How I stumbled on the energy (and ecological) crisis

You can trace my worries about gasoline back to when I was 10 years old.  Our family was on an epic camping trip, driving through Death Valley in 120 Fahrenheit heat, and probably higher than that in our dark Blue Rambler with no air conditioning.  When I stuck my head out to cool down, it was like putting my face in a blast furnace. The gas gauge nearing empty, and I kept my eye on it until we finally pulled into a gas station.

But going back even earlier than that, I’d been pestering my parents and complete strangers to teach me to read since the age of 3, so when I finally learned how to read in first grade, it became my passion in life.  I was born to read, driven by my main trait, curiosity about EVERYTHING. Between the ages of 9 to 17 that drove me to read the Funk and Wagnall’s encyclopedia in our house from A to Z.

Another big influence on me was finding out Santa  Claus didn’t exist at age 5.  I cried and cried when my 8-year-old friend Craig told me and I stayed up long enough to see Dad put presents under the tree as he told me to do.  I was also angry about being lied to, and that was the beginning of wondering what else I was being told that wasn’t true.

And sometime around that age I learned that saying Butt! really loudly was naughty, though it made my younger bother laugh so hard that milk spilled out of his nose and I was roundly scolded. So I whispered to my brother that a butt was really an Oompah, and after that I would parade around the room saying oompah which my parents thought was really cute and made my brother laugh hysterically.  But it also added to my perception that things weren’t what they seemed necessarily.

When I was around 9 I discovered a wonderful magic store about two blocks away, and visited constantly to see the owner demonstrate the latest tricks, and then save up enough money to buy some of them to find out how the trick was done.  It sunk in over time that if magic could trick people so easily, it might be easy to trick other people in other ways as well.

Such as at Riverview amusement park which I started attending around then when I became taller than the clown and could ride the roller coasters that we boasted were bigger and better than Coney island coasters later in life to annoy New Yorkers. There were also many beautiful, extremely scantily clad women I much later realized where hookers, and endless rows of carnival barkers with crooked games you never managed to win a big stuffed animal at.  I still remember one where you put a quarter on a number and yet somehow the spinning wheel never landed on a number with a quarter on it.  Wondering how this was done, as the wheel slowed down, I grabbed the counter and pushed up high to catch the operator with a foot pump he could control the speed of the wheel with.

I also discovered Mad magazine around age 9 or 10 at the news stand two blocks away. I found its parodies of TV shows and how society worked incredibly funny and early on this gave me a mischievous and somewhat rebellious nature.

Another key factor in how I evolved was when my parents let evangelists into the house once a week. After my grandfather Pettijohn, a geologist at Johns Hopkins heard about this, he gave me a book about “The Monkey Trials”, where Clarence Darrow cleverly questioned the literal nature of the biblical stories, and this was also the first time I learned about evolution.  And that, I began a new  monkey trials and it wasn’t long before the evangelists left and I became keenly interested in evolution.

Although I wasn’t an atheist yet, because I was very much wired to believe in God, after the Monkey trials God receded from the angry wrathful Santa-in-the-sky who knew if you’d been naught or nice to a more abstract entity.  This was furthered by mom, who believed heartily in new age supernatural beliefs. It wasn’t long before me and my friends were playing with ouija boards, Kreskin’s ESP game, and I began reading new age books.  I was especially enamored of one that had a  six step method of how to leave your body.  How wonderful!  I’d be able to fly around the sky, go to amazing places any time I wanted!  But after months of trying I complained to Dad, and he said “Well, not everything you read in a book is true”.  “What!” I screamed. “Do publishers know it isn’t true too?” And Dad said quite sadly, yes, that they were trying to make money.

I was really really shocked — and the thing is, I continue to be shocked after a lifetime of reading investigative journalism.  Though not surprised any more as I constantly was back then.

My most vivid moments that I can still remember from school are mostly the very few times we learned critical thinking.  The first time was 6th grade, where I was forced to take the position in a debate that 18 was a better age for teenagers to start driving than 16.  I came up with three reasons and my opponent Eric came up with four.  Everyone voted for Eric when the teacher asked for the winner. I felt terrible. But then she said she thought I had won, because my arguments were better, and that it was more important to consider how good arguments were, not how many.

In seventh grade we voted on whether the Lochness monster was real or not, and though we all voted yes initially, we were then walked through other evidence showing otherwise, and all changed our minds.  It was a lesson in what to even ask to prove or disprove something.

It was also in seventh grade that I gave a report in social studies from the National Enquirer that rats were eating babies.  The teacher, Mr. Bilsky, just roared with laughter.  I was mortified, but it was a great lesson in learning how important a trustworthy source of news was.

In high school, the teacher asked how we could be sure the moon landing actually had happened.  Photos could be faked for instance.  Eventually the teacher got us to realize that thousands of people would have had to be in on the hoax, and surely one of them would have squealed.

My favorite courses were learning about constitutional history, especially Hobbes who worried about the dark side of human nature and the need to have checks and balances, and Jefferson’s worries about corporations taking over the nation.

Most of all, I read Gibbon’s “Decline and fall of the Roman Empire”.  I was very happy that I would never experience that, clearly the USA was one of the strongest, wealthiest most honest nation in the world, ever, and that fate was probably thousands or more years away.  But how interesting that nations’ could fall, and wouldn’t it be like a detective story to look for things happening now that might lead to our failure thousands of years in the future?  That is the one category that I now find encompasses all others, including energy and natural resource decline, war, biodiversity loss, climate change, and so on.

