Science magazine on Peak Sand 2017

[ This continues to be a problem, and a big enough one to gain the attention of one of the world’s top science journals.  Without sand, there’s no concrete, computer chips, glass, electronics (and more, see the overview in Peak Sand). Civilization ends if we can’t make computer chips or concrete (essential for supply chains for every single thing).

Sand mining also ruins ecosystems, lessens biodiversity, impairs water and food security, makes storm surges and tsunamis more destructive, ruins drinking water with salty water, and salinization of cultivated land reduces and even prevents land from being farmed.

in India (and elsewhere) illegally mining sand has become very lucrative and a “Sand Mafia” in Iindia has become one of the most powerful and violent organized crime groups there, and have killed hundreds of people so far in “sand wars”.

Standing-water pools created by extraction have increased the prevalence of malaria and other diseases.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Torres, A., et al. September 8, 2017. A looming tragedy of the sand commons. Science.

Increasing sand extraction, trade, and consumption pose global sustainability challenges.

Between 1900 and 2010, the global volume of natural resources used in buildings and transport infrastructure increased 23-fold. Sand and gravel are the largest portion of these primary material inputs (79% or 28.6 gigatons per year in 2010) and are the most extracted group of materials worldwide, exceeding fossil fuels and biomass. In most regions, sand is a common-pool resource, i.e., a resource that is open to all because access can be limited only at high cost. Because of the difficulty in regulating their consumption, common-pool resources are prone to tragedies of the commons as people may selfishly extract them without considering long-term consequences, eventually leading to overexploitation or degradation. Even when sand mining is regulated, it is often subject to rampant illegal extraction and trade. As a result, sand scarcity is an emerging issue with major sociopolitical, economic, and environmental implications.

Rapid urban expansion is the main driver of increasing sand appropriation, because sand is a key ingredient of concrete, asphalt, glass, and electronics. Urban development is thus putting more and more strain on limited sand deposits, causing conflicts around the world. Further strains on sand deposits arise from escalating transformations in the land-sea interface as a result of burgeoning coastal populations, land scarcity, and rising threats from climate change and coastal erosion. Even hydraulic fracturing is among the plethora of activities that demand the use of increasing amounts of sand. In the following, we identify linkages between sand extraction and other global sustainability challenges.

Environmental Impacts

Sand extraction from rivers, beaches, and seafloors affects ecosystem integrity through erosion, physical disturbance of benthic habitats, and suspended sediments. Thus, extensive mining is likely to place enormous burdens on habitats, migratory pathways, ecological communities, and food webs.

For instance, sand mining degrades corals, seaweeds, and seagrass meadows through direct removal during dredging operations, sedimentation, and reduction in light availability that compromises photosynthesis. As a result, it is a driver of biodiversity loss that threatens species on the verge of extinction—such as the Ganges river dolphin—as well as newly discovered species, such as the São Paulo marsh antwren, found in isolated marshes of southeast Brazil that have been heavily degraded by sand mining. Furthermore, sand transport vessels may carry one of the most aggressive freshwater invaders, the Asian clam, although the role of sand transport in the spread of invasive species remains underexplored.

Cascading Effects

Such environmental impacts have cascading effects on the provisioning of ecosystem services and human well-being. For example, sand mining is a frequent cause of shoreline and river erosion and destabilization, which undermine human resilience to natural hazards such as storm surges and tsunami events, especially as sea level continues to rise. In Sri Lanka, extensive sand mining exacerbated the impacts of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; ironically, sand demand for coastal restoration increased in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Extensive sand extraction also impairs water and food security. Extraction-induced erosion and degradation of riverine and coastal systems may disrupt the productivity of both wild (e.g., fisheries) and cultivated (e.g., mariculture and croplands) food sources. In the Mekong Delta, sand mining is responsible for enhanced salt-wedge intrusion during the dry season, which damages domestic water supply and increases salinization of cultivated land in Southeast Asia’s most important food-producing region. In Sri Lanka, saltwater intrusion due to extensive illegal sand mining has affected drinking water supply and led to severe declines in productivity of crops (e.g., coconut, rubber, and tea).

Health impacts associated with sand mining remain poorly characterized, but there is evidence that the conditions created by extracting sand can facilitate the spread of infectious diseases. New standing-water pools created by extraction activities in rivers and stream beds provide potential breeding sites for malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. Hence, sand mining has been associated with the spread of malaria. For example, Soleimani-Ahmadi et al. have shown that in Iran, the most common larval habitats for anopheline larvae of two malaria vectors (Anopheles dthali and Anopheles stephensi) are sandmining pools. Sand mining has also been associated with increased incidence of an emerging bacterial disease, the Buruli ulcer, in West Africa.

The high profits generated by sand trade often lead to social and political conflicts, including violence, rampant illegal extraction and trade, and political tensions between nations. For example, in India, the “Sand Mafia” is considered one of the most powerful and violent organized crime groups, and hundreds of people have been killed in “sand wars”. To gain land through land-reclamation projects, Singapore relies on sand imports from neighboring countries; the latter lose sand and suffer the consequences of mining, frequently leading to political tensions, accusations of illegal sand extraction, and sand export bans.

All these challenges have important implications for environmental justice. The degradation brought about or reinforced through sand extraction places heavy burdens on local populations, especially on farmers, fishers, and those—typically women—fetching water for households. People from these populations may become environmental refugees, as has already happened in Sri Lanka and the Mekong Delta. Increased vulnerability of eroded areas to flooding and landslides may directly displace populations, as shown by the recent relocation of over 1200 households in Vietnam.

Posted in Sand, Tsunami | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Who is Joe Arpaio? His Arizona women’s prisons are reminiscent of Nazi death camps

[ You may remember back in August 2017 that President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio.   But most left out an even bigger reason why he is truly evil: his Arizona women’s tent city prisons.  Below is a description of one from Johann Hari’s 2016 book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last days of the War on Drugs”, even better than any of the few news media who reported on this.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

The female chain gang meets at five o’clock every weekday morning, just as the sun is starting to rise over the Arizona desert. The women emerge unfed from the tents, surrounded by barbed wire, as they are ordered to put on T-shirts that display to the world why they are here. I WAS A DRUG ADDICT, it says in bold black letters you can read from a distance. I watch as they clamber into their striped uniforms, their limbs flailing with hunger and exhaustion. Then they put on leg-irons. Then the guards order them to begin their chant. Everywhere we go, People want to know, Who we are, So we tell them We are the chain gang, The only female chain gang. They have to stamp their boots and jangle their chains in rhythm to the song, as though they are the chorus line in some dystopian Broadway musical. And so their march out into the desert heat begins. Some days they are made to bury dead bodies. Today, they clamber into a bus. They are being taken, they are told, to a parched, trash-strewn traffic island in the 110-degree heat and ordered to collect trash, in front of signs urging people to vote for the politician who has pioneered this particular form of punishment.

When they step out into the sun, the women are shoved a bottle of sunscreen. The expiration date on the bottle, I notice, is 2009—three years earlier. It comes out as a thick paste. One girl is free3 of the chains. It is her job to nail into place a sign that says CAUTION! SHERIFF’S CHAIN GANG AT WORK! and to fetch water for women when they are on the brink of collapse. Gabba is a pale, bony nineteen-year-old Italian American. As I follow her around, she tells me that she was thrown out by her parents as a teenager and started using heroin. “It was my escape,” she says, looking down.

I can see Candice staggering around, looking fazed. She is a blond woman in her twenties with an inflamed red face that looks as if it is being slowly eaten by something. It is bleeding where she has scratched it too hard. The doctors have told her it is an allergic reaction to the bleach they use in the tents, she says, but there is no alternative for her.

She ran away from her family when she was fourteen and joined the carnival, and she started using meth there. “It was the best thing I ever had in my life—it made the bad feelings go away,” she told me, scratching. “I’m afraid to get released because I don’t know what I’m going to do. It numbs all the bad feelings. It makes me not feel anything.” Like everyone else, Candice is sweating constantly in this heat, and the salt in her sweat is making the rash burn.

The other T-shirts the women are forced to wear say I AM BREAKING THE NEED FOR WEED, CLEAN(ING) AND SOBER, and METH USER. Michelle, an older former meth user, says to me as she collects rubbish awkwardly: “A lot of people didn’t have a lot of dignity to begin with, to come here, and what they did have is taken away. Everything . . . [is] about humiliating us until there’s nothing left.” A few hours after she tells me this, when she has been in the desert sun all this time covered only with out-of-date paste, Michelle starts vomiting4 and shaking, and has to be held up by the rest of the chain.

The day before, when I mentioned Harry Anslinger’s name to the man who invented this chain gang—along with a slew of other ways to punish addicts—his face beamed big and wide.

He had Harry’s signature on his wall, staring down at him as he worked. To him, Anslinger was a hero, a role model, the man who started it all. He kept repeating Anslinger’s name in our conversation as though stroking a purring cat: “When you go back to Anslinger—you got a good guy here!”5 Harry Anslinger employed Joe Arpaio in 1957 to be an agent in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and he rose through the bureau over decades. Since 1993, he has been the elected sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. He was eighty when I met him, and about to be elected to his sixth consecutive term. His Stetson, his shining lawman’s badge, and his sneer have become national symbols of a particular kind of funhouse-mirror Americana, and his hefty chunk of Arizona, home to nearly four million people, is now Harry Anslinger’s last great laboratory. Sheriff Joe has built a jail that he refers to publicly as his “concentration camp,” and presidential candidates flock here during election campaigns, emerging full of praise. Anslinger said addicts were “lepers” who needed to be “quarantined,” and so Arpaio has built a leper colony for them in the desert.

The guards have also ordered them to chant warnings that they will be given electric shocks if they dare to talk back: We’re in stripes They’re in brown [meaning the guards] We walk in chains with them close by We dare not run, we dare not hide Don’t you dare give them no lip ’Cause they got tasers on their hip.

This isn’t an idle chant: in the jails and prisons of Arizona, several inmates have been tasered to death.

Back in the prison, the women are unshackled and strip-searched to see if they have any drugs in their vaginas or anuses. They live in tents that Arpaio got the military to donate for nothing. Many of the tents are from the Korean War. At night, you can hear the low scuttle of scorpions and the squeak of mice venturing out from the nearby trash dump. In the winter, it is freezing. In the summer, the heat hits you like an unimaginably vast hairdryer pointed at your face. Inside the tents, the temperature hits 140 degrees.

There is a well-built air-conditioned prison nearby, but Joe Arpaio has thrown these prisoners out of it and turned it into an animal shelter.

The first time I enter Tent City, the prisoners crowd around me, trying desperately to explain what is happening. “This is hell!” one of them shrieks. They are given two meals a day, costing 15 cents each. It is referred to by guards and inmates as “slop”—a brownish gloop of unspecified meat that Arpaio boasted to a reporter contained “rotten” lumps, and costs at most 40 cents a meal. People from the outside can give you money to buy small items from the commissary, like potato chips, but there are plenty of inmates who have nobody willing or able to give them money, so they live in a state of constant hunger. The prisoners are never allowed to touch their visitors: it all has to be done by video. Your children can be brought into a visiting room, but you will be handcuffed to the table and not allowed to touch them in any way, no matter what age they are. Even when the child cries “Momma, Momma” and asks for a hug, the prisoner cannot reach out, and has to watch her child crying, helpless. The guards, the women say, openly mock and abuse them: “They think it’s funny,” one woman says, “to see us down. To see us without our children.” Another tells me: “It’s like they’re trained to be brutal.

The next day, I return to take down more details—but something has changed. The prisoners who hurried to me yesterday, full of pain, face away from me now. When I approach them in the tents, they are mute, and simply shake their heads. I walk from one to another: they all refuse to talk, and when I keep asking, they try to shoo me away. The cacophony has been replaced by a perfect silence. One

woman grabs at me as I pass and says that she’s sorry she can’t talk to me but she’d like to shake my hand. As she does, I realize she is passing me a tiny folded note. I open it later. “If I speak the truth to you I will go to the Hole and it’s awful, you have nothing. Please understand, I’d like to talk to you but I can’t. They are watching us,” it says. “We all got in trouble yesterday after you left. Please don’t let no-one see this note.

I find a psychologist named Jorge de la Torre. His job is to provide some counseling for the women here. He has a weary air about him, as if he has misplaced something and can’t quite find it. Some 90 percent of the inmates are here because of a drug related problem and virtually all are from traumatized backgrounds.  At any one time, Jorge can treat 1 in 100 of them.

The author goes on to say that unfortunately, this is not a freakish outlier of a prison, and the rest of the chapter goes further into the nightmare injustices prisoners endure.

Posted in Drug wars and the prison system | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Would we be happier as hunter gatherers than farming?

[ Someone posted an article in facebook from the New Yorker titled “The case against civilization. Did our hunter-gatherer ancestors have it better?”  And the author’s answer is a resounding “yes” backed only by bullshit.  I was so annoyed I dashed off this post.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

The hunter-gatherer Bushmen of Botswana are always trotted out as what a life in paradise we once lived in (as well as the Pygmies occasionally).

Why don’t these people who idolize hunter-gatherer trips ever bring up Napoleon Chagnon’s experiences with the Yanomamo?

As a balance to unthinking noble savage admiration, I highly recommend his book “Noble Savages: My life among two dangerous tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists”.  Like the Bushmen, they are one of the last tribes living the hunter-gatherer lifestyle today.

But in the Yanomano, Native American, and other tribes all over the world, we know a constant fact of life was that up to a third of men died in an ambushed or ambushing others.  The goal was to get a new wife, and slaughter or enslave her children.  If you don’t believe it, take a vacation to Hawaii and read the tourist boards at historic sites – it was a god damn bloodbath most of the time.

Farming was inevitable, no matter how onerous. Any society that adopted agriculture gained enough surplus population to win wars against hunter-gatherer tribes, and so farming inevitably expanded.

Another big reason wheat and other grains were the basis of civilization besides taxation is that they can last for 7 years, important when a crop failure meant starving to death, and long enough to last beyond several years in a row of bad harvests.  Grains also pack a lot of calories and nutrition per unit weight.

And grains are light-weight. Napoleon partly won wars because he put really good bread bakers on the front lines.  Soldiers can more easily carry and eat a loaf of bread than a giant sweet potato.  And a loaf of bread is what John Muir took with him to the high country while he tended flocks of sheep.

Slavery is not due to literacy, farming, and civilization. Illiterate Africans and American natives enslaved each other.  Human nature is responsible for slavery.

Humans have always imagined there was a Golden Age in the past.  Today, many idealize the time between the Civil war and early 1900’s.  If you’re one of them, the book “The good old days, they were terrible!” will quickly put an end to that idea!

Nearly everyone except the bottom 2 billion are living better and longer lives than any civilization before us, which is entirely due to fossil fuels.  The most privileged can travel all over the globe while before fossils few traveled more than 10 miles.  We have comfort at the flick of a switch and so on.

I think many of us who are aware of the miseries of the past were hoping to wake people up to peak oil so we could be more thoughtful about designing ways to retreat to the past and create a better society than those in the 15th century. The end of fossil fuels means retreating centuries into the past.  We should be thinking about ways to prevent a feudal system and instead one based on small farmers and merchants.  Though human nature being what it is, I don’t know if that’s possible.

I don’t see any hope of going back to the so-called idyllic hunter-gatherer past. The agricultural cat is out of the bag.


Posted in Agriculture, Agriculture, Human Nature | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Rising Sea Levels – What to do?

Preface. I first published this in June 2014, but thought I’d re-update it now that $2.5 million is going to be spent by Resilient by Design on 10 teams to come up with solutions for rising sea levelsThey failed to come up with anything useful:

  1. Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge Proposals Unveiled (Part 1)
  2. Resilient by Design Bay Area Challenge Proposals Unveiled (Part 2)

The problem with levees and seawalls are that they just push the water to higher flooding levels where to protection exists.  See my energyskeptic book review of “Battling the Inland Sea” about the building of the levee system in California in the 19th century for more lessons to be learned from the past.

The only solution I can see that makes any sense is the one to dredge vast amounts of the bay to create wetlands that extend out from the shore the required distance.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

What Can be done?

Levees and Seawalls. Protecting California from a 1.4 meter rise in sea level would require 1,100 miles of levees and seawalls, and would cost roughly $14 billion (table 1) to build and $1.4 billion a year to operate and maintain it. No one is going to spend $14 billion on this, because there’s no guarantee the levees and seawalls would work, and the sea is going to keep rising for millennia, constantly overtopping whatever is put in place. An unusually large storm event can also cause it to rupture like the levees in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, even if it has been well maintained.

Paradoxically, it increases vulnerability. Hard shoreline protection is not as effective as natural shorelines at dissipating the energy from waves and tides. As a result, armored shorelines tend to be more vulnerable to erosion, and to increase erosion of nearby beaches. Structural flood protection can also increase human vulnerability by giving people a false sense of security and encouraging development in areas that are vulnerable to flooding.

Barriers are ecologically damaging and would harm the Bay’s salinity, sedimentation, wetlands, wildlife and endangered species, and increase sedimentation, making parts of the Bay shallower, while increasing coastal erosion.

A huge dike under the Golden Gate bridge won’t work for many reasons – it would cost four times as much as the Three Gorges Dam, and California gets huge floods (i.e. Arkstorm). If the dike were up to protect from rising sea levels, we’d be flooded from inland water with upstream flooding in the freshwater tributaries of the Bay.

Elevated development is a short-term strategy. Unless it’s on stilts directly over water, characteristics of shorelines are altered and will need protection just like low-lying development. Its advantage is merely that it is not threatened by sea level rise for a longer time. We don’t know if higher land or structures will support high-density, transit-oriented new development. Much of our region’s high-density neighborhoods and transit are near the Bay’s shoreline. If low-density development is allowed along the shoreline, it could increase global warming emissions, and may not warrant expensive protection measures in the future.

Floating development: structures that float on the surface of the water or that float during floods or tides. Floating development works only in protected areas, not in areas subject to wind and wave action from storms, such as the ocean coastline. This type of development has not yet been demonstrated in high-density cities. From an engineering perspective, many structures can be built to float, though they cannot be retrofitted to do so.

Floodable development: structures designed to handle flooding or retain stormwater. Floodable development could be hazardous. Stormwater, particularly at the seaward end of a watershed, is usually polluted with heavy metals and organic chemicals, in addition to sediment and bacteria. Large quantities of stormwater sitting on the surface, or in underground storage facilities, could pose a public health hazard during a flood or leave contamination behind. This could be a particular problem in areas with combined sewer systems, such as San Francisco, where wastewater and street runoff go to the same treatment system. Also, wastewater treatment systems that commonly treat the hazards of combined sewer effluent before releasing it into the Bay do not work well with salt water mixed in. If floodable development strategies are designed to hold and release brackish water, new treatment methods will be needed for the released water to meet water quality standards. Finally, emergency communication tools and extensive public outreach and management would be required to prevent people from misusing or getting trapped in flooding zones. Floodable development is untested. We don’t know if buildings and infrastructure can be designed or retrofitted to accommodate occasional flooding in a cost-effective way. It is not clear exactly how much volume new floodable development tools will hold. Some of the more heavily engineered solutions, such as a water-holding parking garage, may not turn out to be more beneficial than armoring or investments in upsizing an existing wastewater system.

Living shorelines. Wetlands are natural and absorb floods, slow erosion, and provide habitat. Living shorelines require space and time to work. Wetlands are generally “thicker” than linear armoring strategies such as levees, so they need more land. They also require management, monitoring and time to become established. Living shorelines are naturally adaptive to sea level rise, as long as two conditions are present. The first condition is that it must have space to migrate landward. The second condition is that they must be sufficiently supplied with sediment to be able to “keep up” with sea level rise. Due to the many dams and modified hydrology of the Delta and its major rivers, this is a concern for restoration success in San Francisco Bay. Wetlands will never be restored to their historic extent along the Bay, in part because of the cost of moving development inland from urbanized areas at the water’s edge. Important challenges for our region will be determining how much flooding new tidal marshes could attenuate, restoring them in appropriate places, and conducting restoration at a faster rate than we would without the looming threat of rising seas.

Managed Retreat. Abandon threatened areas near the shoreline. This strategy is a political quagmire. It involves tremendous legal and equity issues, because not all property owners are willing sellers. And in many places, shoreline communities are already disadvantaged and lack the adaptive capacity to relocate. In addition, retreat may require costs beyond relocation or property costs if site cleanup — such as to remove toxics — is needed following demolition

Consequences for the ports and airports

The main problem for shipping is not the port. It’s the roads and railroad tracks surrounding the port that are vulnerable, many of them less than 10 feet above sea level, and there’s nowhere to move them. Raising them would make them vulnerable to erosion and liquefied soils from floods or earthquakes.

An even bigger deal would be any harm done to the Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach, which handles 45%–50% of the containers shipped into the United States. Of these containers, 77% leave California—half by train and half by truck (Christensen 2008).

The Port of Los Angeles estimates that $2.85 billion in container terminals will need to be replaced. If the port is shut down for any reason, the cost is roughly $1 billion per day as economic impacts ripple through the economy as shipments are delayed or re-routed according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2008-2017 Strategic Plan. Replacing the roads, rails, and grade separations nearby would cost $1 billion. If the port’s electrical infrastructure were damaged, equipment such as cranes would be non-operational and cause delays and disruptions in cargo loading and offloading. These would cost $350 million to replace. The port also has an 8.5 mile breakwater that prevents waves from entering the harbor with two openings to allow ships to enter the port. An impaired breakwater would render shipping terminals unusable and interrupt flows of cargo. The breakwater has a $500 million replacement value and is managed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Airports. Meanwhile, all of the airports in the SF Bay area are vulnerable to sea level rise, especially San Francisco and Oakland. In 2007, the Oakland International airport transported 15 million passengers and 647,000 metric tons of freight. San Francisco International Airport is the nation’s 13th busiest airport, transporting 36 million people in 2007 and handling 560,000 metric tons of freight $25 billion in exports and $32 billion in imports, more than double the $23.7 billion handled by vessels at the Port of Oakland.

