under $10, but none of the sources I have seen agree. Pumping it is cheap, but that ignores capital costs.

    Cheap oil has nothing to do with oil being plentiful. Gail Tverberg has modeled the interactions between oil and the financial system, has accurately predicted both oil price and financial crashes. Her model shows how the drop in oil prices has to with low demand caused by oil being scarce.

    We can produce a lot of food in a small area. But either that requires permaculture methods, which is high skill and labour intensive, or it requires an industrial society, which is only possible with plentiful energy. Neither will solve the food problem. Industrial agriculture faces a peak oil, peak soil, peak phosphorus and climate change. It won’t feed us.

  3. Boris

    Yes, to much of this. Some comments: The West has spent a great deal of effort arming the living bejesus out of Saudia Arabia with large amounts of state of the art weapons. What happens when that country destabilises?

    Water wars in North America? I think it’s anyone’s guess what happens t/here now. I’ve been saying for a while that I’m not sure the internal stability in the US is nearly as firm as it once was. Trump is a speech or comment away from his violent rabble congealing into organised brownshirts. I’m not sure how the civil service and security infrastructure in the US will respond to a Trump presidency and it may well turn sectarian as much as the general public.

    Dead oceans. We need a stable economy and production system to move food from farms and oceans into bellies. Fishery collapse, political upheaval, etc disrupt this and just-in-time delivery systems mean there is no strategic food reserve. Any organised war or otherwise may well grind to halt as the food system is disrupted. Social order might merely disintegrate.

  4. scruff

    Not quite sure what you mean by “intensive agriculture”. Pretty much everything that results in higher yields has higher costs, and you don’t seem to be addressing those. The costs in this case being water, as you mentioned, and also topsoil integrity. Is it worth producing more food per unit area if doing so damages the health of the soil more in the long term? Especially since greater food production influences population to expand? Eh… I don’t think so.

  5. jsn

    The choke point is the embodied energy of the battery itself, along with the source of that energy. That costs have gone down for manufacture does nothing about the unpriced externalities:

    Not gloom and doom, but batteries still need a couple break throughs that may or may not be imminent.

  6. jsn

    I would add that to the extent demand ramps up through increased deployment of electric, innovation in battery tech becomes more likely.

  7. Jeff Wegerson

    Hotter AND wetter. On average. Yes some places will be a lot dryer. Some places will become a lot wetter. Net fresh water will increase. Some aquifers could actually recharge. The problem will become one of prediction. Variability will be increasing as well. Some places may have super-cycles. Long extreme dry followed by long extreme wet.

    As for reforestation, new growth actually absorbs more carbon than old growth. So maybe the better model will be to cut down the old growth as fast as possible and immediately replace with new growth. Except, as you point out, the problem could very likely be methane rather than carbon, in which case carbon capture by plants may matter not.

    @Boris – The issue for armed to the teeth countries will become ammo and spare parts. The real purpose of all that dental hardware has been to funnel dollars back to the U.S.

    @Tony – Don’t forget wind. There is little fancy about wind generation. Airplane blades on electric motors run backwards. Clean energy can be sufficient. As for agriculture, yes high skill and labor intensive cultures. But with all our out of work college graduates I think both can be found in plentiful numbers. The other key is to pay farmers for their skill and labor not for their crops. So even in bad years income is the same and food prices are kept reasonably within reach of the poorest. Actually maybe prices go negative. We pay people to eat well.

  8. edwin

    scruff, “Intensive Agriculture”, at least what I practice in my retirement, would have a major impact on food prices. No question. I guess that at a minimum a 30% increase for basic vegetables would be in order. A lot of that cost would be labour.

    The alternative is a food system where the prices are so cheep that slave labour and subsidies must be used in order to stay competitive. The alternative is heavily reliant as well on oil and gas. If it takes more calories to produce your crops than the crops contain – that’s a big problem and from what I understand, typical for modern agriculture. The alternative is is a food system where communities, and even countries have no control over their food supply.