I also loved the muckraking books we read, such as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” about the Chicago stockyards.  My favorite books of all, and which still are, are investigative journalism on any topic — such as the “The rich and the super rich” about the growing unfair wealth gap, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” by Richard Hofstadter, and too many others to list.

But my growing awareness also made me feel out of place, like an anthropologist from another country.  An outsider.   Thank goodness for Unit 1, an experimental living-learning center at the University of Illinois in Campaign-Urbana.  It was a magnet for creative and brilliant people of all kinds, from artists and poets to pioneers in computing science, a place where musicians and other performers visiting campus stayed for free in an apartment in exchange for interacting with us. I had finally found a place I fit in!  And this critical awareness boosted by the even smarter and aware students in Unit 1 also led me to  become an anti-war activist, feminist, ecologist, and environmentalist in high school.

And that brings me back to energy and running out of gas.  I was in college when the first energy crisis hit in 1973.  Growing up in the industrial city of Chicago, it was pretty obvious society ran on gas, from the trains that roared by to the endless lines of trucks and cars. Back then buildings were blackened by coal, and I always feel when I go back to see Mom and Dad that millions of people with scrub brushes must have scoured it all clean, it is amazing how buildings look now.

I think everyone was worried back then. Some of the brilliant Unit 1 students soon organized an alternative energy group may of us participated in that looked at wind, solar, and other alternative energies.   We invited engineering students to show us their projects or speak about the windmills and electric cars they were building.  One time they asked us to help them build a solar collector by drinking beer and then painting the cans black.  Alternative energy was not only going to be good for the planet, it was going to be a party!

In college I had no time to take English, but in my free time and summers worked my way through the classics from A to Z, especially liking Mark Twain and Russian authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

I went through the usual heart breaks in college, and I partly  blamed fiction, fairy tales, TV shows, and fantasy books steering me wrong about how the world really worked, and stopped wasting my time with fiction (except for extraordinary books like Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”, Marquez “A Hundred Years of Solitude”) and poetry, which speaks to the heart of human experience, metaphor, and the beauty of language.  I stopped watching TV for 20 years, and rarely watch it now.  Basically, I’ve been reading non-fiction for 42 years now.  A lot of it.

But even in high school I knew that I was no good at telling truth tellers from liars, and I had no idea how to go about telling them apart. So after college, I devoured skeptical magazines to gain critical thinking skills and try to figure this out.  I constantly roved the bookshelves at Cody’s and Moe’s in Berkeley, Green Apple in San Francisco, Powell’s in Portland, thumbing through books in science, natural history, cognitive psychology, anthropology, political science, biographies, history, and just about everything else. But that still didn’t get me any closer to figuring out who was telling the truth — but it did give me critical background knowledge that often helped me evaluate books on similar topics — I had some basis of comparison, some way to question what I read based on past reading, which is very important.

But I was in my thirties before I finally figured out the best way to tell truth from lies better (though I’m fallible and emotional and can suffer from fallacies like everyone else).

After my husband became a science writer at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in 1988, we joined the Northern California Science Writers Association, and the friends I made there steered me towards specialized books on evolution, the philosophy of science, and peer-reviewed science journals. I subscribed to Science, Nature, Scientific American, Discover and other magazines.

At this point you may think I’m really smart, but that is not true! I am not even close to being a genius.  Garrison Keillor likes to say that “all the children are above average” at Lake Wobegon.  That’s me.  Really, the only difference between me and most people is that I have a bigger picture view from spending a a lot more time reading a very wide-ranging amount of non-fiction than average.  I never had children either.  And I am not a naturally clear, critical thinker like my husband, who is super-duper at understanding the world and several decades of journalism and writing, superb at asking the right questions and the most objective and fair person I’ve met.  Both my parents believe in wacky supernatural things, take supplements, reject western medicine, and drive me nuts since I worry they’ll be taken advantage of or have their health harmed.  It’s been a long hard never-ending fight to triumph over my upbringing and perhaps genetics to get this far, and I have a long way to go still.  Thank goodness I have such a great husband, who I can bounce ideas off of and I continue to learn from him to this day.  Though he is a bit of a techno-optimist, but it makes him more delightful and fun to be around, and I’ve come to see this attitude as self-protective, I’m the oddball to be willing to look at such a depressing and disturbing reality.

When the oil shocks came again in 1979, I was too busy with my new career as a programmer at Electronic Data Systems and searching for a single man in San Francisco to think about it much.   Besides, maybe it would finally force the evil oil companies to stop preventing renewable energy from happening.

Sometimes my grandfather, Francis J Pettijohn, a well-known sedimentary geologist in the National Academy of Sciences, would try to educate me about the role of fossil fuels in civilization.  I’d counter with my alternate technology experiences in college, especially the solar beer can collector story.  He’d chuckle  and change the subject.

