A while back I wrote to you asking the infinitely crucial question, “Are you paying attention?”. In that moment, I was referring to the hellish events that were taking place in Japan in the immediate aftermath of a record setting earthquake that had shifted the Earth’s axis, had triggered a devastating tsunami and subsequently a nuclear disaster at the Fukashima nuclear power plant. Since then the world has turned several times and the disasters just keep coming…devastating floods, tornadoes and SuperStorm Sandy to name just a few.
Today I wanted to bring the focus down a level or two and focus on why we need to be prepared to respond to an emergency every day, out and about or at home, at any hour of the day. Currently we find ourselves witnesses to another week of disaster as we’ve seen Canada get ravaged as Toronto was thrown into chaos after four hours of intense rains led to incredible flash flooding, cutting power to up to 400,000 in Canada’s largest city. A small town in Quebec, Lac-Megantic, was eviscerated when the night exploded just after midnight as a train derailment involving more than seventy tanker cars carrying crude oil sparked an incredible fireball THAT COULD BE SEEN FROM SPACE! For the record, a rail car can carry roughly 700 barrels of oil, with 42 gallons per barrel. That’s a lot of crude. Some victims were likely vaporized by the intense blaze, which burned for 36 hours after the crash. Back here in the States a line of severe thunderstorms raced through the Ohio River Valley yesterday, causing numerous power outages due to downed trees and power lines. The damage and duration of the storms were enough to qualify the system as a derecho. An area in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys from eastern Illinois and Indiana into Ohio, western Pennsylvania, southwest New York, and northern West Virginia were impacted by the July 10 storms.
All of this happened to my north as the crow flies as I sit here in Georgia, but that does not mean it cannot happen here tomorrow…or later today.
The flooding in Toronto comes on the heels of recent flooding in Calgary that forced up to 100,000 Albertans from there homes. The downpour of 3.5 inches of rain in less than four hours forced subway closures and left almost 1,500 people stranded on a commuter train filled with gushing water, while countless motorists were forced to abandon their vehicles to flee the rising waters. Subway passengers spilled out of the train cars and fled to the upper decks, where they waited for almost seven hours to be rescued.
The sleepy Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, located about 160 miles east of Montreal and close to the border with Maine and Vermont, was rocked in the middle of the night on July 6 when a train carrying crude oil jumped the tracks and careened into the town of 6,000 residents unleashing hell on earth. In a town that small, most everyone is affected by the deaths and destruction. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has described the scene as a “war zone” while others have referred to the landscape of the aftermath as a crematorium. From a CNN report, “Notices were placed on doors instructing residents how to clean and air out their homes. Officials suggested throwing out any food and boiling all water because the city’s water treatment plant is not operational.” In what is Canada’s worst railway catastrophe in almost 150 years, the death toll has risen to 50 as a result of the fiery crash of the runaway oil train.
This incident forces us to focus on the safety of future rail shipments of oil (as well as proposals such as the XL Pipeline and other fossil fuel transportation methods) as demand for such services is certainly increasing. Check this out for a more thorough look at these issues.
In a “does this sound familiar” moment, a destructive derecho ripped its way across the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys yesterday. Though not as destructive as the storm that plowed all the way to the east coast and decimated parts of Washington D.C. in 2012, this derecho produced roughly 300 reports of either wind damage or high winds that knocked out power to thousands across seven states.
Just in case you needed some more motivation to get your preparedness house in order, I hope this fits the bill. Disaster does not stick to our daily schedules and can kick down your door any time of day or night. Do you have a plan? Will you be ready? If you’re unsure, today is the perfect time to get started and figure it out.
Dr. Joseph Tainter, American anthropologist and historian and author of “The Collapse of Complex Societies” as well as co-author of “Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma”, interviewed with LegaliseFreedom.com and discussed our (the United States and the world) inevitable coming energy crisis and the collapse of the industrial age. I found this interview to be very enlightening, interesting and invaluable. If you are interested in our way of life, economic growth and a better idea of where we may be headed in the not too distant future, I believe you will find it to be absolutely worth your time.
One of the offerings I have wanted to establish here on the blog that I am personally most excited about is the feature interview. It is my goal to bring you enlightening and enthralling interviews with some of the most interesting people out there from all corners of the preparedness world, providing in-depth conversations that I hope you will find to be both practical and personal.
For our first installment, we are very fortunate to be joined by the highly acclaimed Steven Konkoly, author of apocalyptic thrillers including the Black Flagged series and, the focus of this interview, The Jakarta Pandemic. Mr. Konkoly is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science in English Literature and a veteran, having served seven years with various Navy and Marine Corps units.
Welcome, Steve. First and foremost, thank you for your service.
Thank you, Randy. I really appreciate the opportunity to dig below the surface of my writing and expose some of the core ideas and concepts that help shape the stories. Regardless of what other authors may claim, writing is a personal endeavor, no matter how far fetched the plot or action may seem to the reader. There is always something deeply personal embedded in the writing, and the threads that wrap around these aspects often define the story’s core essence.
In your writings, there is no such thing as black and white. You deal in personal confliction and there are no easy answers. You have also said that your military experience figures heavily into your writings. With all that said, TJP brings all that together in a complex character and gives us Alex Fletcher.
Ten years out of the Marines, Alex has fully transitioned back into the private sector and seems to be doing quite well. Putting aside what I assume would be Alex’s tendency to be prepared due to his military experience, I would like to talk a little about what motivated Alex to focus on the threat of a pandemic and make preparations for his family. At the end of Chapter 5, we learn about a presentation that Alex did for his company Biosphere and the research that went into it. We learned that process “changed his life” in apparently more ways than just professionally. Can you talk about how this process impacted Alex and his decisions when it comes to his family’s preparedness?
When I started to conceptualize The Jakarta Pandemic, I wanted to highlight the difficulties of surviving a catastrophic level event in a suburban setting. The leading difficulty in my opinion would be dealing with everyone else’s varying degree of unpreparedness in the face of a complete lack of essential services. With that in mind, I wanted to start Alex in a position of self-sufficiency, and I chose this “presentation” as his catalyst to start preparing for a worst-case scenario. The conclusion Alex draws from his research reflects the culmination of my own examination of the scenario. In a nutshell, it’s not a matter of IF something like this will happen, it’s a matter of WHEN, and WHEN it happens, survival will depend on your basic level of preparedness and planning.
I’ve read that you raised your personal level of preparedness AFTER writing TJP. I was a bit shocked by that fact. One of my favorite parts of the book is when we get a first look at the Fletcher’s supplies as we join Alex for an inventory “the Frito supply” for the first time. You describe the Fletcher’s well rounded stockpile in some detail and even lay out a good plan for rotating food stores as if you had been doing it yourself for a long time. I particularly appreciated how you pointed out throughout the book that building a stockpile like the Fletcher’s is something that anyone can do if they make a plan and execute it in a practical way. Was family preparedness and establishing an emergency survival kit a chicken and egg type thing for you as you wrote the book? And, without divulging too much, how much did Alex teach you about being more prepared and what steps have you taken in your personal life to be better prepared for any future emergency?
Most people are shocked to learn that I never visited a prepper or survivalist website prior to finishing The Jakarta Pandemic. In many ways, I’m glad that I didn’t. I’m a details oriented writer, and despite the fact that the scene you described is exhaustively detailed, I would have driven myself insane trying to get the Fletcher’s “bunker” perfect. I put a considerable amount of thought into the contents of their survival stockpile, starting with the basics: Food, Water, and Medical Supplies…and expanding from there. And I certainly expanded far beyond the basics. Solar panels connected to battery storage, two oil tanks for storing fuel (this is a New England phenomena…most of you have natural gas or propane), wood burning stove (which I don’t think they ever used), generator, antibiotics (unethically obtained through Alex’s employer) and many other items that might come in handy if the shelves at your local Home Depot and grocery store emptied overnight. Imagine going cold turkey off Fritos…devastating. :0)
So to answer your question, I created this incredible stockpile or “bunker” in my novel, and didn’t have so much as three extra cans of vegetables in my own house to back up one of the main themes in my book. A few months after publishing the novel, I took Alex Fletcher’s advice and started to slowly build up a reserve of food and supplies, one shopping trip at a time. It’s truly amazing what you can amass in two years, when you take a systematic, consistent approach to stockpiling supplies. Does my basement now resemble Alex’s? Not even close, but I feel confident that my family could ride out a major disaster, without resorting to desperate measures. Of course, the same question always remains, regardless of how much you prepare…what is your neighbor doing to avoid resorting to desperate measures, and what is your plan to deal their desperation. This becomes a pinnacle issue for Alex, and his plan is woefully lacking in this author’s opinion…on purpose.
Most folks living a preparedness lifestyle understand that planning is paramount to the success of any emergency plan. This usually means having a plan to ride out an emergency situation at home, also known as sheltering in place or bugging in, and also having a plan to evacuate if the situation dictates, commonly referred to as bugging out. If the plan is to shelter in place, neighbors can become a real problem like we see in TJP. We don’t want to give the story away, but what are your thoughts on working with neighbors or building a survival team, given that the necessities of dealing with a pandemic primarily call for isolation? Makeshift alliances develop in TJP, but should Alex have developed relationships and built his team within the neighborhood well ahead of the pandemic since he viewed it as such a real threat?
This is hard to say. Unfortunately for Alex, his plan from the start was isolation, but he quickly learned that this wasn’t going to be a viable option. Without recognizing the need for a diplomacy based “crowd control” plan prior to the arrival of the pandemic virus, he really shortchanged himself and put his family in danger. With that said, none of us want to view our neighborhood as an episode of Survivor, where shifting alliances and secret plots undermine the ease of living and sense of relaxation we come to expect when we pull into the driveway. Alex had some core friends in the neighborhood, which came in handy as the conflict escalated, and he found a few surprise allies along the way. If anything, Alex could have been more open to dispelling a few stereotypes that hindered him in the beginning. I don’t write big moral lessons into my novels, but Alex’s character gave me the opportunity to point out a few negative behaviors that most of us can find in ourselves from time to time.
I believe I have read that your favorite scene in TJP is the neighborhood meeting. The part of this gathering that stood out to me was, with the exception of a small few, the neighbor’s almost outright denial that anything really bad or prolonged could ever actually happen. Their cognitive dissonance would not let them believe that the grid could go down or that there would be more than a short term disruption in food deliveries, even with a viable threat staring them in the face. What are your thoughts on this phenomena and just how prevalent it is within American society today?
Don’t get me started, Randy. Just take one look around and you can start to see the extent of the problem. We’ve become a society of instant information…everyone connected to smartphones, tablets, computers, blogs, websites…all downloading the latest opinions, news, and “facts” in real time. Few people put any discernable time into researching topics, simply accepting the latest New York Times or Wall Street Journal article as gospel, whichever suits their purpose. Conservative? Fox News will steer you in the right direction. Liberal? MSNBC never gets it wrong. We’ve polarized ourselves to think along the lines of convenience and convention, staying well within our comfort zones and dismissing information that doesn’t conform. This is not a new phenomena, but I think it’s compounded in our society today. I’m just as guilty as anyone (I use all of these newfangled technologies), but I’ve set some ground rules for myself, and the first rule is to dig deeper. I can find ten articles that say the next pandemic will be manageable, all of them one page summaries of the latest CDC or WHO assessment, but I’m far more interested in the twenty page, multi-source researched essay explaining the why the CDC and WHO pandemic models are based on unlikely scenarios and how they vastly underestimate the impact of the next deadly pandemic.
Complexity is a trademark of the characters in your works. To pay homage to that fact, I would like to look into what I call “the dichotomy of Kate”. Alex’s wife Kate doesn’t seem to like guns or Alex “playing commando”, but on the other hand she seems to constantly want him to shoot any threat to the family dead first and ask questions later. I know you have stated in the past that looking back on it, you can now see the need for characters like Kate’s to be rounded out a little more in TJP, so I would like to ask you to take all the space you need to help us understand where she’s coming from.
Like any woman, she’s complex and I can’t explain what she does or says with any regularity. Sound familiar? Just kidding, sort of. Kate’s gun dichotomy represents what I consider to be a prevalent attitude in society, which can be expanded far beyond guns. She’s not a big fan of firearms, but this isn’t a moral stand or some kind of a political statement. In my mind, it was more related to a general apathy toward firearms, which we see everywhere in society, even within firearms friendly families (I just made that term up by the way-FFF). It’s easier to lock them up and hide them, than it is to teach responsible firearms safety and respect. With young children in the house, Kate chose the easy path, instead of embracing the fact that firearms were intrinsically linked to her husband’s past and would always be a part of their life together. Of course, when her family was threatened, she was one of the first to encourage her husband to put them to use. Here is the dichotomy I was trying to expose in our society. In general, we don’t want to deal with the hassle and responsibility of guns (substitute “guns” for any number of other words), but when the SHTF, we have a sudden need for them. Rarely does this sudden need come with responsible or tempered use. I liked Kate’s character overall, and wished I could have explained her thought process more fully, but I had chosen to stick to a first person, single point of view for the story (Alex’s), and this made it extremely difficult round out any of the characters beyond Alex. The sequel to The Jakarta Pandemic will be written from multiple points of view, similar to my Black Flagged series, giving the reader a much deeper understanding of the key characters.