    It is not at all obvious that there would be a major increase in water. One commercial “Intensive Agriculture” set up near where I live has built a very large cistern for watering. (They specialize in providing local high quality vegetables to restaurants.) An organic farm I purchase meat from showed that it is not only what you put on your crops that affect water usage. Land practices make a huge difference. A major rain storm caused extensive damage to stream beds and banks throughout our region a few years ago. Bare soil eroded badly in the extremely heavy rains. The organic farm suffered mild damage in their CSA garden area but that was it. They just didn’t have much in the way of bare ground. Their stream beds were not carefully carved out for maximum efficiency, but instead were covered in plants and grasses and thus did not erode in the flood conditions.

    We cut water evaporation by use of row covers – or even in the case of carrots – covering rows with old sheets of plywood. I haven’t experimented with it, but I suspect that old cotton sheets would also work as row covers. It is something that a small scale agriculture set up could consider, while a commercial operation could not.

    Low dentistry agriculture can be extremely resourceful in limiting water usage. I understand that some of the native communities in semi-desert areas practiced it. Commercial operations can’t do that. It really tends towards one size fits all. Small scale operations are far more flexible to local conditions than commercial sized operations can be.

    I don’t know why you think that topsoil integrity is better in commercial operations. The commercial operation I’ve been talking about, and us, use fixed beds and do not till. We do not use chemical fertilizers, but have regular rotating applications of compost, most of which we produce ourselves. We are beginning to study the possibilities of permanent cover crops so our fields are less exposed bare to the sun. Round-up ready crops are not part of what we do. The pesticides and fungicides don’t enter our practices – organic or otherwise. We select crops that handle the insects and diseases present in our soil, and in cases where plants don’t exist that are adapted to our climate or conditions, we have started breading them. We are small enough that hand controls of insect infestations are possible. Often standard commercial agriculture has responded to these types of problems in our area by leaving and going somewhere else. Our area is more and more becoming meat and related production, apple production (with severe problems competing with China and diseases), specialized intensive agriculture, or in some cases abandonment of farms.

    There are things you should look at for truly intensive agriculture – like the city of Paris before the invention of the automobile. For what Paris was doing, the inputs were extreme labour and otherwise, but I don’t see the damage that you are talking about. The density can actually helps to carefully control water usage. A lot less drip irrigation is needed per bushel of harvest. Small scale solutions can be used.

    What you seem to be proposing is the continuation of shipping slave-labour produced food half-way around the world – coating it in diesel as it were. I would recommend reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma for a better understanding of what intensive agriculture looks like. 4 season Gardening would be another book to take a look at.

    Desert areas may very well become basically uninhabitable – ie. much of the United States – and much of Canadian agricultural areas. Small scale agriculture will become crucial because it will have the flexibility to handle local conditions and implement local solutions to cover local needs – especially in marginal areas.

    “Especially since greater food production influences population to expand?” I don’t think I want to head down this road, except to say that the current population growth of Canada does not seem to support this conclusion.

  9. Mike

    Ian, do you genuinely think we can transfer to a renewables-based energy system without using a vast amount of fossil fuel energy to make the infrastructure and components? Because I don’t.

  10. Peter*


    The ever increasing ramp of demand for energy makes these technical solutions to AGW mostly feel good PR for wealthier people and nations to use to justify continuing their unsustainable overconsumption.

    Stopping the growth in consumption of energy doesn’t seem to be possible when our capitalist economy depends on endless growth and the only way to actually address AGW, massive reduction of energy use isn’t even contemplated.

  11. S Brennan

    Yes, Electric cars will replace internal combustion for urban people…and interstate trucking, but bigger, better, batteries are the wrong solution.

    Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor will handle at least 50,000 years of demand, it’s waste products are approximately 1/500th in volume/mass and radioactive for 1/500th the time period of conventional reactors. LFTR has the advantage of being an old tried & true technology.

    And Fusion, always 25 years away, has made some impressive strides using newly developed materials capable superconductivity at near room temperatures, which has dramatically reduced the input/output ratio of energy. 2015/2016 have seen a number of breakthroughs unthinkable just a decade ago.

    No, the problem isn’t technology, we have scientists, engineers & technicians, with the will, with the know-how to solve earths most egregious problems. NOW.TODAY.THIS VERY SECOND!