But then I read his “Memoirs of an Unrepentant Field Geologist” (Pettijohn) and was really struck by what he had to say about of M. King Hubbert:

“One student had a profound effect on my thinking and on the course of events later in my life — M. King Hubbert.  When I arrived at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1929 King was one of the first graduate students I met.  I was struck immediately by his personality.  He turned out to be something of the iconoclast, a sharp critic with an excellent analytical mind and skill in mathematical and physical analysis.  Nothing seemed to delight him more than finding a fatal flaw in someone else’s analysis.  Although he was a graduate student working for his Ph.D. under Rollin Chamberlin, I never could discover whether he took any courses, and I soon observed that, although Chamberlin was his adviser and supervisor, King neither needed nor accepted advice and supervision.  He was a very independent individual–a student of nobody.

Perhaps King’s most dramatic achievement was his prediction of oil depletion. This paper dealt with the trend and future production of oil and gas in the United States. King clearly saw that at the time the discovery rate had peaked and production would soon culminate, and that it and our reserves would begin an irreversible decline.  He predicted a peak production in 1970.  His paper created a great deal of consternation in the oil world, and provoked heated controversy; he was roundly denounced.  It was heresy indeed in a profession that is constitutionally optimistic and incapable of conceiving of its demise.  It turned out, as we all now know, that King was right”.

Yikes!  Had oil peaked?  I did an idle internet search, and bang!  Alarming articles at the Colorado School of Mines website about Hubbert’s Peak, (or what participants in the oil industry called the “reserve replacement problem”), which should be right about now.  Although a bit frightening, there was far more bad news to contemplate at Jay Hanson’s dieoff.org.  It wasn’t long before I joined several forums such as energyresources and runningonempty (also started by Jay Hanson), energybulletin, theoildrum and too many others to list to learn more.  There were about 500 people back then following this issue, several of them well known professors like H. T. Odum at the University of Florida, and several graduate students of Charles A. S. Hall and other systems ecologists who posted the latest information on the forums.

So where were the beer solar collectors?  How come there wasn’t much alternative energy thirty years later, even though everyone knows the oil won’t last forever?  I spent hours at University of California (Berkeley) libraries reading technical journals about hydrogen, solar, wind, biofuels, soil science, nuclear, geothermal and other energy resources, as well as auditing classes, attending seminars, and lectures.  Through the internet forums, I discovered many books and articles I would never have found otherwise.

Gradually it became clear why alternative energy couldn’t replace oil.  But when I tried to explain why to family and friends, they thought I was nuts.  This was happening to everyone else on the forums too (see “Telling Others“).

And who could blame them? It’s not a sound bite to explain. Perhaps a semester of lectures might win someone over to the views of theoildrum, ourfiniteworld.com, and other great forums, but that’s not how conversations go, I had about a minute to make a point, and then it’s someone else’s turn to talk.  That’s how conversations work.  The other person was usually angry or exasperated with me for not seeing that solar, wind, nuclear, and other kinds of power could replace oil.

For example, when I try to explain why this is a diesel fuel crisis, because trucks, tractors, and other diesel combustion engines do the actual work of society that keeps us alive, but can’t be electrified for many reasons.   Such as batteries or fuel cells would are far too heavy, and overhead wires won’t work, there are 4 million miles of roads and millions more miles of farmland that can’t be covered with overhead wires.  Outraged sighs of disbelief ensue. So I quote Physicist Richard Muller at the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote in “Physics for Future Presidents”, that “high-quality, expensive batteries—the kind used in cell phones and portable computers—store only 1% as much energy as gasoline, pound for pound” (page 305), and scientist Kurt House that there are laws of physics which limit the amount of maximum energy stored to around 3-5% of gasoline pound for pound, so the size and weight of batteries for trucks and tractors will always be too large and heavy. I’m either told I’m arguing from authority, the conversion goes back to electric cars, or more fun topics.

I once believed whatever I wanted to believe too, because I had no way of knowing who was telling the truth – so why not believe what sounded most appealing?  I even had a new age phase in junior high school that was quite delightful.  Space travel, astrology, the Loch Ness Monster, ESP, and all sorts of other magical thinking ruled my understanding of the world. What crashed this fantasy world was when I got one of Mom’s books off the shelf about ten steps to having an out-of-body experience, and after months of trying, got frustrated that it didn’t work.  When I complained to Dad, he told me that not everything you read in books was true.  I was flabbergasted, demanding to know if the publisher had known the book wasn’t true, and he said it was very possible, because the book industry wanted to make money.  Not long after that, I found a story about rats eating babies in the Enquirer, and gave a report on this in history civics class, and Mr. Bilsky was so outraged and amused, that I got yet another lesson on not believing everything you read.

So I understand how easy it is to dismiss ideas you don’t want to believe in, especially if they’re scary.  I could have dismissed the posts at energyresources and elsewhere on the internet if I hadn’t read most of the recommended books.  Unlike articles in magazines, books have the time to really nail down a topic, close all the loopholes.  You can’t change the conversation.  The full complexity and interactions with related topics can be explored.  Above all, there are references to pursue further.

So when I read Youngquist’s outstanding book “Geodestinies”, Gever’s “Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades”, and so on (see my booklist), the awareness of the consequences hit me like a sucker punch. This would be the worst disaster to ever befall mankind, with up to 6.5 billion people dying by the time it was over and a wood-based civilization from now on.  Fossil fuels were a unique, one-time only phase of our history.  I’d already spent so much time reading non-fiction (and lots of ecology, natural history, etc)., that the puzzle pieces clanged together all at once, like a jail door in a prison.

The future unfolded like a nightmare. I was depressed for months.  Violent scenes from films played unwilling clips. Armies marched, women wept over graves, Scarlett O’Hara dug up carrots.

