Tom Robertson on Energy Resources Group wrote:
“The main implication of these tendencies [from high to low net energy ratios] will be a warning; both of what is being lost as conventional energies decline in availability and the need to be very careful in the development of alternatives, so where possible the replacements for conventional energies are as beneficial as possible and the full consequences of such changes are as well anticipated as possible, thus reducing shocks due to negative shifts in energy-related social capability.”
After reading carefully Tom Robertson’s definition of net energy analysis it came to me that it might help to detail more explicitly the alternative implied in the warning he mentions: what will happen if we are NOT “very careful in the development of alternatives”.
The main thesis of Joseph Tainter’s work, “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” is that such societies collapse as a result of declining marginal returns (“DMR”). Whether a society uses its energy subsidies wisely or foolishly, parsimoniously or profligately, the tendency toward such decline is almost as inherent in all human societal energy use as it is in the bacterium’s petri dish.
We are very near the DMR breaking point both nationally (in the U.S.) and globally. And not at all because of oil depletion alone. Consider the situation in America:
- Exhaustion, damaging and poisoning of underground aquifers almost everywhere.
- Massive topsoil erosion, which precludes future soil fecundity.
- The incapacity or unwillingness of Americans to farm, and the replacement of farms by gigantic agribusinesses employing millions of Mexican serfs, whose dependents overload the social supports in the U.S. (an overload viewed as an “externality” by the agribusinesses).
- Massive megalopolises whose populations depend on diabolically complex systems of import and export, trade and business – at a time when the general educational level is stagnant or even falling.
- Millions of feral semi-literates in the urban slums whose jobs, if they have any, are often either make-work (another form of welfare) or (as in construction) a serious net drain on the civilization’s energy subsidy.
- Millions of high-tech jobs, once the pride of America, have followed much of manufacturing to Second-World countries such as Taiwan or Second-and-a-Half-World Japan, where wages are much lower than in overpriced America. Increasingly, only the paperwork is done in the U.S.
- There is no more surplus money in the national budget, nor will there ever be again. The widely expected multi-trillion-dollar budget surplus has evaporated in the twinkling of an eye. And by the way, moon landings are over forever. All the attempts by the U.S. to achieve yet another scope enlargement of international trade have fallen short of their goal. Liebig’s law of the minimum (i.e., whatever necessity is least abundantly available [relative to per capita requirements] sets an environment’s carrying capacity) is now about to be felt on the international scale.
- Every observer in his right mind recognizes that both America and the world are seriously overpopulated and growing more so each day, putting stress on every resource available. Population growth alone puts increasingly greater strains on infrastructure, steadily reducing the benefit each individual can receive. At some point the benefit per capita will fall below a critical threshold, and the system will collapse.
I am sure others can add to this list. I have purposely excluded oil and transportation from it in order to emphasize that, even in sectors not directly connected with oil, the U.S. is moving into the region of DMR nationwide. And this means it is nearing collapse, which could come without warning. And when America goes, the rest of global civilization will follow.
There are other, profitable ways to analyze the world system. See, for instance, Tom Abel’s “Within Limits: Two Simulations of Culture Change” , to which Tom Robertson has drawn our attention. However, they point in essentially the same direction: that of global collapse. The reader may draw his or her own conclusion from this. Which conclusion will be drawn will normally be based upon the individual’s a priori personal decision to join those now blasphemed as “mean-spirited,” or the Camp of the Saints: that is, to survive or not to survive.
Well Done, Sir, Two questions: Is there an alternative to collapse? If so, what is it? —L. W. Nicholson