    To much CO2, no problemo, we can make fuel from the stuff with either LFTR or later Fusion, compress, liquefy, distill and wave your greenhouse gas goodbye.

    Not enough water, bullshit, we got too much of the stuff. Compressor blades heating and then throwing a column of 500 degree seawater skyward will create massive, pure, water vapor clouds, which when carefully lined upped and timed, will dump rain onto parched landscapes. To even-out demand on a LFTR/Fusion reactor, we desalinate and pump that pure water into known aquifers where it can be redistributed by natures own hand.

    No, the plans are there, the problem is our parasitic .01%…and of course their plentiful minions who gladly fellate their masters in manner it has lost it’s shock value…Clintons, Bushs, Obamas, McCains, Scalias, Roberts and the legions of who arrange/justify having foreign leaders who try to escape the .01%’s chains…to be liquidated. Look there’s one ^ now.

    No it’s not a technical problem, its a social problem, human growth has always been stunted by the parasitic .01%.

  12. tony

    Jeff Wegerson, the world rainfall is increasing, but so is evaporation. Worse still, wet places tend to get wetter and dry places drier. You have places like North-Africa, the Middle-East and India which are experiencing simultaniously increasing drought, growing population, failing political systems and increasing prices of food exports. Think Syria, except a few billion people.

    India might not be dry, but the population density is high.

    Of course, if a city loses water for a few months, it’ll all balance out.

    I’ve read some analyses of wind power, but it’s intermittent and still heavily subsidized. While we could transfer to renewables, that would take decades of heavy investment and retooling of the entire society.

    Permaculture is also not a thing we are moving to. Farm sizes are growing around the world. College graduates are not magic. College teaches you specific skills, usually relating to manipulating specialized infomation. If Ian is right about energy being cheap and plentiful, that’s great, but those skills are of no help in permaculture. Permaculture systems take years to set up, the skills needed to effectively run them take years and it is very hard to compete with subsidized industrial farms. Building such a system if you have student debt is nigh impossible, and is even harder if the food prices rocket and you are struggling to survive.

    Permaculture systems require high investment and as such need to be built before the crunch time. But the political and technological system are pushing towards large industrial farms. So they will not be built in any scale that matters.

  13. Chucky

    It certainly is difficult to see a positive outcome for Canada in all this. Now that the Arctic is doomed to be ice-free year round, Canada is effectively a frontier region between the US and Russia – and you can ask Poland what it’s like to be a fertile land between great powers…

  14. tony

    Russia has a huge swathes of its own land to develop. It also can not wage a war against the US in the North America. The comparison does not work.

  15. jsn

    Mostly I agree. Social transformation is possible too. As Ian says, we mostly have the tech, we just need the society, which won’t happen if we don’t try.

  16. AlanSmithee

    Well, gosh, look at it this way Ian – you know those breaks between geological eras? Cambrian, Jurassic, Paleocene, and so on? Well, all those breaks represent extinctions. And one of the things these extinctions all have in common, and we know this from the fossil record, is that the coral reefs all died.

    Every. Single. Time.

    But, hey, look at it this way. There\’s still time to vote for Bernie Sanders!

  17. Antifa

    If the surface of the planet is too damn hot, start digging. A hundred feet underground, it’s always the same temperature, and the heat differential will power Stirling engines to generate electricity for climate control, greenhouse grow lights, and mining machines. Or LFTR reactors.

    Let the surface of the planet return to Nature. Let it be a place people visit, but don’t rape or disturb other than solar collectors and wind power. Mankind lives in a self-created environment.

    The real curse of our species is that every time we get enough to eat, we make way too many babies, which means we have to intensify everything we do to keep up. If we succeed at getting comfortable at the new higher population, we make too many babies again.

  18. Tony Wikrent

    Regarding intensive agriculture in urban areas

    The Association for Vertical Farming:

    The Vertical Farm Project:

  19. John Breininger

    Jeeze Ian that is a depressing out look. Given your world or the one talked about in the book Abundance I have no choice but to pick that, even if it’s fake! I think in one of Klatuu’s songs the line goes… All is lost once one abandons hope.

  20. Ian Welsh


    both worlds are possible.

    In fact, one of the better case scenarios is that both worlds happen at about the same time.

