Ugo Bardi predictions of the future from “Extracted”

[ This is just a small sampling of what Bardi thinks might happen post fossil fuels, mostly shortened and reworded.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.

When we can’t afford to commute we’ll live near where we work and walk.

Although the degrowth movement thinks a simpler society would make us happier and our lives less stressful, it’s likely we may spiral downward too quickly and revert to a purely agricultural society, not what most would call a positive result.

Only a tiny fraction of society accepts the degrowth philosophy, and unfortunately due to Jevons paradox, any resources saved are used up by someone somewhere else.

If we have forced degrowth, it’s likely to play out as in the Soviet Union in 1991 as described by Dmitry Orlov. After the collapse, soviet citizens life expectancy went down, abd increased rates of drug abuse, depression, and illness.   Security collapsed due to massive crime, the gap between rich and poor widened, social services declined, and Orlov sees signs of collapse in America already (also see his book Reinventing Collapse).

We might avoid the worst in terms of climate disruption [as fossils decline], but what about high-grade ores and the dispersal of the elements they contained all over the planet in forms that cannot be recovered without tremendous amounts of energy?

Most likely we return to an agrarian society. The big flare of fossil fuels will end up being just a short-lived episode—a peculiar moment of energy availability that generated a lot of commotion and movement but abated rapidly.  M. King Hubbert had already predicted this in 1976 in a paper titled “Exponential growth as a transient phenomenon in human history”.

Future agricultural civilizations will have to cope with badly depleted soil that was ruthlessly mined during the industrial age, which will take centuries, so global population will probably be much smaller than today.  At least our descendants won’t need as much stuff as now, and will be able to “mine” plenty of metals from aluminum beverage cans, copper from pipes, iron and steel from buildings and so on.

the only way to make new metals by smelting them, or making machinery, and the structures we have today will be limited by scarce wood resources and the charcoal to provide the heat and power. There’d be little choice but to go back to muscle power of humans and animals, unlikely to ever again restart an industrial revolution.

The planet has been “plundered to the utmost limit, and what we will be left with are only the ashes of a gigantic fire. We are leaving to our descendants a heavy legacy in terms of radioactive waste, heavy metals dispersed all over the planet, and greenhouse gases—mainly CO2—accumulated in the atmosphere and absorbed in the oceans.”

It appears that we found a way to travel to another planet without the need for building spaceships.  It is not obvious that we’ll like the place, but there is no way back; we’ll have to adapt to the new conditions. It will not be easy, and we can speculate that it will lead to the collapse of the structure we call civilization, or even the extinction of the human species”.

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4 Responses to Ugo Bardi predictions of the future from “Extracted”

  1. JT Roberts says:

    Basically even ignoring the ecological limits. The pure fact that debt to GDP growth is at 400% should make economists pause for a minute. Debt is new money it can only be paid back through growth. If debt exceeds growth it can’t be paid back. You can’t borrow your way out of debt. Once we include the depletion of resources it’s sealed conclusion the system will collapse and collapse hard.

    • Rutger says:

      Money gets too much attention, because after all, it’s only a token, a means to distribute what real wealth is available. After all, its truly only our social structures that determine that some get more than others.

      I imagine the privileged will act with increasing greed over the the size of their pie as it continues to shrink over the coming decades. Though the marginalised, and those that join their ranks from the previously privileged will only put up with an undersized stake in societies output for so long before the status quo is upturned.

      Debt, like money is just another means of accessing, or controlling real resources. Of course, that’s not to say it’s insignificant in the lives of individuals, especially if it means as an individual you are pushed to the margins of society and don’t have access to resources that others do.

      Once we accept that money is only a temporary means to distributing resources, and our right to consume beyond the means of agrarian society is a fool’s errand, we can get on with the hard work of preparing ourselves, and future generations for actually thriving within an agrarian level society.

      On a positive note, humans are able to replenish soils much faster than we currently rob them of nutrients. However it would be much easier to get on with that now whilst we have the energy and institutions that can organise this on a large scale to undo what has been done, I’m not hopeful though for national scale efforts, I expect it will fall on individuals with an interest in this. Other’s will learn by example. Sadly, it will be tricker to educate and distribute the knowledge required to do so after a collapse, in any case, it will happen much to late to avert the worst consequences of a die off.