County                        Miles of levees & Seawalls     Cost 2000 dollars

Alameda                      110                              $   950,000,000

Del Norte                    39                                $   330,000,000

Contra Costa               63                                $   520,000,000

Humboldt                    42                                $   460,000,000

Los Angeles                94                                $2,600,000,000

Marin                           130                              $   930,000,000

Mendocino                  1                                  $     34,000,000

Monterey                     53                                $   650,000,000

Napa                            64                                $   490,000,000

Orange                        77                                $1,900,000,000

San Diego                   47                                $1,300,000,000

San Luis Obispo          13                                $   210,000,000

San Mateo                   73                                $   580,000,000

Santa Barbara              13                                $   180,000,000

Santa Clara                  51                                $   160,000,000

Santa Cruz                  15                                $   280,000,000

Solano                         73                                $   720,000,000

Sonoma                       47                                $   240,000,000

Ventura                       29                                $   790,000,000

Table 1. $14,000,000,000 cost to build 1,100 miles of defenses needed to guard against flooding from a 1.4 m sea-level rise, by county.


Alice Friedemann in Oakland, California


Copeland, B, et al. November 24, 2012 What Could Disappear. Maps of 24 USA cities flooded as sea level rises. New York Times.

Grifman, P., et al. 2013. Sea level Rise Vulnerability Study for the City of Los Angeles. University of Southern California.

Heberger, M. et al. May 2009. The Impacts of Sea-Level rise on the California Coast. Pacific Institute.

Conti, K., et al. Nov 20, 2007. “Analysis of a Tidal Barrage at the Golden Gate,” BCDC

Preliminary Study of the Effect of Sea Level Rise on the Resources of the Hayward Shoreline. March 2010. Philip Williams & Associates, Ltd.

Sorensen, R. M., et al. Erosion, Inundation, and Salinity Intrusion Chapter 6 Control of Erosion, Inundation, and Salinity Intrusion Caused by Sea Level Rise.



Posted in Sea Level Rise, Transportation | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Battling the Inland Sea, the history of why and how the levee system was built in California’s delta

[ When settlers first moved to farm the central valley, they found it was often flooded with water, not the “desert” people often claim California to be.  A vast swamp over 100 miles long of half a million acres of swampland didn’t drain into the bay until late spring and summer.  In the end, 1,000 miles of levees were built to control the flooding, and this book is the story of how that happened, and why levees are quite a bit more fragile and vulnerable to breaking than dams.

Recently in the San Francisco Bay Area, $2.5 million was handed to 10 agencies to design ways to protect 10 sites within the Bay Area from rising sea levels.   Perhaps they ought to read this book. One lesson to learn from the history of levees is that if one site builds has a protective seawall, it will simply push even more water onto nearby unprotected sites.   There are other lessons to be learned from this book too.

If you have any interest in politics, this book is also interesting, because it discusses how the rich farmers didn’t want any government interference and built their levees higher and higher to force the flooding onto other farmland. Often the farmer on the other side built an even higher levee, or came over and tore the other embankment down, and if it was rebuilt, tore it down again. Eventually small city-states took over the valley floor with its own levees and wars against neighboring areas.

One of the political parties “tended to be outspokenly anti-intellectual, outspokenly distrustful, even contemptuous, of college-trained men. It was common for fathers to warn their boys not to pursue higher education, else they would be feminized. Get out of school, they would say, and learn in real life what you need to know; stay away from books!.  Well, that sure hasn’t changed either.

The political party that represented doing what was right for the common good using unbiased government agencies was finally able to get the Army Corps of Engineers to come in and study where the most logical places to put levees were.   

What follows are my kindle notes, about 10% of the 420 pages.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Kelly, Robert. 1998. Battling the Inland Sea. Floods, public policy, and the Sacramento Valley.  University of California Press.

Critics of California agriculture like to describe the Central Valley as a natural desert, which man has transformed into a vast garden with massive irrigation schemes. Actually, the Valley floor more nearly resembled a swamp than a desert. Every winter and spring, rainfall and melting snow resulted in often destructive stream flows coming off the mountains into the Sacramento River and its tributaries. Typically, vast ponds would form on much of the Valley floor, taking months to drain into San Francisco Bay. The struggle of farmers and towns was, as often as not, with too much water rather than too little.

For more than half a century, debris from hydraulic mining washed down the Sacramento River tributaries, choking channels, and inundating farms and communities.

Engineers proclaimed that there always would be enough hydraulic capacity within the levees of the river for even the largest flows. They based this belief on studies of the flatter, slower-moving Mississippi River. Their theory, proven incorrect, was that high velocities in a constricted river would scour the channel bottom deep enough to carry all the water.

A competing theory, first advanced in the 1860s by Will Green, a newspaper editor from Colusa, held that a defined bypass system would more nearly mimic the Sacramento River’s natural condition in which high flows spilled out of the channels and ponded onto adjacent lands. Green realized that mountain runoff meant swift flooding that could overtop levees. He recognized that his proposed bypasses would require dedication of large tracts of farm land to occasional flooding. He worked hard to make the bypass system a reality, but it did not happen during Green’s lifetime. The great flood of 1907 ended this debate when the huge amount of water flowing through and out from the channels made it clear that a bypass system was essential. To the extent that any “doubters” remained after the 1907 flood, they were silenced by the nearly-equal 1909 flood.  After that, what we now call the Sutter and Yolo Bypasses gained broad acceptance.

The first reservoir to allocate a specific portion of its storage space to flood control was not created until Shasta Dam and Reservoir were built by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the early 1940s. Today, there are six reservoirs in the Sacramento River Basin with flood control storage paid for by the federal government. It is estimated that without this storage at least $10 billion of additional damage would have occurred in the Sacramento Valley in the 1997 flood.

A significant problem with levees, which are constructed adjacent to natural river channels, are not as reliable and safe as dams.  When dams are constructed, alluvial material is dug out, often very deeply, and replaced with cement or hard earth so that potential seepage paths are eliminated.  But most levees were simply built on top of nearby ground without regard to layers of sand or gravel underneath, and hence vulnerable to seepage. It was recognized that some seepage would occur through or underneath levees but it was assumed that the brief time in which high water stood against a levee would not lead to failure.

This defect in many levees now recognized, and remedial steps like grout-cutoff walls and seepage control systems are being retrofitted into existing levees. However, given the more than 1,000 miles of levees in the Sacramento Valley, this is time consuming and expensive. Even when levees are upgraded, they are not designed to the same safety standards as dams. Yet the public would probably not be willing to pay for levees constructed to the same standards as dams. Thus, while actions must be taken to make levees safer than when they were first constructed, levees by their nature are the weak link in the flood control system.

California’s first State engineer, William Hammond Hall, once said that he feared people might become complacent and think we had finished providing flood control, when in fact we should always remember that most Sacramento Valley urban and agricultural development is in the historical floodplain. To the extent we can afford it, we should improve our flood control system to guard against what we haven’t yet seen but most certainly can expect.

A current pitfall is to think the federal standard of protecting against the 1-in-100 year storm is adequate. That standard is merely a statistical approach to administer a flood-insurance program. It has little to do with ensuring protection for the hundreds of thousands of people living and working behind the levee system. It is worth remembering that the Dutch, who have lived with flood threats much longer than Californians, aim for a minimum protection of 1200 years, going up to 3,000 years on their major rivers.

Soon after the Gold Rush which exploded in the late 1840s, thousands of the people who came to Central California and settled in the fertile Sacramento Valley, where they encountered a gravely threatening natural phenomenon. They discovered that during the annual winter cycle of torrential storms that for millennia have swept in from the Pacific, or in the season of the spring snow melt in the northern Sierra Nevada, the Sacramento River and its tributaries rose like a vast taking in of breath to flow out over their banks onto the wide Valley floor, there to produce terrifying floods. On that remarkably level expanse the spreading waters then stilled and ponded to form an immense, quiet inland sea 100 miles long, with dense flocks of birds rising abruptly to wheel in the sky from the delta to the Sutter Buttes and beyond.

Not until the late spring and summer months would it drain away downstream.

For the better part of the next several generations, embattled  farmers and townspeople struggled to get control of their great river system so they might live in safety on the Valley floor and put its rich soils to the plow. Today we see in the Sacramento Valley a literally remade environment, a creation of artifice, a produced object shaped into disciplined and rational form after many fumbles and decades of errors. Where wide floodwaters regularly swept freely over the countryside and the great silent inland sea held dominion for months on end with its half-million acres of swamplands running far beyond vision’s reach, there is presently an ordered, carefully drained and cultivated garden, as well as many farms, towns, and Sacramento, California’s capital city.

Thin stands of tules rise in the drainage ditches by the roads, living fossils of the huge matted tule forests that, in the Valley’s natural condition, blocked almost all cross-Valley travel. Even the natural grasses have almost disappeared, for the seeds that arrived with the immigrants from the Eastern states produced a new flora of grasses in California’s grazing lands.[1] Rice and alfalfa fields occupy hundreds of square miles of the Valley floor, and deep-plowed fruit orchards mass in closely packed ranks beside the rivers. The Sacramento and its tributaries are hidden behind 1000 miles of high levees, massive in their bulk, which have made a Holland of the Sacramento Valley. In high water times the rivers are allowed carefully to overflow at controlled locations into a leveed bypass channel, the excess waters then moving within these walls down-valley through the lowlands to pass unimpeded out a straightened and gigantically widened river mouth. No more the long tarrying of floodwaters on the Valley floor for months on end, forming the inland sea; it is a brisk and disciplined passage now to Suisun Bay.

In following the Valley’s story, we watch small communities of villagers and farmers gathering together their meager local funds, hooking up their horses and rudimentary scrapers, and piling up long mounds of earth to make levees along their stretches of the river high enough to force floodwaters over onto the other side, in order to safeguard their own. In prompt riposte, those who live behind the opposite river bank then step forward to do the same, so that levees mount higher and higher, and all without overall plan or guidance in an absolute wilderness of classic American laissez-faire and localism.

In the presence of this internecine conflict, at one point we follow a masked party rowing to a disputed high embankment to overpower guards and cut the embankment open, allowing the river once more to pour out through its normal overflow channel and thereby save riverfront lands downstream. And after the embankment is rebuilt, we see its enemies mounting another naval assault to rip it open again. Eventually a complicated patchwork of what are in effect small city-states takes form on the Valley floor, in the shape of many locally financed and locally controlled reclamation districts, each with its own levees and more or less in permanent rivalry with its neighboring principalities.

All of this came to fruition in an extraordinary burst of public discussion and policy making, in California and in Washington, reaching its peak during the whirlwind years of Governor Hiram Johnson and President Woodrow Wilson (1910–1920). The campaign achieved lasting success in the building of a still actively functioning state and federal partnership, embodied in California’s Reclamation Board and in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Sacramento Flood Control Project. The construction of this partnership, and the adoption and building of a centrally regulated valley-wide system of integrated levees, weirs, and bypasses,

There are now hundreds of thousands of people living on a million acres of protected land in the Valley who could never have taken up residence there were affairs still in their natural condition; immense volumes of food are being produced

The Sacramento Valley, a warm and abundant natural environment rich in wild game. Thousands of antelope, tule elk, and deer grazed the Valley floor in drifting bands; grizzly bears hunted the thickets near the rivers; and the Valley’s many small and larger watercourses were full of fish. The Indian peoples of the Valley clustered near the watercourses, living in villages made of tule-reed hutments. Walled off from each other by language barriers in their separate enclaves of flatland and rough hill country,

The Indians conducted their lives in synchrony with the Valley’s resources and rhythms, living in relative abundance in their golden valley by gathering grass seeds and acorns, occasionally by killing large game animals or netting wild geese—often by catching fish with nets of wild hemp cast into the streams. They did little more to violate the Valley’s nature than to wade out into the watercourses each spring, and drive poles vertically into stream beds to form crude dams as, yearly, the salmon in a swelling tide returned from the sea to swarm upstream to their spawning grounds; they even formed such dams across the Sacramento itself where it was sufficiently shallow, and thereby created salmon-catching ponds. Through much of the year, drying salmon strung up by the Indians’ tule-reed houses gave their villages a reddish aspect. Indeed, as Theodora Kroeber’s tale of Ishi tells us, even among his remote people, the Yahi, who dwelled far inland by one of the smaller streams of the Mt. Lassen foothills, the annual advent of the salmon crowding into upland waters was for them a wondrous time of the renewal of nature’s abundance, of sport and carnival and feasting.

The Valley itself, which forms the northern third of California’s 400-mile-long Central Valley, is a broad flat amphitheater lying open to the south. Its floor, most of which is essentially a floodplain, rises so slowly and imperceptibly from the bay that eighty miles in a direct line north of the Sacramento’s mouth, it lies but sixty feet above sea level. Running a hundred and fifty miles north to south, the Valley attains a width of roughly forty miles through most of this distance.

The flatlands of the Valley were studded with oaks—high, stately trees with broad spreading crowns. The deep flowing Sacramento dominated the scene, its banks lined by a tangled riverine growth of tall oaks, sycamore, cottonwood, willow, and ash, about a mile in width. Men traveling horseback across the Valley floor in the late 1840s rode through open seas of wild oats and other grasses standing six feet high, stretching as far as the eye could see, and so thickly grown that their horses could only make their way with difficulty. In normal flow the Sacramento is a big river, carrying about 5,000 cubic feet per second, but in flood times it can on occasion swell gigantically to such immense flows as 600,000 cubic feet per second. Indeed, the river’s channel could never contain within its natural banks the huge flows of water that almost annually poured out of the canyons of the northern Sierra Nevada.

A band of territory perhaps five miles across on the eastern side and three miles on the west. In effect, each watercourse on the flat Sacramento Valley floor, from small stream to great river, flowed on an elevated platform, built up by the silt the streams deposited in their own beds. As floodwaters periodically rose to overtop the stream banks and spread out over the Valley floor, natural levees were also built up, for as the overflowing waters lost velocity they dropped their remaining burden of silt most heavily on the land immediately bordering the rivers. From these more elevated locations paralleling the watercourses, floodwaters flowed down to pond in wide shallow basins lying between the streams, the broad expanse of these flood-created lakes often leaving nothing dry but the natural levees bordering the rivers and the higher lands next to them. Together, the ponds in the basins annually created a vast inland sea a hundred miles long occupying the centerline of the Sacramento Valley which slowly drained back into the river channels and down through the delta during the spring months. In their lowest elevations, where the water ponded longest, immense swamps of tules (bulrushes), stood 10-15 feet high. The Indians built their homes, boats and sleeping mats of these tall, woody reeds.  The tule swamp ran as far northward as the Buttes, observing that it was “impassable for six months out of the year.”

The Sacramento Valley had abundant water, a long warm growing season such as American farmers had rarely before seen, rich soils, and highly profitable nearby markets, since from the time of the Gold Rush California would be one of the most urban states in the Union. Great herds of cattle were soon in the Valley, quickly followed by sheep. As they grazed, the high thick virgin grasses of the plains were cropped down. Fruit, wine, grains, and dairy products were produced in great volumes from thousands of acres of orchards, vineyards, and pasture lands. Smoke filled the Valley as the cutting down and burning of the great forest of valley oaks, to clear the land for agriculture, began. As the tall wild grasses and valley oaks disappeared, the long, clear vistas now characteristic of the Valley opened out. Will S. Green, a young Kentuckian who helped found the mid-Valley town of Colusa in July 1850, tells us that the thick forests lining the Sacramento’s banks were quickly put to the axe and saw to feed the fire boxes of the many steamboats plying the rivers, as well as the fire-places, stoves, and industries of Sacramento and San Francisco.

Farmers taking up Valley lands avoided the immense tule marshes that occupied the lowest portions of the basins paralleling the Sacramento River, since no one knew yet how to drain them, or had the necessary resources to do so. There was, however, ample land to  farm on the higher lands that immediately bordered the rivers themselves and tilted imperceptibly down into the tule swamps, or rose slowly upward from their outer fringes to the foothills.

The town of Sacramento, as these events revealed, was built in the middle of the inland sea that the Indians had warned appeared almost annually on the Valley floor. Few in the city, however, knew or talked with the Indians. As townspeople recovered from the inundation and looked about them at the waste of waters, they were not appalled and humbled by their experience but instead confident that the problem could be promptly mastered. On the 29th of January 1850, as the floodwaters were just beginning to drain away, a meeting of citizens quickly decided on the building of a levee around the town, and launched an engineering survey. When within a few days it was completed, the Placer Times remarked with complete assurance that “From the . . . examination and estimates, it will be seen that Sacramento City can be easily protected against inundations, and that, too, at comparatively small expense.”

The river rose in flash fashion, unlike the slow-rising Mississippi. In the wide valley of that stream and its tributaries, the ratio of water to square foot of land available to take run-off was about 1.5, whereas in the Sacramento Valley it was 22.

In 1850, however, this informed state of mind was far in the future, and in the new town of Sacramento, “Such . . . was the infatuated determination to believe the reiterations of the speculators [as to the town’s safety],” wrote a local resident, John F. Morse, ” . . . that a few weeks only [of drying out] were required to induce a confidence of future security, almost as great as that which had been manifested prior to the flood. . . .

Natural events then burst in to resolve the policy debate. Under the impact of spring rains the immense snow pack in the Sierra Nevada began, in its customary fashion, to melt, and in March 1850, the rivers began rising again. Now one of the men who had been active in the earlier levee meetings, an individual of energy and personal force who carried a Southern-sounding name and a Southerner’s habit of command, Hardin Bigelow, gathered a handful of men . . . [and] commenced damming out the waters at every low point . . . finally [extending] his temporary levee almost to its present limits. Night and day he was in the saddle, going from point to point, stimulating his men to exertion. For a few days he met tide and torrent, mud and darkness, and croaking discouragements which but few men could have endured, and, to the astonishment of all, saved the town from a second inundation. As a natural consequence, everybody praised him, and on the first Monday of April he was elected Mayor of the city.

In this spontaneous event, this personal triumph in the life of a man otherwise unknown to history, the basic form of the Valley’s response to Sacramento River, from that time to the present, was set. Bigelow had correctly forecast that flooding would be a recurrent danger, but in a crucially important decision he and those agreeing with him did not define the situation as one calling for the town of Sacramento to get out of nature’s way, that is, to move back to higher land, as John Sutter had earlier done, and thereby leave a clear passageway for flood waters. Rather, without apparent thought to an alternative, they urged the people of Sacramento to dig in where they were and fight off the water, clearing out a dry space in the middle of the inland sea for themselves and their town. The decisive fact in all of this hurried policy making was the circumstance that, in reality, Hardin and the townspeople of Sacramento knew almost nothing about the Sacramento River and its tributaries, save that they sent floods over the nearby flatlands. How big, actually, were the rivers of the Sacramento Valley in floodtime?

We will observe the people of the Valley, therefore, making mistake after mistake, and yet continuing to make decisions about the river for all the world as if they knew what they were doing. In truth, given their nature, given the inner state of American political culture—which had now been transported bodily across thousands of miles and planted firmly in California—nothing else was actually possible. Mid-19th century Americans were shaped in their most basic outlooks by the ebullient, bursting expansive years from the 1820s through the 1840s.  They were confident, impatient, entrepreneurial, defiant of life’s limitations, and determined actively to possess and develop the enormous continental expanse

Only three feet high and twelve feet across at its base, this first levee in the Sacramento Valley was a diminutive ancestor of the more than a thousand miles of immense levees up to twenty-five feet in height that now line the banks of the Sacramento and its tributaries. It could not do what they hoped for it. Two years later, in the high water season of 1852, it failed.

The people of the city of Sacramento and of the Valley at large would eventually find out that everything said about the river being easily controlled was simply fantasy. However, they persistently avoided this reality. They were the most reluctant and laggard of learners. So optimistic were nineteenth-century Californians, so assured were they that the environment could be manipulated as they wished, that they went on proclaiming their confidence to themselves decade after decade, despite the repeated failure of their plans and projects.

The city of Sacramento would have to build its levees ever higher as the years passed and at ever greater cost. Well into the 20th century it would be still taxing itself to pay for increasingly expensive and elaborate flood control measures. At one point the city even had to bring in millions of tons of dirt to fill in its own streets, raising them to the second floor of business houses. In this fashion Sacramento lifted itself bodily, for a considerable distance back from the river, to put its daily life above the flood level.

The most spectacular mining and water-gathering enterprises were constructed within the watershed of the Yuba River, in Nevada County, where the largest Tertiary gravel deposits lay. As early as 1857 the busy miners had dug 700 miles of ditches in that single county. The ditches snaked upwards along the long, broad, slowly rising east-west ridges of the northern Sierra Nevada, reaching from the mines ever higher to tap larger water supplies. Long flumes were sometimes suspended from sheer cliff-faces above the rivers. Most of these early ditch and flume systems were relatively short, but one was already forty-five miles long. Millions of dollars were invested in these projects, which as the years went by evolved into an immense interlinked complex of lakes and artificial reservoirs spread over a number of mountain counties. The rise of this huge water system was fueled by such demands as those of the North Bloomfield mine in Nevada County, which in the 1870s consumed a hundred million gallons of water a day. By 1879, when the hydraulic mining industry was at its apex of development, Nevada County was crisscrossed by more than a thousand miles of ditches and flumes.

The mud, sand, and gravel which washed out of their mines into the tributaries of the American River eventually flowed downstream to settle out in the river channels around the city of Sacramento and below.

“Much fear has been expressed in many sections of our country relative to the condition of the Sacramento, Yuba, Feather, and other rivers opening into the Sacramento. . . . [The] constant rush of muddy water from the streams above will continually fill them up, so long as the mining operations continue.”

California, like all the other states, certainly owned the rivers within its borders, as an attribute of its sovereignty; that much was certain. But if any of them proved to be navigable, that is, useful for commerce, then Gibbons v. Ogden meant that Washington, D.C., had paramount authority over how such portions of the rivers were used , so as to ensure that they remained free to interstate and foreign commerce.

From their beginnings, Americans have also been almost peculiarly, in the world, an individualistic people, which produced in American political culture a distrust of government so profound, and a dispersion of authority so complete, that to foreign observers the governing system in the United States has always had an air of near-anarchy.