  21. Ian Welsh


    yes, we’ll use a fair bit of the oil, but I hope it is less than running all those cars. We can refit most buildings, but we’re also going to want to build new ones which are custom designed to produce more energy than they need, grow food, and even be carbon neutral in operation. Most non-oceanic travel needs to move to better solutions (high speed trains, hyperloop, etc… are the current leading techs). Most oceanic could move to primarily solar driven so long as we don’t mind if it takes longer to deliver (we can easily manage that.)

    Permaculture: a study I saw a while back showed a basement farm growing 10X normal yields, using LED lights. There are certainly solutions.

    Startup time is going to be a problem, for sure.

    I wouldn’t precisely say I’m optimistic, but there are opportunities and we have so many people who are being incorrectly utilized. Permaculture is labor intensive, but the 1st world uses hardly anybody in agriculture. We could increase it five-fold and still be under 20% in most countries.

    Disperse it, move to urban agriculture have most of the population spending a few hours a week doing it, and we’re good to go, plus that allows us to re-wild a huge amount of land.

  22. markfromireland

    @ Boris March 31, 2016

    The West has spent a great deal of effort arming the living bejesus out of Saudia Arabia with large amounts of state of the art weapons. What happens when that country destabilises?

    The possession of sophisticated weapons systems and the ability to use them are two very different things. The average Saudi “soldier” is a barely literally peasant good for the repression of internal dissent using low-tech weaponry and good for nothing else*. Most of the high-end weaponry sold to Saudi Barbaria sits in depots unmaintained. Furthermore for much of it the US retains operational sovereignty what that means is that the weapon can only be used after the US supplies the codes to “unlock” it. (The system(s) used are similar to IFF but heavily encrypted).

    I’ve been saying for a while that I’m not sure the internal stability in the US is nearly as firm as it once was.

    Any federal system is subject to centrifugal and centripetal forces it seems increasingly likely that in the US the centrifugal forces are becoming so strong that they will prevail. And that’s a good thing for everyone else but probably a bad thing for Americans caught up in the collapse. Given the barbaric way the US has behaved abroad for generations it’s hard to feel any sympathy for them.

    Dead oceans. We need a stable economy and production system to move food from farms and oceans into bellies. Fishery collapse, political upheaval, etc disrupt this and just-in-time delivery systems mean there is no strategic food reserve.

    Most armies have enough food stockpiled to ensure that their core will survive for a fairly long time. For the civilian population (and that includes the police in the USA) mass starvation is entirely likely. The small number of survivors left will make perfect serfs and are likely to hail their new(ish) overlords with traumatised and exhausted relief.


    *The SNG is a different proposition but there aren’t all that many of them and when Saudi collapses into its natural state the consensus is that they’ll be swamped.

  23. markfromireland

    Oops, this sort of error is what comes doing your own proofing, for:

    “The average Saudi “soldier” is a barely literally peasant good for the repression of internal dissent using low-tech weaponry and good for nothing else”

    Please read:

    The average Saudi “soldier” is a barely literate peasant good for the repression of internal dissent using low-tech weaponry and good for nothing else.

  24. Mike

    @ Ian: hope isn’t enough though, is it?

    All those renewables require vast amounts of rare earth metals, steel, glass, plastics, and concrete. And then water.

  25. markfromireland


    Capitalism may need to be replaced with something better

    Having severe difficulty with the word ‘better’ I am by no stretch of the imagination persuaded that what will replace capitalism as we now know it will be better.

    I think it far more likely that the outcome of the fall of the current world order will be a mix of extreme authoritarianism in some countries and outright barbarism in others.

  26. Peter*

    China has shown that an authoritarian/capitalist state is a successful model while the West has adopted an inverted totalitarian model with a superficial democratic veneer, except in the case of Greece, to maintain the control and dominance of capital.

    It is doubtful that any other model will replace these entrenched forces with or without a collapse of the present world order and authoritarianism and barbarism are already used liberally to maintain capitalism as was seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and now Syria by Russia and the West.

    China’s new military doctrine shows they are planning and preparing to project their military power to protect their capitalist economic interests especially in Africa where they are already involved in policing with the UN.