In Chapter 16, Alex and Kate have a discussion about what could happen if a sick friend or family member came to them looking for help. They also discussed the decisions they (the Fletchers) had made that would lead to such a dilemma. Those same decisions run counter to the original Fletcher survival plan and there is a real possibility that their real fears could become reality of their own making. This speaks directly to a couple of our main teaching points: 1) Craft a survival plan for your situation 2) OPSEC (operational security) cannot be overstated. In my mind, this powerful conversation could be a story by itself or at least a complete chapter. Although you make the point pretty well in the book, I was hoping you might expand your thoughts on never-ending web of problems that could arise in a scenario like the Fletchers explore in their conversation.
I chickened out writing TJP. I’ll admit this here for the first time. I had set the stage for a possible visit from any of several family members within striking distance, with the full intention of putting the Fletchers in the position of having to either refuse to take in a sick relative or subject them to quarantine procedures. This is a difficult topic for most of us to comprehend, and I decided to steer clear of it ultimately, leaving the discussion to stand on its own merits. I couldn’t imagine writing a scene turning “Grandpa” away because he was running a fever and coughing and the response I’d get from readers. The book is controversial enough, and I felt that I accomplished the goal of raising awareness by introducing the concept as an important part of a any survival plan, especially in the face of a contagious virus.
As for Operational Security? I’d say the Fletchers failed miserably, letting too many people know that they were stocked up and prepared. He may not have walked around with a banner announcing it, but the neighbors quickly put it together and he made matters worse by disclosing certain information and offering to share some very critical and hard to find supplies. In a limited disaster scenario like an earthquake, hurricane or tidal wave, this wouldn’t be such a problem, but Alex knew for a fact from his own research that a massive pandemic was different. The effects of deadly flu virus had the potential to crash the “system,” forcing the neighborhood to endure severe food shortages and limited access to essential services.
Given Alex’s military background and the fact that the Fletchers had been planning for a disaster like the Jakarta Pandemic for years, I was surprised that they had not ran a “practice weekend” disaster scenario to work out the kinks before actually having to implement their survival plan. Did I just miss that in the book because it was not specifically mentioned or is that something that was purposely omitted from the story line for impact?
You didn’t miss anything. Frankly, I didn’t think about it. If I had, I would likely have modeled my own family for the Fletcher’s “drill weekend,” and had it perpetually postponed. I have two emergency escape ladders on my second floor that have not been opened. I bought them with the full intention of running a drill out of one of the first floor windows, just so my kids could figure out how to attach them to the windowsill. We’ve been too busy. We’ve watched over two thousand hours of TV as a family since acquiring the ladders, but can’t find thirty minutes for a drill that could save lives. We always talk about a home invasion plan…how to react as a family, but we’ve never gone through the motions. You make a great point, Randy, and I think this could have been another opportunity to highlight an important aspect to any preparedness plan.
Let’s turn our focus to real world current events for a moment. The Jakarta Pandemic is set in 2013 and oddly enough, the world has already seen a couple of rather scary viral outbreaks this year with the novel coronavirus in the middle east that has shown an alarming death rate among those infected and the H7N9 avian flu that is currently spreading across, you guessed it, China. It seems you may have been onto something when you wrote TJP by setting it to take place in 2013! What are your thoughts on these ongoing situations and what should we be looking for as these stories develop?
I may be the only person on earth hoping that this avian flu thing takes off…book sales will be off the charts! Just kidding, sort of, until I get my basement squared away. As you can imagine, I like to track this kind of stuff, but I’d be lying if I told your readers that I predicted 2013 for the next deadly pandemic. Unfortunately, we don’t have the organization that I created for The Jakarta Pandemic to warn us when a pandemic is imminent. The International Scientific Pandemic Awareness Collaborative (ISPAC) was an entirely fictional entity, based on the needs identified by my research. Namely, an independent, nonpolitical agency focused on the early detection of potential pandemic threats and the relevant public education needed to prepare individuals and civil groups. Readers can set Google alerts or other news alerts to receive articles related to pandemic events or topics, using key phrases or words. You can also frequently review our own nation’s CDC website and navigate toward the bottom left corner to “OUTBREAKS.” I check this section every week or two to see what’s new in the world of infectious diseases. The WHO website (home page) contains a link at the top right, “Disease Outbreak News,” which accomplishes the same goal, but leads to a wide variety of articles and disease topics which can expand your knowledge of pandemic viruses. If you find a link to an emerging disease on one of these sites, you can add the name of the disease to your list of news alert subscriptions. By keeping a loose eye on these sites and your alerts, you’ll be in a strong position to detect an emerging threat before it “hits the news.” I don’t go crazy with this stuff, but if something catches my eye, I like to get the news first.
Like our name suggests, we believe in those things that provide the practical, tactical solutions for the everyday emergencies that can impact any of us like a bolt from the blue. TJP provides us with a practical outline for how to tackle the threat of a flu pandemic, but I was wondering if you had any other advice or information that you would like to leave our readers with before we go?
Practical is the key. Alex Fletcher’s set up in TJP was not a practical solution for most families. I did the math at one point and calculated that the cost of their home modifications and supplies ran well into the six-figure range. The supplies can be accrued slowly over time, but the big-ticket items will not be practical or reasonable for 99% of people. You can drive by my house and you won’t see solar panels on my roof. I spent that money on a sailboat so I can enjoy the Maine summers on Casco Bay. Priorities. My key advice is to develop and execute a basic plan for building a modest stockpile of food, medical supplies and water. Get your security situation in order and start expanding your preparedness knowledge. The rest will follow. There is no “one size” fits all solution to preparedness, because our needs vary, however, the themes are the same, and Randy’s blog is a great place to start. His focus on combining PRACTICAL advice with a TACTICAL outlook defines the survival mindset.
So, you’ve mentioned a sequel to TJP a couple of times during this interview and that is certainly welcome and exciting news for fans of the work like us. Is there anything you can tell us about what lies ahead for the Fletchers?
I’m looking at a sequel, but not in the traditional sense. The story will take place several years after the first and present the Fletchers with a unique set of challenges. TJP focused on the human challenges (even if you are uber-stockpiled) of hunkering down “in place.” For the sequel, I have created a unique set of circumstances that will force the Fletchers and likely send them in two different directions. Alex Fletcher has learned a lot during the five or six years since The Jakarta Pandemic, but what I have in store for the Fletchers will force him to improvise nearly every skill he has developed, and once again band together with friends. This will not be your typical “bug out” story, though some of the key aspects of “bugging out” will be explored and expanded…really expanded. In order to avoid treading well-worn ground in this genre, I plan to leverage the techno-thriller writing style/skills of my Black Flagged series with an apocalyptic event. The scenario I have in mind will leave the story open to a series. The initiating disaster scenario will be what I like to call a “realistic stretch,” but it sets the stage for a wild ride.
At Practical Tactical we’ve adopted the slogan, Semper Paratus. We are proponents of firearm ownership and believe in having the ability to exercise the “force option” if necessary. We are absolutely of the opinion that a well thought out and rigorously trained defense strategy be a part of any emergency plan. With that said, we also believe that you must be willing to take on the necessary level of responsibility that accompanies which ever method of self-defense you choose to employ. While we offer Barney-basic firearms training through Practical Tactical, we understand that may not be the choice for everyone and we absolutely respect that position. Each person or family must come to terms with what level of self-defense is appropriate for themselves and their situation. We only suggest that whatever method of defense is chosen, it must include the appropriate exposure and training to be effectively deployed when/if the time comes to use it. Do you have any thoughts on this topic, Steve?
This is sage advice, especially talking about what each person or family finds “appropriate for themselves and their situation,” followed by a commitment to effectively deploying the method. In terms of home defense, a good house alarm or dog would better serve some families than a firearm, especially if they are unwilling to regularly practice with the firearm. “One size fits all” does not apply to self-defense or preparedness.
I’m just as comfortable walking up to a firearms counter and handling weapons as I am picking out a loaf of bread for dinner. Actually, the bread gives me more stress, because everyone in my house likes different types of bread and I can never win. :0) Have you ever handed a “safed” firearm (slide back, chamber examined by both parties) to someone unfamiliar with firearms? They hold it like you just handed them your soiled underwear. You (Randy) have shared Practical Tactical’s approach to beginners, and it is all about demystifying and developing comfort with a method (in this case firearms). This applies across the board to every aspect of a solid, executable preparedness/survival plan.
One of the biggest criticisms (in reviews and emails) of TJP and Alex Fletcher’s character, is that he didn’t simply shoot first and ask questions in a pivotal scene. This decision clearly leads to a cascade of problems that not only affect Alex’s family, but the entire neighborhood. I’m being as vague as possible so I don’t spoil the story for potential readers. Everyone will know when this scene takes place, and most of you will be screaming at Alex…especially in light of what you know is coming later. Some reviewers have decried Alex’s behavior as “non-Marine,” and others claiming that his hesitancy to kill was out of character with his background. While his decision only delayed the inevitable lethal confrontation with these clearly “bad intentioned” people, it served a greater purpose, which I didn’t make immediately clear in the book…for a reason.
In my view, the most critical aspect of a preparedness/self-defense plan is never losing sight of the big picture and the ultimate goal. I love the controversy surrounding this scene, because it really drives this point home. Emotionally, even I wanted Alex to open fire on the crazies that had descended on his neighborhood. He knew they were bad news across the board. Was shooting them in the middle of the street really an option, like his wife and neighbor suggested? Sure. It would have immediately neutralized a likely threat to their safety, but what next? The police were still responding to calls (barely) and Alex had been questioned by the police for another incident involving firearms. Three men dead in the middle of the street. They hadn’t overtly threatened him or tried to break into his house. Clearly, they were up to no good, but how would the police react? Maybe the police would turn a blind eye, but what if they didn’t? Alex incarcerated during a deadly pandemic, leaving Kate to fend off the next group of lunatics that decide to prey on the neighborhood OR angry neighbors that know they are well stocked with food and supplies? House searched and all firearms confiscated, leaving Kate with nothing but kitchen knives for self-defense. This was one of the toughest decisions Alex had to make, but it wasn’t due to a lack of conviction or guts. His character served as a company commander in Iraq, where rules of engagement defined the big picture. I felt that his reaction to the situation was the best survival decision for his family, even if it did put off the inevitable.
Well at the end of the day, I believe that making “the best survival decision” for our families is all any of us can hope to do, Steve. Friends, I highly recommend The Jakarta Pandemic for anyone in the preparedness community looking for an exciting read that also provides some common sense steps anyone can take to be better prepared for an emergency. So pick a copy up soon, download the audio book from your favorite provider to listen to during a long commute or follow my lead and do both! I’m confident you will find it a fun, interesting and useful read. Steve, where else can our readers find you and your other works?
I’m pretty accessible, and unlike Stephen King, I still answer reader emails. Of course, I’m about 400 million readers away from matching Mr. King’s level of “busy,” so I can still take the time to respond and enjoy the best part of writing…interacting with readers. You can email me at email@example.com and if I’m not in the throes of writing my latest work in progress, you’ll probably hear back from me the same day. I’d love to invite everyone to visit my blog, www.stevenkonkoly.com, where you can go behind the scenes of my writing, catch some book reviews (apocalyptic, thriller, horror and some sci-fi), enjoy some humor and get updates about my work in progress or future projects. There’s something for everyone.
Sounds great, Steve. I would like to thank you for taking the time to discuss The Jakarta Pandemic in depth with us! It has certainly been a pleasure.
Finally, I want to encourage everyone to join in and keep the conversation going by asking your own questions of Steve (or me) in the comment section below and by sharing this talk on Facebook and Twitter (or your preferred social media platform) with everyone you know. The more people we can reach and hopefully help along their journey towards personal preparedness the better off we’ll all be in the long run.
A wonderful visualization of our energy situation. #SemperParatus
Those facts, they are stubborn things. I wanted to republish this powerfully enlightening information that Professor Emeritus of Physics Al Bartlett has shared over 1600 times since 1969. I wanted to share this information because even though it has been “out there” for longer than I’ve been alive, I had never heard of Professor Bartlett or his talk on sustainability. The frightening part of that fact is that I never would have seen this application of the information if I had not been purposefully doing research and searching for it. This information was eye opening for me to say the least and that is saying something since I would like to think that my eyes have been wide open to such information for several years now. Professor Bartlett’s words have had a tremendous impact on my points of view over the last few months and I believe they will thunder through the coming years and generations as the inevitable reality he speaks of becomes our future history.