I can see now why people thought I was nuts, there was no energy crisis, what was I nattering on and on about?  Nothing was in the news about this at all.  It wasn’t until 2006, when National Geographic put Peak Oil on the cover, that I gained some credibility with friends and family.  But even now in 2016, most people still think  alternative energy is going to rescue us from both climate change and declining fossil fuels.

I’ve been accumulating material since 2000 on the energy crisis, which encompasses many other areas – ecology, environment, climate change, carrying capacity, soil science, agriculture, transportation, infrastructure, global trade, the financial system, politics, cyber war, nuclear war, terrorism, natural disaster, and more.

Energyskeptic.com is my attempt to translate high-quality, preferably peer-reviewed scientific literature about these topics into information the average person can understand.

I learned when my husband was a science writer at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory how often the scientists didn’t like what he wrote — it was too simple, they feared being criticized by other scientists because simplifying their research made it less nuanced, less “true” because maybe only one part was discussed, scientific terms weren’t used, and so on.  So I’m sure experts will find fault with my understanding of a topic, or how I’ve phrased it, or what I’ve left out, especially most of the numbers and graphs, which my friends tell me makes their eyes glaze over.

Above all, my career as a systems analyst/engineer in health care, banking, and transportation has affected how I think and write.  Often I was trying to take a workflow and computerize it, capture critical information for the sales department as soon as possible, create a unique manifest for a new country we were shipping to, and to do this you need to understand the process from the very beginning to the very end.  Usually I could get 95% of the work done in 5% of the time, it was that last 5% that was the problem.  Sometimes projects weren’t cost justifiable because it would cost too much to get the missing data, or take too many employees, or take too long.

It was my job to prevent expensive projects with a negative return from happening in the first place.  Money returned on money invested.  So discovering Charles Hall’s energy returned on energy invested made a lot of sense to me.

When I started looking at energy resources, I found that  a lot of optimistic, positive articles in the news media were some kind of breakthrough in the laboratory that would not likely ever work out. Perhaps it depended on a really scarce rare earth metal, or the new and improved batter lasted longer — but you could only recharge it a few instead of hundreds of times.  There is a financial incentive to blare these so-called breakthroughs — more investment or grant money.

The most important aspect of an energy resource is whether it takes more inputs of fossil fuel energy than the output energy returned, or Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI).  So for a windmill, you’d look at how much fossil fuel energy was used to mine the iron, aluminum, concrete, to fabricate all the components, and so on to the delivery of the windmill, and subtract out the fossil fuel energy required to operate and maintain it.  Basically, you need to find out if more fossil fuels are used in the full energy life cycle than what’s going to be delivered by the windmill over its lifetime.  Even though this is the most important aspect of looking at alternatives to replace fossil fuels, I find that most people don’t understand this concept, or don’t want to understand it.

But even if a windmill had a positive EROI?  SO WHAT?  Any contraption that generates electricity isn’t worth a fig newton, because tractors, harvesters, logging and mining trucks and equipment, construction and road trucks, cranes, forklifts, 18-wheelers all run on diesel fuel.  Not electricity. The 8,000 parts of the windmill aren’t going to arrive at the factory without trucks.  The wind mill isn’t going to be moved to its destination without trucks.

Even many scientists who should know better use far very narrow boundaries to come up with a positive result. Studies that found a positive EROEI for corn ethanol were often done by scientists funded by the National Corn Growers Association, weren’t peer-reviewed (data and methods open to all scientists), and kept the energy analysis  to within the biorefinery.  Important energy inputs like the energy to make fertilizer, the tractors to plant and harvest crops, trucks to deliver the crops to the biorefinery, and delivery of the ethanol by truck or train weren’t included.

Much as I like EROEI, and can’t resist mentioning it, there are just too many ways to cheat — cherry picking numbers from LCA that tilt the results the way you want them to come out, leaving out key energy inputs, and so on.

There are plenty of other factors that trip up alternative energy replacements.  Biofuels are limited by nitrogen, the depth and quality of topsoil, water, and so on.  Solar PV, windmills, computers, and much other technology now depends too heavily on limited supplies of rare earth and platinum metals.  Peak uranium, peak phosphorous, peak everything basically. There are dozens of resources that are getting short that could also cause the collapse of civilization as we know it.  Fossil fuels have hidden from us what a deep hole we’ve dug for ourselves — we’re still able to continue to mine less rich ores and get at difficult and remote resources.  Oil is the mot important of all.  It is the magic wand that can make anything happen, prevent water shortages by drilling 1,000 feet deep, and used to get all other resources, including other energy resources like coal and natural gas.

Running out of water?  Build a very energy-intensive desalination plant.  Food requires a tremendous amount of water, so import food instead, or grow food hydroponically.  These all require fossil fuels.

Oil is the fuel burned by trillions of combustion engines doing the actual work of society by moving goods, food, and water. The easiest resources, the richest ores, have been used up, so declining oil at a time when all of the remaining resources depend on oil for their extraction while at the same time are remote, depleted, and difficult to get — including oil itself — ought to trouble everyone, but it’s been years since peak oil was in the mainstream news.