  27. Tom

    Truce has officially collapsed in Syria. FSA hit the South Aleppo Corridor on a 40km front with Assad tied up around Palmyra. They already penetrated the corridor and are showing off Humvees taken from the Iraqi PMUs holding that front. JaN even showcased a ((&^&**^*^ M1A1 M from the PMU, which they in turn siphoned off from the Iraqi Army, which they destroyed with one of their few T-72M1s. Unlike Saddam in 91, they had the 3BK21B round which is good enough to penetrate the Abrams armor thanks to a depleted uranium liner.

    Syria… You’ll see WW2 German Artillery, Soviet/Russian and French Gear. And US Equipment blowing up US Equipment. FSA showed vids of their TOW teams taking out PMU Humvees.

  28. DMC

    The price of both installed photo-voltaic as a whole and the price of utility scale KWh have steadily declined over the past 3o years and continue to decline in a readily predictable way. Likewise the price of wind based production. All the hyperventilation about the costs of installation are, largely, beside the point in that we were going to have to replace all those coal (and ultimately all the carbon based energy) plants anyway AND the thing about renewable based energy is that most of the cost is up front. Once they’re up and running, the maintenance tends to be comparatively minimal. There have also been substantial breakthroughs in mass energy storage based on high efficiency compressed air. Compress the air to store energy; decompress to spin generators, hardly any loss in the transfer, easy to maintain without loss over time. The only question about the end of the carbon era is not “if” but how soon. We had something like this conversation a couple of years back when P/V in the desert Southwest of the US hit grid parity for the first time. That SHOULD have been the dope-slap wake call for the “carbon uber alles” crowd and yet there’s still whinging of “It’ll be TOO EXPENSIVE”. No. It will in fact be amazingly cheap once the economy of scale is actually given a chance to kick in. The knock on effects of the collapse the value carbon based fuels are going to be pretty vicious for everybody dim enough not to have dropped everything that smells even vaguely of carbon. Oligarchs with a monopoly that suddenly nobody wants, I wonder what color their parachute is?

  29. different clue

    CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas or other material entering the atmosphere. Nitrous oxides from high-temperature/pressure gas and diesel engine combustion and also from excessive nitrogen fertilizer added to farmland soils turning into Nitrous oxides and gassing out of the soil before plants on the scene can take up and use its pre-oxidised forms are another. Some kind of solvent used to clean computer chips and other components is another . . . and very powerful once it enters the atmosphere. Black carbon soot from incomplete combustion by first world diesel engines and third world cookstoves is another.

    My word! That sounds as gloomy as this post. But there are ecologically and engineeringly possible solutions to these problems.

    First, even if reducing CO2 emmissions by itself is not enough to “dewarm” the global by itself, if it were combined with significant CO2 bio-suckdown and bio-sequestration of excess CO2 already in the atmosphere would that be enough? Because scientists are discovering what plants always knew about CO2 bio-recapture and bio-storage, the question is not silly or rhetorical. Properly managed agriculture, most especially multi-species pasture and range agriculture, is being discovered to reliably and persistently suck net carbon down out of the air and re-inject it back into the soil the plants are growing in. There are papers about scientists discovering this and farmers/ graziers doing this at a website called Amazing Carbon.

    There is also fast-advancing research and discovery about ancient bio-char and the terra preta soils of Amazonia . . . and present day bio-char — how to make it and use it to store persistent carbon in soil and increase that soil’s ability to support more plant growth sucking down more CO2. and

    I read somewhere that plants in general only use about 5% of the visible light they “see” to perform net carbon-fixing photosynthesis. If plants could be assisted to use 10% of the visible light they “see”, they would be sucking down twice as much carbon all over the earth as what they are sucking down now. If we could super-nourish plants with all the right soil-mineral replacement inputs at less carbon-emissions cost than the amount of carbon-capture those plants could thereby perform, we could net-increase carbon suckdown by all those farmland plants, pasture and rangeland plants, and forest land plants. Here is a groupload of people working on how to do this.