The work reproduced below is the copyright of Al Bartlett and we only share it in an effort to help spread the vital information contained within it.
Arithmetic, Population and Energy – a talk by Al Bartlett
It’s a great pleasure to be here, and to have a chance just to share with you some very simple ideas about the problems we’re facing. Some of these problems are local, some are national, some are global.
They’re all tied together. They’re tied together by arithmetic, and the arithmetic isn’t very difficult. What I hope to do is, I hope to be able to convince you that the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.
Well, you say, what’s the exponential function?
This is a mathematical function that you’d write down if you’re going to describe the size of anything that was growing steadily. If you had something growing 5% per year, you’d write the exponential function to show how large that growing quantity was, year after year. And so we’re talking about a situation where the time that’s required for the growing quantity to increase by a fixed fraction is a constant: 5% per year, the 5% is a fixed fraction, the “per year” is a fixed length of time. So that’s what we want to talk about: its just ordinary steady growth.
Well, if it takes a fixed length of time to grow 5%, it follows it takes a longer fixed length of time to grow 100%. That longer time’s called the doubling time and we need to know how you calculate the doubling time. It’s easy.
You just take the number 70, divide it by the percent growth per unit time and that gives you the doubling time. So our example of 5% per year, you divide the 5 into 70, you find that growing quantity will double in size every 14 years.
Well, you might ask, where did the 70 come from? The answer is that it’s approximately 100 multiplied by the natural logarithm of two. If you wanted the time to triple, you’d use the natural logarithm of three. So it’s all very logical. But you don’t have to remember where it came from, just remember 70.
I wish we could get every person to make this mental calculation every time we see a percent growth rate of anything in a news story. For example, if you saw a story that said things had been growing 7% per year for several recent years, you wouldn’t bat an eyelash. But when you see a headline that says crime has doubled in a decade, you say “My heavens, what’s happening?”
OK, what is happening? 7% growth per year: divide the seven into 70, the doubling time is ten years. But notice, if you want to write a headline to get people’s attention, you’d never write “Crime Growing 7% Per Year,” nobody would know what it means. Now, do you know what 7% means?
Let’s take an example, another example from Colorado. The cost of an all-day lift ticket to ski at Vail has been growing about 7% per year ever since Vail first opened in 1963. At that time you paid $5 for an all-day lift ticket. What’s the doubling time for 7% growth? Ten years. So what was the cost ten years later in 1973? (showing slides of rapidly increasing prices) Ten years later in 1983? Ten years later in 1993? What was it last year in 2003, and what do we have to look forward to? (shows “2003: $80; 2013: $160; 2023: $320; audience laughter)
This is what 7% means. Most people don’t have a clue. And how is Vail doing? They’re pretty much on schedule.
So let’s look at a generic graph of something that’s growing steadily. After one doubling time, the growing quantity is up to twice its initial size. Two doubling times, it’s up to four times its initial size. Then it goes to 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, in ten doubling times it’s a thousand times larger than when it started. You can see if you try to make a graph of that on ordinary graph paper, the graph’s gonna go right through the ceiling.
Now let me give you an example to show the enormous numbers you can get with just a modest number of doublings.
Legend has it that the game of chess was invented by a mathematician who worked for a king. The king was very pleased. He said, “I want to reward you.” The mathematician said “My needs are modest. Please take my new chess board and on the first square, place one grain of wheat. On the next square, double the one to make two. On the next square, double the two to make four. Just keep doubling till you’ve doubled for every square, that will be an adequate payment.” We can guess the king thought, “This foolish man. I was ready to give him a real reward; all he asked for was just a few grains of wheat.”
But let’s see what is involved in this. We know there are eight grains on the fourth square. I can get this number, eight, by multiplying three twos together. It’s 2x2x2, it’s one 2 less than the number of the square. Now that continues in each case. So on the last square, I’d find the number of grains by multiplying 63 twos together.
Now let’s look at the way the totals build up. When we add one grain on the first square, the total on the board is one. We add two grains, that makes a total of three. We put on four grains, now the total is seven. Seven is a grain less than eight, it’s a grain less than three twos multiplied together. Fifteen is a grain less than four twos multiplied together. That continues in each case, so when we’re done, the total number of grains will be one grain less than the number I get multiplying 64 twos together. My question is, how much wheat is that?
You know, would that be a nice pile here in the room? Would it fill the building? Would it cover the county to a depth of two meters? How much wheat are we talking about?
The answer is, it’s roughly 400 times the 1990 worldwide harvest of wheat. That could be more wheat than humans have harvested in the entire history of the earth. You say, “How did you get such a big number?” and the answer is, it was simple. We just started with one grain, but we let the number grow steadily till it had doubled a mere 63 times.
Now there’s something else that’s very important: the growth in any doubling time is greater than the total of all the preceding growth. For example, when I put eight grains on the 4th square, the eight is larger than the total of seven that were already there. I put 32 grains on the 6th square. The 32 is larger than the total of 31 that were already there. Every time the growing quantity doubles, it takes more than all you’d used in all the proceeding growth.
Well, let’s translate that into the energy crisis. Here’s an ad from the year 1975. It asks the question “Could America run out of electricity?” America depends on electricity. Our need for electricity actually doubles every 10 or 12 years. That’s an accurate reflection of a very long history of steady growth of the electric industry in this country, growth at a rate of around 7% per year, which gives you doubling every 10 years.
Now, with all that history of growth, they just expected the growth would go on, forever. Fortunately it stopped, not because anyone understood arithmetic, it stopped for other reasons. Well, let’s ask “What if?” Suppose the growth had continued? Then we would see here the thing we just saw with the chess board. In the ten years following the appearance of this ad, in that decade, the amount of electrical energy we would have consumed in this country would have been greater than the total of all of the electrical energy we had ever consumed in the entire proceeding history of the steady growth of that industry in this country.
Now, did you realise that anything as completely acceptable as 7% growth per year could give such an incredible consequence? That in just ten years you’d use more than the total of all that had been used in all the proceeding growth?
Well, that’s exactly what President Carter was referring to in his speech on energy. One of his statements was this: he said, “In each of those decades (1950s and 1960s) more oil was consumed than in all of mankind’s previous history.” By itself that’s a stunning statement.
Now you can understand it. The president was telling us the simple consequence of the arithmetic of 7% growth each year in world oil consumption, and that was the historic figure up until the 1970s.
There’s another beautiful consequence of this arithmetic. If you take 70 years as a period of time—and note that that’s roughly one human lifetime—then any percent growth continued steadily for 70 years gives you an overall increase by a factor that’s very easy to calculate. For example, 4% per year for 70 years, you find the factor by multiplying four twos together, it’s a factor of 16.
A few years ago, one of the newspapers of my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, quizzed the nine members of the Boulder City Council and asked them, “What rate of growth of Boulder’s population do you think it would be good to have in the coming years?” Well, the nine members of the Boulder City council gave answers ranging from a low of 1% per year. Now, that happens to match the present rate of growth of the population of the United States. We are not at zero population growth. Right now, the number of Americans increases every year by over three million people. No member of the council said Boulder should grow less rapidly than the United States is growing.
Now, the highest answer any council member gave was 5% per year. You know, I felt compelled, I had to write him a letter and say, “Did you know that 5% per year for just 70 … ” I can remember when 70 years used to seem like an awful long time, it just doesn’t seem so long now. (audience laughter). Well, that means Boulder’s population would increase by a factor of 32. That is, where today we have one overloaded sewer treatment plant, in 70 years, we’d need 32 overloaded sewer treatment plants.
Now did you realise that anything as completely all-American as 5% growth per year could give such an incredible consequence in such a modest period of time? Our city council people have zero understanding of this very simple arithmetic.
Well, a few years ago, I had a class of non-science students. We were interested in problems of science and society. We spent a lot of time learning to use semi-logarithmic graph paper. It’s printed in such a way that these equal intervals on the vertical scale each represent an increase by a factor of 10. So you go from one thousand to ten thousand to a hundred thousand, and the reason you use this special paper is that on this paper, a straight line represents steady growth.
Now, we worked a lot of examples. I said to the students, “Let’s talk about inflation, let’s talk about 7% per year.” It wasn’t this high when we did this, it’s been higher since then, fortunately it’s lower now. And I said to the students, as I can say to you, you have roughly sixty years life expectancy ahead of you. Let’s see what some common things will cost if we have 60 years of 7% annual inflation.
The students found that a 55-cent gallon of gasoline will cost $35.20; $2.50 for a movie will be $160; the $15 sack of groceries my mother used to buy for a dollar and a quarter, that will be $960; a $100 suit of clothes, $6,400; a $4000 automobile will cost a quarter of a million dollars; and a $45,000 home will cost nearly 3 million dollars.
Well, I gave the students these data (shows overhead). These came from a Blue Cross, Blue Shield ad. The ad appeared in Newsweek magazine and the ad gave these figures to show the cost escalation of gall bladder surgery in the years since 1950, when that surgery cost $361. I said, “Make a semi logarithmic plot, let’s see what’s happening.” The students found that the first four points lined up on a straight line whose slope indicated inflation of about 6% per year, but the fourth, fifth, and sixth were on a steeper line, almost 10% inflation per year. Well, then I said to the students, “Run that steeper line on out to the year 2000, let’s get an idea of what gall bladder surgery might cost,” and this was, 2000 was four years ago—the answer is $25,000. The lesson there is awfully clear: if you’re thinking about gall bladder surgery, do it now. (audience laughter)
In the summer of 1986, the news reports indicated that the world population had reached the number of five billion people growing at the rate of 1.7% per year. Well, your reaction to 1.7% might be to say “Well, that’s so small, nothing bad could ever happen at 1.7% per year.” So you calculate the doubling time, you find it’s only 41 years. Now, that was back in 1986; more recently in 1999, we read that the world population had grown from five billion to six billion . The good news is that the growth rate had dropped from 1.7% to 1.3% per year. The bad news is that in spite of the drop in the growth rate, the world population today is increasing by about 75 million additional people every year.
Now, if this current modest 1.3% per year could continue, the world population would grow to a density of one person per square meter on the dry land surface of the earth in just 780 years, and the mass of people would equal the mass of the earth in just 2400 years. Well, we can smile at those, we know they couldn’t happen. This one make for a cute cartoon; the caption says, “Excuse me sir, but I am prepared to make you a rather attractive offer for your square.”
There’s a very profound lesson in that cartoon. The lesson is that zero population growth is going to happen. Now, we can debate whether we like zero population growth or don’t like it, it’s going to happen. Whether we debate it or not, whether we like it or not, it’s absolutely certain. People could never live at that density on the dry land surface of the earth. Therefore, today’s high birth rates will drop; today’s low death rates will rise till they have exactly the same numerical value. That will certainly be in a time short compared to 780 years. So maybe you’re wondering then, what options are available if we wanted to address the problem.
In the left hand column, I’ve listed some of those things that we should encourage if we want to raise the rate of growth of population and in so doing, make the problem worse. Just look at the list. Everything in the list is as sacred as motherhood. There’s immigration, medicine, public health, sanitation. These are all devoted to the humane goals of lowering the death rate and that’s very important to me, if it’s my death they’re lowering. But then I’ve got to realise that anything that just lowers the death rate makes the population problem worse.
There’s peace, law and order; scientific agriculture has lowered the death rate due to famine—that just makes the population problem worse. It’s widely reported that the 55 mph speed limit saved thousands of lives—that just makes the population problem worse. Clean air makes it worse.
Now, in this column are some of the things we should encourage if we want to lower the rate of growth of population and in so doing, help solve the population problem. Well, there’s abstention, contraception, abortion, small families, stop immigration, disease, war, murder, famine, accidents. Now, smoking clearly raises the death rate; well, that helps solve the problem.
Remember our conclusion from the cartoon of one person per square meter; we concluded that zero population growth is going to happen. Let’s state that conclusion in other terms and say it’s obvious nature is going to choose from the right hand list and we don’t have to do anything—except be prepared to live with whatever nature chooses from that right hand list. Or we can exercise the one option that’s open to us, and that option is to choose first from the right hand list. We gotta find something here we can go out and campaign for. Anyone here for promoting disease? (audience laughter)
We now have the capability of incredible war; would you like more murder, more famine, more accidents? Well, here we can see the human dilemma—everything we regard as good makes the population problem worse, everything we regard as bad helps solve the problem. There is a dilemma if ever there was one.
The one remaining question is education: does it go in the left hand column or the right hand column? I’d have to say thus far in this country it’s been in the left hand column—it’s done very little to reduce ignorance of the problem.
So where do we start? Well, let’s start in Boulder, Colorado. Here’s my home town. There’s the 1950 census figure, 1960, 1970—in that period of twenty years, the average growth rate of Boulder’s population was 6% per year. With big efforts, we’ve been able to slow the growth somewhat. There’s the 2000 census figure. I’d like to ask people: let’s start with that 2000 figure, go another 70 years—one human life time—and ask: what rate of growth would we need in Boulder’s population in the next 70 years so that at the end of 70 years, the population of Boulder would equal today’s population of your choice of major American cities?
