Cascading failure + Liebig’s Law + Supply Chain Breakdown = Collapse of civilization

Declining supplies of high-quality, easy-to-get fossil fuels with no alternatives ready to replace themever — is the #1 issue.

As long as we have oil, all problems can be solved, unless oil lasts long enough to deplete every other resource.  Meanwhile it’s a fountain of life, a pill that cures all diseases, allowing the destruction of the most remote rainforests, depletion of all schools of fish, the mining of topsoil over 40% of earth’s surface to farm, ranch, build roads, towns & cities, pull up water hundreds of feet deep for irrigation,  and allows for very long global supply chains to the point where almost no nation can supply its citizens using only locally produced food and goods.

The #2 issue is that all of our infrastructure was built when energy was extremely cheap and plentiful, when oil had an Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) of 100:1.  Charles Hall believes we need at least a 13 or 14:1 EROI to maintain civilization at the current level.

Now we’re down to as around 10:1 oil EROEI in the USA, and at best 30:1 in the Middle East.  The last oil in the Arctic, even if it can be gotten at with current technology, is probably less than 10:1 and likely to bring on financial collapse.  At worst, there’s a good chance of a world war as nations fight over the last large oil deposits remaining.

We don’t have enough fossil fuels left to replace, let alone maintain our infrastructure:

Concrete. Roads, bridges, buildings, airports, and anything else made of cement is not going to last — a century from now concrete will be nothing but rubble.

Oil & Natural Gas pipelines. The 2.6 million miles of oil and natural gas pipelines are rusting apart. According to the PHMSA, “Pipelines deliver trillions of cubic feet of natural gas and hundreds of billions of tons of liquid petroleum products every year. They are essential: the volumes of energy products they move are well beyond the capacity of other forms of transportation. It would take a constant line of tanker trucks, about 750 per day, loading up and moving out every two minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to move the volume of even a modest pipeline. The railroad-equivalent of this single pipeline would be a train of 75 2,000-barrel tank rail cars everyday.” (U.S. Dept of transportation pipeline & Hazardous materials Safety Admin).

Coal. Just like oil, coal has peaked, and the easiest to get at and highest energy coal has already been mined.  We’re probably past the “peak energy” of coal, and the dregs are low quality or too remote to mine.  How are you going to transport this remaining coal if the roads and bridges have crumbled?  Even if there were still viable oil or gas pipelines left that happened to be near a coal mine, you’d use up most of the energy in the coal to liquefy it and move it by pipeline.  The clock is ticking on coal mining.

Electric grid: It’s rusting and unprotected from cyberattacks.  In addition, due to deregulation, it’s falling apart and not being taken maintained properly — it used to be triple-plated (a failure in one part still left two other intact components for electricity to flow through and buffer the grid from failure), now it’s barely single-plated. See my Electric Grid Overview for details.

The #3 issue is that supply chain failure from financial collapse, wars, climate change, and social unrest will make maintenance of the existing complex system impossible in some places, and since the world is so inter-dependent, and there are single points of (supply-chain) failure, that will affect even stable, peaceful nations.  Key and essential products absolutely essential to operating today’s complex society will stop being made — forever — because microchips and other specialized tools and vehicles will require fossil fuel energy, materials, infrastructure, and knowledge that won’t be available when the world emerges from the first collapse.

Supply Chain Failure. Read David Korowicz’s “Trade-Off. Financial System Supply-Chain Cross-Contagion: a study in global systemic collapse”.

Climate change caused supply chain failure: Excerpts from Make Supply chains climate-smart. Society’s infrastructure is hit hard by extreme weather. Networks of trade, transport and production need to adapt globally says Anders Levermann. 6 Feb 2014. Nature Vol 506.

Extreme weather — including massive storms such as Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Sandy, and severe floods and droughts–is likely to become more frequent and intense as global warming accelerates.  Links in global economic chains and world markets mean that extreme weather in one place can have repercussions elsewhere, such as:

  • High rainfall and Cyclone Yasi in 2010-11 paralyzed the world’s 4th largest region of coal exploration in Queensland, Australia. Coking coal prices rose 25%.
  • Droughts and floods in Russia, Pakistan, and Australia in 2011 caused global food prices to clime, contributing to the escalation of civil unrest in Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.
  • The devastating flood in Thailand in 2011: The local impact was calamitous. Its effect on hard-disk production made it also a global event causing a worldwide shortage for months afterwards.
  • As protests in Brazil, Turkey, and Greece in recent years have show, societies do not have to be brought to the verge of starvation to descend into turmoil.
  • Disruption to pharmaceutical supply networks is already having deadly consequences. The increasingly complex supply chains for drugs are highly susceptible to blockages, causing shortages of medicines.
  • Pakistan is still suffering from monsoon-induced floods in 2010 and 2011.
  • If hurricanes Sandy & Katrina had hit the US seaboard in the same season as last year’s drought, even the United States might have struggled to cope.
  • The cessation of exports from the Philippines from fisheries and agriculture would affect 6% of US production directly, and secondarily could affect 21% of US Production