It’s also hard to believe energy resources are a big problem because newspapers focus on today’s news.  Oil shocks in the future is not a story because it isn’t happening right now.  Important issues are only covered when there is “news”.  So the last time the New York Times wrote about nuclear winter was 1991 after Carl Sagan’s book “Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race” came out. A more up-to-date paper on nuclear winter wasn’t reported — Robok’s 2007 “Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts”.  However, Scientific American did report on this in their January 2010 issue in “South Asian Threat? Local Nuclear War = Global Suffering. Worry has focused on the U.S. versus Russia, but a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan could blot out the sun, starving much of the human race”.  But how many people read Scientific American?

There has never been, and never will be again, a collapse of this magnitude. There are way too many factors to predict when, how, and how long the collapse will occur, and the suffering will vary greatly from place to place even within the same nation.  But a collapse is inevitable because it’s hard science, every living being on earth depends on (food) energy, and humans have temporarily been able to jack up the carrying capacity of the earth by 6.5 billion people using the hundreds of millions of years of solar energy locked up in fossil fuels.  It’s absolutely certain that there won’t be 7.5 billion people a century from now.  But how long it will take to go back down to 1-2 billion is hard to predict, or what the exact series of catastrophes are that will cause systemic collapse.

Still, like in any murder mystery, we know who the suspects are.  It’s the order of the dominoes that’s unknown.  Any one domino can knocks others over — if Mr. Financial System crashes he’ll knock down Mr. Oil Production because new projects won’t get funded, and Mrs Global Trade will go home and supply chains will break down.  If Mrs. Earthquake takes out Los Angeles or Tokyo, that will knock down Mr. Financial System.  Or Miss Oil Shock could bring everything to a halt and bring down Mr. Financial System (one of the reasons peak oil is avoided is because several think tanks have stated that a general awareness of Peak Oil would bring stock markets and banking systems down, since it would be clear that loans couldn’t be paid back since the economy would start shrinking and stop growing like it has the past 200 years).

We’re leaving future generations a pretty crummy world.  No one is thinking about the grand children, and I suspect that’s because we’re just not wired that way. Like other species, we live in the moment, from day to day.  We have a hard time even imagining being hungry again after a big meal. So when you’re tempted to blame someone for our dilemma — oil companies, politicians, economists, scientists – remember that it’s really no one’s fault, we inherited our predicament from previous generations who turned to coal, oil, and natural gas when their trees ran out.

The best action to take now is to stay under the energy depletion curve by women having no or just one child. We also ought to reopen Yucca mountain and put nuclear waste in immediately while we still have the energy to do it, or our descendants will be stuck all over the country with nuclear waste that lasts millions of years.  And also clean up mining waste, superfund sites, and other damage future generations won’t have the energy, and eventually know-how to clean up.

What we could do is try to preserve useful knowledge for the grandchildren.  I encourage you to buy books in my book lists.  Also hang on to undergraduate college level textbooks.  Computers will not outlast the age of oil for long, and even if more simple transistors can be built, they won’t be able to access the information stored on today’s hardware, so these digital files will all be lost.  Yet that’s increasingly where universities, libraries, and other institutions are putting information.  So if you know any librarians, you might want to pass my “Peak Resources and the Preservation of Knowledge” article along to them.

Whole Grains – an Essential Post-peak Skill  (http://wholegrainalice.com/ )

Each of us has something different to contribute.  For me, it was clear the electric grid would grow increasingly unstable.  Refrigeration will grow less reliable, leading to a need to get enough calories to survive from food that doesn’t need refrigeration.  The way people have done that for the past 6,000 years is by eating grains, which can be stored and allowed civilization to survive several years of bad harvests in a row.  Climate change will increase the number of bad harvests, but fortunately the technology to protect grain from pests and decay is much better now than it was in the past.

I’ve been baking with whole grains for many years.  I see my own small contribution to the transition  as helping people learn how to bake, mill, and store whole grains at home.  I’ve set up another website to teach these skills (http://wholegrainalice.com/)

There’s a saying “we’re only 9 meals away from a revolution”.  The longer hunger can be staved off, the less likely we are to experience a chaotic, violent tipping point when economic collapse, oil shortages, and other disasters increase in the future.

I wish I were more inclined to collect garden gnomes or porcelain ballerinas instead of gloom-and-doom articles, but this is where curiosity and the desire to know the truth have led me.  How I got to be this way is reviewed further here.


23 Responses to About

  1. Chester says:


    So much to learn so little time, but the more you learn the more comfortable you become as part of life on this planet.

    The age of consequences is upon us.

    Keep safe


  2. Ted Howard says:

    Hi Alice
    Firstly I appreciate what you’ve been doing. As a 15 year peak oil activist a lot of what you’ve covered resonates completely with me and my journey too.
    Please email. I have a response to your Optimism versus Ignorance article that I’d like your feedback. I posted it to a group I’m on and somebody has come back with a negative/’ignorant’ response I’d like to get your input on as I build something myself as well.


    Ted Howard
    New Zealand

  3. Malcolm Lyons says:

    Great summary Alice, as is your posting on contercurrents. You have a way of condensing the truth.
    I have struggled for years to introduce (let alone warn) my sisters to the true predicament we face. One of my sisters still remains utterly in denial but my father, wife and a few others I know are now aware.
    But I really dont see that enough people will get it or want to get it in time.
    I fear we will not prevail.
    Denial of grim reality has been selected for as a human trait and on an individual level has be a great survival advantage, boosting performace and mood. But collectively, in this situation this guarantees our decimation or even extinction.
    Timing is the question now.
    Kind regards
    Malcolm in New Zealand

  4. Ric Steinberger says:

    Is there a way to get on a mailing list for this site, so I get alerted when new posts appear?