      Of course, this is all assuming sufficient arable land is not rendered totally useless by contamination of the aforementioned heavy metals, nuclear waste, climate change, loss of biodiversity and so on.

      • energyskeptic says:

        I don’t think we can replenish our topsoil quickly, it’s a geological layer that takes a long time to form. Iowa has gone down to 9 inches average topsoil from 18 inches a century ago, and you need 6 inches to grow food. From Peak Soil http://energyskeptic.com/2017/peaksoil/

        On over half of America’s best crop land, the erosion rate is 27 times the natural rate, 11,000 pounds per acre (NCRS 2006). The natural, geological erosion rate is about 400 pounds of soil per acre per year (Troeh 2005). Some is due to farmers not being paid enough to conserve their land, but most is due to investors who farm for profit. Erosion control cuts into profits.
        Globally, Professor John Crawford of the University of Sydney estimates that soil is being lost 10 to 40 times faster than it’s being geologically replenished, leaving around 60 years of topsoil left to be mined for food. Already 40% of agricultural soil is classed as degraded or seriously degraded — 70% of the topsoil is gone (WEC 2012).

        Wall and Six (2015) have calculated that farming methods have increased soil erosion to rates much greater than soil is formed — it can take up to 1,000 years to form 1 centimeter (0.4 inch) of soil. “Human activities have transformed soils, lands, and regions with long-lasting effects that include desertification, decreased organic matter in soils, altered biodiversity, and changed biogeochemical and hydrological cycles. As a result, the land available for food production is shrinking, irreversibly in some cases. Converting cropland to biofuel systems and urban centers is having the same effect.”

        Erosion is happening ten to twenty times faster than the rate topsoil can be formed by natural processes (Pimentel 2006). That might make the average person concerned. But not the USDA — they’ve defined erosion as the average soil loss that could occur without causing a decline in long term productivity.

        Troeh (2005) believes that the tolerable soil loss (T) value is set too high, because it’s based only on the upper layers — how long it takes subsoil to be converted into topsoil. It ought to be based on deeper layers – the time for subsoil to develop from parent material or parent material from rock. If he’s right, erosion is even worse than NCRS figures.

  2. Rutger says:

    @energy skeptic, I agree with much of what you are saying, but thinking of soils as a ‘geological layer’ misses the point. Most people assume soil is a sponge that retains nutrients for plants, and ultimately us. It’s not the depth of the soil that counts for the most part*, it’s the organic lifeforms that reside in the soils that work in symbiosis with the plants that promote the production and exchange of nutrients (which leech from the geological layers below and above). For instance, legumes do not fix nitrogen themselves, but the bacteria that reside in the roots systems. Provide the conditions that promotes the biodiversity and yield can be maintained even in the bare minimum depth of soils. If we could then simply halt the future erosion, we can secure our yields.

    *Some crops can perform adequately in shallow soils, whilst others require deeper root systems to thrive. This is no doubt why the USDA refers to erosion without decline in productivity. In the face of shallow soils, with plants that prefer deep root systems, one approach is to double down on the application of fossil fuel derived fertilisers, and some plants could cope with shallow roots. But that’s not sustainable as we know the fertilizers are fossil fuel derived, so the ultimate goal is to restore biodiversity of the soil (i.e. ban pesticides, both insecticides and herbicides) whilst building soil structure to support the diversity. A sensible first step is to start composting human and animal waste, rather than flushing it into sewers and/or natural water systems and out to sea.

    Unless the erosion is reversed, or halted at some point, swathes of land will be limited to growing the few crops that can only survive with shallow soils and root systems and they will of course be dependant on the application of fertilisers, unless we can implement permaculture practices.

    We can’t fix this within the context of industrial agriculture. We would need to revert to labour intensive production methods which don’t erode the soils, but build them. Obviously the impact on industrial civilisation would be quite profound, and cheap food would be a thing of the past.

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