    Much of the carbon in the air came from peat, muck, and mucky peat/peaty muck from wetlands which were drained to grow crops. If all three hundred million acres of so of drained carbon-offgassing ex-wetlands were reflooded and replanted to the marsh and swamp vegetation which grew there before draining for farming, those wetlands would go back to growing vast amounts of plant matter and sinking most of that plant matter under their water surface where it would turn back into peat and muck, thereby entombing the carbon those plants sucked down out of the air. That is how the great coal beds formed to begin with . . . wetland plants sucking down carbon and burying it underwater where the oxygen can’t reach it. For example . . .

  30. Ian Welsh


    Saying that Capitalism /should/ be replaced by something better is not say it WILL be.

    Far better systems can thought up, I believe. I believe it’s even possible those system work with human nature well enough to be viable (aka. are not utopian in the impossible sense).

    None of that means I think we are likely to get to one of them from here (or maybe ever, though ever is a long time if we don’t drive ourselves extinct.)

    However, I do think it is possible. The odds are bad, but I don’t see much better options than making the run for it. There will be crises, the right is right: those are opportunities.

    So, optimistic? No? Think it is likely? No? Think it is possible? Yeah.

    I may turn this into a short post.

  31. Glad to hear that solar is now cheaper than coal, but you might just like to inform the US Energy Information Administration whose report last year quoted the cost in $/MwH for the following:-

    Onshore wind: 73.6 (but what about the cost when the wind isn’t blowing?)
    Conventional Natural Gas: 75.2
    Conventional Coal: 95.1
    Solar PV: 125.3 (but what about the cost when the sun is nor shining?)
    Offshore wind: 196.9
    Solar Thermal: 239.7

  32. Ian Welsh




    The study, the “Levellised Cost of Energy Analysis 9.0 notes that utility scale solar PV has fallen 25 per cent in the last year alone, since its most recent study. Since 2009, when it began the analysis, solar and wind energy have fallen by 80 per cent and 60 per cent respectively.

    Lazard says that because of this, and despite big falls in the cost of natural gas in the US, wind and solar are beating conventional fuels in most situations, as revealed in their success in competitive capacity auctions.

    The race for renewable energy has passed a turning point. The world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. And there’s no going back.

    The shift occurred in 2013, when the world added 143 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity, compared with 141 gigawatts in new plants that burn fossil fuels, according to an analysis presented Tuesday at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance annual summit in New York. The shift will continue to accelerate, and by 2030 more than four times as much renewable capacity will be added.

    Now, certainly I can find data going the other way, but given the trendline even if one can argue it isn’t there yet, it will be soon.

    Granted, given how fucked we are, every year matters. But the point that more renewable is being built than conventional is what matters.

  33. Peter*

    Thanks to Chinese sweatshop labor solar prices have fallen dramatically and are competitive with fossil fuels but there seems to be too much hype about their introduction into our energy system. Bloomberg and other business/investment promoters are seeking to attract investors to this growing market and they hype this meme as much as the WSJ did oil investment.

    Today just 0.6% of our electricity comes from large scale solar plants with about half that amount from distributed solar and the percentage of growth in their construction has dropped dramatically in the last few years to a still respectable 35% rate. Wind power is doing better at 4.7% of electric generation and will continue to grow.

    So far as I can tell solar and wind haven’t replaced any existing fossil fuel power generation but may have replaced planned new power plants that would have been needed for increased demand. I don’t know if the fact that the growth of demand for new electric power has been flat for the last three years has affected the growth of solar/wind but it does correlate with the dramatic reduction of new solar plants coming online.

  34. different clue

    Nitrous oxides (NOXs) are another powerful global warming set of gasses. To the best of my lay amateur science buff knowledge, they come from mainly two sources: forced oxidation of N2 in high-pressure high-temperature internal combustion engines . . . and the gas-off of NOXs from farmland which has been dosed with more Nitrogen-compound fertilizers than what the plants grown thereon can suck up as it becomes available in plant-usable forms. So what could be done to reduce NOX production from those two sources?