    • energyskeptic says:

      I’ve got 15 years of articles I’ve accumulated that I’m going through now that I eventually hope to turn into books about decline and collapse, since I don’t think the internet will last at some point down Hubbert’s curve. I work in bursts as I find the time to do so and post the best of my archives. I don’t have a mailing list. What I do to keep up with the websites, blogs, and journals I follow is to create science, energy, and other topical folders in the bookmarks of Firefox and Explorer that I open up in tabs.

  5. John Howe says:

    How can I submit to your wonderful site?

    Also, I surface mail complete manuscripts, if I have your mail address.

    There are too many web and blog sites.

    John Howe

    • energyskeptic says:

      Dear John,
      I have some of your writing already, and I’ve posted your booklist and one child per woman if that’s okay, and hope I can post more of what you’ve written,

      Alice energyskeptic at ya h o o

  6. Gordon Graham says:

    Just listened to your interview with Jim Kunstler. Ever since being required reading my senior year at Cal in 1972, the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth,” and its successors, I’ve been concerned with “the poisoning of the planet.” Their latest recalculation has reduced the peak of their concerns from the 2030-2050 range to 2025. When Nafeez Ahmed wrote about “the decreasing resources crisis” as a contributing concern to the instability in Egypt last summer, a similar article about Syria a few weeks later, Governor Moon Beam’s emergency declaration there in California, the continuing spread of radioactivity from Fukushima and most, if not all, nuclear facilities, especially from Hanford here in the US, there does not appear to be any “safe place” on the planet.

    So my theme song has changed from “Blowin’ in the Wind” to “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” What else can one do?

  7. Auntiegrav says:

    Thanks, Alice.

    My concern is that the “optimism” I see in most articles about what to do and how to build communities is based on philosophy that doesn’t have people with skills to support it. Sure, there are lots of people getting into CSAs and intentional communities, tiny houses, etc., but when the crap hits the fan, there are very few people aware and willing that are also able to use wrenches and tools fast enough to do the things expected of us.
    I see the writing of most Change Optimists like an Ironman movie: people dream up all kinds of stuff as though it can be fabricated and produced magically by an artificially intelligent computer (or the alternative version: “if everyone would just do x”) with robots at its disposal and everything works as soon as it is thought of.
    It doesn’t matter if the technology is an electric car, a solar powered house, an intentional community whole grain system or simply planting a seed in the ground: the philosophers are dreaming of utopias but there just isn’t enough time to both coordinate the work and do the work, let alone raise money for it.
    Most of the “successful” people in organics that I see are working government jobs on the side or they are dependent on customers who have high paying jobs in government, education or some other ‘non’profit system of employment.
    It’s all running on money that’s running on hope, not actual work or closed-loop resource cycles.

  8. Wade Keister says:


    Can you contact David Blume? You two have much in common and I think he has very good info on NON-corn based Ethanol which you might be interested in..

    Thanks for your work


  9. I dredfully LOVE this massive compilation of knowledge and references on this subject. And even though you have provided an RSS-feed off the website, It’t really be a great step for spreading the word if you announce new articles on Twitter. The world needs you on Twitter! 🙂

    If you don’t feel you have the time, just install a plugin that automatically posts a link with the headline on Twitter every time you publish something new… Please do get these articles out to a broader audience. The audience is there!

    I just found this goldmine through your appearance on the Kunstler Cast. I think you came across very powerful and knowledgeable. Thanks for that and best of luck with your future work and… well, life I guess 🙂 Peace.

  10. I just found this blog last night. I have been reading on many of the subjects for about three hears now. I was formerly a specialized librarian working in health care and had a brief four year stint in what is now a large agritech company in Saint Louis ( an eye opening experience for a naive optimist). I am building my own print library, as I once heralded the benefits of e-stored resources from CDs, online databases and and writing applications to make all these seamlessly work together. It might be an interesting exercise to write a talk for librarians or dor that matter the general public about the importance of physical resources verses virtual resources in regards to the assumption that we will “always have the energy” for the digital environment.

    On another note, climate is changing, but I no longer trust the so-called science of the glibak warming camp. I have been reading from Steve Goddard’s realscience blog, the Ice Age Now blog and others.

    In my own life, I now am establishing my own permaculture mini-farm, Wyndy Nwyps, about which I will begin blogging etc. as soon as we finish the 1200 sq ft home we are building ( includes rocket stove etc) on our 5 acres on central Whidbey Island, WA.

  11. ti says:

    EROI is an important indicator but it is not enough, a few others play a key role in assessing the efficiency of an energy source

    suggested readings

    Feasibility of Large-Scale Biofuel Production
    Mario Giampietro; Sergio Ulgiati; David Pimentel
    BioScience, Vol. 47, No. 9. (Oct., 1997), pp. 587-600

    The Biofuel Delusion: The Fallacy of Large Scale Agro-Biofuels Production
    Mario Giampietro and Kozo Mayumi

    free download of his papers

    • energyskeptic says:

      Have you read my Peak Soil article, first published in 2006? I’ve read these and thousands of other papers, I spent 3 years learning soil science to write it. I don’t spend much time on EROI because it’s too easy to argue about the boundaries. Pimentel edited my paper, as well as Tad Patzek and Walter Youngquist


  12. Colin Megson says:

    If we, in the UK, had Gen IV breeder reactor technology in place, we have enough of our most precious energy resource to supply all of our energy needs – electricity, liquid fuels, heat, fertilisers – to last 500 years. That’s energy security big-time.