Boulder in 70 years could be as big as Boston is today if we just grew 2.58% per year. Now, if we thought Detroit was a better model, we’ll have to shoot for 31?4% per year. Remember the historic figure on the preceding slide, 6% per year? If that could continue for one lifetime, the population of Boulder would be larger than the population of Los Angeles. Well, I’ll just tell you, you couldn’t put the population of Los Angles in the Boulder valley. Therefore it’s obvious, Boulder’s population growth is going to stop and the only question is, will we be able to stop it while there is still some open space, or will we wait until it’s wall-to-wall people and we’re all choking to death?
Now, every once in a while somebody says to me, “But you know, a bigger city might be a better city,” and I have to say, “Wait a minute, we’ve done that experiment!” We don’t need to wonder what will be the effect of growth on Boulder because Boulder tomorrow can be seen in Los Angeles today. And for the price of an airplane ticket, we can step 70 years into the future and see exactly what it’s like. What is it like? There’s an interesting headline from Los Angeles. (“…carcinogens in air…”) Maybe that has something to do with this headline from Los Angeles. (“Smog kills 1,600 annually…”)
So how are we doing in Colorado? Well, we’re the growth capital of the USA and proud of it. The Rocky Mountain News tells us to expect another million people in the Front Range in the next 20 years, and what are the consequences of all this? (“Denver’s traffic…3rd worst in US…”) These are totally predictable, there are no surprises here, we know exactly what happens when you crowd more people into an area.
Well, as you can imagine, growth control is very controversial, and I treasure the letter from which these quotations are taken. Now, this letter was written to me by a leading citizen of our community. He’s a leading proponent of “controlled growth.” “Controlled growth” just means “growth.” This man writes, “I take no exception to your arguments regarding exponential growth.” “I don’t believe the exponential argument is valid at the local level.”
So you see, arithmetic doesn’t hold in Boulder. (audience laughs) I have to admit, that man has a degree from the University of Colorado. It’s not a degree in mathematics, in science, or in engineering. All right, let’s look now at what happens when we have this kind of steady growth in a finite environment.
Bacteria grow by doubling. One bacterium divides to become two, the two divide to become 4, the 4 become 8, 16 and so on. Suppose we had bacteria that doubled in number this way every minute. Suppose we put one of these bacteria into an empty bottle at 11:00 in the morning, and then observe that the bottle is full at 12:00 noon. There’s our case of just ordinary steady growth: it has a doubling time of one minute, it’s in the finite environment of one bottle.
I want to ask you three questions. Number one: at what time was the bottle half full? Well, would you believe 11:59, one minute before 12:00? Because they double in number every minute.
And the second question: if you were an average bacterium in that bottle, at what time would you first realise you were running of space? Well, let’s just look at the last minutes in the bottle. At 12:00 noon, it’s full; one minute before, it’s half full; 2 minutes before, it’s a quarter full; then an 1?8th; then a 1?16th. Let me ask you, at 5 minutes before 12:00, when the bottle is only 3% full and is 97% open space just yearning for development, how many of you would realise there’s a problem?
Now, in the ongoing controversy over growth in Boulder, someone wrote to the newspaper some years ago and said “Look, there’s no problem with population growth in Boulder, because,” the writer said, “we have fifteen times as much open space as we’ve already used.” So let me ask you, what time was it in Boulder when the open space was fifteen times the amount of space we’d already used? The answer is, it was four minutes before 12:00 in Boulder Valley. Well, suppose that at 2 minutes before 12:00, some of the bacteria realise they’re running out of space, so they launch a great search for new bottles. They search offshore on the outer continental shelf and in the overthrust belt and in the Arctic, and they find three new bottles. Now that’s an incredible discovery, that’s three times the total amount of resource they ever knew about before. They now have four bottles, before their discovery, there was only one. Now surely this will give them a sustainable society, won’t it?
You know what the third question is: how long can the growth continue as a result of this magnificent discovery? Well, look at the score: at 12:00 noon, one bottle is filled, there are three to go; 12:01, two bottles are filled, there are two to go; and at 12:02, all four are filled and that’s the end of the line.
Now, you don’t need any more arithmetic than this to evaluate the absolutely contradictory statements that we’ve all heard and read from experts who tell us in one breath we can go on increasing our rates of consumption of fossil fuels, in the next breath they say “Don’t worry, we will always be able to make the discoveries of new resources that we need to meet the requirements of that growth.”
Well, a few years ago in Washington, our energy secretary observed that in the energy crisis, “we have a classic case of exponential growth against a finite source.” So let’s look now at some of these finite sources. We turn to the work of the late Dr. M. King Hubbert. He’s plotted here a semi-logarithmic graph of world oil production. You can see the lines have been approximately straight for about 100 years, clear up here to 1970, average growth rate very close to 7% per year. So it’s logical to ask, well, how much longer could that 7% growth continue? That’s answered by the numbers in this table (shows slide). The numbers in the top line tell us that in the year 1973, world oil production was 20 billion barrels; the total production in all of history, 300 billion; the remaining reserves, 1700 billion.
Now, those are data. The rest of this table is just calculated out assuming the historic 7% growth continued in the years following 1973 exactly as it had been for the proceeding 100 years.
Now, in fact the growth stopped; it stopped because OPEC raised their oil prices. So we’re asking here, what if? Suppose we just decided to stay on that 7% growth curve? Let’s go back to 1981. By 1981 on the 7% curve, the total usage in all of history would add up to 500 billion barrels; the remaining reserves, 1500 billion. At that point, the remaining reserves are three times the total of everything we’d used in all of history. That’s an enormous reserve, but what time is it when the remaining reserve is three times the total of all you’ve used in all of history? The answer is, it’s two minutes before 12:00.
We know for 7% growth, the doubling time is 10 years. We go from 1981 to 1991. By 1991 on the 7% curve, the total usage in all of history would add up to 1000 billion barrels; there would be 1000 billion left. At that point, the remaining oil would be equal in quantity to the total of everything we’d used in the entire history of the oil industry on this earth, 130 years of oil consumption. You’d say, “That’s an enormous reserve.” But what time is it when the remaining reserve is equal to all you’ve used in all of history? And the answer is, it’s one minute before 12:00. So we go one more decade to the turn of the century—that’s like right now—that’s when 7% would finish using up the oil reserves of the earth.
So let’s look at this in a very nice graphical way. Suppose the area of this tiny rectangle represents all the oil we used on this earth before 1940; then in the decade of the 40s, we used this much (uncovering part of chart): that’s equal to all that had been used in all of history. In the decade of the 50s, we used this much (uncovering more of chart) : that’s equal to all that had been used in all of history. In the decade of the 60s, we used this much (uncovering more of chart): again that’s equal to the total of all the proceeding usage. Here we see graphically what President Carter told us. Now, if that 7% growth had continued through the 70s. 80s, and 90s, there’s what we’d need (uncovering rest of chart) . But that’s all the oil there is.
Now, there’s a widely held belief that if you throw enough money at holes in the ground, oil is sure to come up. Well, there will be discoveries in new oil; there may be major discoveries. But look: we would have to discover this much new oil if we would have that 7% growth continue ten more years. Ask yourself: what do you think is the chance that oil discovered after the close of our meeting today will be in an amount equal to the total of all we’ve known about in all of history? And then realise if all that new oil could be found, that would be sufficient to let the historic 7% growth continue ten more years.
Well, it’s interesting to see what the experts say. Here’s from an interview in Time magazine, an interview with one of the most widely quoted oil experts in all of Texas. They asked him, “But haven’t many of our bigger fields been drilled nearly dry?” And he responds, saying “There’s still as much oil to be found in the US as has ever been produced.” Now, lets assume he’s right. What time is it? And the answer: one minute before 12:00. I’ve read several things this guy’s written; I don’t think he has any understanding of this very simple arithmetic.
Well, in the energy crisis about thirty years ago, we saw ads such as this (shows slide). This is from the American Electric Power Company. It’s a bit reassuring, sort of saying, now, don’t worry too much, because “we’re sitting on half of the world’s known supply of coal, enough for over 500 years.” Well, where did that “500 year” figure come from? It may have had its origin in this report to the committee on Interior and Insular Affairs of the United States Senate, because in that report we find this sentence: “At current levels of output and recovery, these American coal reserves can be expected to last more than 500 years.”
There is one of the most dangerous statements in the literature. It’s dangerous because it’s true. It isn’t the truth that makes it dangerous, the danger lies in the fact that people take the sentence apart: they just say coal will last 500 years. They forget the caveat with which the sentence started. Now, what were those opening words? “At current levels.” What does that mean? That means if—and only if—we maintain zero growth of coal production.
So let’s look at a few numbers. We go to the Annual Energy Review, published by the Department of Energy. They give this (pointing) as the coal demonstrated reserve base in the United States. It has a footnote that says “about half the demonstrated reserve base… is estimated to be recoverable.” You cannot recover —get out of the ground and use—100% of the coal that’s there. So this number then, is ½of this number (pointing). We’ll come back to those in just a moment. The report also tells us that in 1971, we were mining coal at this rate, twenty years later at this rate (pointing). Put those numbers together, the average growth rate of coal production in that twenty years: 2.86% per year. And so we have to ask, well, how long would a resource last if you have steady growth in the rate of consumption until the last bit of it is used?
I’ll show you the equation here for the expiration time. I’ll tell you it takes first year college calculus to derive that equation, so it can’t be very difficult. You know, I have a feeling there must be dozens of people in this country who’ve had first year college calculus, but let me suggest, I think that equation is probably the best-kept scientific secret of the century!
Now, let me show you why. If you use that equation to calculate the life expectancy of the reserve base, or of the 1?2 they think is recoverable, for different steady rates of growth, you find if the growth rate is zero, the small estimate would go about 240 years and the large one would go close to 500 years. So that report to the Congress was correct. But look what we get if we plug in steady growth. Back in the 1960s, it was our national goal to achieve growth of coal production up around 8% per year. If you could achieve that and continue it, coal would last between 37 and 46 years. President Carter cut that goal roughly in half, hoping to reach 4% per year. If that could continue, coal would last between 59 and 75 years. Here’s that 2.86%, the average for the recent period of twenty years. If that could continue, coal would last between 72 and 94 years. That’s within the life expectancy of children born today.
The only way you are going to get anywhere near this widely quoted 500 year figure, is to be able to do simultaneously two highly improbable things: number one, you’ve got to figure out how to use 100% of the coal that is in the ground; number two, you’ve got to figure out how to have 500 years of zero growth of coal production. Look at those figures: those are facts.
Back in the 1970s, there was great national concern about energy. But these concerns disappeared in the 80s. Now, the concerns about energy in the 70s prompted experts, journalists, and scientists to assure the American people that there was no reason to be concerned. So let’s go back now and look at some of those assurances from the 70s so we can see what to expect now that the energy crisis is returning.
Here is the director of the energy division of the Oakridge National Laboratories telling us how expensive it is to import oil, telling us we must have big increases (and) rapid growth in our use of coal. Under these conditions, he estimates, America’s coal reserves are so huge they can last “a minimum of 300 years, probably a maximum of 1000 years.” You’ve just seen the facts, now you see what an expert tells us, and what can you conclude?
There was a three-hour television special on CBS on energy. The reporter said, “By the lowest estimate, we have enough (coal) for 200 years, by the highest, enough for more than 1000 years.” You’ve just seen the facts, now you can see what a journalist tells us after careful study, and what can you conclude?
In the Journal of Chemical Education, on the page for high school chemistry teachers in an article by the scientific staff of the journal, they tell us our proven coal reserves are “enormous” and they give a figure: “these could satisfy present US energy needs for nearly 1000 years.” Well, let’s do long division. You take the coal they say is there, divide by what was then the current rate of consumption, you get 180 years. Now they didn’t say “current rate of consumption,” they said “present US energy needs.” Coal today supplies about 1?5, about 20% of the energy we use in this country, so if you’d like to calculate how long this quantity of coal could satisfy present US energy needs, you have to multiply this denominator by five. When you do that you get 36 years. They said nearly 1000 years.
Newsweek magazine, in a cover story on energy, said that at present rates of consumption, we have enough coal for 666.5 years—the point 5 means they think it’ll run out in July instead of January. (audience laughter) If you round that off, and say roughly 600 years, that’s close enough to 500 to lie within the uncertainty of our knowledge of the size of the resource. So with that observation, that’s a reasonable statement; but what this lead into was a story about how we have to have major rapid growth in coal consumption. Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? If you have the growth that they’re writing about, it won’t last as long as they said it would last with zero growth. They never mentioned this. I wrote them a long letter, told them I thought it was a serious misrepresentation to give the readers the feeling we can have all this growth that they were writing about and still have coal around for 600 years. I got back a nice form letter; it had nothing to do with what I’d tried to explain to them.