Those who were disciples of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson and who, from the early 1830s, called themselves Democrats, were the fundamentalists on the issue. They inherited Jefferson’s and Jackson’s brooding distrust of the monied, regarded capitalists skeptically and worried about what entrepreneurs were doing to the country. They insisted that strong and active government was the greatest threat to liberty that Americans faced; that it was usually the instrument by which the wealthy got, through corrupt means, special economic privileges (tariffs, land grants, financial and taxing advantages) that enabled them to exploit the community at large.

With this national political context before us, events in California fall into place as appropriate and understandable. In the growing North-South conflict, California took a strongly Northern, anti–slavery-extension stand, and during the Civil War it lined up on the side of the Union. At the same time, California’s own internal political culture, its fundamental frame of mind, shifted in Whiggish directions, leaning toward corporate, team-spirit, and community-centered attitudes. In this climate of opinion, it was only natural that the state government would begin taking a vigorously active, interventionist role in managing the state’s natural resources.

San Joaquin County’s surveyor, who in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta had an immense region of swamplands to supervise, had regularly insisted that the swamplands could not be properly drained on a small-holdings basis. When great floods arrived, as they did regularly, the small works that such property owners could afford to erect were simply overwhelmed. It was essential, he said, for the system to be changed into one that would let persons of large capital buy sizable holdings and build large-scale enterprises.

Sacramento’s Amos Adams, counseled the assembly to put that proposal aside. They would soon be before the body, they said, with a much better plan. Flood control, they observed, was a unitary, valley-wide task. It could never be successfully met if the task was left up to many individual counties, whose efforts would necessarily be poorly aligned with each other. Rather, the time had come for the State of California itself, by freshly created instrumentalities, to assume direction of the entire matter.

The board set out to do its work in accord with sophisticated scientific principles. It brought an abrupt halt to the practice of allowing the Valley to be chopped into small uncoordinated drainage projects, each of them within borders aligned only with property owner-ship. Henceforth, flood control works were to be aligned with, rather than run across, the Valley’s natural drainage pattern. Experience had thus far shown not only that individually constructed levee enterprises failed, since farmers by themselves could not build large enough works to be effective, they actually worsened the problem because they cut off normal paths of flow.

The commission was empowered to create a new class of legal entity called districts, through which the actual work of reclamation in particular parts of the Valley would be carried out. This was a most fertile conception, one that would be seized on in the following generations in California to meet a wide range of basic tasks in governance. The “district,” for example, would in time become California’s fundamental solution to the task of creating viable irrigation systems, and would eventually be put to use to create and manage public schools, fire protection systems, and many other public services. It had the genius of blending America’s instinctive localism with central supervision, since legislative guidelines could tailor the districts specifically to meet particular policy objectives, primarily by establishing limits on their nature and powers. Resembling small principalities, the districts—which would be regarded by the courts as municipal corporations—had specified governing powers, to include taxation, over the territories within their borders. A swampland district was to be created only if it encompassed an area of land “susceptible to one mode or system of reclamation,” by which was meant land contained “within natural boundaries” that comprised, in drainage terms, an integrated unit. In practice, the board understood this requirement to mean that a district would usually encompass an entire basin between the main channels of the rivers. (Since the Valley’s rivers were in a depositional phase, laying down silt in their beds rather than scouring it out, their beds were higher than the lands on either side.) Individual basins could encompass more than a hundred thousand acres.

By the end of the Civil War, this extraordinary experiment in centralized planning and basin-wide flood drainage had fallen victim to its own exaggerated confidence. For one thing, not nearly enough money was available to do the job correctly. Engineers were routinely overconfident in what they believed their planned works could achieve, estimates as to costs were never high enough, and the dollar per acre selling price did not produce enough funds. Furthermore many landowners who lived back from the rivers on land rarely overflowed refused to pay their share, while others simply could not afford such expenses.

Nonetheless, others disagreed profoundly. To them, seasonal floods were thought an advantage, not a scourge to be fought off. Floodwaters were of course wonderfully fertilizing, since they regularly deposited fresh soil on the land, and it was often said that a succession of dry seasons produced overrunning populations of crop-eating rodents, which only periodic inundations could put down. More important, the floods offered a cost-free form of irrigation, which, after they had receded, allowed farmers to raise fields of hay and other crops to feed their livestock. As a Colusa County farmer, William Reynolds, would later observe to a legislative committee in the early 1870s, the best crops of grain ever raised upon the prairie lands were after they had been overflowed by one of the heavy freshets which have occurred every few years, and without such overflow no dependence can be put upon raising a good crop of grain. Even the waterlogged tule lands were useful for this purpose. The state’s surveyor-general remarked in 1856 that “It is well known the tules are extensively used in the dry season for food by cattle, and swine fatten in them better than elsewhere.”

Other critics of the program sensed accurately that in adopting what amounted to bold flood control plans for huge segments of the Valley, California was teetering on the edge of an extremely serious commitment.

The first thing that the board’s engineers called for and set in motion when a reclamation plan was approved for a particular district was the closing off of the sloughs—the natural overflow channels that opened out from the rivers’ banks to spread floodwaters out into the paralleling basins. This meant keeping much more water in the rivers’ main channel than it was used to carrying, with the inevitable result that the rivers ran at higher levels and flood stages were elevated. When high waters came and levees eventually gave way, as they usually did, the outrush of floodwaters on the Valley floor was even more violent and destructive than before, often reaching areas usually beyond the floodwaters’ reach. “[Unless] means can be devised to carry off the water excluded by levees [from the basins] as rapidly as they add to the accumulation of the main waters,” a letter to the Sacramento Daily Union remarked on February 19, 1862, “they must diffuse themselves over the rich border level lands that had never previously been subjected to inundation.”

Most damaging of all, the Board of Swamp Land Commissioners had taken on far too big a task. They had been charged by an overconfident legislature with building a valley-wide flood control system long before anything of this nature was remotely possible. Though engineers seem never to have been humbled by this fact, in reality no one knew enough to plan the projects effectively. The necessary information system was simply not yet in place, nor were the skills. Adequate knowledge, expertise, and technology were almost entirely lacking.

The board was in total ignorance of the kinds of things that it needed to know: detailed statistical information as to the size of flood flows and their flowage patterns. Generations would pass before cumulative valley-wide surveys by competent engineers, one building on the other, and the emplacement of stream gauges in the rivers, would finally uncover this information, that is, before the necessary learning process would approach maturity. The State of California and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would eventually discover to their surprise that the Sacramento River in floodtime was an enormously larger stream than anyone as yet dreamed.

The swampland commission was simply replaced by making each County Board of Supervisors into a miniature swampland commission for the territory within their own borders. They were given authority to approve or deny all levee-building plans presented to them, and the county surveyors were charged with being the flood control engineers for their jurisdictions. Thus, these local bodies and officials were suddenly given very large new responsibilities: they were explicitly to “have control of that portion of the work to be performed within their respective counties.”

Every five or six years an overflow may be apprehended, as the Indians told the first settlers.” It was also becoming obvious that mining debris was no longer confined to the river channels and injuring navigation only, for the sands had filled them to the brim and were beginning to flow out over the natural levees of the Yuba to settle on the countryside on either side. Laissez-faire was producing a massive blight on the environment. At year’s end, in 1861, the Appeal’s editor scanned the annual report of the county assessor and observed that he “might have added in his report that the valuation of bottom lands on the Yuba and Bear rivers is merely nominal this year . . . for the reason that the spreading deposit of sand and gravel has ruined what was, a year ago, excellent land.” These words were hardly printed when an enormous flood far exceeding anything people had earlier seen swept in to bury the Sacramento Valley. It would be fixed forever, thereafter, in the Valley’s memory as historically the most massive of all of its floods. Lasting for more than a month, its two peaks separated by several weeks, the double flood of 1861–1862 (December–January) spread devastation throughout the entire Valley. Cattle died in great numbers, city business districts and residential neighborhoods were buried deep in water, farm dwellings were destroyed, and many were swept away to their deaths by high waters. The inland sea had rarely ever spread so widely or had been so deep. When the waters finally receded in the Marysville region, there was general shock at what they left behind. A large part of the hydraulic mining tailings which had been piling up in the mountain canyons since the process first began in 1853 was scoured out by the high waters to settle on the flatlands. The territory south of the Yuba was reported to be “a desolate waste . . . a thick sediment of sand destroying all hopes of vegetation, at least for some time to come.”

[ This was the first California “arkstorm” in recorded history. They occur about every 200 years, and the next one may cost as much as $725 billion dollars, to learn more go here].

The editor of Marysville Daily California Express took a ride toward the mountains, crossing the plains bordering the Yuba River, and he came back to his desk to write out a sobering report:   For miles the east side of the river had great elevations of sand thrown out upon the plains, and fruit trees, which, in low water times, are many feet above the level of the Yuba, are almost entirely covered by sand deposits. A ranch owner up the Yuba informed us that out of about 2,000 acres of tillable land, not more than 200 acres were fit for agricultural or grazing purposes, the sand averaging from two to seven feet in depth. This was an appalling sight. Particularly disturbing was the knowledge that the lands disappearing under the sands—the bottoms—were among the richest and most fertile in the Valley. The Yuba’s original channel, in its natural condition, had been about three to four hundred feet wide, gravel-floored, with steep banks rising about fifteen to twenty feet on either side at low water. From the top of these banks, as a federal judge, summing up testimony in his court, would later describe the scene, there extended a strip of bottom-lands of rich, black, alluvial soil, on an average a mile and a half wide, upon which were situate some of the finest farms, orchards, and vineyards in the state. Beyond this first bottom was a second bottom, which extended some distance to the ridge of higher lands, the whole constituting a basin between higher lands on either side, of from a mile and a half to three miles wide.

It all posed a cruel, puzzling conflict of interests for the Valley people. As the rivers turned brown and silt settled in flatland channels, the shape of the future was obvious to all, and yet, the response was denial. For the simplest fact before the farmers and townsfolk of the flatlands was the ironic reality that they had a large economic stake in the gold mining industry, and therefore in one of its major segments, hydraulic mining. The mountain towns bought food and supplies from flatland farms and towns.

The people of Marysville were therefore in a deep uncertainty as to their interests in this matter, and for a number of years unable accurately to define their situation—which in turn meant that deciding on what to do, what line of policy they should adopt, was impossible. We may understand the reasoning, if not approve the foresight, in the response given by the mayor of Marysville to a visiting reporter in January of 1856. What do you think, he was asked, about the shallowing of the Yuba which has occurred since the onset of hydraulic mining? He replied that he could only view it as a good thing, since mud in the water meant that the miners were at work, and that, being prosperous, they would continue buying from the farmers. An enthusiastically Whig local newspaper, the Marysville Herald, which, true to its political faith, optimistically boomed economic development in all directions, two months later chattered along in a similar vein. “We rejoice,” the editor remarked eagerly, “that the miners have conquered [their water gathering problems],” having built a network of ditches and flumes, the editor went on to admiringly observe, “which intersects the diggings like a spider’s web.” Indeed, more people benefited from the mountain trade than simply the farmers. Marysville and Sacramento both provided many goods and services through their railroads, steamboat lines, staging companies, mercantile houses, banks, hotels, and small factories. The very technology that the hydraulic miners used, as in the case of the hydraulic “monitor” invented around 1870—a long cannon-like movable nozzle made of iron which could send powerful hissing streams of water in 400-foot arcs to strike mining faces with great force, and thus greatly accelerate the pace and volume of hydraulic mining—was devised and fabricated in Marysville foundries. San Francisco capital would eventually be heavily invested in hydraulic mining, bringing in another powerful group behind the industry. With so many predominantly Republican political and economic interests reluctant to support curtailment of mine operations, it would be difficult to carry legislation against the miners through the legislature, even if a majority in that body actually wished to enact it. The fact of the matter was that many years would pass before people even in the badly affected regions in the Valley would begin demanding action. Finding themselves in a circumstance where drastically new policy innovations were being demanded by a steadily evolving new situation, they behaved in the classic fashion: until prodded by crisis or outside authority, they were reluctant to move. It takes a long time for a community to develop what has been called a “culture of protest”; to put new policy problems on the public agenda, come to a state of mind which insists that something must be done about them by someone; to begin mobilizing, and start taking action. As policy analysts put the matter, ordinary citizens have heavy “sunk costs,” that is, substantial psychological as well as social and economic investments, in a stable and quiet life, and activism on principle is avoided.

Everything in the silently growing hydraulic mining problem encouraged this state of mind. The debris produced by the mines was gradual in its impact, and it arrived on the flatlands anonymously, as a kind of natural fact. No one could tell from which mine the mud was originating, since there were many separate operations in the mountains and their debris merged and commingled long before it issued out of the mountain canyons. Therefore, litigation was difficult even to conceive of, let alone to mount. Who could be sued, and for what? If thoughts turned, instead, to gaining help from the legislature, the larger political and cultural context in the state would for some time quiet that impulse. Californians at large were in the wrong state of mind to respond favorably. They still conceived of the gold mines as their core industry, and of the miner, in his dangerous and exhausting work (which many in the cities and farms had themselves experienced) as benefactor to the whole community; the miner, in the eyes of Californians, was the creator of the wealth that made the state both legendary and prosperous. Nationwide, in fact, there was a kind of heroism attached to miners, whose industry had simply exploded in the western mountains following the California Gold Rush. The miner seemed to be the ultimate, emblematic expression of the core American ideal of unrestrained, courageous individualism. Journalists poured out reams of admiring copy. “Such words as pluck, enterprise, endurance , and courage flowed from writers’ pens,” Duane Smith remarks, “and joined phrases such as ‘heroes of the pan and spade’ to characterize the miners.” As more and more gold and silver flowed out of the Western mountains, from the Rockies to the Sierra Nevada, national interest and enthusiasm about the miners mounted. Therefore, before an assault on the mines would gather supporters, fundamental outlooks had to change. People had to begin thinking of California as essentially a farming state and of its basic fount of wealth and prosperity as coming from the land. This cast of mind would not emerge until at least the 1880s. In addition, mid-19th-century Americans generally looked on the environment in ways that led them to ignore the damage the miners were causing. Since the hydraulic mining debris was carried within the natural system of streams and rivers, the sense that most Americans had of a limitless and resilient environment inclined them to an instinctive passivity on such questions. Nature, people believed, would endlessly tolerate whatever humanity did to it and still find some means of balance and absorption.

Miners, for their part, were convinced that the nation’s public domain held an infinity of mineral resources that would never run out. They took an almost savage pleasure in the spectacle of nature being ripped and torn, its mountains disemboweled, its treasures gouged out of their hiding places. When some critics charged them with being shockingly wasteful of nature’s bounty, a miner in the Comstock lode replied by talking confidently of “the privilege of American citizens to waste the mineral resources of the public land without hindrance.” And indeed, as the hydraulic miners themselves were to say in their defense, Congress in the mid-nineteenth-century decades enacted a continuing stream of laws giving away the nation’s public lands with a lavish, unquestioning hand for the precise purpose of encouraging mining. If this were not enough, in this slowly rising argument the miners had another powerful argument on their side: ancient traditions as to private property and freedom of enterprise. Nothing was more certain in America, miners would say in absolute confidence, than their right to do what they pleased with their own property. They were literally astonished when downstream people finally began insisting that they should actually shut down their operations. The assertion that people should use their property only in ways that would not damage that of others was a principle as yet not much heard, and when it was, given little official sympathy. In a famous Pennsylvania case in 1886, which challenged a coal mines polluting of a stream, the state’s supreme court ruled that if people bought property in an area known to be profitable for mining, there was no great hardship, nor any violence to equity, in their accepting the inconvenience necessarily resulting from the business. . . .damages resulting to another, from the natural and lawful use of his land by the owner thereof . . . in the absence of malice or negligence [do not produce a cause for legal action]. The trifling inconvenience to particular persons must sometimes give way to the necessities of a great community. Especially is this true where the leading industrial interest of the state is involved, the prosperity of which affects every household in the Commonwealth.

To do anything at all about hydraulic mining which would be effective, something genuinely large and unprecedented in the American public tradition would have to be done. Major innovations in law and government, and in the management of the natural environment, would have to be evolved. This in itself immobilized people. We have seen how strongly most people were on principle opposed to the idea of strong government, how much it required the intervention of an extraordinary event, a great civil war, to get Californians into a team-spirit frame of mind and inspire them to move in this direction in the management of natural resources. And how quickly that effort collapsed thereafter. Even Republicans, despite their Yankee-inspired ideas of vigorous government, would resist putting this concept to use in any way that would be unfriendly to large industrial operations. Thus, the use of public authority to interfere with or to shut down an entire industry was a concept that would never be enacted into law by the legislature. The courts themselves in California would only come to this position reluctantly, and then after many years of litigation and a slow crabwise sidling in this direction in case after case. The people of the Sacramento Valley responded to their great public policy challenge, then, by simply living with their problem, year after year, and looking the other way. They seemed unable to get their minds around the inevitable. Rather, they hoped, we can  only imagine, that whatever the evidence before those who cared to look, the issue was not so serious as, in their darker moments, they knew it to be. In the Marysville vicinity, no one set up an outcry against the hydraulic miners or sent to Sacramento to ask for aid. There was nothing to do, it was said, but abandon the bottoms. Farmers were advised to look again at the gravelly, less fertile but more elevated lands of the prairie which were beyond the overflowed bottoms.

They have lain, said the Appeal ‘s editor, “high and green above the general waste, affording glad refuge to men and brutes. . . .” The Marysville Express agreed, remarking that the “higher portions of the plains, heretofore considered valueless except so far as affording grazing grounds for loose stock during the spring months, are now in demand.”

The North Bloomfield, however, like the other larger mines now starting work, soon found itself running out of drainage outlets into which to discharge its detritus. The sand and gravel from the mines’ long sluices piled up so deeply in the relatively slow-moving creeks that meandered across the tops of the broad Sierra ridges that by 1868 many operations had had to cease for lack of outfall.

Using the recently invented drilling equipment they drove bedrock tunnels from locations underneath their consolidated mining claims directly to the deep river canyons, where mining debris could be freely dumped and subsequently carried downstream in periods of high water.

During the latter 1860s a new cycle of floods struck the Sacramento Valley. The first of them, in the last days of December 1866, left editor Will S. Green of the Colusa Sun commenting that “without doubt, more water passed down the valley [during the flood] than ever before since its settlement by whites in the same length of time.” One sheet of water more than twenty miles across was reported to cover the Valley floor between Marysville and Colusa. That is, the entire Sutter Basin, the region that lies south of the Sutter Buttes and is enclosed between the Feather and Sacramento rivers, was filled.

For people who lived along the middle and lower reaches of the Feather River, the limit of their stoicism had finally been reached. The river bed in their part of the Valley was filling with mining debris, which made flooding more frequent and destructive. The battering cycle of floods in the latter 1860s produced, therefore, a decisive and historic shift in mood.

now the larger task of shielding the enormous reaches of the open countryside, and its farming families, was taken up. People threw off their torpor and began actively working together, in a collective fashion hitherto alien to their spirit, to (they believed) take positive control of their environment and put an end to flooding. There was of course no flood control governing structure in place to provide an arena for them to work within.

Whatever they did, furthermore, would take place entirely within a wilderness of local settings. Each part of the Valley was on its own. Few thought of the Valley as a single community that should work together, or as a single hydraulic unit that needed common policy making for the floods its rivers sent running over the open countryside to be effectively controlled. From the late 1860s onward, when this process of regional levee building began (as distinct from the point-protection provided by city levees), the reigning principle in Sacramento Valley flood control policy making would with rare and brief exceptions be that of each against all. Like a group of Renaissance Italian city-states, each locality regarded every other within its particular watershed with suspicion and distrust, fortified itself behind the highest walls (levees) it could afford, and regularly sought to solve its own flooding problems by pushing the water over onto the neighbors, that is, building levees higher than those on the opposite side of the river. In this primal matter—protection of life and property against flood, a frightening specter that, once experienced, all worried about—there was no self-rising sense of community spirit at work which reached beyond the immediate small-town and rural neighborhoods within which people lived and worked.

It was further upstream from the Starr Bend levee along the Feather River that the first stirrings of organized flood control activism of a public nature began. They had their focus in the small town of Yuba City, seat of Sutter County, which lay directly across the Feather from that considerably larger and much more prominent community, Marysville, itself the seat of a rival entity, Yuba County. The two counties both fronted on the Feather and they looked at one another across its waters, for it formed most of the boundary between them. The stream overflowed on each of them in high water times, but Sutter County people were more endangered by it than those in Yuba. A large part of Sutter County was composed of Sutter Basin, much of which was occupied by tule-filled swamp-water lowlands. In brief, most of Sutter County lay below the height of the Feather River when it was in flood stage. Thus, the townspeople of Yuba City and the farmers in their vicinity were exceptionally vulnerable to overflow from the Feather. The surface of that stream in low water, next to Yuba City, is at about fifty feet elevation, and the Sutter County courthouse, sited about a block from the Feather in the higher lands next to it, is at 62 feet. However, within a few blocks to the west the elevation figures drop to the fifties and below. The flatlands of the county continue to tilt gradually to the westward (the unaided eye cannot discern the slant; the land seems level), coming eventually, at a point about nine miles southwestward of Yuba City, to what in the 1860s were the immense tule swamps of Sutter Basin, where elevations drop below thirty feet.

The sloughs were a constant irritant to the farmers. Each was sizable enough to carry a local name, and through much of the year they were mucky and hard to cross. Since, like the rivers, they flowed on elevated platforms laid down by their own deposited silt, the sloughs produced floods of their own. Bridges and in some locations ferries had to be provided to cross them, and the money for such projects was difficult to raise. The west bank of the Feather River, like that of the Valley’s other major streams, was pierced by slough openings at intervals along its entire course on the Valley floor from Oroville down to its mouth, a distance of fifty miles. Gilsizer Slough was the largest of these Feather River sloughs. Its mouth, which was about sixty feet wide, opened out from the west bank of the Feather River just above Yuba City. The official county map of 1873 depicts it with great prominence as a large body of water issuing out of the Feather and sweeping for many miles southwestward down through the countryside to disappear into the tule swamps. It was, in short, the most important of the Feather River outlets, and since it flowed right through the town of Yuba City, its periodic swelling into a major watercourse caused much inconvenience. (Its course may still be traced through the community. In the tragic flood of 1955, which occurred after a nighttime levee break on the Feather, many living in homes built in its broad and usually dry bed were drowned.) From the earliest years of settlement, a bridge had to be maintained over the slough at Yuba City so that farmers to the west could get into town.