    We are awaiting a no-brainer decision from our nuclear authorities to use a GE Hitachi PRISM reactor to burn our plutonium stockpile. It could render the plutonium useless as a bomb making material in 5 years. From the fuel produced, it would chug away for a further 50 or 60 years generating 622 MW of emission-free electricity.

    This same reactor can be configured as a Gen IV breeder and we’d need about 1000 of these factory-built units, grouped together on about 200 sites, to do the job. It does seem do-able and in burning our most precious energy resource, the legacy for future generations will be clean energy not nuclear waste.

    That’s the UK taken care of – on the premiss nuclear fusion might just be in place by the time we run out of fuel.

    What is your take on Gen IV breeder reactors taking over from fossil fuels, worldwide?

    • energyskeptic says:

      The main issues with nuclear reactors are their capital cost and long time to build, the odds are good that since they’re all aging there will be more Fukushima’s and breakdowns, turning the public against their use, and above all, no where to store the waste. Plus nuclear is baseload power and doesn’t ramp or down quickly enough to match demand, which will bring on a blackout (no problem now but a big one when natural gas runs out). But that’s not the real issue – the real issue is that transportation depends nearly 100% on oil, and that transport that really matters, freight, runs on diesel fuel and their combustion engines can’t burn anything else, and coal and natural gas are near their peaks as well, and there isn’t enough biomass to make a significant amount of diesel from biomass. The thousands of suppliers for a nuclear generator won’t be able to ship, truck, fly, or send their components by rail to the building site, the workers won’t be able to get there without cars – civilization ends when transportation stops, especially trucks.

  13. Rob Ryan says:

    Well…. yes and no. Many things will happen quickly when the writing is on the wall. IF we have energy, oil (including diesel for transport) is not an insurmountable problem. Oil is a hydrocarbon. We have carbon (too much in the atmosphere) and we have hydrogen (the oceans are full of it, albeit combined with oxygen). All that’s lacking is the energy to separate the oxidized hydrogen from the water and the oxidized carbon from the atmosphere and, voila, hydrocarbons aplenty!

    Of course, the energy to undo the oxidation will be significantly greater than the energy derived from the oxidation, but if the energy is available it can be done.

    And of course, many non-transport energy uses do not require liquid fuel. And it’s likely that, were the energy needed for the creation of needed liquid fuels to become available, it would be electrical energy which can be used for some transport, heat, lighting, etc.

    Nevertheless, even given that energy (solar, fusion, fast breeder reactors, whatever), we’re still on a path toward disaster by various other sorts of self-poisoning. To the extent that we’re on a non-equilibrium path, we will come to grief.

    I can envision a world in which a global equilibrium with energy availability is achieved at population levels well in excess of those you mention on a wood based energy economy, but I don’t have much hope that my vision will be realized.

    • energyskeptic says:

      This is a liquids fuel heavy-duty transportation vehicle crisis. There are trillions of dollars worth of billions of trucks, ships, locomotives, and equipment essential for planting and harvesting food, building and maintaining infrastructure (roads, bridges, construction), and mining. They all have DIESEL ENGINES, which can last 40 years and go a million miles. They do NOT burn hydrogen.

      Since water is one of the few substances besides air and dirt abundant enough to scale up as a fuel, hydrogen is a logical choice.

      But hydrogen (H2) isn’t an energy source – it is an energy carrier, like a battery, putting you in negative energy territory immediately when you split it from natural gas or water, and again when you compress or liquefy it, and again when you store it in extremely heavy and expensive steel containers, and again in pipelines, and again to deliver it, with each step using more and more scarce energy (only fusion would provide enough according to Hoffert, see http://energyskeptic.com/2014/science-no-single-or-combination-of-alternative-energy-resources-can-replace-fossil-fuels/):
      1. To split hydrogen out of water takes a tremendous amount of energy, so 96% is made from natural gas
      2. Then H2 needs to be compressed, purified for fuel cells, or liquefied and cooled to -423 F using energy-demanding cryogenic support systems.
      3. Storage tanks and pipelines are heavy since H2 is the smallest element, enabling it to escape through the tiniest imperfections, so fuel cell engines and storage tanks have many seals, gaskets, and valves. Hydrogen requires expensive tanks and pipelines made of special steel that won’t become brittle and crack or fissure what it is contained within.
      4. H2 is very flammable and explosive
      5. Without pipelines, delivery requires a $250,000 canister truck weighing 40,000 kg delivering only 400 kg of fuel, enough for 60 cars. The same truck can carry 10,000 gallons of gas, enough to fill 800 cars. If the distance of 150 miles, the truck will burn the equivalent of 20% of the usable energy in the hydrogen delivered.
      6. And turning that hydrogen back into electricity with a fuel-cell will only be 24% efficient: .84 natural gas upstream and liquefaction * .67 on-board reforming * .54 fuel cell efficiency * .84 electric motor and drivetrain efficiency * .97 aerodynamic/rolling resistance efficiency, aided by regenerative braking from a 25 kWh li-ion battery (DOE)

      Although many would say wind energy is “free”, the wind turbine isn’t. Just one 2 MW wind turbine uses 1300 tons of concrete, 295 tons of steel, 48 tons of iron, and 24 tons of fiberglass.