I gave this talk at a high school in Omaha, and after the talk, the high school physics teacher came to me, and he had a booklet. He said, “Have you seen this?” and I hadn’t seen it; he said, “Look at this: ‘We’ve got coal coming out of our ears.’” As reported by Forbes magazine (that’s a prominent business magazine), the United States has 437 billion tons of coal reserves. That’s a good number; this is equivalent to a lot of BTUs or it’s “enough energy to keep 100 million large generating plants going for the next 800 years or so…” And the teacher said to me, “How can that be true? That’s one large electric generating plant for every two people in the United States!” I said, “Of course it can’t be true, it’s absolute nonsense. Let’s do long division to see how crazy it is.” So you take the coal they say is there, divide by what was then the current rate of consumption, you find you couldn’t keep that up for 800 years and we hardly at that time had 500 large electric plants—they said it would be good for a 100 million such plants.
Time magazine tells us that “beneath the pit heads of Appalachia and the Ohio Valley, and under the sprawling strip mines of the west, lie coal seams rich enough to meet the country’s power needs for centuries, no matter how much energy consumption may grow.” So I give you a very fundamental observation: don’t believe any prediction of the life expectancy of a non-renewable resource until you have confirmed the prediction by repeating the calculation. As a corollary, we have to note that the more optimistic the prediction, the greater is the probability that it’s based on faulty arithmetic or on no arithmetic at all.
Again from Time magazine: “Energy industries agree that to achieve some form of energy self- sufficiency, the US must mine all the coal that it can.” Now think about that for just a moment. Let me paraphrase it: the more rapidly we consume our resources, the more self-sufficient we’ll be. Isn’t that what it says?
David Brower called this the policy of “strength through exhaustion.” Here’s an example of strength through exhaustion: here is William Simon, energy advisor to the president of the United States. Simon says, “We should be trying to get as many holes drilled as possible to get the proven oil reserves.” The more rapidly we can get the last of that oil up out of the ground and finish using it, the better off we’ll be.
So let’s look at Dr Hubbert’s graph for the lower 48 states in oil production, again it’s semi-logarithmic. Here we have a straight line section of steady growth, but for quite a while now, production has fallen below the growth curve, while our demand continued on up this growth curve until the 1970s. It’s obvious the difference between the two curves has to be made up with imports. And it was in early 1995 that we read that the year 1994 was the first year in our nation’s history in which we had to import more oil than we were able to get out of our own ground.
Well, maybe you’re wondering, does it make any sense to imagine that we can have steady growth in the rate of consumption of a resource till the last bit of it was used, then the rate of consumption would plunge abruptly to zero? I say no, that doesn’t make sense. Okay, you say, why bother us with the calculation of this expiration time? My answer is this: every segment of our society, our business leaders, government leaders, political leaders, at the local level, state level, national level—every one aspires to maintain a society in which all measures of material consumption continue to grow steadily, year after year after year, world without end.
Since that’s so central to every thing we do, we ought to know where it would lead. On the other hand, we should recognise there’s a better model and again we turn to the work of the late Dr Hubbert. He’s plotted the rate of consumption of resources that have already expired; he finds yes, there is an early period of steady growth in the rate of consumption. But then the rate goes through a maximum and comes back down in a nice symmetric bell-shaped curve. Now, when he did this, some years ago, and fitted it to the oil production in the US, he found at that time we were right there (pointing). We were at the peak; we were halfway through the resource. That’s exactly what that Texas expert said that I quoted a minute ago.
Now, let’s see what it means. It means that from now on, domestic oil production can only go downhill, and it’s downhill all the rest of the way, and it doesn’t matter what they say inside the beltway in Washington DC.
Now, it means we can work hard and put some bumps on the downhill side of the curve; you’ll see there are bumps on the uphill side. The debate is heating up over drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. I’ve seen the estimate that they might find 3.2 billion barrels of oil up there. 3.2 billion is the area of that little tiny square (pointing); that’s less than one year’s consumption in the United States. So let’s look at the curve in this way: the area under the total curve, that represents the total resource in the United States. It’s been divided into three parts: here is the oil we’ve taken from the ground (pointing): we’ve used it, it’s gone. This vertical shaded band, that’s the oil we’ve drilled into: we’ve found it, we’re pumping it today. Shaded in green on the right is the undiscovered oil. We have very good ways now of estimating how much oil remains undiscovered. This is the oil we’ve got to find if we’re going to make it down the curve on schedule.
Now every once in a while somebody says to me, “But you know, a hundred years ago, somebody did a calculation and predicted the US would be out of oil in 25 years.” The calculation must’ve been wrong; therefore, of course, all calculations are wrong. Let’s understand what they did. One hundred years ago, this band of discovered oil was over in here somewhere (points to beginning of curve). All they did was to take the discovered oil, divide it by how rapidly it was being used, and came up with 25 years. They had no idea then how much oil was undiscovered. Well, it’s obvious; you’ve got to make a new calculation every time you make a new discovery. We’re not asking today how long will the discovered oil last, we’re asking about the discovered and the undiscovered—we’re now talking about the rest of the oil. And what does the US Geological Survey tell us?
Back in 1984, they said the estimated US supply from undiscovered resources and demonstrated reserves was 36 years at present rates of production, or 19 years in the absence of imports. Five years later in 1989, that 36 years is down to 32 years, the 19 years is down to 16 years. So the numbers are holding together as we march down the right-hand side of the Hubbert curve.
Well, every once in awhile we run into somebody who says we shouldn’t worry about the problem, we can solve it. In this case, we can solve it by growing corn, distilling it into ethanol, and run all the vehicles in the US on ethanol. Lets just look what he says, he says today ethanol production displaces over 43 ½million barrels of imported oil annually. That sounds pretty good doesn’t it, until you think. First question you’ve got to ask: 43 ½million barrels, what fraction is that of US vehicle consumption in a year? The answer is, it’s 1%.
You would have to multiply corn production devoted to ethanol by a factor of 100 just to make the numbers look right. There isn’t that much total agricultural land in the United States. There’s a bigger problem. It takes diesel fuel to plough the ground to plant the corn, to make the fertiliser to make the corn grow, to tend the corn, to harvest the corn. It takes more energy to distill it. You finally get a gallon of ethanol, you will be lucky if there’s as much energy in the gallon as it took to produce it. In general, it’s a loser. But this guy (Paul Harvey) says not to worry, we can solve it that way.
Well, back in 1956, Dr Hubbert addressed a convention of petroleum geologists and engineers. He told them that his calculations led him to believe that “the peak of US oil and gas production could be expected to occur between 1966 and 1971.” No one took him seriously. So let’s see what’s happened. The data here is from the Department of Energy. Here is steady growth (pointing). Here is 1956, when Dr Hubbert did his analysis. He said at that time that peak would occur between 1966-1971. There’s the peak, 1970. It was followed by a very rapid decline. Then the Alaskan pipeline started delivering oil, and it was a partial recovery. That production has now peaked and everything’s going downhill in unison in the right hand side of the curve. And when I go to my home computer to figure out the parameters of the curve that’s the best fit to the data, from that fit it looks to me as though we have consumed ¾of the recoverable oil that was ever in our ground in the United States and we are now coasting downhill on the last 25% of that once enormous resource. So we have to ask about world oil.
Dr Hubbert in 1974 predicted that the peak of world oil would occur around 1995, so lets see what’s happened. Here we have the data from the Department of Energy. A long period of steady growth, there’s quite a big drop there (pointing), and then there was a speedy recovery; then an enormous drop and a very slow recovery. Those drops are each due to a price hike from OPEC. Well, it’s clear we’re not yet over the peak, so when I now go to fit the curve, I need one more bit of information before I can do the fit. I have to go to the geology literature and ask the literature, “What do you think is the total amount of oil we will ever find on this earth?” The consensus figure in the literature is 2000 billion barrels. Now, that’s quite uncertain, plus or minus maybe 40 or 50%. If I plug that in and do the fit, the peak is this year (2004). If I assume there is 50% more than the consensus figure, the peak moves back to 2019. If I assume there’s twice as much as the consensus figure, the peak moves back to 2030.
So no matter how you cut it, in your life expectancy, you are going to see the peak of world oil production. And you’ve got to ask yourself, what is life going to be like when we have a declining world production of petroleum, and we have a growing world population, and we have a growing world per capita demand for oil. Think about it.
In the March 1998 issue of Scientific American, there was a major article by two real petroleum geologists. They said this peak would occur before 2010, so we’re all in the same ball park. Now, that article in Scientific American triggered a lot of discussion. Here is an article in Fortune magazine, November 1999, talking about “Oil Forever,” and in that article, we see a criticism of the geologists’ analysis, and this is from an emeritus professor of economics at MIT. And he said, “This analysis (by the geologists) is a piece of foolishness, the world will never run out of oil, not in 10,000 years.” So let’s look at what’s been happening.
Here we have two graphs, on one scale, we have here in the graphs, that’s the annual discoveries of oil each year (pointing); here is the annual production of oil each year. Notice since the 1980s, we’ve been producing about twice as much as we’ve been finding. Yet you’ve seen and read and heard statements from PhD non-scientists saying that we have greater resources of petroleum now than ever before in history. What in the world are they smoking? (audience laughter)
Now, here is another look at world oil production, but this is per capita. This is litres per person each day. There is two litres (pointing). A litre is about a quart, and so two litres is about ½gallon. The upper curve assumes there was no growth in the world population since 1920, that it stayed fixed at 1.8 billion. This then is just a copy of that earlier curve. The lower curve uses the actual population of the world, and what you find is that with a growing world population, this curve is pulled down more and more as you go farther to the right. And notice it peaked at about 2.2 litres per person a day in the 1970s. It is now down to about 1.7 litres a person a day, so we can say that on any day any one of us uses more than 1.7 litres of petroleum directly or indirectly, we’re using more than our share. Now, just think about what that means.
Well, we do have to ask about new discoveries. Here is a discussion from about eleven years ago about the largest discovery of oil in the Gulf of Mexico in the past twenty years, an estimated 700 million barrels of oil. That’s a lot of oil, but a lot compared to what? At that time, we were consuming 16.6 million barrels every day in the United States. Divide the 16.6 into 700 and you find that discovery would meet US needs for 42 days.
On the front page of the Wall Street Journal, we read about the new Hibernia oil field off the south coast of Newfoundland. Please read this one line in the headline: “Now it will last fifty years.” That gives you some kind of a feeling for what amount of oil may be up there. So let’s follow up and read from that story in the Wall Street Journal: “The Hibernia field, one of the largest oil discoveries in North America in decades, should deliver its first oil by the end of the year. At least 20 more fields may follow, offering well over one billion barrels of high-quality crude, promising a steady flow of oil just a quick tanker-run away from the energy-thirsty East Coast”.
So let’s do some arithmetic. We take the amount of oil that we think is up there, a billion barrels. Now the US consumption has grown to about 18 million barrels a day; divide the 18 million into the billion and you find that would meet US needs for 56 days.
Now, what was the impression you had from that line in the headline in the Wall Street Journal? And as you think about this, think about the definition of modern agriculture: it’s “the use of land to convert petroleum into food.” And we can see the end of the petroleum.
Dr Hubbert testified before a committee of the Congress. He told them that “the exponential phase of the industrial growth which has dominated human activities during the last couple of centuries is now drawing to a close. Yet during the last two centuries of unbroken industrial growth, we have evolved what amounts to an exponential-growth culture.” I would say, it’s more than a culture: it’s our national religion, because we worship growth. Pick up any newspaper; you’ll see headlines such as this: “State forecasts ‘robust’ growth.”
Have you ever heard of a physician diagnosing a cancer in a patient and telling the patient, “You have a robust cancer?” And it isn’t just in the United States that we have this terrible addiction (quoting Wall Street Journal): “The Japanese are so accustomed to growth that economists in Tokyo usually speak of a recession as any time the growth rate dips below 3% per year.”
So, what do we do?
In the words of Winston Churchill, “Sometimes we have to do what is required.” First of all, as a nation we’ve got to get serious about renewable energy. As a a start, we ought to have a big increase in the funding for research in the development and dispersion of renewable energy. We have to educate all of our people to an understanding of the arithmetic and the consequences of growth, especially in terms of populations and in terms of the earth’s finite resources. We must educate people to recognise the fact that growth of populations and growth of rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained. What’s the first law of sustainability? You’ve heard thousands of people talking endlessly about sustainability; did they ever tell you the first law? Here it is: population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained. That’s simple arithmetic. Yet nobody that I’m encountering will tell you about that when they’re talking about sustainability. So I think it’s intellectually dishonest to talk about saving the environment, which is sustainability, without stressing the obvious fact that stopping population growth is a necessary condition for saving the environment and for sustainability.