The county’s most fertile, valuable, and thickly settled strip of farming land lay along both sides of the slough, presumably because its periodic overflows deposited rich soil in the vicinity. For some farmers whose land it bisected, the stream was both a menace to crops and a barrier that required a wagon journey of as much as fifteen miles, making use of the Yuba City bridge in order to cross the stream and work their acres on the opposite side.

There were, of course, other questions to consider, such as how would their levee affect the people on the other side of the Feather, in Yuba County? Had they not an obligation to consider the effects of their actions on those people, too? However, the situation of Yuba City—located in Sutter County—was too pressing, in a literal sense too dangerous, for such thoughts to linger. In a surprisingly bald pronouncement later printed verbatim in his newspaper for everyone to see, Judge Hurburt insisted that Sutter County should press on regardless, leading the way, so that “we can throw the water over to the Yuba County side and reclaim all the land in Sutter.  There was not energy enough in Yuba County,” he scoffed, to build a levee. “Self-protection,” he went on, “is the first law of nature.”

Others immediately took up this tone of rivalry and self-regard. Yuba City had always resented the superior size and prosperity and attitudes of Marysville in Yuba County. If a levee were built, it was said, and if Sutter County grew rapidly in population and development because of its protection, then “they will come to us”: that is, it would no longer be necessary for people to buy across the river. The steamboats from Sacramento would not tie up at Marysville, the larger community on the Feather’s opposite side, but at Yuba City, and Sutter County would get the fees now going to Marysville. In this mood, a resolution was unanimously adopted to push on with the levee project.

Two crucial questions were not asked: Do we know enough to do this? Will the project as  designed do the job? About this, there were apparently no doubts. The community was assured in mind that a brief survey by local notables was all that was needed to develop a fully adequate plan and that the Feather River, an immensely powerful stream in full flood flow which for millennia had been overtopping its banks in heavy volume and flooding the Sacramento Valley, could be put under control by simple and relatively inexpensive works. Indeed, the people of Yuba City and its surrounding countryside could do this, they believed, without calling upon higher authority at all for assistance. The environment could be made to do what they wished by none other than themselves, moving vigorously and with determination. And they would accomplish this through no other instrumentality than that of an informal local democratic assemblage, the American republic’s germinal folk-institution, and for funding they would ultimately rely upon the unforced civic spirit of good republican citizens.

Soon, however, the difficulties of implementation, a stage in policy making which is often far more complicated and filled with unsuspected obstacles than that simply of arguing out decisions, began to surface. The context in Sutter County was not what they had thought it was; the local state of mind toward the project was not nearly so unanimous as in the high emotions of the public meeting it had seemed to be. The committee found itself quickly running into a deeper and more resistant reef of reluctant holding back from the financial realities of what had been agreed to than had earlier revealed itself. The committee had estimated that the levee would cost about a thousand dollars a mile to construct, but Dr. Chandler, who had the task of raising the money for it, discovered that a simple reliance on civic spirit, that is, on people coming forward with unforced gifts  of their own funds to pay for construction, was a risky foundation for such an ambitious project. Success in the early morning of Thursday, the 26th, disaster came: “a crevasse was discovered in the new levee at the big slough,” and shortly it gave way entirely, sending a torrent of pent-up waters, up to ten feet deep, into the Yuba City courthouse square. Floodwaters then rushed on down the slough and out over the countryside, stretching westward from town in the direction of Colusa as far as the eye could see and at a height considerably above that in 1862. High winds blew down Gelzhaeuser’s barn, and about a fifth of the new Yuba City levee washed away. On New Year’s Day, 1868, the rivers rose again, flooding the town once more. The project had failed. All was not “safe against the floods of the coming winter.”

Among Sutter County people, however, the possibility that they might win freedom from fear of flood had taken their minds too deeply for them to let it go. That this vision eventually took hold also throughout the Sacramento Valley would be, in truth, the fundamental force driving everything that in later years would occur in the seemingly interminable struggle to tame the Sacramento and its tributaries. For long stretches of years the Valley’s efforts would be answered only by frustration and failure, but still the dream held on, surprisingly durable and resilient.

It was learned that, unassisted, those lower down could not do the job. Localism, however cherished it was as a core value by nineteenth-century Americans, had slowly to be compromised and in time greatly modified as an operating principle, though never—and this is striking—would the essentially localist and therefore highly decentralized  structure of water management in California actually disappear or become effectively a nullity. American political culture was too profoundly localist in its deepest heart for this deep-rooted impulse ever to fade away. Sutter County people, in short, had to accept a new understanding of their situation: levee building could not proceed as a simple extension of road building when public taxing powers were absent.

Unfortunate John Gelzhaeuser had by this time passed through enough tragedies to last a lifetime. In November of 1867, his arm was so badly shattered in the explosion of a cannon being fired to honor a visiting dignitary that it had to be amputated. Then the levee break at the slough mouth in December 1867 had, as we have seen, destroyed his new barn and flooded him out. In the early months of 1868 he and his wife lost three of their four children to disease, one after another. When the levee builders  got to his property in October 1868, he “and his women” fought them off at their fence, leading to several physical encounters.

By 1882 Yuba’s supervisors had had to pour much more money into building up the Grade, making it a formidable structure averaging 10-12 feet in height, on a 60-foot base. Even so, it continued to be broken through repeatedly, for hydraulic mining deposits kept flowing into the Yuba and raising it higher and higher, sending flood levels to more threatening levels each year.

Maybe levees, Ohleyer remarked, were not at all the answer. While they kept the rivers’ flow within their walls, as desired, this in turn meant that the rivers were raised even higher, in elevation, above the land on either side. Thus they became a greater danger to everyone, once the embankments broke. The floods now to come would ironically be more dangerous than those in the past, Ohleyer warned, precisely because of the partial successes of the levee idea.

The flood  of 1875 had not simply inundated Marysville, it had delivered what was in effect the finishing blow to the farming of the Yuba bottom lands. The lower bottoms had been largely filled in by the floods of the 1860s, but what local people called the “second bottom” had remained in cultivation. The 1875 high water, however, covered these higher lands, and whole ranches were abandoned. In the later 1870s the land still remaining uncovered and south of the Brown’s Valley Grade was progressively buried by mining sands, so that a wide bleak expanse of desert presented itself, where formerly there had been rich farms, orchards, and pasture lands.

Colusa, a quiet county seat of wide streets and tall leafy trees. Sitting on the west bank of the Sacramento River, it lies a few feet above that stream at an elevation of 61 feet above sea level. This makes it at the same elevation as Yuba City, twenty miles due eastward of Colusa on the other side of the Valley. In most cases, therefore, when floodwaters were at their highest, the same vast pool of water in Sutter Basin threatened both communities, since they sat on opposite sides of it. Colusa’s site, however, was sufficiently high above the Sacramento so that, unlike Yuba City and Marysville, in its history it has never itself been actually flooded. However, it has been much more likely to be entirely surrounded for long periods by flooded territory. Colusa borders a much larger river, and it sat in the midst of what then were wide tule swamps that encircled it, making the town in flood times an island in a sea of floodwaters.

Just below town the Valley floor flattens out markedly, its fall moderating to about a foot each river-mile. The river flows more slowly, is unable so sharply to cut into its paralleling banks, and they close in, producing a narrower channel that meanders considerably less. A narrower and straighter channel makes it a better steam boating river, but one that cannot carry so much floodwater. While the Sacramento’s wide bed above Colusa is able to enclose volumes that, in flood times, reach 250,000 cubic feet per second, the constricted channel below that point can hold only a flow of 70,000 feet per second.

The large inland sea up to a hundred miles long which appeared almost annually in the center-line of the Valley began right here, in the overbank flows in the Colusa vicinity.

When the Sacramento River approached the choke in the Colusa area and sent floodwaters out of its channel, those flowing westward ran out into the lowlands that form the long, wide Colusa Basin, while those going eastward moved into Butte Basin, north of the Sutter Buttes, and thence down into Butte Sink. The sink, whose thousands of waterlogged acres are still one of the great bird gathering places on North America’s north-south coastal flyway, is an exceptionally low and flat depression about a dozen miles long lying between the Sutter Buttes and the Sacramento River, its southerly terminus roughly opposite the town of Colusa. The sink’s surface is more than 15 feet below that of the river, which passes by on its silt-created platform. Floodwater rushed down into the sink not only from the Sacramento River, through openings in its east bank above and below Colusa, but large flows also entered the sink from another major participant in this complex scene: Butte Creek. It originates near Chico and angles southwestward down-valley, flowing through the trough that parallels the Sacramento at a few miles distance to the east. Butte Creek, in other words, passes through Butte Basin, and then curves around the west side of those Buttes to empty into the sink. Here the commingled waters from all these inflowing sources form a deep lake in flood times which empties slowly southward through a channel-way only a couple of miles across at this point which lies between the Sacramento River (flowing on its elevated bed) and Sutter Buttes. When this region was in its natural condition, the southward-flowing Butte Sink waters were shortly joined by another large waterway: Butte  (now closed off). It poured eastward out of the Sacramento River about five river-miles downstream from the town of Colusa. A stream more than 100 feet wide and 30 feet deep, Butte Slough was the largest out-flowing slough on the Sacramento’s east bank. It was the eastern counterpart to Gilsizer Slough at Yuba City, both sloughs pouring floodwaters into the tules of Sutter Basin. These complicated overflows above and around Colusa were what made the town an island in a surrounding expanse of water during the flooding moths.

Along both sides of the Sacramento River north and south of Colusa the somewhat higher land beside the river escaped prolonged flooding, but it was a regular occurrence for the Butte Sink pool to expand practically to the edge of the river itself, in the Colusa vicinity, and to remain in that condition for long periods.[5] The high thick-stemmed tule rushes, which stood massed and forbidding far out into the sink and into the basins, created tule swamps that ran continuously on both sides of the Sacramento River (though back some distance from its banks, the strip of river lands intervening) from at least twenty-five miles north of Colusa southward to the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta islands, seventy miles down-valley from that town. In their original condition the Sacramento Valley tule rushes formed a high wall blocking cross-Valley travel until slowly and progressively hacked down or in dry periods burned out. In the 1850s they were “15 feet high [in the Colusa vicinity]. They had not been burned for a long time, and the old and new stalks stood so thick and matted that it was almost impossible to penetrate them,

Will Green was fascinated by the dream of transforming the flood-ravaged wilderness (as the nineteenth century conceived of it) that surrounded his town into a farming paradise. When he attempted the farming life himself, however, he soon failed at it. Why? Because of the Valley’s long dry periods between rains, each year, and their erratic nature. When the rains were good, anything at all, it seemed, could be grown in the Valley’s fertile soils, under that cloudless sky and warm sun. But the Valley’s periodic droughts could blast everyone’s hopes and send bankruptcy through the countryside. The answer? Seize control of the Sacramento River, Green would say, by taking off its abundant waters and carrying them out into the flatlands, lacing the Valley with irrigation canals.

The masses who voted the Jacksonian Democratic ticket tended to be outspokenly anti-intellectual, outspokenly distrustful, even contemptuous, of college-trained men. It was common for fathers to warn their boys not to pursue higher education, else they would be feminized. Get out of school, they would say, and learn in real life what you need to know; stay away from books!

The first public health crusaders in New York City, Republicans all, who in the 1860s tried to draw on the expertise of physicians, apply the concepts of the new germ theory of disease, and clean up the town, were buried in ridicule and contempt from the Democratic-leaning masses of that city. They bitterly distrusted modern science, the college-educated, and the reforming aristocrat, with the result that for many years public health efforts in New York City were quite frustrated.

It was civil engineers, their administrative skills honed by the tremendous challenges they had faced during the Civil War, who led the postwar managerial revolution in the American economy. It was a revolution that aimed at rationally and efficiently bringing together modern technology and new materials and carefully mobilized workmen, all of this coordinated by electrical communication. These daunting experiences and this much-respected national role induced a kind of imperial temperament in America’s leading civil engineers. Confident of their skills and their analytical powers, they were extraordinarily ready to take on such huge challenges as the building of a railroad thousands of miles across the continent, or the reorganizing of entire natural environments to extract their minerals. And as they did so, their dramatic success stories induced Americans at large to develop an almost astonishing faith in their ability to do what they set out to achieve.

There was always, however, a muttering conflict between the engineers, clothed in their capacious new garments of authority, and many in the lay public. As engineers were put in charge of great projects, the old guard that had formerly directed them, made up of entrepreneurs, political leaders, investors, and capitalists, often grumbled at being pushed aside. “There is no doubt who began the conflict,” remarks historian Raymond Merritt. “Engineers had been openly opposing the management practices of ‘lay’ leadership [from the 1850s onward]. . . . In the succeeding quarter century almost every engineer participated in this conflict between laymen and professionals.”

Democrats had insisted that ordinary men like Andrew Jackson, of little or no formal education, had simply in their natural intelligence and untutored instincts the ability to do anything that needed doing in America,

This, Green believed, meant accepting the Sacramento’s outflows into the huge basins that paralleled it, but controlling those outflows. He would achieve this by limiting the river’s discharging of water to a few carefully managed locations where concrete weirs (he called them “locks”) would keep as much water in the channel as possible, so that it scoured out its bed to the deepest level manageable. When the channel could carry no more, the weirs would then allow the river to pass its excess waters out through structures that would be strong enough not to rip out and become deep crevasses. One of Green’s more acute observations had been to note that when these crevasses formed and a heavy flow left the stream, the diminished volume remaining in the river itself, below that point, meant a considerably slackened current. This caused the Sacramento promptly to begin dropping onto its bed much more of its load of suspended silt. Thus, the channel below such breaks would fill, making it unable in the future to carry as much water as in the past. Maintaining deep main-channel integrity: this was central to Green’s plan.

As to the water flowing out into the paralleling basins, it should not be allowed simply to spread freely and at will to form great lakes, but rather it should be contained within specific channels by means of canals (now called, in the existing Sacramento Flood Control Project, “bypasses”) constructed through the basins’ lowest troughs. This would allow the wide lowlands outside these canals to be lived on and put to the plow. Green envisioned, in short, a second, auxiliary river channel in the Valley, guided through the basins, which would carry the Sacramento’s excess waters in flood times, but be dry the rest of the year—and presumably, as now, be farmed in those months. The inland sea would disappear, to be replaced by much narrower leveed overflow channels.

Green was calling for a system to be put in place, based in the concept that the Valley was a single hydrographic unit that should be managed in a unitary way. He was urging a genuine innovation, a true policy leap as broad in scope as the swampland commissioners program itself. Most people, it would appear, were not ready for such bold policy changes. They preferred to do the job incrementally, step by step, each local landholding taking care of its own needs. People wanted, in short, to be left on their own

Partisan rancor nationally in the Gilded Age—the years from the 1870s to the 1890s—was deep and bitter. These were the years of what scholars now call “army-style” politics, with massed thousands turning out regularly to march in torchlight parades proclaiming hatred of their political enemies, not only in large cities but in small town America as well. These were the years of turnouts at the polls running regularly over 85%, so determined were the masses to “turn the rascals out.”

It came down to the fundamental matter of trust in this protracted debate over which definition of the problem in the Sacramento Valley to accept. Thus, in this as in so much of public policy making, it was a question not simply of economic interest or of logical analysis, though these influences were certainly at work, but of which people one was inclined to listen to, which views merited the most respect. When into the bargain the policy recommendations being received from that trusted person aligned well with one’s own economic interest, as in the case of the swampland owners and to close off the swamplands in the broad Colusa Basin, west of the Sacramento River, from overflow and reclaim them for agriculture. Such an undertaking, Green said, would simply push the river’s floodwaters across the river and submerge all of the farms on the east side of the river from Butte Slough downstream. His words appear not to have gone unheeded. In the first outbreak of vigilante violence in the mid-Valley over river policy, within a week of Green’s warnings local people in the Wilkins Slough area destroyed the county-built dam across the mouth of that watercourse.

In 1870, two years after Moulton and the Meridian farmers had formed their districts, all eyes were turned downstream from Colusa by a dramatic public announcement that confirmed Will Green’s earlier warnings about the planning and forming of a great levee project on the west side. A group of swampland entrepreneurs whose lands lay in Colusa Basin revealed that they had pooled their interests to form Reclamation District 108, a giant organization that is still, more than a century later, in active existence. RD 108’s appearance was historically crucial. It did in fact initiate in a major way the building of levees on the Sacramento’s banks, and its doing so set the whole process of enclosing that stream rushing swiftly along thereafter in a spiral of hectic construction, each project spurred into being as a riposte to prior ones. That is to say, now, along the Sacramento, as earlier along the Feather, the process of self-protection by pushing the river over on people living on the other side—the basic strategy in local flood control efforts in the Valley for forty years into the future—had begun. Soon, these ambitious interventions into the natural flood time flowage patterns of the Sacramento River would quite transform the mid-Valley environment. Before many years the cycle of riverbank levee-building up and down the river would fix irrevocably the future, long-term shape of flood control in this section of the Sacramento Valley and the character of this vast plain to the present day.

They did not, of course, intend themselves to build levees on both sides of the stream so as to complete Alexander’s plan. Rather, they acted with apparent unquestioning confidence on the assumption that, given the existing context of ideas about property management in America, every property owner must look out for himself in a competitive war of each against all. The projectors of RD 108 had no sense of being trustees for the general welfare; indeed, nothing in the existing laws charged them with this obligation. Rather, they looked out only for their own interests, letting market forces thereafter tend automatically, as it was believed they would, to the needs of the community at large.

The attempt was actually going to be made to force the Sacramento to carry all of its waters, even in floodtime, in one channel. This left a wide unprotected gap upstream, some five river-miles long, which extended to a point opposite the mouth of Butte Slough, where levees would stand on the easterly but not westerly side of the river. Floodwaters pooled by Parks’ levee-dam and riverbank levees would be deflected through this gap to flow around the upper end of RD 108’s levees and down into their properties. Two months after Sutter County authorized construction of Parks’ levee-dam, RD 108’s backers responded by leapfrogging beyond it on the west side of the river, that is, by building a new stretch of levee which would run up beyond the northern terminus of Parks’ west side levee, thus pushing all the floodwater (when it arrived) back over on the east side.

Trustees appear clearly to have based their plans on the depth of the river’s overflow in its natural condition, which by all accounts was in great shallow sheets perhaps one or two feet deep that could pass overbank for miles. Thus, in almost all cases the first levees thrown up were to a height of three feet, which would quickly prove to be not enough as the river, held back only briefly by such lilliputian fortifications, would simply rise on over them and resume its flooding. In the case of RD 108’s levees, the decision to increase their height meant laying down an additional three feet of embankment to make the levee six feet high.  Despite these efforts, in the coming years RD 108 (as in practice the combined 108–124 project was henceforth termed) would find that its levee system was a great disappointment.

The river was simply much larger than their adviser, General Alexander, or apparently they themselves, believed it to be. Their new six-foot levee was not enough. Indeed, many years into the future RD 108 would still be struggling to find the answer to the question, how to halt overflows into their district?

RD 108’s new northward extension of its levee seven miles upstream from Colusa would push water directly over onto his land, which lay on the opposite side of the river from the new levees. He had been outflanked. So he joined the game himself. In December 1870, just when RD 108 was first getting underway, he and neighbors had formed a district (RD 115) of some 16,000 acres that lay back from the riverbank two or three miles, paralleling the stream from a point opposite Hamilton Bend to another opposite Princeton, for a stretch of some fourteen miles. They did not, however, get going in building a levee until spurred by the new large projects downstream. In 1871, to create a broader financial base, Moulton and neighbors brought RD 128 into being, enclosing 7,000 acres in the lowlands due east of Colusa. Then in October of 1873 Moulton began surveying a riverbank levee from Butte Slough far upriver to the head of eastside overflow on the Sacramento, near Chico Creek, a distance of about forty miles.[23] His final project, however, was not so ambitious. He envisioned, ultimately, a levee beginning right at Butte Slough and running up the eastside riverbank to the lower end of the Llano Seco Grant, eight miles north of Butte City, which as it happens is the very location where the Sacramento River’s levees now end.

Thereafter, Green was regularly to agitate for “mile apart” levees in this reach of the river, a plan that actually made allowance for the river’s heavier, more rapid, more meandering flow in this section. (The present levee system there essentially embodies this fundamental idea.)

Indeed, the present alignment of the Sacramento’s eastside levees, north of Colusa, is essentially that which Moulton, at great cost and effort over an intense cycle of years, had conceived of and laid out in the busy, entrepreneurial 1870s. The history of flood management in the Sacramento Valley shows that few things are so resistant to later change as the alignments of a levee system once it is constructed. Landowners resist change in its route with implacable tenacity. So, in time, Moulton’s creation would eventually become so fixed and accepted a part of the landscape that the levees became officially regarded as the “natural banks” of the Sacramento River.[27] Moulton’s great levee did not, however, do the entire job he had had in mind: completely excluding Sacramento River floodwaters from the eastside. In time it would finally be accepted that denying the Sacramento access to the eastside in high water times was literally impossible. It is determined to send its floodwaters out into Butte Sink, as it has for millennia; large breaks in the eastside levee stood open year after year. In the early 1930s, at two locations, large weirs on the easterly bank of the Sacramento were permanently opened out in Moulton’s levee to allow for controlled outflows. One, called Moulton Weir, lies about a dozen miles above Colusa at a point where a large long-time break existed. The other, Colusa Weir, opens broadly in a location just across and slightly upstream from the town of Colusa.

Moulton was taking a historic step in the water management history of the Valley. His lawsuit would be the spark that in the ensuing years would deflect many others in the Valley away from the frustrating and usually deadlocked democratic process to the courts, in order to win new public policies by judicial fiat. This set off a rising storm of river management and flood control litigation in the Sacramento Valley. Something about the courts’ almost biblical powers, if they chose to use them, to strike down the unrighteous in a bold, sweeping, magisterial decree, handed down as it were from on high, issued in the name of the much-abused general welfare, and won without the endless delays of the legislative process, had enormous appeal. As the people of the Valley asked the courts to intervene with growing frequency in the 1870s and 1880s, the cumulative result was to give that ancient, pre-democratic institution the decisive and dominating role in making and presiding over flood control policy in the state of California, as it generally has also taken and exercises it in the much wider and even more complex and pervasive question of water rights in the western states.