      Hydrogen requires enormous amounts of energy to make. The state of California used 250 TWh of electricity in all of 2005, but it would take another 350 TWh, or 31 nuclear power plants, devoted only to making hydrogen in a 2050 renewable economy and provide only 90% of the needed hydrogen (CCST).

      CCST. September 2012. California’s Energy Future: Portraits of Energy Systems for Meeting Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets. California Council on Science and Technology.

      • Nathanael says:

        Really, trucks aren’t a problem. Battery-electric trucks are already practical and will take over quite quickly.

        Honestly our biggest problem is getting off of fossil fuels fast enough to stop ocean acidification, which will cause the collapse of the ocean food chain and the biggest mass extinction ever.

        At this point we can replace liquid transportation fuels for everything but airplanes really, really easily technically speaking, and the replacements are already more cost-effective in pure dollar terms. A combination of status quo bias / inertia, and political power by the fossil fuel industry, are preventing us.

        Unfortunately we don’t have much time to do the replacement before we trash the ocean food chain and starve.

        • energyskeptic says:

          In what way are battery-electric trucks NOT a problem? It is almost certainly impossible to ever run the trucks that matter: heavy-duty long-distance, cranes, construction, logging, mining, and so on trucks on batteries, they weigh nearly as much as the truck itself. They cost 3 times as much as a diesel equivalent. See these articles for more about why battery-electric trucks are not going to happen:
          Diesel is finite. Trucks are the bedrock of civilization. So where are the battery electric trucks? @ http://energyskeptic.com/2016/diesel-finite-where-are-electric-trucks/
          Who killed the electric car? @ http://energyskeptic.com/2016/who-killed-the-electric-car/
          Making the most energy dense battery from the palette of the periodic table @ http://energyskeptic.com/2015/making-the-most-energy-dense-battery-from-the-palette-of-the-periodic-table/
          All Electric Trucks. Probably not going to happen. Ever. Why not? @ http://energyskeptic.com/2015/all-electric-trucks-not-going-to-happen/

          As far as “we can replace liquid transportation fuels”, if you read the following posts at energyskeptic it is clear that biofuels cannot compensate for petroleum fuels. They don’t scale up, they have a negative energy return on investment, they are needed for all the other uses of petroleum (see list below), and biomass fuels are tremendously ecologically destructive to water, topsoil, and toxic and polluting chemicals, and so on. If you want to refute what I’ve written, then you need to provide a scientific reference to a peer-reviewed article (i.e. not a National Corn Growers Association sponsored EROI of corn ethanol paper), otherwise what you are saying is your opinion.

          “Peak soil: Why biofuels destroy ecosystems and civilizations” @ http://energyskeptic.com/2015/peaksoil/
          Biofuels do not scale up enough to power society @ http://energyskeptic.com/2015/biofuels-do-not-scale-up-enough-to-power-society/
          Dozens of reasons why the world doesn’t run on algal biofuels @ http://energyskeptic.com/2015/algae/
          One gallon of gas = 98 tons of ancient plants @ http://energyskeptic.com/2014/one-gallon-of-gas-98-tons-of-ancient-plants/
          Germany National Academy of Sciences report: Don’t use biofuels @ http://energyskeptic.com/2012/germany-national-academy-of-sciences-against-biofuels/
          Fill ‘er up with kelp? @ http://energyskeptic.com/2012/kelp-seaweed-fuel/

          Biomass such as wood and crops will need to replace natural gas, coal, and oil someday. It is the “Answer to Everything,” a feedstock providing:
          1. transportation fuel
          2. the source of the half-million products now made with fossil fuels
          3. baseload electricity and balance for intermittent power
          4. high-temperature heat needed to make cement, steel, ceramics, and glass
          5. heat for homes and businesses
          A lot of biomass is already spoken for. It provides food, grazing, and heats 10 % of American homes. Even the so-called “crop waste” is increasingly tilled-in by
          farmers to replace fertilizer and improve soil health.

          Is there enough biomass for it to be the answer to everything?

          Certainly, besides air, dirt, and water, plants are the most abundant and renewable resource that could
          possibly scale up enough to replace fossil fuels.

          Yet few studies consider how biomass would be shared among all these competing uses. California found that at best, due to limited irrigation water, California has the biomass to make 18 % of transportation fuel, but that a quarter of this biomass should be allocated to utilities to generate electricity (Youngs and Somerville 2013).

          And my book “When Trucks Stop running Energy and the future of transportation” have the latest research on batteries, biomass, the electric grid, electric trucks and trains, etc.

          Alice Friedemann http://www.energyskeptic.com

          Youngs, H., and C.R. Somerville. 2013. California’s energy future: the potential for biofuels. California: California Council on Science and Technology.

  14. Pingback: Anthropogenic Bookmarks – Noah Kruiper

  15. K Klein says:

    Just heard the latest Kunstlercast podcast (7/1/2016) at: http://kunstler.com/podcast/kunstlercast-278-alice-friedemann-trucks-stop-running/

    Very informative and I highly recommend it. I have the distinct feeling that at this time (Summer 2016), the trucking industry IS running on fumes. Pun intended.


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