Social unrest.  If there is world war III, global financial collapse, or major disruption that takes the world decades to recover from, when stability returns, it will be impossible to return to mining coal, tar sands, and oil and gas extraction.  We’ve left only the remote and difficult energy resources for a future society with mainly wood to use as fuel and not much tech-savvy left. Oil refineries cost tens of billions to build, we only have 30 refineries in the USA all built before the 1980s, by the time the USA recovers from the first collapse/depression, they will have either rusted or been targets of war or terrorism.  There will be very few engineers with experience left to rebuild the complex society we have now.  The infrastructure will be rubble, but this time both the energy and physical resources to rebuild with will not be available.

Microchips. The ability to make microchips will be gone for good, and the kind of machinery you need to get at the remaining coal, oil, and natural gas requires exquisite levels of nanotechnology level computerization and microchips — so no more fracking, mining, not even toasters…

The #4 problem is that our civilization is a House of Cards — it requires so many material resources, so much energy, and so many kinds of technical knowledge — that any missing pieces and the house can’t be rebuilt. Whatever poorer quality replication (simpler microchips, gravel roads) is attempted in the future won’t ascend nearly as high and will be more prone to collapsing again.  Liebig’s Law ensures that the next societies will never be able to reach the level of civilization we have now.

Liebig’s Law. A shortage of anything means little if anything can be rebuilt, or rebuilt extensively.  After the first collapse, all of the infrastructure will need replacing. To go back to trying to get the remaining remote oil, coal, and natural gas for the energy to do this requires too many components to list.  You’d need to rebuild roads, bridges, mining equipment.  A shortage of anything — knowledge, technology, steel, cement, iron, tools, microchips, container ships, trucks, food, water, plastics would prevent going back to the technology enabled by fossil fuels.

Cascading Failures

Gail Tverberg, at gives an example of a cascading failure as what might happen as a result of “oil depletion in Egypt, Syria, and Yemen. All of these countries were at one point oil exporters. They each now have substantial financial problems because of the loss of oil exports. The population of each of these countries has now grown, so there are now many more mouths to feed. Unfortunately, without oil exports, the financial situation is such that it is not possible to provide the level of food subsidies and other benefits that an oil exporter can provide. The result seems to be serious civil disorder that threatens to spread beyond the these countries own borders. See my post Oil and Gas Limits Underlie Syria’s Conflict.”

These factors work synergistically, and any one factor can create cascading failures in all the others.

No wonder world leaders deny peak oil.  Stability would vanish in an instant and bring on a permanent crash much sooner if world leaders acknowledged the energy crisis and lack of alternatives to replace fossil fuels.  On the other hand, the lack of critical thinking skills in America is extensive in America it might not matter.  Look at how many believe in endless growth forever (Capitalism), astrology, angels, deny climate change, and so on.  Scientific literacy is so low, and the pressure to always be positive and techno-optimistic so high, that telling the truth to enable people to properly prepare for the future might not make any difference, people believe what they want to believe.

Alice Friedemann

This entry was posted in 3) Fast Crash, Alternative Energy, Cascading Failure, Electricity, Infrastructure, Oil & Gas, Predictions, Supply Chains. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Cascading failure + Liebig’s Law + Supply Chain Breakdown = Collapse of civilization

  1. Ted Howard says:

    Thanks Alice!
    William Catton first raised my awareness of Liebig’s Law in his book ‘Overshoot’, and I find the lack of understanding of this amongst activists a big problem. But then again we’re in a dominant insane culture , where by design, the masses are energy and ecologically illiterate.

    Big changes coming as The Great Unraveling starts to pick up pace…

    “Exciting times”, eh?!

  2. buz painter says:

    David Korowicz outlined it as well as any in his two papers: “Tipping Point” and “Trade Off”. When I read those papers I knew then that it was over. Time to hug your kids/grandkids and say goodbye. Now to deal with the inevitable depression which follows. Damn, what a run we had though.

    Perhaps the ants or cockroaches can do better next time/