We must educate people to see the need to examine carefully the allegations of the technological optimists who assure us that science and technology will always be able to solve all of our problems of population growth, food, energy, and resources.
Chief amongst these optimists was the late Dr Julian Simon, formerly professor of economics and business administration at the University of Illinois, and later at the University of Maryland. With regard to copper, Simon has written that we will never run out of copper because “copper can be made from other metals.” The letters to the editor jumped all over him, told him about chemistry. He just brushed it off: “Don’t worry,” he said, “if it’s ever important, we can make copper out of other metals.”
Now, Simon had a book that was published by the Princeton University Press. In that book, he’s writing about oil from many sources, including biomass, and he says, “Clearly there is no meaningful limit to this source except for the sun’s energy.” He goes on to note, “But even if our sun was not so vast as it is, there may well be other suns elsewhere.” Well, Simon’s right; there are other suns elsewhere, but the question is, would you base public policy on the belief that if we need another sun, we will figure out how to go get it and haul it back into our solar system? (audience laughter)
Now, you cannot laugh: for decades before his death, this man was a trusted policy advisor at the very highest levels in Washington DC.
Bill Moyers interviewed Isaac Asimov. He asked Asimov, “What happens to the idea of the dignity of the human species if this population growth continues?” and Asimov says, “It’ll be completely destroyed. I like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and there are two bathrooms, then they both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want, stay as long as you want, for whatever you need. And everyone believes in freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the constitution. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, then no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there’s no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang on the door, ‘Aren’t you through yet?’ and so on.” And Asimov concluded with one of the most profound observations I’ve seen in years. He said, “In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive overpopulation. Convenience and decency cannot survive overpopulation. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one individual matters.”
And so, central to the things that we must do, is to recognise that population growth is the immediate cause of all our resource and environmental crises.
And in the last one hour, the world population has increased by about 10,000 people and the population of the United States has increased by about 280 people. So to be successful with this experiment of human life on earth, we have to understand the laws of nature as we encounter them in the study of science and mathematics. We should remember the words of Aldous Huxley, that “facts do not cease to exist because they’re ignored”. We should remember the words of Eric Sevareid; he observed that “the chief source of problems is solutions.” This is what we encounter every day: solutions to problems just make the problems worse. We should remember the message of this cartoon: “Thinking is very upsetting, it tells us things we’d rather not know.” We should remember the words of Galileo; he said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same god who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” If there is one message, it is this: we cannot let other people do our thinking for us.
Now, except for those petroleum graphs, the things I’ve told you are not predictions of the future, I’m only reporting facts, and the results of some very simple arithmetic. But I do so with confidence that these facts, this arithmetic and more importantly, our level of understanding of them, will play a major role in shaping our future. Now, don’t take what I’ve said blindly or uncritically, because of the rhetoric, or for any other reason. Please, you check the facts. Please check my arithmetic. If you find errors, please let me know. If you don’t find errors, then I hope you’ll take this very, very seriously.
Now, you are important people because you can think. If there’s anything that is in short supply in the world today, it’s people who are willing to think. So here’s a challenge. Can you think of any problem, on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long term solution is in any demonstratable way, aided, assisted, or advanced by having larger populations in our local levels, state levels, national level, or global level? Can you think of anything that can get better if we crowd more people into our cities, our towns, into our state, our nation, or on this earth?
And I’ll close with these words from the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He said, “Unlike the plagues of the dark ages, or contemporary diseases which we do not yet understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is solvable with means we have discovered and with resources we possess. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution, but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and the education of the billions who are its victims.”
So I hope I’ve made a reasonable case for my opening statement, that I think the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand this very simple arithmetic.
Thank you very, very much.
Transcript courtesy Global Public Media.
Edited by Denis Morel
Copyright Albert A. Bartlett
Here is the full length video presentation of Professor Bartlett’s talk:
Here is another wonderfully brilliant video conversation with Professor Bartlett:
Today I have a re-blog of sorts for you as I share an interview that Chris Martenson did with Dr. Nate Hagens a while back that touches on energy, the economy, their future trajectories and our societal wants and perceived needs. I have posted the transcript as well as the podcast below. I really enjoyed this conversation and I hope you will as well. #SemperParatus
Below is the transcript for Nate Hagens: We’re Not Facing A Shortage of Energy, But A Longage of Expectations
Chris Martenson: Welcome to another PeakProsperity.com podcast. I am, of course, your host, Chris Martenson, and today we have the distinct pleasure of talking with Nate Hagens, a well-known authority on global resource depletion. Until recently, he was lead editor of The Oil Drum, one of the most popular and still highly respected websites for the analysis and discussion and global energy supplies, and the future implications of the energy decline that we are facing. Nate’s presentations address the opportunities and constraints that we face in the transition away from fossil fuels. He’s appeared on PBS, BBC, and NPR, and lectured around the world. He holds a Master’s Degree in Finance from the University of Chicago and recently completed his PhD in Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. Previously, he was President of Sanctuary Asset Management and a Vice-President at the investment firm Solomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers. I happen to know Nate from our connections through the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, or ASPO, where we’ve both been featured presenters and active participants. So, Nate, welcome, and glad you could be with us today.
Nate Hagens: Thanks, Chris, glad to be here.
Chris Martenson: You know, I want to start with a little bit about Peak Oil, the idea that someday there’s going to be incrementally less oil flowing from the ground to use as we wish. In your estimation and experience, where are we in the Peak Oil story?
Nate Hagens: Well, there are a lot of details that people will argue about. The bottom line is that we’ve reached a level where supply cannot continue to keep up with demand increase. We’ve been on a plateau for five or six years now, where oil supply has become inelastic: more demand, higher prices will not bring out more supply. And there are interesting sub-stories to that. For example, the EIA and the IEA, the data that they report show that we just recently hit an all-time high in oil production. If you include tar sand, biofuels, natural gas, plant liquids, etc., we’re around 88 million barrels a day. But if you look at some other data sources, like the JODI, the Joint Oil Database Initiative, that is a compilation of national governments reporting their own oil production, there’s about a three to four million dollar difference in total production. So we don’t really know the source of EIA and IEA. We assume it’s IHS CERA data, but there’s a big gap there. And if you look at the JODI data, we’ve still peaked in 2006 and have not regained that peak. Now if you’re just talking oil, both data sources agree that 2006 is still the peak of global oil production.
Chris Martenson: Is that where you are? So in your estimation, conventional oil has peaked? I think that’s in the rearview mirror, but you’re now going out and saying all liquids that we would call oil; forget about the funny stuff out there, the ethanol and whatnot, but in terms of stuff that comes out of the ground we would call oil, we’ve peaked?
Nate Hagens: Well, I’ve stopped paying attention to that, Chris, because I don’t think it really matters. I think Peak Oil is a constraint going forward, but it’s not the real driver on the energy side. It’s that our marginal cost keeps going up for liquid fuels, which are basically the hemoglobin of global trade and global commerce, so that’s relevant. But whether we have another million, or two million, or two million less, isn’t the real story. We’re not going to be able to meaningfully grow something that the entire world depends on, and so I think all this bickering about which month or which year is the highest is missing the point. And then I’m sure, we’ll probably touch on it later, the greater threat right now is not Peak Oil, but Peak Debt or Peak Credit, and that’s the much more clear and present danger. But you mentioned ethanol, and there was a stat that came up today, I just wanted to point it out. As of now, corn for food is the number two use of corn in this country. We now use more corn to create ethanol than we do for food. And we produce about a million barrels of ethanol a year. Each of those barrels, of course, has, because of the BTU content, a lot less energy than a barrel of oil, around 70%. So we’re using half of our corn supply to produce one million barrels of ethanol, when we use nineteen million barrels a day of oil. So it’s kind of a conversion of corn, water, soil, natural gas, and coal into liquid fuels in order to become less dependent. But it’s only a drop in the bucket relative to our total consumption.
Chris Martenson: Right. So here we have this magic substance, it’s the hemoglobin of global trade, as you said, meaning it’s the carrier that’s providing the oxygen, as it were, to have the global economy function. We will get to that Peak Debt connection in just a second. But this is a really important point to me, the idea that what we need is we need more oil or liquid fuels if we want to broaden it on a daily, yearly, monthly, whatever basis we want, than we did last year, day, month or whatever, because we want our economy to keep growing, and that’s what we understand and know and love. In your estimation, though, we are now facing physical constraints that are going to prevent us from growing the supply of oil at the higher level. And on a more granular level, you used marginal cost of production, but that itself might be a proxy for increasing energy costs to go out and get energy. However we look at it, money [is] a great proxy for energy, so let’s use that. Energy’s going to become more expensive going forward and there’s going to be slightly less of it. Those are two pieces of the story, in your mind, from now stretching into the future.
Nate Hagens: Yeah, that’s right. And, you know, the main reason that’s a problem is because our entire system is based on the incorrect assumption that energy, which underpins every single physical service transaction we have in this economy, is substitutable. You can substitute capital or labor for it. And in reality, that’s not true. If you don’t have energy, you don’t have an economic transaction.
So if it becomes either more expensive or unavailable, both of those have deleterious impacts to economic growth. And we’re kind of in what I call the “biophysical gauntlet” right now, which is that oil, we’ve found all the Beverly Hillbilly Oil 60 to 70 years ago that was bubbling right under the surface, and now we have to drill deeper, drill further offshore; create things that aren’t really oil and process them into oil, like tar sands and oil shale. And all these things cost a lot more for the energy companies to produce. And society is reaching the point of being insolvent because of our claims and liabilities. And eventually we get to a point where the oil companies need higher and higher oil price in order to make a profit, but society can afford less and less. And at some point those two prices of oil cross and we have a real problem. You know, right now, the marginal barrel of oil costs between $70 and $90, so there’s a little bit of a cushion in there now. But a lot of people say above a hundred dollar oil, it has significant economic headwinds. So at some point there, dollars don’t become an accurate measure of our real natural resource balance sheet.
And as you know, part of the tenets of biophysical economics is measuring our natural resource endowments in natural resource terms, themselves. For example, Energy Return On Investment (EROI) is how much energy it takes to get one unit of energy in our society. And 70, 80 years ago, we would invest one barrel of energy to get out a hundred barrels of oil, and that 100:1 ratio declined to 30:1 in the 1970’s, and it was around 10:1 in the year 2000, and the EIA stopped producing data on how much energy it takes to get energy. So we can kind of interpolate it now, but it’s clearly under ten in single digits.
And you eventually get to a point, even if oil is $100,000 dollars a barrel, or $1 million dollars a barrel, if it takes one barrel of oil to get out barrel of oil, you’re kind of out of gas at that point.
Chris Martenson: So the energy return on energy invested, or EROI, has been declining steadily. I want to just back up for a second. So here we are, if we scan the papers this morning, you know, we’ve got a debt-ceiling sort of mini-drama going on in D.C. We’ve got Italy’s bond spreads blowing out. Greece is clearly in trouble. Everybody’s familiar with the whole Portugal/Ireland story. Japan is in a pickle. China looks like it’s getting there. And as we scan across the landscape, we can’t really find any corner of the globe at this point, at least in all the advanced economies, where things look like they’re working as they used to. So if we just have our economic hats on, I believe this is a very, very confusing period of time. I know our economic high priests and priestesses are waiving their magic money wands wondering, I bet, why isn’t this working? You know, where is unemployment? Why is it stuck there? Whereas, if we step over here into the energy world and put our EROI hats on and we say look, this is perfectly predictable, I think. When you have less available net energy, these are the sorts of problems you might experience and expect. Does that make sense to you, or is that even remotely how you see it?
Nate Hagens: It makes absolute sense. We need energy to create our physical realities and create our economic growth and trade for transport, everything. If the energy sector requires a greater and greater chunk of that energy, we have less available for the rest of discretionary society. And once that constraint exists and even accelerates, you need to respond to that. And the way we responded to that was increasing our debt, which, of course, as you know, is pretty much created by a pen stroke. So that can temporarily offset energy shortages at a cost of a steeper decline, because debt actually functions as a spacial and temporal reallocater of resources, away from the periphery towards the center and away from the future towards the present. So there’s a very subtle but important relationship between debt and energy. And the problem is, is that most of, as you term, economic priests and priestesses, don’t have training in the biophysical economic world, and they treat everything in monetary terms. And we just throw more money at the problem, and it’ll go away. Well, our energy, and especially our net energy story, is getting worse. So we’re increasing our money supply while our energy supply is declining, and, yeah, that’s not a good situation.
Chris Martenson: All right, so biophysical ignorance is one way that maybe the classical economists and economy theory got it wrong. Are there other ways?