The rivers were high early in January 1876, and the entire cycle was ready to start up again. A huge pool of water once more formed in front of Parks’ dam. The unfortunate people of RD 70, whose fate had for years been pushed this way and that by Parks’ various projects, saw that their own levee near the head of Butte Slough, which had been put under great pressure by the new barrier across that stream at its mouth, was washing badly. Then it gave way and water rushed down over their farmlands, washing homes away. This new catastrophe, once more brought on the farmers of RD 70 by Parks’ scheme, was too much to bear. On Sunday, the 8th of January, families living within RD 70 and along the banks of the Sacramento north and south of Butte Slough formed a naval war party to strike back at William H. Parks. At about 4 P.M. that afternoon a force of between thirty and forty armed and masked men arrived at Parks’ dam in boats, overpowered the guards once more and put them under watch, sequestered their guns, and set about digging two small trenches a hundred feet apart to start water running over the dam. (The sheriff of Sutter County had earlier been on the scene, having been dispatched there by Parks beforehand because of rumors, but just before the masked party arrived he had left.) Soon a gap a hundred feet wide was opening; by Thursday, it had widened to seven hundred feet, and Parks’ dam was again destroyed. “It was natural,” wrote Green in the Sun , “that something should be done.”

By the autumn of 1877 a Workingmen’s Party of California, mustering thousands of voters and practically dominating San Francisco, was in explosively oratorical existence. Denis Kearney, an Irish workingman immigrant, was the Workingmen’s voice, and for four frantic years, “Kearneyism” transfixed the state. There must be, he cried, “a little judicious hanging” to bring an end to capitalist exploitation and to put down the “stock sharps” who were robbing the people. The owners of the Central Pacific Railroad, he said, who had brought thousands of Chinese workers to the state and were grinding down the whole community by their high transportation rates,  were simply thieves. The workers, Kearney insisted, must control the state’s politics and government; they must “meet fraud with force.” Thousands marched behind him in great San Francisco parades. By “January of 1878,” writes historian Alexander Saxton, “the Workingmen’s party had become a major political force in California.” Early 1878 was indeed a crucial, turning-point time in California’s history, for in March the legislature finally passed an enabling act for the election in mid-June of delegates to write a new constitution for the state of California. Six months before, in September 1877, the people had voted overwhelmingly to have one, for there was massive anger at the railroads and other business monopolies, which were widely blamed for the long, cruel depression. As all parties swung into the campaign for electing delegates to the constitutional convention, an extraordinary political event occurred. The Democrats and Republicans, embittered antagonists, saw an even more dangerous common enemy in the Workingmen, and they joined forces to put a unified Non-Partisan ticket on the ballot. The tactic worked: the Non-Partisan ticket won 78 delegates, to 51 for the Workingmen (23 more simply declared themselves Republicans or Democrats). However, what actually ensued in the convention was a working alliance between those Non-Partisans who were farmers, and the Workingmen, since they agreed that stringent regulations should be put on the railroads and business corporations. The Non-Partisans who were actually Republicans railed angrily against “radicalism,” but what went out to the people of the state for ratification in 1879 was a new constitution that called for innovative new public agencies that would regulate the railroads, public utilities, the stock market, and the corporations.

In the ratification campaign, the banks, railroads, manufacturing firms, mining companies, and water and gas companies crusaded vigorously against the new constitution, and the Republican party was outspokenly, fervently hostile.

In early February of 1878 the Sacramento, which had been running higher than ever before because of debris in its bed, burst through a levee downstream from the city of Sacramento and inundated a vast area of farming countryside. Following this, torrential rainstorms swept over the valley one after another. Shortly, the Sacramento River at the state capital was higher than it had ever been known to be. More levee breaks spread disaster and alarm. Trains were halted, and a levee on the Bear River gave way, sending that stream’s waters pouring over the flatlands. By the twentieth of February 1878, the levee-encircled cities of Sacramento and Marysville were almost the only dry spots in the middle and lower Sacramento Valley. Outside of their great embankments only water could be seen in all directions; the ancient inland sea had once more declared itself with peremptory and apparently irresistible power. And now there were thousands more farmers and their families living on the Valley floor than in earlier years, drawn there in part by the illusion that the levee-building that had taken place since the last cycle of serious floods, in the latter 1860s, would protect them. For this reason the disaster was greater than ever it had  been in the past. Great excitement rocked the middle and lower Sacramento Valley: cursing, wild plans, frantic efforts at rescue, devastation, loss, desolation, and suffering absorbed everyone.

This was an earthquake event, of the sort that shifts the policy-making landscape into new alignments and opens doors formerly closed. The legislature of 1878 had already been in session for two months, and in desultory fashion it had been listening to proposals for major water management reforms—and turning away from them in indifference. Republican state senator Creed Haymond of Sacramento, a remarkable man who had already been deeply involved in water controversies in the state, had been sensing that a historic convergence of two immense water problems in the state, irrigation and flood control, was ready to be consummated.

During the two-year drought of 1876–1878, which saw annual rainfall in the San Joaquin Valley fall to less than four inches, farmers and ranchers there had endured terrible suffering, and there were, as Pisani writes, “countless battles over water.” Clearly, now, the time had come to try to solve the characteristic California problem of wild fluctuations in rainfall by constructing irrigation works that would tap the large snow-fed rivers that issue from the Sierra Nevada.

Other parts of the nation complained bitterly that they should not be taxed to benefit people who had bought land knowing that they were in danger of periodic flood, as was the case on the lower Mississippi River, and who in many cases had purchased their lands on the cheap under the Arkansas Act of 1850 (the swamplands giveaway, as it was called). Under that law, swampland owners were reminded, they were supposed to pay for their own levees and protect themselves. In 1882 the New York Times said that spending money on levees was “ridiculous,” considering the undoubted unconstitutionality of such expenditures. In the same year the Chicago Tribune called it “confiscating the property” of the American people as a whole to benefit only those on the lower Mississippi. Senator Benjamin Harrison said that flood control was reclamation for the benefit of private property, and it was not constitutional. The costs, if the principle of flood responsibility were admitted, would be potentially astronomical.

This position would be taken again and again in Congressional debates over the next fifty years, and repeated successfully, since in general terms the federal government did scrupulously stay free of flood control obligations.

Few documents ever produced by the state of California have offered such rich reading. What lay spread out on the pages of Hall’s report was a shocking picture, appalling in its detail and irrefutably damning in its implications, of the massive destruction of a natural environment and of a fertile farming countryside by an unrestrained industrial process. From this point on, pro-mining advocates could never again argue with any hope of being believed outside their own circles that the operations of the hydraulic mining industry were not damaging (as many had been insisting), that the harm it had worked had been hysterically exaggerated by the farmers. This element in the public argument which had been going on since the mid-1870s was now decisively concluded. The deep river canyons in the mountains through which flowed the American, the Bear, and the Yuba, Hall reported, were choked, mile after mile, by immense deposits of mining debris which in some places were a hundred feet deep. For forty miles downstream from Oroville, with its cluster of large mining operations, the Feather’s channel on the Valley floor was also filled in. And if some ten million cubic yards of debris lay in the bed of the Yuba before it issued from the mountains, in the fifteen-mile reach between the Yuba’s canyon mouth and its juncture with the Feather at Marysville lay an immense deposit of sixty million yards which had totally obliterated the former channel of the river. It had overflowed so widely over the farms that had lined the river that its bed was now two miles wide. The lands . . . [had been] dotted with prosperous homes, fruitful orchards, and luxuriant fields. . . . Levees that were thrown up to confine the waters to their accustomed courses only had the effect of  causing the beds to rise still higher by the constant deposition of detritus between them, until they were finally overtopped by the floods, and the bottom lands were submerged from rim to rim of the adjacent plains with sand and clay sediment, to such depths that in places orchards, gardens, fields, and dwellings were buried from sight, landmarks were lost, and the course of the devastating flood was marked out by broad commons of slime and sand. Over these the streams now spread at will in many shifting channels, checked only by the dense clumps of willows and other semi-aquatic growth that thrive on the submerged territory, and confined between levees now set long distances apart, generally on the ridges of highland that formerly marked the boundary of the more fertile bottoms. Altogether, some 684 million yards of gravel had been mined along the Yuba, about 100 million on the Feather, 254 million on the Bear, and 257 million along the American. Later examinations by federal scientists and engineers revealed that a total of 39,000 acres of farmlands were buried under debris, at a total loss of almost $3 million. Another 14,000 acres were partially damaged, at a cost of over $400,000. Much of this damage was along the Feather River, since it carried debris from its tributaries the Yuba and Bear as well as that coming from the mines around Oroville, and its comparatively longer valley was thus subjected to greater destruction. However, along the Yuba 12,000 acres were buried, and along the Bear another 8,000 acres were destroyed.

The whole problem of controlling the Sacramento, Hall said, was for example greatly complicated and worsened because levees had simply been thrown up anywhere local people desired them, with uneven, conflicting results. From this cause, the Sacramento’s carrying capacity had been “greatly injured.”

Dam-building technology was still at a primitive stage. As Hall pointed out, engineers had few examples to go on in the nation or the world at large. What he proposed, therefore, was a simple process of quarrying out heavy masses of stone from the canyon walls and having this material “dumped in rough massive structures across the gorges,” raising them perhaps twenty-five feet a year as mining debris piled up behind them, eventually to reach heights of over two hundred feet. How long would this process be effective? For perhaps thirty years, by which time the dams would be filled up. As to costs, Hall estimated that three dams on the Yuba would require an expenditure of perhaps $3 million, or $100,000 a year for thirty years—a staggering sum of money for Californians to read about while their minds were still full of the grinding economic suffering of the 1870s depression. And for this huge investment, dwarfing anything else the state had attempted, the people of the Valley would receive dams that by Hall’s estimate would hold back only seventy percent of the debris. His plan would allow the clayey mud and slickens to continue percolating through his rubble dams and washing on downstream; anything further would call for shutting down the mines. The Valley floor, in other words, would continue to receive sediment-laden waters and the deposits they produced.

Hall appears to have sensed that those currently living downstream from his proposed rubble-stone dams would recoil at the thought of these loose structures standing in the mountain canyons, vulnerable, perhaps, to being swept away in high flood times and loosening sudden avalanches of water and debris on all below. He was in fact much concerned himself about them, for they would have to be built on the deep beds of sand which were already in the mountain canyons. In his report he worried a good deal about possible erosion under and around the dams, making them insecure.

A long series of lawsuits ensued over the next several years, culminating in a climactic January 1884 decision by Judge Lorenzo Sawyer of the federal Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco, in the case of Edwards Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Co., et al. After listening over many months to testimony that filled thousands of pages of transcript, and twice visiting the affected areas, Sawyer issued a categorical ruling that remains the governing decree concerning hydraulic mining to this day. He had concluded, he said, that since hydraulic mining was doing such widespread damage, unless dumping mine tailings into the rivers was authorized by law (that is, it was not enough that existing laws did not declare it illegal) it constituted a general, far-reaching and most destructive public and private nuisance that must be halted. The suit covered all mines discharging into the Yuba and its tributaries, and at the end of his 225-page decision, Sawyer declared that the defendant companies in that watershed were “perpetually enjoined and restrained from discharging or dumping into the Yuba River or its tributaries any of the tailings, boulders, cobble stones, gravel, sand, clay, debris, or refuse matter.” This was not, in short, an injunction aimed only at “coarse debris,” but at everything the mines produced. The mines were absolutely forbidden to allow any of their tailings to get into the rivers; the hydraulic mining industry, the whole of it, simply had to cease operations. In the year 1884, therefore, what appears to have been the first major federal court decree ever to be issued aimed at protecting a natural environment from further destruction had been handed down. It was declared, furthermore, in the midst of the Gilded Age, a time legendary for its indifference to the depredations of free enterprise, at the cost of closing down an entire industry that was owned and directed by otherwise-powerful capitalists despite the loss, to those gentlemen, of millions of dollars. It was of course not a decision made within the framework of the environmentalist values that would flourish a century later, but within the terms that Americans of the Gilded Age could understand and accept: that hydraulic mining inevitably destroyed the property of others. It would take the rest of the 1880s fully to enforce Sawyer’s decree, since ordinary miners living in the mountains continued to use the mining facilities that the corporations had abandoned. Meanwhile, the great question of the rivers themselves—the focus of this history—remained. The mining debris that thirty years of operations had piled up in the mountain canyons was not halted by Sawyer’s injunction. It continued to wash downstream, filling in the Valley’s river channels more deeply with each high water season. By 1886 the rivers would begin running clear, hydraulic mining itself having been largely shut down so that mud was not floating downstream, but not until 1905 would the bed of the Yuba River at Marysville cease rising, and thereafter begin trenching out.

The courts, deep in a Jeffersonian distrust of independent public authority, had stripped California of the means to take arms against its great problem in the Sacramento Valley. In flood control, for many years into the future the result in that Valley was a story of confusion and failure. The Green Act was once more the only policy in effect; localism and individualism were dominant, which meant that joint efforts against floodwaters, the common enemy, were exceedingly difficult to mount; and mining debris washing down from the enormous piled-up deposits in the mountains filled the rivers deeper and deeper, so that the flood level kept rising.

Having presented their broad plan, Manson and Grunsky needed to provide details of implementation, and they were ready with them. They described proposed bypasses through the several basins; urged that the mouth of the Sacramento be opened out, especially near Newtown Shoal, where a “choke” hampered egress and forced floodwaters to pile up, producing immense inundations; and proposed that all river levees “be brought to a uniform standard.” What would be the result? The protection, they said, of 1,090,500 acres of Valley land that, with its improvements, was valued at more than $100 million. All of it in high water years was in danger of being flooded, while even in years of average rainfall a third of this vast area was in current conditions underwater.

They found a deplorable situation. For many miles below Colusa, in the region where the giant RD 108, now decades old, and Meridian’s more modest RD 70, equally venerable, had for many years battled the river, there were broken levees and deep cuts on both sides through which water had long been washing. This allowed three-fourths of the river’s floodwaters to pass out into Sutter and Yolo basins, inundating them deeply. The water continued to flow through these deep crevasses until the low water stages of the summer season arrived. The Sacramento itself suffered severely from these conditions, for, robbed of a strong flow between its banks, its channel velocity was low and the deposition of silt in its bed was heavy. At the mouth of the river the committee found the severe choke that Van Loben Sels complained of, a choke that had survived all the state’s labors at clearing out Newtown Shoals. In the flood of 1902, because of breaks near the state’s Elkhorn weir (upstream from the city of Sacramento and on the river’s west bank), so much water had rushed down Yolo Basin and piled up near Rio Vista, where all the discharge of the Sacramento River came together, that it “seemed to accumulate . . . all at once in enormous volume.” The entire basin in front of Rio Vista “seemed one roaring sea, spreading waste and devastation, threatening dikes which had been supposed to be safe beyond peradventure, and overtopping others.” So high was the water at Rio Vista that it acted like a dam. The Sacramento River actually stood still far upstream to Walnut Grove.[28] What was the cause? The committee’s analysis was familiar: valley-wide flood control had been left in many private hands and executed through a wilderness of reclamation districts, each of which believed “that the only way to keep their heads above water is so to protect their own land as to drown out their neighbors, opposite, above, or below.” In words that echoed William Ham. Hall’s warnings from far in the past, and the later laments of the first commissioner of public works, A. H. Rose, the committee went on to deplore the fact that one broad, comprehensive scheme on scientific lines had never been undertaken. The universal cutting off of drainage channel-ways, as in the mass closing of sloughs, had by forcing more water to stay in the main channel produced “a rise in the flood line to elevations never before dreamed of; hundreds of thousands of dollars,” the committee observed, “were in years gone by spent in the vain and foolish attempt to have the size and height of levees keep pace with the constantly rising flood marks.” The results of a half-century’s efforts in the Valley were clear: mass failure, and an incredible wastage of capital and potentially valuable resources. What must be done? The river’s mouth was far too narrow and tortuous as it would through the delta’s meandering channels, a condition worsened by recent levee-building in the delta islands, and it must be opened out drastically with a wide straight cut right across Sherman Island in the delta, creating a single capacious outlet for the river. This recommendation, formerly unthinkable, was the child of new technology, for the necessary immense dredges had been recently invented. (In his 1902 Annual Report, the commissioner of public works also recommended such a cut, which he referred to as being across Horseshoe Bend.) A large deep-channeled new mouth for the Sacramento would lower its fall and induce scouring.

Then came the Dabney Commission’s prescription, which applied the Humphreys thesis full and undiluted. All existing outlets for overflow which the state since 1897 had building, including all weir , should be closed. The entire river must be kept between wide-apart levees (considerably wider than the existing ones). That would force it (the Dabney Commission believed) to scour itself out to a depth that would allow it to carry all of the anticipated 250,000 second-feet that the commission estimated was the most the Sacramento would ever produce. They proposed, in short, that familiar object: a main-channel plan. Even William Ham. Hall, a quarter of a century before, had said in his largely main-channel plan that there would be floods coming downriver that no conceivable levee system could contain and that provisions for controlled overflow had to be made. The Dabney Commission, however, was cavalier with the views of the locals. The Sacramento was going to be made to stay within its levees.

Burton took this stand in dogged resistance to a recent proposal, the multiple-use concept, enthusiastically favored by Theodore Roosevelt and conservationists, which in these Progressive years was being widely advocated. Multiple-use advocates insisted that the federal government should use the nation’s rivers not only for navigation, but also for irrigation, power production, recreation, and flood control. To achieve this, and thereby realize the most rational basin-wide developments throughout the country, the federal government should construct plans for each watershed so that one function did not harm but enhance all others. This was a concept Burton would never accept. To begin with, navigation was for him the rivers’ primary function, one far above all the others in priority, for like so many in his time he was obsessed with river transportation as competition to the railroads, which in the Progressive Era seemed to have the nation’s economy by the throat. Secondly, he believed transportation was the only function that Congress, under the traditional reading of Gibbons v. Ogden and the Commerce Clause, could constitutionally support.

It was the 19th of March 1907, and newspapers all over the Sacramento Valley were dark with screaming headlines: flood, torrential flood to heights never known before! Out of the mountains huge outflows were pouring onto the Valley floor such as no one had experienced, save the few who could remember the storied inundation of 1861–1862 almost half a century in the past. The mid-valley region from Marysville to Colusa, like the Valley as a whole, was devastated. The Feather River, which was raging out of the mountains at Oroville and flowing down-valley in a gigantic torrent, rose over its embankments at Hamilton Bend, several miles downstream from Oroville, to send a great arm of surplus floodwaters bursting entirely out of the Feather’s watershed and running southwesterly across Butte Basin, north of Sutter Buttes, to rush into the Sacramento River above and below Colusa, overwhelming local levees. Even so, below Hamilton Bend the Feather still had too much water in its channel for the levees to contain, and six miles above Yuba City it over-topped them again, flowing a foot and a half deep over the District 9 embankment. Four miles further and it made  another escape from its channel, at the Starr place, while on the following day the river broke through the levees below Yuba City, at Shanghai Bend, the countryside for many miles around being swiftly flooded. On the Marysville side of the Feather worried townspeople watched the swollen Feather hurrying by, and men labored frantically, hour after hour, to shore up weak places. Upstream, at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project on the Yuba, where the California Debris Commission had built a concrete barrier 1200 feet long across the river’s bed to hold back mining debris, the entire south half of the barrier was gone, unable to bear the “awful force of the rushing waters.”

By this time the U.S. Geological Survey had been long enough at work in the Valley to establish a datum reference line, its gauges were in place on the rivers to measure the great flood of 1907, and out of them came astonishing news. The Dabney Commission had scoffed at Manson and Grunsky’s estimate of 300,000 cubic feet per second as the most the Sacramento, in extreme peak flow, would produce, but in March 1907, the government’s observers found that a monster flow of 600,000 cubic feet per second had poured out of the Sacramento’s mouth into Suisun Bay. (Two years later, in 1909, the Sacramento would produce another gigantic flood of almost exactly the same magnitude as in 1907.) If anyone still clung to the Dabney Report’s principles, they would have to accept levees (below the juncture of the Feather and the Sacramento) expanded not simply to 1200 feet apart, from the existing 600, but to as much as 3000. A single channel more than a half-mile wide down through the center of the Valley? The prospect was absurd. Once again the engineers had been seriously wrong. Had the monster floods of 1907 and 1909 not come along so soon after the Dabney report had been presented, millions of dollars would probably have been wasted in the construction of its recommended works, and the Valley would have been in a far worsened situation with a massive and nonfunctional project in place.

In June 1907, therefore, the first step taken by the CDC (within four months of Captain Jackson’s arrival) in its new activist role was to send a request to Congress for $400,000, to be matched by the state of California, to buy two mammoth dredges. They would undertake a major widening of the mouth of the Sacramento, by means of a large cut across Horseshoe Bend, to accommodate an outflow of 600,000 cubic feet per second.

They had an enormous task before them, digging out a wide curving channel from above Rio Vista to Collinsville. It is traditionally said that this cut removed more soil than that excavated to create the Panama Canal. This is shown in the fact that eleven years later, in 1924, the dredges had only succeeded in opening the Sacramento’s mouth sufficiently to allow an outflow of 400,000 second-feet.

Jackson broke decisively with Corps dogma and came down squarely for a bypass plan.

The Jackson Report was still a strongly navigation-centered plan. These were the years when a nationwide enthusiasm for river navigation, as competition to the railroads, had seized the country,

Jackson called for keeping a heavy flow within the Sacramento’s main channel by means of high, strong levees not too far apart. This would induce scour and maintain an excellent navigable channel. At the same time the river’s excess waters, which to this point had generally broken through levees to spread widely in the basins, would be made to overflow in a controlled way through weirs.