    Agriculture first: if N could be applied as complex compounds which are so slow to break down that they can’t break down any faster ( or become otherwise liberated any faster) than the plants can pick them up, then there would be little or no N-compounds sitting around to be oxidized to NOXs which would then gas up out of the soil and into the air. The most complex N-bearing compounds I can think of are proteins such as are found in seedmeals, fish meal, kelp meal, etc. Then too, the more branched-carbon long-chain humus a soil contains, the more binding sites that soil contains for simple little N-compounds and the more “stably” held in place those compounds are till the plants can wrench them off their humus binding sites. Biologically-fixed N products and biologically-fixing N organisms are the best slow-releasers or slow-providers of just-in-time plant-friendly simple N-compound molecules.

    But how to get enough bio-fixed N-compounds into agro-systems that we can lower the amount of Haber-Bosch NH4 or its work-ups that we have to apply? Aren’t we limited by the semi-meager supplies that legumes with their root-born rhizobial N-fixing bacteria can supply? Well, no we are not. It turns out that legume-hosted rhizobial bacteria are not the only people who are bio-fixing atmospheric N2 into bio-available N-compounds.

    I read once a very interesting post on a site called Permaculture Reflections ( which has recently been uglified and user-hostilified as so many blogs now are these days) which described in detail all the NON-legume plants which also harbor N2-fixing root organisms.
    Sea buckthorn (Hypophae rhamnoides and other H. species), the Eleagnus (autumn olive and etc.) species, tamarisk, casaurina, and others I don’t even remember. In tropical rice paddies there grows a kind of floating fern called Azolla which harbors N-fixers on its roots and is a major source of N to the rice-paddy system. I believe I have read that temperate zone duckweed does the same. I personally wonder whether water hyacinth, water lettuce, Nile cabbage, etc. don’t do the same thing too.

    Termites eat wood for the cellulose. They harbor in their intestines various protozoa which oxidize the celluluse and use some of the energy to fix their own N to make their own proteins with. I read somewhere that termites are fixing about 25% of the total N which gets fixed and brought into tropical forest and savannah ecosystems. Perhaps termites could be domesticated and farmed for termite-meal. Or perhaps the termite-gut protozoa could be grown in isolation in huge industrial scale fermenters and dried into N-fixer protozoa meal fertilizer. And consider the fruit fly. If any fruit flies can find a pound of stale fruit, they reproduce on it and a pound of rotting fruit can breed-up at least half-a-pound of fruit flies.
    Fruit flies are made of protein. Where are they getting the N to make their own protein-based selves? It isn’t in the pre-rotten fruit. Are fruit-decay organisms fixing their own N2? Do the fruit flies harbor N2 fixers inside their own guts?

    What’s going on in the ocean? There is lots of protein in the life in the sea. There are no legumes growing in the ocean. Who is fixing all that N2 down in the sea? Somebody sure is fixing it.

    So we don’t need Haber and we don’t need Bosch for our agro-bio N-compounds. All we need to do is to really understand all these different N-fixers well enough to work them into our agro-systems and work our agro-systems around the slow-release near-zero NOX-polluting N compounds these N bio-fixers can supply. And we thereby delete one of two big sources of powerful Warming NOX gases into the atmosphere.

  35. Peter*


    I think you have made a common error in confusing nitrous oxide, N2O laughing gas a greenhouse gas with nitrogen oxides NO, NO2 AKA NOx that actually help global cooling by attacking methane in the atmosphere. NOx is a pollutant and harmful to health when inhaled or reacting to produce ozone and that is why its emissions from vehicles are being reduced.

  36. different clue


    That’s an interesting comment and an interesting thought. If I am in error and confusion, it is a confusion and error which I picked up from whomever wrote the material where I read about it. I mean about the NOXs being infrared-absorptive heat-trapper gases. Confusing the name “nitrous oxide” with the NOXs was purely my own error and not a term-switcheroo I would have read somewhere else. Thank you for pointing it out.

    As to NOXs being or not being greenhousers, I know I have read they are in several places. I will have to go back and find those places. Are those places all wrong? Does anyone else have something to contribute on the matter? Separately , NOXs’s danger to health and reacting to produce ground-level ozone ( where we DON’T want ozone to be) are good enough reasons to suppress release or creation of NOXs. And we can certainly abort the production and release of mass quantities of NOXs from agriculture if we can force the right agronomic methods and policies into unanimous use. NOX from high compression ICEngines will be much harder to suppress.