Nate Hagens: Well, there’s a lot of ways, there’s a lot of problems with mainstream economic theory. On the micro side, there’s not a real good differentiation between needs and wants. If you look at the evolved architecture of the human brain, you know, we evolved in a period of scarcity. And the things that give us pleasure, happiness may not be the right word, but pleasure, satisfaction, etc., those things are highjacked in the modern era. And utility — which is what economists measure as something that’s good or positive or desirable — the utility of a five hundred pound guy eating another pizza is equivalent to a starving child getting some rice. So there’s something kind of messed up in that space.
I think regular economic theory also gets the debt side wrong. They assume that debt is a neutral transfer between Party A and Party B, it’s just Party A’s deferring consumption to the future and Party B will one day be able to consume. But in reality, if you look at energy as being non-substitutable and it being impossible to grow our economies forever, then that relationship in debt breaks down. And it turns out that debt is not a neutral transfer.
I know that you are also a student of E.F. Schumacher. In Small is Beautiful, he talks about what real wealth is: Wealth is our primary capital; our trees and our rivers. And secondary capital is what we do with that; turn things into lumber and tractors, etc. And then tertiary capital is stocks and bonds and derivatives of that. So I think we have focused too much on the tertiary measures of our wealth, when they’re really just markers. And these financial markers have far outpaced our real capital. And that is kind of the elephant in the room, in our conversations about the economy in the future, that people are ignoring. They just assume that the dollars are the real markers.
Chris Martenson: Right. I noticed, too, that you know, our money is also. It’s an agreement between ourselves. We have an agreement: I have lots of paper in this room, but you and I might agree that only the stuff in my wallet has this utility, right? And here’s one of the things that I think is really sort of a characteristic of our time. I certainly pick this up in my work: I notice that a lot of people are very nervous.
You wouldn’t think people would be this nervous with the GDP allegedly growing at 2.8% or whatever they’re claiming at this point. This nervousness, I think, comes from the idea that this contract is breaking down. There is something really fundamentally wrong with this story that most people are picking up and that politicians, bless their hearts, and monetary authorities, bless their hearts, are missing almost entirely at this point in time, which that there is something with the model. And the old model was, we’re going to grow, grow, grow. If you look at Bernanke’s recent testimony to Congress and to the Senate, if you look at the most recent statements from Obama or out of the EU, all of them are talking about, we want to get to a resumption of growth right away, as fast as possible. We want jobs to grow. Who can be against that? We want trade to grow. We want consumption to grow. We want all these things to grow. And more and more people, I found, have started to look at that story and say wait a minute, there’s something broken in that story. And you don’t have to think about it all that long, I don’t believe, these days, to really understand the flaw in that particular model. And we have now lots of evidence that there are flaws in this model.
First: A, do you see it that way? B, if that’s true, why is it that people like you and I are talking about it, and thousands, if not millions, of other people are talking about it, and we can’t even get to square zero in terms of public acknowledgment at what we would call the highest levels?
Nate Hagens: Well, first of all, yes, I do agree that that is the case. I think we have peaked globally in growth. Certainly, in real terms. It’s possible that in 2013 or such we see a nominal increase in global output, but I doubt it. I think the problem – well there’s a lot of problems – but one of the main ones is if it was a 5% or 10% belt-tightening or switch that needed to happen, you would see more politicians go in that direction. But it’s such a huge change, the implications of the end of growth and what that means for our institutions and the way that our society is organized. The politicians now would be thrown out of office because people, the average American is not educated to understand these things, so it’s a very threatening story. I mean, it’s very difficult to grasp that the biggest threat to the American way of life is the American way of life. And that’s kind of a profound crossroads that we’re at. While the world is advocating that Chinese and Pakistanis should aspire to an American footprint, it probably makes more sense for Americans to aspire to a Chinese or Pakistani footprint – but try selling that. So I think the politicians and the average person — and there are evolutionary, well-understood reasons for this — we are not going to respond to this crisis until the crisis is truly upon us. And then, given the lead time and the ten or twenty years we need to really rejigger the infrastructure, it’s not going to be enough time.
Chris Martenson: Not going to be enough time to make a smooth, disruption-free –
Nate Hagens: Not a smooth transition, correct.
Chris Martenson: Right. So to me it really looks like a catch-22 at this point in time. We can’t really acknowledge the problem until it’s a problem. By the time we do that, it might be too late to really undertake a smooth transition.
So I really want to drive home this point, though, about the connection between energy and, let’s say, finance. So let’s imagine for the moment, Nate, that you owned all the bonds in the world. Somehow they all came to you, and you understand that growth is no longer possible. What do you think the value of your bond portfolio would be, before that moment of recognition, and after?
Nate Hagens: Well, I think there would be three timeframes. There would be before, and they would be worth a hundred, or par. And immediately after, the end of growth means that we’re going to have a deflationary spiral, because things are going to unravel. So in deflation, bond prices go up, because interest rates are going to go down. But ultimately, they’re going to be worth zero, because people aren’t going to be able to pay them back. There’s two issues: We have a huge amount of aggregate claims on the future. My research estimates, you add up all of the aggregate debt in the OECD, it’s around $250 trillion, and that’s not including financial derivatives where J.P. Morgan owes Goldman-Sach some hundred billion dollar swap on currencies. Excluding that, it’s around two hundred and fifty trillion. We are transitioning from a period of understanding we will never be able to pay that back – I think a lot of people understand that – to a period where we will not even be able to service that debt. So that’s the theater that’s going on right now.
As far as what is the value of all the bonds in the world if I owned them? It’s hard to answer that without knowing what the objective is and what trajectory the world goes on. I could give you multiple answers, but ultimately they’re going to be worth less. We’ve got a giant haircut coming our way. It could be as little as 50%, as much as a 100%, and I would say between 70% and 90% percent in the next decade.
Chris Martenson: So it’s sort of like Templeton’s view on housing from a few years back. It sounded crazy at the time, but the trajectory is still good for him to be potentially right on the housing side. How about for stocks, then? How much of say the total stock index fund? How much of that value is growth a component of?
Nate Hagens: Well, growth is a component of everything in our system. So I’m not necessarily calling for a stock-market crash in the next decade, but I am calling for within the decade we probably won’t have a stock market. That’s a scary thing to contemplate, but this entire system is based on more every year, and we’ve extended the system by a decade or more by little bells and whistles and allowing people to buy houses with no money down and the repeal of Glass-Steagall. And since 2008, the crash in private and household credit has been made up by government stepping in and providing 11% of our GDP just from deficit spending. And that bullet has now been spent. So the whole thing starts to unravel once they’ve spent all the bullets they have. And I don’t know that it really matters, really; stocks go down 10% or 50% or 100%, we have to restructure the way that we think about society. Competing for nominal, digital wealth is going to go away as the main cultural objective.
Chris Martenson: And would that conspicuous consumption, does that get rethought, or do we just keep that up to the bitter end? Is that a biological function?
Nate Hagens: Conspicuous consumption is part of nature. There are displays in the wild of ornate horns and plumage, etc., because those confer special advantages in mating, via sexual selection, etc., so some elements, some level of conspicuous consumption, will always be part of our species, our culture. But the way it’s promoted now, where we just are on this consumption treadmill, where we buy more and more things and don’t feel satisfied from the marginal purchase, I think that will go away. When the amount of novelty and extraneous products in the shelves kind of go away and people are more concerned about how their community and their friends and family are going to have more basic needs going forward than frivolous things. I think that’ll happen naturally.
Chris Martenson: And this is going to be part of why I think the transition is going to be difficult for a lot of people. Even though personally I cut my standard of living in half and I have a higher quality of life, and I did that very consciously over time, and I’m thrilled with it. I know other people, if it’s forced upon them, however – our living standards fall, and they fall because there’s a debt problem or an energy problem, or the combination of both, whatever, some confluence of events – that they’ll feel and experience this as a loss. And I was talking with Dan Ariely and he explained that loss is something is something that we are wired, biologically wired, to avoid. So when I summarize all this and I put it into a spot, I say okay, so we have this physical constraint that’s coming because of Peak Oil. There’s nothing we’re going to do about it. We can’t out-clever that. It’s just a constraint, it’s a limitation, there it is. We could manage it well or we can manage it poorly, but it’s there. We have a political system that’s not really geared for the magnitude of the change that we’re seeing, so the most likely outcome is that we’re going to wait, we as a culture are going to wait until we’re forced to deal with this. That’s probably going to come with disruptions. So my question here is, given all of that: What do you see as the most likely outcome, and then what do people do, what do communities do to prepare before we get to things like maybe, you know, big picture, what should the world or our country do? If we could start at the sort of the individual level, you’ve been facing this for a long time, you’ve learned a lot of things. How are you facing this?
Nate Hagens: Well one of the things that, you know, as you know I was very active in The Oil Drum for many years, because I just wanted the average person to be educated that look, our situation is based on physical stuff, and that picture is changing now. And I thought if more people would understand that, they would change on their own, because they had some “ah ha!” moments. I now think that trying to teach against the destruction of the planet, you know, for example, Lester Brown or Al Gore, is actually teaching against the drive for status, given our current environmental cues of ‘more is better.’ So it’s like trying to teach teenage girls to dress as ugly as possible. It just doesn’t work, and it’s been a waste of trillions of dollars.
Chris Martenson: Uh-huh.
Nate Hagens: I think what you just said about yourself, knowing that austerity is coming, whether it’s imposed by the markets in some sort of disruptive currency trade event or imposed by increased nationalization and the loss of freedoms – austerity is coming. So one thing, and this sounds radical, but one thing that you can do as an individual is kind of self-impose austerity. And that doesn’t mean turn into a monk or anything like that, but do things lower on the footprint meter and, you know, bike instead of take your car, walk instead of drive, eat local, don’t use as much technology, be more psychologically resilient to lower consumption. And it’s actually kind of fun, and I’ve done it myself. But you and I have advantages that a lot of people don’t have. We have money in the bank and have had successful careers, and not everyone can do that. But I do think that really, and this is kind of counter-intuitive to what we talked about earlier, but we’re not really facing a shortage of energy, we’re facing a longage of expectations. And the sooner that we as individuals or a nation recognize that the future is going to be much lower consumption than today and prepare for that, that psychological resilience is going to be really important, because if no one is psychologically prepared, people are going to freak out when some of these freedoms start to go away.
Chris Martenson: Hmm. Not facing a shortage of energy, a longage of expectations; an expectation that the future will look just like the present, only more?
Nate Hagens: Well, yeah, well, not only that. Well, look, we consume, the average American, around 230,000 kilocalories a day of energy. The body itself consumes about 2,500 to 3,000 of those, endosmotically, within the body. So exosmotically, outside of the body, we consume 99% of our energy footprint. So if Peak Oil is upon us, or any issue with coal or natural gas, or the main fossil pixie dust that has subsidized our lifestyle for the last century, if that stuff declines twenty or thirty or even forty percent, it’s not like we’re literally out of calorie availability. It’s just that our system is built on all this decadence and industry and trade and cross border transfers; it has all been built on a model that can’t continue. What’s going to break first is people’s expectations of what they own, the digits in the bank, and all of the financial claims. But those are just digits, they’re abstract digits. The day that a financial system would be disrupted, nothing happens physically.
So I think if we drop our energy consumption quite a bit, nothing has to change other than our supply chains and the way that goods and medicine and water and sanitation and all that get to the cities and towns and states. That has to be deeply thought about on a national level. But I’m optimistic – if we were sitting here and the average American used 10,000 calories a day of total energy, and we needed 3,000 for our bodily functions to continue, that would be a real problem, because there wasn’t much extra. But we have a huge amount of energy relative to what we need.
So I think there are two main things that need to happen – and of course, individuals can play a role in this – but one is we need to design some sort of future system that is an accurate barometer of what we really have on our natural capital balance sheets, relative to what we really need on our human behavior balance sheets. People are working on both sides of that.
Number two is we need some sort of bridge, some sort of mitigation towards a financial currency trade disruption, which very few people are working on. The fact is that a large percentage of our economic output globally is traded: If there’s some problem with the euro or the yen or the pound or the dollar, how does that stuff continue to get shipped every day, along with all the components and everything else that we need? In my discussions, very few people are looking at that. And so on a macro level, people need to start focusing on how supply chains look and what are ways around our current system so that we can guarantee at least basic necessity-type things to continue to reach our shores and be processed, etc.
I actually think Washington, among other mistakes, in pursuing the import substitution and Washington consensus policies of the last couple of decades, they actually were promoting to other countries like Ecuador and Africa to have imported substitutions where they actually were dependant on international trade. So these local regional models aren’t really in existence; they don’t exist. So I think yes, it’s healthier for us to eat local food, local and regionally sourced, but it’s actually the resiliency and redundancy that comes from a local and regionally sourced model that is going to play a big role in the future, because it’s a lot easier to get parts and tools in Massachusetts from New York than it is from Korea.