Under the strict discipline of being held within leveed bypass channels within those basins, the beds of which could be farmed between inundations. The main stem of the Sacramento Flood Control Project as Jackson conceived of it (and as, with some modifications, it was been constructed) had its northern terminus in the vicinity of Ord Ferry, thirty miles north of Colusa, where the Sacramento in its natural condition began its first overbank flows into the paralleling basins. From that point Jackson planned the project’s levees to run downstream for more than 200 river-miles, the southernmost point of the project being at Collinsville at the river’s mouth. Sutter Bypass, opening out on the east side near Colusa to receive the huge overbank flows north of that point which pour into Butte Sink, takes the excess water down through Sutter Basin. It terminates at an extraordinary crossing point at the juncture of the Sacramento and the Feather where the flow coming down the Bypass mingles with and crosses through the waters in the Sacramento’s main channel to Fremont Weir, on the other side, thence to flow down-valley westerly of the main channel through the ever-widening Yolo Basin bypass. It, in turn, discharges through Cache Slough back into the main river near its (expanded) mouth, and the recombined waters of the Sacramento River thereafter pass on out into Suisun Bay. The expectation was that this combination of works would carry floodwaters down through the Valley and out into the bay much more rapidly than in the past, so that the inland sea, which in the past had been created by backed-up and wide-spreading waters, would no longer appear. And so, indeed, has it worked out.

To complete his plan, which also included the building or upgrading of levees along the other major watercourses on the Valley floor such as the Feather and the Yuba, Jackson reported that almost 500 miles of riverbank and bypass levees would be needed, valley-wide. Some 391 miles of such structures were already in existence, but only 74 miles of them were high enough and strong enough to be considered up to necessary standards and grade. The Jackson Report anticipated that the state of California would do its part by spending, or causing landowners to spend, millions of dollars to build levees or bring them to proper heights.

Lifting from it, in time, the incubus of a periodically reappearing inland sea, the new authoritative state resuscitated a region large enough to have been thought an entire principality in other countries and other times: the Sacramento Valley, as well as the adjacent Sacramento–San Joaquin delta and the lower San Joaquin Valley. All of this vast area was placed within the Sacramento and San Joaquin District, created in 1913 by state enactment. It included “practically all of the swamp and overflowed lands from Chico Creek on the north to Fresno Slough on the south,” or some 60,000 pieces of property in fourteen counties.

In 1913, the Reclamation Board was given much stronger powers. At the request of many swampland owners, who gathered in Sacramento to urge their needs on the legislature, it was given power not only to approve private levee projects, but to force private interests to make their levees conformable to the Jackson Report plan. It thereafter required landowners throughout the Valley to spend millions of dollars of their own money in such undertakings. The board was also empowered to collect funds by itself, by special assessment, so as to construct major features of the project which the federal government and private enterprise could not or would not encompass (for example, the bypasses), and it proceeded to purchase spoilage lands for the deposit of dredge tailings near the Horseshoe Bend cut and contract to buy weir sites.

Employing at times over 500 men and 200 livestock in six camps, the contractor tore out about half a dozen old cross levees and removed exceedingly dense brush from about 3500 acres. Then, using many dredges, some twenty-two miles of earthen levee were built, 20 feet high, 20 feet across at the crown, and on a base 120 feet wide.

Part of the reason why there were so many more vessels navigating the Sacramento lay in the fact that, with greater freedom from flood, Valley farmers could turn to intensive agriculture—that is, to orchard crops, rather than simply planting wheat and other field crops. They were therefore producing far more tonnage. What they all had in mind, of course, was the long-awaited opening of the Panama Canal, which would allow them to tap Eastern markets, and this event took place in 1914. One great holding of 54,000 acres which had produced approximately 35,000 tons of freight per year when it was in ordinary field crops was by 1916 divided up into smaller holdings (as was typical of orchard farms) and producing 150,000 tons. Thus the July 1915 voyage of the Rivers and Harbors Committee on the steamer Colusa presented the congressmen with a practically continuous orchard on both sides of the stream. Pears, plums, peaches, cherries, prunes, apricots, and pears were being grown, with grape vineyards beginning also to spread. The rivers, therefore, carried hundreds of boats. Some would go far up the river, pulling empty barges, and begin loading as they came down river, adjusting to the depth of the stream. Such operations as the Sacramento Transportation Company maintained fleets of the new gasoline-powered trucks going ten miles on each side of the river to pick up crops and deliver goods. If the farmer had freight, he would put up a little flag, each line having its own ensign. Boats would stop for even one bag of potatoes. Carrying the equivalent of twenty-two carloads of freight, boats from the Valley could tie up directly beside ocean-going vessels in San Francisco harbor, short-circuiting all the switching and handling of railroads. So low were water freight rates that in 1916 some 90% of the freight between San Francisco and Sacramento was carried by boat. The value per ton of this freight was almost the highest of any river in the United States, in addition to which thousands of passengers annually took the overnight steamboat ride from Sacramento to San Francisco to conduct their affairs. In the year 1916, four navigation companies operated on the Sacramento, owning 26 steamboats and a large number of barges. On the 200 boats of all kinds

Sacramento River commercial transportation reached its peak in 1925, when 1,366,780 tons of freight were moved on the river. (It declined steadily thereafter through competition from gasoline-powered transportation, to 623,422 tons in 1938, rising to 832,656 tons in the war boom years of 1943.) Of all the transformations in the Valley, most astonishing was the explosion of rice culture. In 1911, 160 acres produced rice in the Sacramento Valley. In 1915, 720,000 sacks of rice came out of the Valley, valued at $1.5 million, and in 1916 the incredible total of 2.5 million sacks, valued at $5 million. The crop matures late and therefore must be moved quickly before the rain falls. This made water navigation in many parts of the valley more critically needed then than ever. Much of the rice culture in these years was in the delta islands, where the peat soil would not bear rails, making boats mandatory.

The swift rise of populous industrial cities, beginning in the 1880s, had produced great lamentation, nationwide, as Americans bitterly deplored the draining away to those cities of millions of young people from the farms and country towns who sought a different kind of life there but only found, it was said, temptation and demoralization. The decline of the small family farm was widely grieved. In Theodore Roosevelt’s years in the White House one of the causes to which he gave some of his most urgent thoughts and support was the “Country Life” movement, which sought to stem the city-ward-rush by revitalizing conditions of life in the farms and bringing them up to city standards in such public services as schools and roads. California, as Kevin Starr has recently written, had a special problem, created by land monopoly. The rural life produced by the bonanza wheat farming that exploded in the 1860s and boomed on into the 1880s presented an unedifying social scene, one that in reality was much like mining. The bonanza farms were usually owned by absentees, and they used up the soil with no thought of renurturing it thereafter, just as the miners had used up the mountains. The gangs of migratory wheat workers were single men, as were most of the miners, and when they returned from the fields they lived, as did the miners, in shacks or bunkhouses devoid of domesticity. Coming into small nearby towns they drank, fought, gambled, and whored as had the miners in Marysville and Sacramento a generation earlier. In the late 1870s the Sacramento Daily Union sketched the typical wheat farming scene graphically: We are all but too familiar with the picture: A level plain, stretching out to the horizon all around; for a few months a wavering sea of grain, then unsightly stubble; in the center a wretched shieling [hut] of clapboards, weather-stained, parched, and gaping; no trees, no orchard, no garden, no signs of home . . . on everything alike the tokens of shiftlessness and barbarism. . . . we see nothing in prospect but a shiftless drifting backward further and further into barbarism, until, the fertility of the soil being exhausted, the reckless and half-civilized tillers of it shall be compelled to migrate. Wheat culture peaked in the middle 1880s, when California, then ranking as the state with the second largest wheat crop in the nation, put something like two-thirds of its cultivated property to this purpose, making a total of 3.75 million acres of land. From increasingly exhausted soils came an ever lower quality of wheat, while at the same time rising competition from other parts of the world sent wheat prices plummeting. By 1900 only 2.6 million acres were in wheat, and by 1910 this had dropped sharply to about 478,000 acres. The plains, said an 1899 traveler in the Kings River region of the San Joaquin Valley, are given up to desolation. Eight or ten years ago large crops of wheat were raised on this land . . . and farmhouses built on nearly every quarter section. . . . But not a spear of anything green grows on the place this year. . . . The houses of former inhabitants are empty, the doors swing open or shut with the wind. Drifting sand is piled to the top of many fences. The windmills, with their broken arms, swing idly in the breeze.

For at least a time in California, much of this dream came true. “By 1920,” Starr remarks, “a vast fruitbelt—eight-hundred miles in length, two hundred miles in width—extended down the state.” The Sacramento Valley, as is evident yet in the 1980s, remained a land of immense open spaces given over to field crops, especially rice, the Valley’s giant crop, but orchards expanded tremendously, and so did both the number of people on the land and the number of individual farms.

If the water was not to be allowed to spread over the Valley floor but kept strictly within leveed channels, this meant long periods of heavy flows within those embankments, which were now many hundreds of miles in length, and a continual problem of maintenance. Being constructed only of piled-up dirt and sand, the levees could suddenly slump or collapse during flood times. They needed to be carefully watched for seepage problems, during extended periods of high water, and for such simple but fatal illnesses as gopher holes. These and other causes could produce that alarming sign of imminent levee-failure, great boils of water erupting on the landside of a levee which needed quickly to be rendered harmless by the hasty building around them of sandbag coffer-dams.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Shasta Dam at the head of the Sacramento Valley, completed by the early 1940s to serve as the foundation of the Central Valley Project, was so immense (it would impound 4.5 million acre-feet of water) that it could simultaneously manage flood control, irrigation needs, navigation, salinity problems in the delta, and power production.

However, the basic geographic and hydrographic natural facts of the Sacramento Valley remained. It was still a province given to frequent periods of high water and threatened flood, so that the fundamental challenge the Sacramento Flood Control Project was created  to master remained as pressing as ever. There were many years, furthermore, when it had to do its job without the aid of large headwater dams. Therefore, the building-out of the valley wide flood control system dreamed of by Thomas H. Jackson and his successors among the federal and state engineers continued steadily. By 1944, the Sacramento Flood Control Project was regarded as about 90 percent complete, having cost a total of $89 million, some $66 million having come (before the Flood Control Act of 1928) from state and local sources. Its authorized works included 980 miles of levees; 7 weirs or control structures; 3 drainage pumping plants; 438 miles of channels and canals; 7 bypasses, 95 miles in length, encompassing an area of 101,000 acres; 5 low water check dams; 31 bridges; 50 miles of collecting canals and seepage ditches; 91 gauging stations; and 8 automatic shortwave radio water-stage transmitters.

Though it was not until the 1940s that the Project was strongly enough built to go through a flood season without major levee breaks, its protection did allow for continued population growth.

The large rural and urban county of Sacramento, with the state’s capital city, grew 181% in the half century between 1860 and 1910, but from then to 1950—a time before the impact of the high-technology revolution, and California’s overall skyrocketing in population from that cause—it spurted up 309%, from 67,806 people to 277,140. (By 1980, Sacramento County would be up the astonishing total of 1055% in population over 1910, reflecting a rate of growth somewhat higher than the state as a whole in this span of years.) If the Valley were still subject to frequent ravaging floods, very little of this swelling of population could have taken place. In reality, the Valley’s flooding dangers have much increased, due to variations in climate that are not understood. Beginning in the 1950s, the Sacramento River and its tributaries have in flood- times been producing more and more water. In 1955, when a tragic levee break at Yuba City caused heavy loss of life, the Feather River had produced in that flood its highest outflow ever measured, some 203,000 cubic feet per second, and since then, this flow has been exceeded three times. In the 1950s, to strengthen the levees for heavier flows, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a long and extremely costly program of levee “hardening” in various locations by covering them with rocks and cobbles. At the same time, the Flood Control Project has entered an ironic phase. Aided now by the presence of five large headwater dams—in addition to enormous Shasta, there are Black Butte on Stony Creek, New Bullard’s Bar on the Yuba, Folsom on the American, and huge Oroville Dam on the Feather—it has been so successful over the long term in providing protection to the Valley that, because of the resulting immense population growth, each overflow or levee break, when they do occur, is fantastically more costly and dangerous than in the older times. The Sacramento Flood Control Project was conceived and designed to protect farmers, and now it is having to protect large urbanized metropolitan areas holding populations running to the hundreds of thousands. In round figures, while it protects some 900,000 acres of farmland, it also is responsible for shielding 100,000 acres of urban structures from flood. Not only do these urban structures include heavily capitalized commercial and public buildings that by their complicated technological interiors are more vulnerable to flood damage than their nineteenth-century predecessors, the homes Valley people live in are no longer prudently “flood-proofed” by being built on high foundations—they sit flat on the ground. In addition, as American affluence rises and lifestyles soar even among the broad masses of the people, these dwellings are now filled with expensive furniture, appliances, rugs, and art objects. It is no longer a matter of widely scattered farm homes with their simple wooden floors and austere furnishings being assaulted by floodwaters, but densely packed neighborhoods containing valuable residences and fleets of expensive automobiles, travel trailers, and, in backyards, stored recreational vessels.

Below Chico Creek heavy overbank flows to the east and out into forty-mile-long Butte Basin began taking place at points above the beginning of the project’s levees.

If either the American or the Sacramento Rivers had broken through—and it was a close-run thing—they would have buried deep under water a large recently built-up region of homes, condominiums, businesses, and even an under-construction sports palace, all of it spreading energetically in recent years out into the southern end of the American Basin (which, we will remember, was regularly described in the 19Th century as “a sea of floodwaters”).

The headwater dams played an absolutely crucial role in shaving off the flood peaks, and thus protecting the Valley from an even worse fate. At its peak inflow, Shasta was receiving over 150,000 second-feet, but it kept its downstream releases to 70,000 second-feet; Lake Oroville’s inflow reached more than 260,000 second-feet, but it held its releases, during a climactic two-day period, to 150,000. Folsom’s largest inflow reached in excess of 200,000 second-feet (much increased for a brief period when an upstream cofferdam gave way), and it released 130,000. At the latitude of Sacramento city, at the flood’s high point, something like 650,000 cubic feet per second of water passed down-valley. This was at least 50,000 second-feet beyond the volume of water that Thomas Jackson and his successors had designed the project to contain; had it not been for the dams holding back peak flows, that total Valley peak outflow in February 1986 would have exceeded a million second-feet!

in the Sacramento Valley, more than a million people could live on a floodplain and though on occasion sorely harassed, could not simply survive, but flourish.

Posted in Agriculture, Agriculture, Dams, Floods, Floods | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Battling the Inland Sea, the history of why and how the levee system was built in California’s delta

Robert Rapier: Oil demand is growing, not shrinking. There is no peak oil demand in sight.

[ Yes, this article was published 10 months ago, but with all the attention to fake news today, I thought it would be worthwhile pointing out that peak demand is propaganda, not based on facts.

Since the goal of fake peak oil news is to prevent panic and social disorder, and there’s little governments or businesses can do to prevent a die-off during the transition from fossils back to biomass and muscle power (extreme overshoot of carrying capacity), I can’t help but wonder if I were in charge if I might also put out stories like this to keep fossil fueled civilization going as long as possible. Offering hope, such as renewables, carbon sequestration, and so on, is one way to hold things together as long as possible.  Why crash civilization before it will happen anyhow?  And why bother to tell people the truth since they won’t believe it anyway (best books on this: Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History, Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation)

As an observer of the biggest and most tragic event in human history, past or future (until the sun expands and swallows the Earth anyhow), I am just one of many journalists following the story as it unfolds, and hope that future historians will find articles debunking peak oil demand of interest.

There have been dozens of articles about Peak Oil Demand and the end of Peak Oil lately, often due to electric cars or other technology saving us.  Here are just a few from 2017:

No, peak demand will happen because of peak oil when we’re forced to cut our demand as it declines exponentially at 6% a year.  In capitalist countries, it will be the poor first (already happening since the financial crash), then middle class, and finally upper middle class.  Even the rich won’t be able to continue driving whenever they want because social unrest will be so high they won’t dare leave the gates of their armed compounds.  Only the military will have oil to the very end…

The idea that electric cars are lowering demand is ridiculous. Electric cars haven’t made a dent, just a small scratch in oil demand.  Electric cars are only 0.2% of light-duty vehicles, and cost so much only the upper 5% can afford them, even with subsidies. 

Meanwhile, consumption of oil in developing countries is increasing at a fast pace.  There’s no sign of peak demand.  And they’re not buying electric cars in India, Brazil, and other nations where the electric grid comes down a lot.

Only in Europe is demand slightly dropping, but that’s because their governments are so much more far-sighted, less corrupt, and peak oil aware than nation’s elsewhere.  Europe began planning for oil decline decades ago, especially since they don’t have much oil of their own or a giant military to grab it from oil producing nations.  Mass transit is so fantastic and cheap in many European cities that people don’t  drive.   For example, in Munich, Germany, the rail, tram, and bus systems run very often, and we spent just 6 euros a day to ride their quiet and modern trains, trams, and buses.  When I came back to San Francisco, BART and other mass transit here looked like they were from a third world country, with their very infrequent service, filthiness, and on BART, enough decibels to harm hearing.

I suspect the peak oil demand idea is one more attempt by the wealthy and powerful to hide peak oil, because peak oil studies have shown that if peak oil were acknowledged, stock markets all over the world would crash since the economy would be shrinking from then on and debts couldn’t be repaid.  Credit would freeze and dry up.  Panic and social disorder would follow.  Michael Lynch and other analysts have been trying for years to quench the idea of peak oil and Lynch  even used to float his peak-oil denial theories on peak oil yahoo groups to learn what the counter-arguments might be.

Excerpts from Robert Rapier’s article below has factual statistics showing that oil demand is growing, not declining.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Robert Rapier. August 31, 2017. Oil demand is growing nearly everywhere. Forbes.

I broke down oil demand growth in the past five years (2011-2016) in various regions of the world. I chose the past five years, because those years have marked rapid growth in sales of electric vehicles (EVs). If the near-term peak oil demand hypothesis is true, you might expect to see a slowing of oil demand growth in regions with fast growth in EVs. (For more details on the peak oil demand hypothesis, see Peak Oil And Peak Demand Have Entirely Different Outcomes).

World-wide, oil demand has grown by 6,800,000 barrels per day (69% of that in the Asia Pacific). Consumption increased 16.1% in the Asia Pacific, 16% in Africa, 12.5% in the Middle East, 7.6% in the world, 4.7% in South and Central America, and 4% in the U.S.   Oil consumption only dropped in the European Union, by 4.1%.

Norway’s oil consumption grew 1%, despite being the leader in growth and total market share for electric vehicles (EVs).

My conclusion Is that outside of the EU, there are no clear cut examples of declining oil demand in the past five years. To the contrary, oil demand continues to increase in most regions of the world, including those with high growth rates for electric vehicles.

Posted in Dependence on Oil, Electric Cars, Other Experts, Peak Oil, Transportation | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

David Korowicz: A study of global system collapse

[ I’ve extracted about half of Korowicz’s paper, left out the references, math, charts, and tables, so you might want to read the original document yourself.   This is a great explanation – one of the best – of the intertwined spheres of complexity (financial system, supply chains, oil production, electric grid, and so on) and how incredibly fragile this has made civilization, because if one breaks, it crashes the other systems.  Then he describes the feedback loops.  For example if oil prices rise, food prices and the cost of everything else rise since there isn’t anything in society that doesn’t depend on oil, social unrest rises, high oil prices drive businesses bankrupt, the financial system fails, belief in the monetary system and government fails, and so on.  Oil prices then drop, exploration and drilling stop and projects are canceled, because the price of oil is so low it’s not economic anymore.  When oil shortages begin, the price shoots up, and crashes the financial system again.  Clearly at some point on this ever ratcheting downwards spiral trucks start being unable to find fuel and supply chains start to break.  And we all know from “When Trucks Stop Running” what that means…

Above all, Korowicz explains why there is likely to be a very fast crash when one of these important hubs fails.  Fossil-fueled civilization is not going to fade away over centuries like some of the civilizations ages ago (though it turns out the Mayans, the western Roman empire, and civilization in 1177 B.C., among others, fell rather rapidly, so I don’t know why so many people believe it takes centuries.  Perhaps it’s because historians can find events that happen centuries before the collapse helping to trigger it.

Related posts:

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Korowicz, D. 2012. Financial System Supply-Chain Cross-Contagion: a study in global systemic collapse. Feasta Metis Risk Consulting

This study considers the relationship between a global systemic banking, monetary and solvency crisis and its implications for the real-time flow of goods and services in the globalized economy. It outlines how contagion in the financial system could set off semi-autonomous contagion in supply-chains globally, even where buyers and sellers are linked by solvency, sound money and bank intermediation. The cross-contagion between the financial system and trade/production networks is mutually reinforcing.

The growing complexity (interconnectedness, interdependence and the speed of processes), the de-localization of production and concentration within key pillars of the globalized economy have magnified global vulnerability and opened up the possibility of a rapid and largescale collapse. Collapse in this sense means the irreversible loss of socio-economic complexity which fundamentally transforms the nature of the economy.

As the globalized economy has become more complex and ever faster (for example, Just-in-Time logistics), the ability of the real economy to pick up and globally transmit supply-chain failure, and then contagion, has become greater and potentially more devastating in its impacts. In a more complex and interdependent economy, fewer failures are required to transmit cascading failure through socio-economic systems.

The most powerful primary cause of such an event would be a large-scale financial shock initially centering on some of the most complex and trade central parts of the globalized economy.  A large-scale and globalized financial-banking-monetary crisis is likely from the outcome and management of credit over-expansion and global imbalances and the growing stresses in the Eurozone and global banking system. Also from the manifest risk that we are at a peak in global oil production, and that affordable, real-time production will begin to decline in the next few years. In the latter case, the credit backing of fractional reserve banks, monetary systems and financial assets are fundamentally incompatible with energy constraints. It

This breakdown, however and whenever it comes, is likely to be fast and disorderly and could overwhelm society’s ability to respond. The longer the crisis, the greater the likelihood it can’t be reversed.

A networked society behaves like a multicellular organism…random damage is like lopping off a chunk of sheep. Whether or not the sheep survives depends upon which chunk is lost….When we do the analysis, almost any part is critical if you lose enough of it….  National economies can have local character and limited degrees of freedom, but they exist inter-dependently, just as a heart or lung cannot exist apart from the body and still retain its original identity.