  37. Peter*

    This is an interesting subject but limited reductions in emissions won’t do much good while demand and consumption is so high and growing. No one, especially those in power seem interested in the only real method of even slowing AGW, massive reduction in consumption of these fuels and other chemicals that cause AGW. The culprit is Industrial Civilization which must be dramatically curtailed or it will destroy the biosphere.

    Too many people still believe that the technocrats will do their magic and over consumption can continue forever.

    Something else I found interesting at the NOx wiki was that nitrogen fixing plants also produce atmospheric NOx but I think we can live with their contribution.

  38. different clue


    If N-fixing plants are themselves producing NOXs today, they were probably always doing it. And the biophysichemical ecosystem has long since been used to it and has factored it in.

    So if we get our manmade NOXs down to near-zero, the plantmade NOXs won’t hurt us any more than they hurt the Neanderthal and the Cro-Magnon. So as you say, we can live with them.

  39. tony

    This is the analysis I was talking about when I was sceptical about us having plentiful energy in the future. I don’t think anything has materially changed.

  40. different clue

    I am just a lay amateur science buff and I don’t know enough to say that the problems @tony links to are not real. I suspect they are real. We will have to shrink our energy use and therefor probably our economy down to what renewable energy can renewably support.

    Buckminster Fuller once said that clever brilliant engineering and designing would let us do more with less. The problem is that our current growthaholic economic system and value system leads us to say that if we can do more with less, then we can do more-than-before with as-much-as-before, and WAY more than before WITH more than before. We would have to adopt a long term shrinkage-based economic system and value system which leads us to say that if we can do more with less, we can do “the same” with STILL less, and we can do less than before with way less than before. If we could target the shrinkage against the top economic classes and work our way down till we were all consuming little enough apiece that our net collective consumption reached renewable sustainability, then we would raise the chances of our long term survival.

    The very firstest step would be to restrict the use of electricity to those things which only electricity can do. Blogging and computering can only be done with electricity to feed the grids which feed the computer machinery systems. What electricity uses are people prepared to give up so as to save electricity for computering and bloggering with?

    People who think “society” and “government” should do this and that to lower energy use and carbon net emissions should expect their neighbors to say: “oh yeah? What’s in YOUR footprint? People who want to be given a serious and respectful hearing by their neighbors or anyone else will have to demonstrate that they are doing what personal conservation lifestyling they can in the teeth of a society designed to prevent conservation in every possible way. Such visible conservation lifestyle modeling would at least give us the personal “walking the talk” credibility to be given a respectful hearing when we point out the ways “society” would have to be changed to make possible the conservation which only society-wide re-engineering would make possible.

    There are websites available which contain information people can use to lower their own stuff-and-energy use in ways that others can see and be favorably impressed by. Such “propaganda of the conservation-lifestyle demonstration” would get its practitioners listened to. Here are a few websites containing such information for those who wish to use it and to be seen to be using it by those who have eyes to see.
    There used to be a site called The Energy Guy based in California with all kinds of conservation lifestyling facts and advice, but I can’t find it now, what with the constantly degraded quality of search engines.
    There is still a blog called Do The Math which has some theoretical posts but also some practical how to/ why to posts on it.
    There is a site called Journey To Forever with many links to many sub-subjects in the field of low-stuff/ low-energy living.
    There is a site called Red Rock Energy with all kinds of interesting articles about various gizmos and methods for personal energy conservation, as well as interesting general-information articles.
    There is a magazine called Backwoods Home with a partial online presence. It has a strong Rural Chauvinist Libertarian bias, but some of its articles are practical how-to for living okay on less energy than the average consumer.
    And of course there are others.

    If eleventeen million individuals did this stuff-and-energy use-reduction lifestying, would they make a difference against Global Warming all by themselves? No. But they would have the personal credibility to advocate and press for the social and civilizational re-engineering changes needed for whole societies and civilizations to shrink their stuff-and-energy use enough to shrink their heat-trapping gas-release enough to stop Warming the Global, and maybe even to DeWarm the Global back to where it was a few decades ago. Such pressure will probably have to start from those eleventeen million people with their “propaganda of the good example”.

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