Chris Martenson: You know, I’ve long noted that there’s a, there’s almost like a slider, you can push it back and forth. And on one side is resiliency and on the other side is cost effectiveness. So, you know, we don’t have a lot of redundancy in our inventories, which is lean and mean and that’s great and, you know, our food is really cheap right now. At the same time, there’s very little resiliency or redundancy built into that, let alone leave sustainability and whether it’s a thousand-year plan or not aside.
Nate Hagens: We haven’t needed resilience or redundancy; we’ve needed efficiency and profit.
Chris Martenson: Uh-huh
Nate Hagens: And so that’s why this whole, what is the carrot? What are we driving for? What is the goal of a society and a goal of a culture? And it has been, for quite a while, profit that is supposed to trickle down. Once the assumption of growth goes away, then you have to start looking at different objectives, and that’s the gorilla in the room that people are afraid to voice. And I think if they understood the energy-economic link better, they might start to come to that conclusion.
Chris Martenson: That’s very well said. And that’s exactly where I am on this story, is big transformation, big shift is happening. But ultimately, you know, it comes down to, let me pin it on money, our money system. There are a lot of forms of money out there. We happen to have a debt-based money system, and by we, I mean the whole world. So when you have a debt based money system, it’s not true to say that fiat money is not backed by anything; it’s backed by debt. And it’s backed by the debt that is attached to the people of the nation. So in our case, you and I, our dollar bills physically are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. Government, which really means the ability of the U.S. taxpayer to pay back the outstanding debts, which are Treasury obligations. That’s the little loop that gives our money value, because ultimately you and I have productive output and that can be attached. So this is our distribution system.
The problem is, is that, of course, that with debt-based money systems, you know, they are exponential by design. And I understand the theories that say they don’t have to be, technically. There can be immaculate flows of interest and stuff like that. But in truth, when you look at a five- or a six-decade-long graph of either debt or money and you put a curve fit on it, it’s perfectly exponential, it’s just got an awesome .99 coefficient of determination, it looks great, right? So we have this exponential money system and it’s careening headlong into a physical limitation. So here we have this system where we clearly can see we have an exponential money system, those claims on the future. All of that is what we’re just desperately trying to sustain – the status quo, sustain the unsustainable; I get it. But I have personally lost any faith in the idea that we’re going to be able to do that for a whole lot longer. If my daughter lives to be the same age as my grandfather, she will die in the year 2094. Think of the number of things that will have been past peak by 2094: everything that I can possibly chart or look at at this point in time. So it’s a, we’re really facing a really profound moment in not just U.S. history, but I think human history, which is pretty extraordinary. How do we navigate that? What, at the highest level, what do we need to change to get our minds around the fact that there’s a new narrative on the table?
Nate Hagens: Well, this may not sound so cheery, but I really don’t think we’re going to change any people’s minds before the crisis happens. I just think the political drive and the people in power now are so linked to the current system. So that leaves us with, we have to build lifeboats of some sort, either by country or institution or region or individual, and I’ve changed my mind on that thinking a little bit. I think it’s great. I have a big garden here. I grow thirty percent of my own food, but I realize that isn’t enough. I do it because I enjoy it and it takes my brain down a notch from all the Internet stuff that I’ve done. But gardens aren’t going to be the answer, and local food isn’t the answer. We truly are going to need some centralized government direction on what happens under these various directives. And I don’t think it’s going to happen publicly, I just think some of our government entities need to start doing scenario analysis, and quickly, because I think very small efforts can pay off large dividends in making people more prepared.
I know on reasonably good authority that the Federal Reserve and the Central Bank, one of the leading players in this story, they use 2% growth going forward as their base case. And then they have small deviations from that scenario, a half percent in either direction, as their sensitivity analysis. There is no group at the Fed looking at what happens if growth stops, or what happens if we have a period of negative growth; they don’t even analyze that. So I think the simple answer to your question is, government authorities need to take this more seriously. And I am skeptical that that’s going to happen, given my own efforts to try and make that happen.
Ultimately, Chris, the answer to your question is: What do we want? What do we want from our society and what do we want from our culture? And kind of this pecuniary hedonic treadmill has been found wanting. And this is why I got on this path, you know, a decade ago. You know, I used to manage wealthy families’ money at Solomon Brothers and Lehman Brothers, and I would see guys worth a hundred million dollars, and all they wanted to do was have two hundred million, and when they had two hundred million, they wanted to have four hundred million. And they weren’t any happier than the clerks that were processing their trades. And I think since you and I know that the majority of that wealth is probably going away, that stuff is just markers for what we really value.
And so I think in the next ten or twenty years we, as a species, as well as a culture are going to go through a big self-examination of what really matters. And how do we construct a society where we can get the evolutionary neurotransmitters, I like to say, that give us the feelings of happiness, success, what have you, while consuming lower on the food chain and the resource throughput. Wealth inequality is going to go away automatically, once we devalue some of this debt. But I really do think that wealth amplitude is going to go away in our evolutionary environment.
You know, a million years ago on the Pleistocene, you could maybe have one person in the tribe might have ten times as much status as the lowest person. And now we have CEO’s, etc, making a million times more than the lowest paid worker, and examples like that. And so I think that isn’t the answer to our problems. But that is also something that will have to be addressed, some people have a huge excess relative to the lowest and the average. And you’re seeing that happen, right? I mean, QE2 has been successful in raising asset prices, but it’s been a failure in the real economy, and the middle and lower classes haven’t really seen any benefit at all from that. But the top five or ten percent seem to think that things are going okay. And that top five percent, whether we like it or not, are the people that we have to convince to make major changes in our infrastructure and our cultural goals.
Chris Martenson: Well, this is one of the prime reasons why for years I’ve been telling people, yes, deflation is a possibility, but expect inflation. Because deflation directly destroys the holdings of the very top end of society. Whereas inflation actually tends to enrich them through the process of being first at the trough, there’s always a little seniorage in there for government. So inflation is preferred on all sorts of dimensions, and that’s why I would tend to expect it. Not because it’s mathematically right or because it makes more financial sense or economic sense, but it simply makes more human sense.
And so if we put all this into a spot, I see what you’re saying is look, the die is cast. We have a prevailing system of organization around our economy, our institutions, our culture, that is geared towards a way of existence which is out of tune fundamentally with the physical world. And so we’re at the early edges of that story, we’re starting to feel the disruption and the, you know, the tearing of the fabric of the old story, and that there’s going to be probably, most likely, given everything, disruptions as we go forward.
Let’s imagine you are one of the people, and there are people out there who are actively changing their lives in response to this story. So you’re one of them, you’ve been working, you’ve got a little 401K, you’re still in your job, you don’t quite know how to unplug from all of that. Maybe you don’t have a place to toss in a big garden. What do you do?
Nate Hagens: Well, this is, to be honest, and since you’re a friend of mine and we’ve known each other for a while, this is why I’ve stopped giving public talks on these issues, because it’s very difficult to connect all the dots and tell a coherent story, and then close with this is what’s coming, without some positive way of action.
I really sense, Chris, that there are a lot of people, you know, the average person I went to high school with, that we e-mail from time to time. They know that something’s wrong. They would do something if they could, but they don’t know what to do. And I think that’s what I was saying before. We really need government direction on the macro picture. And the things that we can do as individuals, yes, we can get to know our neighbors, increase social capital, increase our health. I mean, I’ve lost thirty-five pounds in the last year and a half because I’ve massively increased my exercise, and I feel a lot better because of it. If you change your behavior with the expectation and confidence that this system is probably going to be disrupted at some point, I think you are a lot more resilient, and then more people around you are going to be more resilient.
And it’s impossible to predict how things are going to play out in the next decade. I think, you know, trying to have a basement full of stockpiled gold and silver and ammo and backups on backups will drive you crazy, because you can never diversify enough to have everything you need. So I think knowing your neighbors, and knowing some skills, and just being prepared for less each year, instead of more each year. It kind of sounds like hokey advice, but I think it’s good advice. And I think there needs to be certain ambassadors that get into government and hit them upside the head and say look, there needs to be plans made, even if you think what I’m talking about is five percent likely; you know, I think it’s forty percent likely. But even if you think there’s a few percentage points chance of this happening, we need to look at mitigation strategies.
Chris Martenson: Absolutely. If you said, Chris, there’s a four percent chance that the plane you get on is going to fall out of the sky and crash, I wouldn’t get on it.
Nate Hagens: Right, exactly.
Chris Martenson: Not a chance in the world. I don’t think anybody would. And so, yeah, and it’s funny. We have very similar probability weightings, because I, too, have no idea how things are going to turn or when. That’s the nature of complex systems; they’re inherently unpredictable in terms of what or how much. But still, you can catalog the pressures and the risks, and so that’s some of what we’ve been talking about today. And I share a lot of your views, that the die is cast. And it seems like there are, if it isn’t willful ignorance, it’s just ignorance of what truly is the driver here. The high priestesses and priests of our monetary temples were trained, and very well trained, but not in all the right things for this particular juncture.
So that’s why I really advise people to go to places The Oil Drum, like my website, like other websites, that are really wrestling with what I might call reality. Which is the signs are everywhere, whether you want to look at collapsing fish stocks, or if you just Google “soil,” “soil loss,” or “water aquifers;” Google that, take a look. They’re everywhere, the signs are everywhere; that we’re at, we have some sort of a moment here to take stock of who we are, what we’re doing, and where we’d like to go.
I’m with you. I want to live a life full of purpose, that’s what I want; my highest goal. And whether I need a lot of money to do that or not, or status to do that or not, is I’ve lost connection with that thread of things. And so, yeah, I have a big garden. I’ve lost a bunch of weight myself. All of these things are, actually, I find them to be very positive in my own life. So that’s what I can tell people when I stand up before them, and say, listen, I jumped off, personally threw myself off the American dream bandwagon; (a) didn’t die; (b) I think I’m better off for it. Let me explain how and why. And for many people that’s a real shock, you know, to find out that you can do that and keep moving, and actually consider yourself better off; it’s interesting.
Nate Hagens: I think there’s huge leverage in that story. But the problem is, is that the environmental cues are still to have more money. And more money’s going to protect you. And I think once that kind of illusion goes away, that money’s just a marker and it’s not an accurate marker, and that self-worth is becoming the new net worth. Then stories like yours are going to have a lot more traction, where people are just going to kind of internalize the message. Right now, it’s watching a little show, and then going back and getting all the environmental signals from your neighbors and your wife and your boss that what that Chris guy said, you know, that doesn’t really apply right now. So I think we’re within a year or two of people really responding to that sort of message.
And I did the same thing. I used to make a lot of money on Wall Street. And I spent most of it, of course. In the last few years, I’ve a graduate school salary of twenty grand, and I’ve probably never been happier in my life. I live frugally. I live in a very small house. And so it can be done. Of course, the, there’s a secret in there, which is a little obscure, but I used to be surrounded by millionaires. And now I’m surrounded by farmers. And it’s, the status of the people around you. I think it was H.L. Mencken who said, “A rich man is someone who makes a hundred dollars more than his wife’s sister’s husband.”
Chris Martenson: Hmm.
Nate Hagens: And I think it’s the cues of competing for whatever gives us status that allows us to feel satisfied and our purpose achieved. And right now, I’m not surrounded by these millionaire, stock broker, money managers, so I don’t feel that pull that I’m not doing enough or making enough type of reaction.
Chris Martenson: Great. I like that, the idea that our self-worth will become our new net worth. And that’s probably, maybe we’re a few years away from that being recognized, but certainly I think there’s enough evidence to say we’re somewhere on that trajectory as we go forward.
Nate Hagens: Well, it all, you know, it ultimately will come down to energy, right?
Chris Martenson: Yep.
Nate Hagens: I mean, energy’s what we have to budget and spend, and dollars are just who control the energy for now.
Chris Martenson: Uh-huh.
Nate Hagens: But once it just comes back down to physical things, you can’t have a million times more oil than your neighbor, you know, it just can’t work that way. So I think there’s going to be a natural amplitude and wealth is going to disappear relatively soon.
Chris Martenson: Uh-huh. Fascinating, really great; I appreciate your time. Any closing words for us today?
Nate Hagens: No. Just, I think it’s safe to say for a couple of generations, we’ve been observers of history and we’re about to be participants again. And everyone can play a role, or not. And I think things could be probably a lot better than we fear. But just be prepared and start to pay attention.
Chris Martenson: Be prepared and start, and continue to pay attention. Well thank you, very much, Nate. We’ve been talking with Nate Hagens, former editor of The Oil Drum, and I am Chris Martenson. Thank you for listening today, and if you want to find out more, you could either go to theoildrum.com to find out more about energy and energy issues, or you can go to my own site, at . And it’s just been my pleasure talking with you, Nate.
Nate Hagens: Thanks, Chris.
Note: Listeners interested in the conclusions expressed within this interview will also want to read Chris’ recent report on Past Peak Oil – Why Time is Now Short, which takes a deep dive into the data behind the supply and demand imbalances in the global market for oil.