Consider that a modern auto manufacturer has been estimated to put together 15,000 individual parts, from many hundreds of screw types to many tens of micro-processors. Imagine if each of their suppliers put together 1,500 parts in the manufacture of their input to the company (assuming they are less complex), and each of the suppliers to those inputs put together a further 1,500. That makes a total of nearly 34 billion supply-chain interactions (15,000 x 1,500 x 1,500),

Mobile devices, now ubiquitous, represent the culmination of 20th-century physics, chemistry and engineering. They signify thousands of direct and billions of indirect businesses and people who work to provide the parts for the phone, and the inputs needed for those parts, and the production lines that build them, the mining equipment for antimony in China, platinum from South Africa, and zinc from Peru, and the makers of that equipment. The mobile device encompasses the critical infrastructures that those businesses require just to operate and trade transport networks, electric grids and power-plants, refineries and pipelines, telecommunications and water networks across the world. It requires banks and stable money and the people and systems behind them. It requires a vast range of specialized skills and knowledge and the education systems behind them. And it requires people with income right across the world, not just as producers, but also as consumers who can afford to share the costs of the phones and associated networks there are economies of scale right through the diverse elements of the globalized economy.

Consumers can only afford the devices because work is done within the globalized economy.

The speed of interaction between all these parts of the globalized economy has been getting faster. Automatic trading occurs over milliseconds, and financial and credit shocks can propagate globally in seconds.

One of the major transformations in business is that lean inventories and tight scheduling means many businesses and industries hold hardly any stock. Automatic signals go from check-out counters, to warehouses, to suppliers who ramp production up or down to meet demand. That supplier too sends signals to their suppliers who also run Just-In-Time logistics (JIT).

In all the vast complexity of the globalized economy, there is no person or institution in control, or who knows how it all fits together, for it is far beyond our comprehension. Facebook, for example, does not need to know how to make an electric grid work, or how to process antimony, yet nevertheless they are all connected through diverse and unfathomable relationships. Each person, business, institution and community acts within their own niche; with their evolutionary heritage and their common and distinct histories; with their acquired skills and assets; and through physical and cultural networks.

What emerges at a large scale is the globalized economy. We are both contributors to, and dependent upon, the functioning of that economy.

Stepping back, what can be observed is that a new phase in global growth began to take off in the early 1800s. It was faster and more sustained than ever before1. Because the growth was exponential, each year’s 3% growth added more goods and services than the year before. Rising economic growth was in a reinforcing cycle with growing complexity. That stability provided the narrative arc that has taught us to assume economic growth will continue, technology will evolve in complexity, food will be in the supermarket tomorrow and the lights will remain on. We have adapted to its normalcy.

Maddison estimates that Gross World Product grew:

  • 0.34% (1500-1820)
  • 0.94% (1820-1870)
  • 2.12% (1870-1993)
  • 1.82% (1913-1950)
  • 4.9% (1950-1973)
  • 3.17% (1973-2003)
  • 2.25% (1820-2003).

The complexity is attenuated in simple things: my mobile phone works, money is accepted for bread, and my train arrives. We notice the immediacy of things, not the living fabric of conditionality from which it emerges.

The general stability of the globalized economy and the operational fabric has provided the conditions for goods and services, socio-political structures, critical infrastructure, companies, global markets and a myriad other systems adaptive to that environment to evolve and maintain their local stability over time. This is just like an animal adapted to its ecological niche. The niche is dependent upon the wider ecosystem operating within the range of conditions (or stability domain) that maintain the niche and so keep in check the animal’s security (food, shelter, disease vectors, symbiotic relationships and predators).

A complex networked society can in many ways be remarkably resilient. If there is crop failure in one place, food can come from another region. If there is a break in a company’s supply-chain, a replacement part can come from elsewhere. Increased complexity and its twin, growth, have allowed the displacement and reduction of risk in space and time. Insurance, pensions, sewage systems, wealth, healthcare, and socio-political systems have all contributed to an era of huge reductions in the risk to an individual’s daily welfare, especially in the most advanced economies.

The individual risk can sometime be removed, or it sometimes is pooled or displaced over space and time. The green revolution of the 1950’s-70’s staved off the risk of major famine by a deep integration of food production into the innovating platform of the globalizing economy. That macro-system turned fossil fuels into increased production through fertilizers, pesticides and machinery. It drove efficiencies through interconnection and economies of scale, and de-localization through packaging, additives and transport. It also enabled the more than doubling of the human population, each individual on average consuming more year-on-year, and habituating to that. The cost of the revolution, in greenhouse gas emissions and degraded fertility could be displaced onto a future generation.

The green revolution could be said to have displaced and magnified risk into the future. That future is likely soon upon us.

In a more complex and tightly coupled economy, rather than absorbing shocks, the economy can amplify and transmit them: we saw this as the financial crisis has evolved. We are now dependent upon many more interactions to maintain our welfare. More complexity and connectivity means there are many more points where failure or breakdown can occur.

More interdependence between nodes means that the failure of one node can cause cascading failure across many nodes. De-localization means that there are many more places and events that can transmit failure, and major structural stresses can build at a global scale. There is less local resilience to failure, in that we cannot repair or replace many critical elements from local resources.

The rising speed of processes means that failure for even a short time can, for example, overwhelm tiny inventories, causing cascading failure along supply-chains. In addition, the high-speed spreading of such failure if it were to spread at the speed of financial markets or inventories could outrun our ability to bring it to a halt or even slow it down.

Rising complexity leads to increased systemic risk. While this has been recognized at the fringes of academic work for many years, it has only recently begun to come in to more mainstream thinking with reports addressing some of the issues from the World Economic Forum, including in its Global Risks 2012 report, and Chatham House7.

The financial and monetary keystone hub has virtually no system diversity. Whatever bank one cares to consider, whatever form of country financing, whatever monetary system they all share the same platform of fiat money and credit-money creation by fractional reserve banking. The whole of the financial and economic system is dependent upon credit dynamics and leverage. [ My comment: In an ecosystem, this would be a disaster, similar to having just a handful of species instead of millions ].

Such credit dynamics helped to entrench the imbalances that built up in the global economy between countries running trade surpluses and those absorbing ever-rising credit flows. Without the level of de-localization, complexity, and open connectivity, it is doubtful that such high levels of debt could have built across so many countries. Debt is now not just a feature of countries and banks – it is a system stress in the globalized economy as a whole.

The banking system has become less and less diverse too: there are many banks in the world, but banking activity has become more concentrated in only a tiny fraction of them; these are the ‘too-big-to-save, too-big-to-fail’ banks. The connectivity between retail banks, merchant banks and the shadow banking system has further removed system diversity and buffers to the spread of contagion.

Further, the response to the financial crisis has been to stave off a global banking collapse by releasing some of the tension onto sovereign states, where credit expansion could be maintained, at least for a while. This is particularly true of countries within the Eurozone which cannot print their own currency. This has reduced the system diversity of the financial system, and removed buffers to the spread of contagion, by coupling sovereign financing and the banking system ever more tightly. By enabling further credit expansion, which is part of why there was a problem in the first place, the risk of systemic failure has increased. The risk of systemic failure is further increased by the process of debt deflation, itself the direct result of credit over-expansion.

The shortening ‘relaxation time’ – the time markets remain confident between new crisis points in the Eurozone and political-economic reaction – suggests a growing inability of the interacting systems to absorb risk displacement in space and time. We are likely to be impelled to respond faster and faster as the socio-economic environment becomes riskier, more unpredictable and high speed.

The financial system, because it links almost everything in the economy, could be compared with the heart or lungs.

Consider the default of Argentina on its sovereign debt a decade ago. In the most general terms, the potential cascading effects on the global economy were dependent upon the size of the default relative to the global economy, the relative importance of Argentina’s economy and confidence within the globalized economy. The world economy easily absorbed the impact: indeed, this was not the first time that Argentina and countries of similar size had defaulted. With its newly devalued and competitive currency, it could re-equilibrate with the stable surround of a strong, confident, globalized economy, and soon returned to growth.

The stress within the globalized economy arose out of its internal dynamics. However, even if we were to restore and invigorate global growth, we would still be on the edge of an environmental constraint with profound implications. That constraint would expose in an even starker manner the inherent instability of the global financial system.

There is an acknowledged risk that we are now at the peak of global oil production. That is, the amount of affordable oil that can be brought on stream in real-time time is hitting constraints and will decline. Economic and complexity growth are predicated on rising and adaptive energy flows. Constraints on energy flows that cannot be substituted affordably, adaptively, and in real-time, are expressed through constraints on economic activity.

If the global economy cannot grow and starts to contract, feedback processes drive further contraction. A contracting economy is incompatible with the credit backing of the globalized economy and the value of all financial assets because it undermines the ability to service debt in real terms. Monetary stability, bank solvency, intermediation and credit are all dependent upon confidence in continuing credit expansion and rising economic activity. That is, the financial and monetary systems that we have come to take for granted were adaptive within a particular set of conditions.

When those conditions change, the financial and monetary system keystone-hub may slip out of its historical equilibrium.

Generally, we tend to assume that change is gradual; a dependent condition changes and the system responds proportionally. Our assumption of gradual change tends to imagine that the effects of economic contraction, debt deflation, climate change, energy depletion, or biodiversity loss will gradually grind us down, snipping away at our wealth and welfare over years or decades. This may be so.

However, all those changing conditions need to do is drive the globalized economy, or keystone-hubs within it, out of their stability domain, after which the system’s internal interdependencies come out of synch with what they have adapted to and the system can be at risk of collapse. The speed of that collapse is related to the levels of integration and complexity in the system.

One of the effects of massive credit over-expansion and/or the peaking of global oil production is the growing risk of a global systemic financial shock. The likelihood, as with so many financial crises of the past, is that the breakdown of the global financial system will be sudden and catastrophic, marked by complacency and hope turning to fear and panic. It would happen over hours and days.

Production Flow Keystone-hub

We have briefly outlined the risks of failure in the financial and monetary system keystone-hub. However, its most critical function is to enable the flow of goods and services in the globalized economy, that is, it maintains the production flow keystone-hub. Production flows are enabled by money, credit and bank intermediation. It is this which keeps food in the supermarkets, businesses and production running, and critical infrastructure serviced.

Production flows determine our dependencies and the ability to maintain any form of socio-economic complexity. As production flows have grown in complexity, de-localization, interdependence and speed, our vulnerability to any form of major financial shock has increased immensely.

The societies that would be impacted most extensively and rapidly are the most complex ones. Being the most complex, they have the greatest number of critical inputs into keeping systems (factories, supermarkets, critical infrastructure) running. They have the highest levels of interdependence and are adaptive to leaner, JIT logistics.

Consider briefly a ‘soft-to-mid-core’ (Spain, Italy…..Belguim, France?), disorderly default and contagion in the Eurozone, coupled, as would be likely, with a systemic global banking crisis. There would be bank runs, bank collapses and fear of bank collapses; uncertainty over the next countries to default and re-issue currency; plummeting bond markets; a global market collapse; and a global credit crunch. Counter-party risk would affect trade, just as it would affect the inter-bank market.

Within days there could be a food security crisis, health crisis, production stoppages and so on within the most directly impacted countries, and the number of such countries would rise.

Governments, emergency services, and the public would by and large be shell-shocked. Without serious preplanning, a government would be unable even to provide emergency feeding stations for weeks. There would be growing risk to critical infrastructure.

Imports and exports would collapse in the most exposed countries and fall for those as risk. It would also cut global trade as Letters of Credit dried up. The longer the crisis went on the more countries would be at risk. But once the contagion took hold, it would be very difficult for the ECB/ IMF or governments to stop; it would be a large-scale cascading failure at the heart of the global financial system.

The collapse in trade within some critical trade hubs would mean missing critical inputs for production processes across the world, stopping further production, which could cascade through production globally.

Factories from Germany to China and the US would shut down, helping to spread further financial and economic fears within those countries.

Supply-chain contagion would feedback into deepening and spreading financial system contagion, which would in turn feedback into further supply-chain contagion.

What largely unites the left, the right, and the green is the assumption that they could re-shape or re-order the economy and financial system (if only their respective bogeymen would get out of the way). This is probably an illusion. The concept of lock-in is used to explain why.

There is something that is implied in the outcome of the fuel blockades and in the McKinnon study: the impact of the crisis becomes non-linear in time. That is, the damage caused by the disruption does not rise in proportion to the length of time the disruption occurs: rather it starts to accelerate. Later, we shall argue that this is firstly because inventories and buffer stocks cushion the early impact of the crisis, but as time goes on, those inventories are exhausted. Secondly, the level and structure of interconnections mean that the more people, businesses, goods and services (nodes) that are affected, the greater the chance of infecting the remaining unaffected nodes. Further, the more nodes that are infected, the greater the chance that ‘hubs’ such as critical infrastructure will be infected. Their failure has a disproportional effect on the general economy. Finally, as the crisis evolves, more businesses terminally fail due to loss of cash-flow.

One outcome of the financial crisis of 2008 was the reintroduction of the concept of a systemic banking collapse, and  its link to supply-chains. For a moment, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers, there was a brief freeze in the issuance of Letters of Credit, a pillar of international trade, as banks hoarded liquidity and worried about counter-party risk. As a result the Baltic Dry Shipping Index, measuring bulk shipping demand, dropped by more than 90%. Only action by monetary and government authorities ensured that this was a passing moment.

There is no pillar of the economy more all-encompassing than the financial and monetary system: it links almost every good and service in the world. The fabric underpinning the exchange of real goods and services is enabled by money, credit, and financial intermediation. Money and credit have no intrinsic value. We swap a piece of paper or entries in a computer for the real labors and skills of billions of strangers across the world. This works if they too believe that those digits can be exchanged elsewhere for real things or services at a later time. What is implicit in such trust is faith in monetary access, stability and bank intermediation.

Some inputs are critical; such that a good or service cannot occur without them. So if a factory (or piece of infrastructure, socio-economic system or service function) has n critical inputs required to produce its output, it only takes one failure to stop production.

This is a version of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, a principle derived from 19th century agriculture in which plant growth is limited not by the total level of resources, but by the scarcest resource.

The failed output of one company can spread through supply-chains causing further failure in production, or even meaning a spare part of the grid was not available so shutting down a whole swathe of industry, petrol pumps, bank machines, and so on.

We can say that in a more complex society there are a greater number of failure paths for any system, and an increased likelihood that the loss of that system will cause cascading failure in wider integrated systems.

A local region is less resilient to the loss of a critical input as the resources required to fix or replace it is unlikely to be locally available.

Because we live in a Just-In-Time economy, interruption in any link for more than a few days may cause inventories to vanish, so propagating interruptions through supply chains/networks. That is, we are dependent on much more time sensitive interdependencies.

With such amazing potential for failure, the astounding thing is that there is so little failure. Supermarkets are full with their usual brands, factories hum away and critical infrastructure is re-supplied, not just here or there, but right across the globalized world. Mostly things work, most of the time. When there is a failure, the globalized economy is highly adaptive to repairing localized damage. High speed communication, transport and long-range financial and monetary stability means that any shortage of a critical input can be quickly substituted from a range of sources.

But there are limitations. Some things are far easier to substitute than others. There are many bakers of bread and shops in which to purchase it. There are fewer makers of computers or cars. For very complex and specialized goods, there may only be one or two bespoke suppliers with very limited ability to ramp-up production outside of ‘normal’ parameters; otherwise very complex production systems would have to remain idle but ready outside of ‘freakish’ situations. This is a cost companies may not be able to carry, even if the externalized risk to society might be very high.

There are also larger scale failures that can initiate a ‘rip’ in the fabric of the globalized economy – for example, state collapse (Somalia, USSR); monetary (Zimbabwean hyperinflation, Argentinean crisis, 1999-2002); financial (Trade Credit Collapse post-Lehman Bros.); infrastructure failure (US North-East grid failure in 2003, UK fuel blockades in 2000); or production flows (Icelandic volcano 2008, fuel blockades, & Thai flooding in 2011). The key systemic concerns are whether the rip can be repaired, how long it takes to do so, and the potential for a crisis spreading – in other words for the rip to become a tear or worse.

The time-to-repair issue is critically important; if the post-Lehman credit crunch had deepened and expanded, it could have caused cascading failure, quite possibly swamping the ability of central banks and governments to respond and repair/ re-stabilize.   The general level of centrality, or ‘hubness’ of a rip clearly both affects the ease of repair and the potential for any crisis to spread. A hyper-inflating Zimbabwe could latch onto the US dollar, not vice-versa!

The ability of the ‘core’ to help stabilize part of a weakened periphery also depends upon the health of the core. If the core is already weakened, the damaged periphery might tip the core over the edge.

What we have seen to date is a remarkable 200-year period of global economic growth, centered on an expanding and ever more complex core integrating a wider periphery. Even through the Great Depression and World Wars, the globalized economy bounced back and continued to evolve.

The most important parameter for defining this transformation is energy flows through the globalized economy. Thus energy flow, in the form adaptive to any particular system (food, light, fossil fuels), is generally a determining condition of the systems’ stability.

Economic and complexity growth are mutually reinforcing. Growing economies of scale, innovation and specialization link them. Increasing complexity in a system takes it further from the equilibrium to which all things tend. Maintaining complexity is a battle against entropic decay, and growing complexity is a battle against the universal tendency towards disorder. If you do not keep putting energy into something, it decays, and by decaying approaches equilibrium with its environment.

Our society’s sensitivity to growth rates that move too far from their normal growth rate is expressed in a general increase in anxiety over unemployment, depression or inflation. It is also within this stability domain that the cycle of booms and recessions occur, with an assumption of reversion to the long-term trend.

At a certain point, a slight change in the conditions or a tiny perturbation can cause the system to pass a tipping point and the state to transform into something very different.

It is not uncommon for complex systems to undergo a rapid transition to an alternative state, a critical transition. It could be a heart attack and death, abrupt climate change, the collapse of the northern cod fishery, the Arab Spring, the major market crash, an electric grid collapse,

This can occur when the state of the system crosses a tipping point and undergoes a phase transition or regime shift. This is the point at which the system no longer undergoes negative feedback returning the system to its old equilibrium; instead positive feedback drives it away to a potentially alternative state. Positive feedback is a reinforcing cycle that amplifies a disturbance.

There is a intuition that the whole of our globalized economy, under the prospective effects of energy and resource depletion, climate change, biodiversity loss, or debt deflation (the current condition within much of the Eurozone and elsewhere) will undergo a gradual if grinding contraction. This may be so.

Our understanding of economies, of the discipline of economics and of economic models has developed within the context of a particular type of socio-economic change they have been created within – long-range economic and complexity growth and stability.

As the risk of major systemic change grows, those models will likely prove increasingly erroneous as the system moves out of its historical equilibrium.

A hub for me and my city might be the electric grid or the banking system. This is because if either one failed the city would grind to a halt, because almost all nodes (people, factories, goods and services, transport) are directly and indirectly linked to both. The banking system and grid are of course are very tightly coupled. If the grid went down, failure would be rapidly spread to accounts and payment systems and ATM machines. That is, there would be high-speed cascading failure between hubs. Looking at the inverse, if the banking system were to fail it might take longer for the grid to fail, as running our grid does not depend upon real time financial transactions.

Financial & Monetary System: At the heart of the financial and monetary system we have fiat money, credit and bank intermediation. Our ability to trade and invest requires faith that the money we receive for our real resources and labors is accessible and will be acceptable elsewhere in space and time for the real resources and labor of others. Because fiat money has no intrinsic value, it exists through collective confidence in relative monetary stability.

The interrelationships between money, credit and the banking system mean that the hub’s stability is dependent upon the ability to service credit expansion, or in general the debt/GDP ratio. Credit hyper-expansion can destabilize this and/ or GDP destruction.

Economies of Scale: People around the world share the costs of consuming what is produced in the world, which is affordable because people around the world are also producing what is being consumed. It is adaptive to levels of population, income and the evolving distribution between discretionary and non-discretionary expenditure. It is also related to the scale and structure of global aggregate demand.

Production Flows: This includes factories and supply-chains. It’s the chain of final and intermediate goods and services transactions and the combinations that produce things in the economy and move them through the economy. They comprise flows for final consumption, and flows to maintain and repair factories and infrastructure against the inexorable effect of entropic decay. As production has expanded (economic growth) and become more complex, more and more production tributaries are required to be maintained.

Behavior: This is the collective behavioral responses and expectations adaptive to economic and social conditionality. This includes the extent of those we cooperate with (social radius), social discount rates, habituation, herd behavior, and our willingness to maintain institutions of trust (local law, international law, IMF, EU), popular consensus and radical social change.

Critical Infrastructure: Generally the collectively shared infrastructure that provides critical services that support wider economic and social processes. It includes grids and power stations, IT networks, transport, the banking system, sewage & water systems, and emergency services. Generally the collectively shared infrastructure that provides critical services that support wider economic and social processes. It includes grids and power stations, IT networks, transport, the banking system, sewage & water systems, and emergency services.

Energy & Resource Infrastructure: This is all the things between an in situ resource and the user of that input in the production system. This includes oil rigs, refineries, pipelines, farm machinery, fertilizers and mining systems. It sends food and energy and other resources into the globalized economy.

All of the core keystone-hubs co-evolved together, and each supports the functionality of the others. Together they maintain the dynamic state of the globalized economy. It will be noted that these keystone-hubs are very high level critical inputs for the globalized economy, and subject to Liebig’s law of the minimum. If the financial and monetary system failed, so too would production flows and replacements for critical infrastructure while bank runs and food riots could bring down governments (behavior). If critical infrastructure were to fail so too would banking systems, production flows, energy & resource infrastructure and behavioral response.

A very important feature of these primary global hubs is that they tend to have little or no redundancy. That is, they have no substitutes at scale. For example, we are all dependent on fiat currency, fractional reserve banking, and credit. We have almost no resilience to a systemic failure of the financial system, as we hold little currency, no alternative delocalized trading systems, have little to barter (as our personal productivity is dependent upon the globalized financial system), and have little capacity to maintain ourselves at even subsistence level (low personal and community resilience).

Likewise, while we might have a choice of electricity providers, they share a common grid. If the grid were to fail there is no fallback system. Diesel generators are limited. Further if grid failure initiated banking and IT system failure, diesel may be unobtainable. A reason for the concentration on hubs and a lack of redundancy arises

One of the principal ways of gaining overall efficiency is by letting individual parts of the system share the costs of transactions by sharing common infrastructure platforms (information and transport networks, electric grid, water/sewage systems, financial systems), and integrating more. Thus there is a reinforcing trend of benefits for those who build the platform and the users of the platform, which grows as the number of users grows. In time, the scale of the system becomes a barrier to a diversity of alternative systems as the upfront cost and the embedded economies of scale become a greater barrier to new entrants, especially where there is a complex high-cost hub infrastructure.

A related feature of all of them is that they share path dependency. That is, their current form and structure is contingent upon historical conditions.

Understanding this is critical, for it helps define the extent of their stability domains and their susceptibility to change.

To frame some examples that will be drawn upon later, the keystone-hub is imagined to be forced into the condition of a contracting economy, that is, the very opposite of its path dependent evolution. What will be shown is that this moves it out of its stability domain, it crosses a tipping point, and positive feedback drives it towards some form of disintegration.

The normal negative feedbacks that maintain the systems stability fail and become swamped by the effects of positive feedback. Thus the normal stabilizers in an economy to reverse a recession (devaluation, efficiency gains, exports, deficit spending) become impossible, of not enough scale, or too slow to drive the system back into its historical equilibrium.

Credit is one of our economies’ principal ways to inter-temporalize risk. Money in the bank and borrowing on all scales from people through to governments allow us to manage risk in recessions. But if the recession or depression is too deep this tool becomes increasingly vulnerable due to debt deflation, say, and the system loses resilience.

Deflation, if it is deep enough, can induce systemic financial failure, a fast and powerful positive feedback of cascading collapse.

Reverse economies of scale in critical infrastructure: As the globalized economy expanded in scale, larger and more complex critical infrastructure had to expand to service that growth. As infrastructure such as water/ sewage systems, telecoms networks, and power and grid infrastructure expanded, the fixed costs of maintenance and repair rose also. This reflects our eternal battle against entropic decay. The income a utility earns must cover the fixed costs of the maintenance and repair of its network plus normal running costs. Because infrastructure has amongst the largest scale and most complex physical structures in the economy, its fixed costs are very high. In a constant or expanding economy this can be afforded. The scale of our infrastructure is adapted to the economies of scale of the economy we have now. However, in a contracting economy it sets off a positive feedback of reduced demand, deteriorating networks, and growing economic damage to the wider economy.

As the economy contracts, then the customers of the utility have less to spend. A decline in revenue would mean that the utility income relative to the fixed costs would fall. If they want to maintain the network, they may have to raise the price of their service; this would drive away some customers, and cause others to use less services. Thus the utility revenue would fall further, requiring further price rises, spending falls and so on. If the utility cannot afford to maintain the network, the service deteriorates making it less attractive for customers, who drop out, reducing income and so on.

The infrastructure does not decline linearly with economic contraction, rather there is a positive feedback of accelerating infrastructure decline until it is no longer viable, and fails. Overall, it will have undergone a phase transition from a scale adaptive state where it operated well into a new collapsed state.

Complex critical infrastructure is very interdependent. Thus failure of an integrated grid-power station- water- sewage- telecoms – transport network under economic contraction would be set by failure of the weakest link. Further, because critical infrastructure is a keystone-hub, its failure can have cause cascading failure across other keystone-hubs, thereby driving the whole of the economy out of its stability domain.

The ability of the contracting economy to maintain critical infrastructure by subsidizing it would be increasingly difficult as contraction undermined other keystone-hubs.

Debt deflation:  Bank-issued interest-bearing credit is the source of almost all money in the economy. Because credit is charged at interest, credit expansion is required to service previously issued credit. In order for the issued credit-money to retain its value relative to goods and services in the economy, GDP must increase commensurate with credit-money expansion.

The amount of credit-money can fall in an economy because over-borrowed people and businesses cannot borrow any more while de-leveraging takes money out of the economy. In addition, people and businesses are more cautious, saving more and spending less, so the velocity of money falls also. Less credit-money in the economy flowing more slowly through the economy means less for businesses. Some businesses fail, leading to growing bad debts, rising unemployment, less taxation income, reduced confidence and investment. Asset prices fall, GDP declines, and the real cost of debt rises. Rising bad debts means bank capital is destroyed, risking bank’s solvency, and the general economic outlook worsens. Bank issued credit-money and its velocity in the economy declines further. The cycle continues, and GDP falls further. The cost of credit on international markets for the country and banks rises due to fears of default, which increases the vulnerability of both.

Let us imagine some of the debt is written off. The country and investors can again go to the market and decide to borrow for real production that will grow GDP and hopefully allow the loans to be serviced in future. But producing GDP requires energy. Let us imagine that the energy to grow GDP is not there, rather it starts to decline.

But what if we thought that energy constraints were to continue to contract growth for many years, how would that change things?  Banks would see that the real economic activity required to service outstanding debt could not be repaid in real terms. They would understand that as almost all money and deposits were issued into circulation as loans, all the money and deposits in the economy could not repay outstanding principal + interest. They would stop issuing new credit. The public and businesses might notice that as the economy declines, more and more of its shrinking productive output would have to go on servicing debt.

We may not get far into this process. That is because banks have evolved in the expectation of continued growth. Their retained earnings and shareholder capital amount to only between 2-9% of their loan book. Only a small percentage of loans have to go bad before the bank is bust. So a contracting economy would mean, very soon into the process, that all banks failed. No amount of liquidity would change that. Bank intermediation required for economic life would stop. Because our monetary system is based upon bank issued credit-money, it too would come apart.

So rather than a continuing deflationary slide, a point would come when the banking system just collapsed, along with our monetary system. This tends to happen when reality finally shatters the delusions that supported the system up until that point. Then, in a wave of panic and fear, investors, depositors, bond holders and all the interlinked counterparties would run to exit the financial system. This would also be a phase transition.

Trust Radii in Expansion & Contraction: The evolutionary economist Paul Seabright argues that trust between unrelated strangers outside our own tribal grouping cannot be taken for granted. In an expanding economy, trade can be expected to increase into the future. To share in that future’s good fortune, we and those within our own identified group need to be regarded by the distant others with whom we might trade as trustworthy. If we are untrustworthy (don’t pay for goods received) we not only damage our own future benefit, but also our groups’, so they too have an interest in preventing a free-loader on the groups’ good name. From this has grown institutions of trust and deterrence (‘good standing’, international legal frameworks, the EU, IMF) to reinforce cooperation and deter free-loaders. Trust builds compliance, which brings benefits, which builds trust. This has been true in an era of global economic expansion.

In a contracting economy the situation might be expected to break down. If less and less is expected to be available in the future, the benefit of grabbing something now increases (because you are getting poorer), and the cost of breaking trust with a stranger across the world falls (because the benefits of future trade are going to fall anyway). Because it is with a far off stranger rather than someone within your tribal group, your reputation as a freeloader will be minimal.  Trust takes a long time to build but can be lost rapidly. For Seabright, global trade hangs upon a thread as fine as trust.

A related issue is the contraction of trust radii, and a hardening of tribal feeling in times of stress and crisis. A suspicion of ‘outsiders’ and increasing nationalism are common features of an economic crisis.

The banking system: Prior to the beginning of the financial crisis, risk management by regulators was focused on individual banks. It was common to hear how increased interconnection and integration between banks reduced systemic risk by dispersing individual bank risk over the whole system.

The crisis prompted a wave of studies, drawing particularly upon ecology, emphasizing how the structure between banks could increase systemic risk. This included collective effects like herding, in which financial networks enabled imitative strategies in the search for yield, or transmitted collective euphoria or panic. They also showed how deregulation and connectivity had removed ‘circuit-breakers’ in financial systems such as the integration of retail banks into merchant banks trading on their own account.

Further the nature of the connections between banks was explored. Each bank was not connected at random to other banks, rather a very small number of large banks were highly connected with lots of other banks, who had few connections to each other.  Big banks have greater economies of scale and bargaining power, so can attract more business than their smaller rivals with better deals or market crowd-out, thus generating. Big banks have greater economies of scale and bargaining power, so can attract more business than their smaller rivals with better deals or market crowd-out, thus generating even greater economies of scale.

When the Federal Reserve Bank of New York commissioned a study of the structure of the inter-bank payment flows within the US Fedwire system they found remarkable levels of concentration. Looking at 7,000 transfers between 5,000 banks on an average day, they found 75% of payment flows involved less than 0.1% of the banks and 0.3% of linkages.

The failure of a hub node has a disproportionate impact, especially if those hub nodes have high connectivity to each other. This concentration opened up the possibility of ‘too big to fail’ and ‘too big to save’ banks, that is, a small group of banks that were ‘hubs’ of the global banking system. Upon this small number of super-connected banks stand the operations of lots of small ones.

Production Flows

Some countries’ role in trade is far more important to the globalized economy than others.

Importance Index to rank their influence: For example Thailand was at the center of the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis ranked 22nd in terms of global trade share, but 11th on their level of importance. That means its potential as a crisis spreader was higher than its trade volumes indicated. Their results are based upon 1998 data. We list them in terms of their Importance Index (Eurozone countries in blue): USA(1st), Germany, Japan, France, UK, Italy, Belgium-Lux, Spain, Russian Fed, Netherlands (10th).

Hidalgo & Hausmann used international trade data to look at two things – the diversity of products a country produces, and the exclusivity of what they produce. An exclusive product is something made by few other countries.

The most complex countries (such as those in the Eurozone) are diversified and make more exclusive products. More exclusive products have less substitutability.

What is Collapse?

The shock from a collapse depends upon the level of complexity lost. The Black Death which killed about one third of Europe’s population in the middle of fourteenth century did not fundamentally alter the socio-economic complexity of the time3. A dead producer represented a dead consumer. The same small number of social functions (farmer, mason, and cleric) remained before and after, there were just fewer people doing each role. This reflects low levels of complexity and interdependence within and across functions in society.

However, in modelling of pandemic influenza in modern societies, it was found that once more than about 10% of people are randomly removed from the workforce, the risks of large-scale societal dislocation increases significantly. This is because at this level of removal it is likely that key people with specialized knowledge will disappear from the workforce, meaning that key teams or functions cannot operate, which further cascades through other co-dependent functions throughout social and economic networks.

One analysis shows that the evolution of key manufacturing processes over the last century saw a six order of magnitude increase in the energy and resource intensiveness per unit mass of processed materials. This should be quite intuitive – as we put more and more elements and functionality onto a micro-chip, the energy and resource requirements rise.

A systemic collapse in the globalized economy implies there is connectedness and integration. It also requires contagion mechanisms.

It can be argued that collapse happens when a system crosses a tipping point and is driven by negative feedbacks into a new and structurally and qualitatively different state, one with a different arrangement between parts and a fall in complexity. The operational fabric could cease to operate and the systems that are adaptive to maintaining our welfare could cease or be severely degraded. As a society, we would have to do other things in other ways to establish our welfare.

The speed of collapse would be set by the speed of the fastest and most responsive systems coming out of their equilibrium, causing cascading failure across other systems. In particular we will consider that the monetary and financial keystone hub would spread contagion to the keystone hub of production flows, which would feed back into the financial and monetary system and other keystone hubs. The speed of contagion would be set by the operational speeds of these hubs. As the operational speeds have increased along with the growth of the globalized economy, and the functioning of more complex societies have become ever more dependent upon their moment-by-moment, day-by-day operation, the potential speed of collapse has risen.

Converging Crises in the Financial, Banking & Monetary System

In this section the context in which an unprecedented and catastrophic shock could occur sometime within this decade is presented. The first sub-section considers the implications of massive credit expansion and global imbalances over decades. At the heart of this is too much debt relative to GDP. This is particularly acute as credit, monetary systems and bank solvency are highly codependent and support the functionality of the globalized economy. Since 2007/8 when the crisis first broke, systemic risk has increased. Continued ‘kicking the can’ and reduced buffers and confidence in the global financial system have increased the risk of a catastrophic financial shock.

There is a growing risk that oil and food constraints will increasingly bear down on global economic growth in the near-to-medium term. If the amount of affordable oil available to the global economy declines in real-time, and cannot be substituted in real-time, then economic contraction becomes inevitable.

Economic contraction feeds back into further economic contraction. Sustained economic contraction is totally incompatible with the credit backing of the globalized economy as expressed through monetary systems, fractional reserve banking, fiat money, financial intermediation and all financial assets. The market ‘discovery’ of such an incompatibility could also be catastrophic.

However, we may not ‘see’ much of the effect of oil constraints because the effects of a breakdown of the financial system arising from the already present implications of credit expansion has already caused cascading failure through keystone-hubs, collapsing the globalized economy and energy demand. Or we may see oil (and food) constraints merely nudge that already increasingly unstable system tipping it into a collapsed state.

Credit over-expansion and imbalances: The response to the financial crisis in 2007/8 staved off a full banking crisis and avoided tipping the economy into a new great depression.

It did not solve the massive disparity between debt and income; it displaced immediate risks onto sovereigns via bank guarantees and unsustainable deficits. We responded to too much debt with more debt, yet our ability to service that debt is even more questionable than four years ago.

In many cases, through direct and indirect means, we are borrowing additional principal to service existing debt-the very definition of Ponzi borrowing. This situation was always untenable. But the displacement of immediate risk has further increased the potential for catastrophic systemic failure by removing potential buffers in the financial system and undermining further the confidence in the institutional and political actors that would be required to manage a crisis.

The Bank of International Settlements point out that the core issue is not just financial debt; government, corporate (non-financial) and household is far above levels that undermine growth in many of the most advanced economies. They concluded that if government debt is greater than 100% of national income growth is undermined, if household debt is above 85% of national income growth is undermined, and if corporate debt is above 90% growth is undermined.

In the Eurozone just prior to the crisis, even Germany and the Netherlands had levels of Total External Debt-to-Exports, and Total External Debt-to-GDP that exceed Reinhart and Rogoff’s criteria for countries tipped as likely to default. Out-side of the Eurozone, the United Kingdom has total debt (government +financial + non-financial +household) of over 900% of GDP, while Japan’s is over 600%. While the United States continue to benefit from their dollar reserve status, grave questions remain, even with the best global outlook, as to whether they will be forced to inflate their currency or default in the medium term.

What these debt figures do not take into account are contingent liabilities. They do not include state guaranteed bonds, bank guaranteed bonds, or the guarantees behind the complex ‘rescue’ mechanisms within the Eurozone. Mark Grant uses the example of Belgium, which at the end of 2011 had an official government Debt-to-GDP ratio of 98%. What are not included in the calculation are the guarantees for banks such as BNP Paribas and Fortis bank, as well as standing behind loans to the financial sector. It is also accountable for part of the balance sheets of the ECB, the Stabilization funds, and the Macro Financial Assistance Fund. So Belgium’s total debt and contingent liabilities-to-GDP are 203%.

There are also large liabilities distributed throughout the Eurozones’s internal payments settlement system (TARGET2). For example, Hans-Werner Sinn of the Bundesbank estimates German contingent liabilities of over half a trillion Euros could be revealed were the Eurozone to break-up41.

The concern about such contingent liabilities, which exist throughout the Eurozone, is that provided there is no deepening of the financial crisis, or especially if there is no major shock, one can pretend them away. But if a shock occurs and the country is called to pay guarantees it immediately imperils its own solvency. Further, as such a shock it likely to be part of a global banking crisis and a multi-country sovereign crisis in the Eurozone, there would be little credit available to cover liabilities in the market, even if it was affordable. Sovereigns and banks are hot-wired for rapid contagion in the event of a shock. This is part of what we have referred to as a loss of system diversity (putting the banking system and sovereigns on the same platform), that can increase the speed and scale of any major crisis.

Banks create deposits when they create loans. Their pumping of credit-money is what makes the world go around. When there is no further capacity for borrowing in an already over borrowed economy, and de-leveraging destroys money as loans are extinguished, the money-credit supply drops relative to the goods and services produced in the economy. Less credit-money in the economy means less for economic activity, resulting in business closures, defaults, falling asset prices, and rising unemployment. As the economic outlook worsens, people and businesses reduce spending due to fear of unemployment, say, and in anticipation of falling prices. This reduces the velocity of money, further reducing the effective money flowing through the economy. This further reduces economic activity in a reinforcing spiral. In all of this, assets and collateral are eaten away.

Austerity policies by governments cannot reverse this process – they exacerbate it. Hypothetically new money could enter the economy from foreign trade reversing the deflationary forces. But with much of the world’s biggest importers suffering from too much debt, where is this growth to come from? Canada, Australia and China seem to be on the edge of a collapsing property bubble and therefore contain vulnerable banking systems.

Sovereign risk can only increase. Eurobonds, further leverage of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), and waves of European Central Bank liquidity add debt but do not address insolvency. Indeed, new waves of central bank liquidity seem to be suffering from declining marginal returns, and worse,

Fractional reserve banking system, core capital and shareholder equity is only a tiny fraction, 2%-9%, of assets. Thus leverage of 26 times core capital in the Eurozone banking system could mean an asset loss of just 4% would wipe out the banks. This would leave the banks unable to cover their liabilities to the public, businesses, and other financial institutions.

Leverage throughout the shadow financial system is far higher via complex securitization, and off-balance sheet liabilities. Financial assets are the leveraged collateral for further financial assets which have been further collateralized and leveraged. The use of repos, collateral re-hypothetication and an array of derivatives are the shadow banking system’s equivalent of fractional reserve credit expansion, but without the transparency that the ‘normal’ banking system is expected to pay some heed to. Because of this huge leverage, once a ‘run’ on such financial assets occurs, it can vaporize massive levels of virtual wealth. Because of the complexity and opacity of how and where such assets are held, in a crisis banks would be unsure whether counter-party banks or even their own balance sheet is safe from one moment to the next.

The Bank of International Settlements shows that over-the-counter derivatives outstanding rose by $100 Trillion to some $700 Trillion between 2010 and 2011, over ten times global GDP43. While these values are regarded as ‘notional’, they represent a web of obligations that may not be redeemable. For example, US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner’s refusal to support a ‘hair-cut’ of Irish bondholders was in the context of US banks holding Credit Default Swaps on Eurozone debt. The implication being that US banks may not be able to pay out if called upon to cover a ‘credit event’, with cascading implications.

Further intrinsic vulnerability is reliance upon short-term funding. Ninety banks in The European Banking Authority’s stress tests in mid-2011 have to re-finance €5,400 billion, equivalent to 45% of EU GDP in the following two years. If there is already far too much debt in the financial system and thus on bank balance sheets, and economic contraction due to debt deflation is likely, then the affordability of re-financing such sums would naturally decline further. Authorities can help systemically important banks ‘hide’ possible

Insolvency, but they can only play such games if their bluff is not called. For example, there is concern that the US banking system may be holding huge unacknowledged losses that are being obscured by the suspension of the ‘mark to market’ rule in 200846. The bluff calling can come from a run on banks, a collapse in bond values, a frozen inter-bank market, a margin call, or a forced asset sale.

The ECB, which alone has an infinite balance sheet (it can print indefinitely at any scale), is by its actions further destabilizing the financial system by pushing risk it can absorb onto parts of the system that cannot. It is also making itself indispensable to further refinancing operations as those risks spread and it crowds out private capital.

Peak Oil and its Economic Implications. But if the above pessimism turns out to be foolish, if the global economy maintains strong levels of growth, it is likely to hit new constraints, ones that are already being made apparent. The high quality and affordable oil that powered the growth of the globalized economy is being replaced by increasingly low grade and expensive oil. There are already good indications that we cannot maintain production at this level; rather, it will begin to fall. This is an issue of today. Conventional global oil production, 90% of our oil, has been essentially flat since 2005.

Oil contributes to about 40% of global energy production, but well over 90% of all transport fuel. It provides the physical linkages of goods and people across the globalized economy. It also is a raw material in a huge range of production from plastics to pesticides. Peak oil is the point in time when global oil production has reached a maximum and thereafter it enters a period of terminal decline.

The phenomenon of peaking, be it in oil, natural gas, minerals, or even fishing is an expression of the following dynamics. With a finite resource such as oil, we find in general that that which is easiest and cheapest to exploit is used first. As demand for oil increases, and knowledge and technology associated with exploration and exploitation progresses, production can be ramped up. New and cheap oil encourages new oil-based products, markets, and revenues, which in turn provide increasing revenue for investments in production. For a while this is a self-reinforcing process. Countervailing this trend, the energetic, material and financial cost of finding and exploiting new production starts to rise. This is because as time goes on new fields are found in smaller deposits, in deeper water, in more technically demanding geological conditions and require more advanced processing.

The oil produced from individual wells peak and then decline. So must production from fields, countries and the globe. Two-thirds of oil producing countries have already passed their local peak. The United States peaked in 1970 and the United Kingdom in 1999, and decline has continued. It should be noted that both countries contain the worlds’ best universities, most dynamic financial markets, most technologically able exploration and production companies, and stable pro-business political environments. Nevertheless, in neither case has decline been halted.

There are good grounds for arguing that we are at or near the peak of oil production now. The International Energy Agency argued that conventional oil production peaked in 2006. More than 60 countries have already passed their peak. To continue supplying oil commensurate with a growing economy in the light of the prospective decline in conventional production as more old fields deplete, will require huge production increases from unconventional oil such as tar sands, coal-to-liquids, polar and deep water oil. Further, oil producers are using more of their own production to feed their growing economies, meaning there is a declining volume of internationally traded oil.

The question then is can sufficient oil be brought on stream on time, at an affordable price, and at a sufficient energy return on energy invested (EROI). Or can the economy’s requirement for additional oil be substituted by efficiency measures, or with other energy sources such as renewable energy

Further, this requires massive investment from manufacturers and consumers, again, on time and at scale. This requires a strong confident economy, functioning credit markets, and customers who can afford a decline in transport asset resale value. Again there are analysts who argue that substitution and efficiency cannot substitute.

Peak oil is not primarily concerned with reserves, but flow ratesPromises of energies yet to be accessed, technologies not yet in production (never mind being rolled out at scale) are irrelevant if the constraint is pressing. Using an analogy, it is of little use knowing that there is an oasis a hundred miles away if a stumbling man is dying of thirst now.

Because the economy is path dependent, it is adaptive to particular forms of energy flows, as revealed in our fixed assets (cars, refineries and pipelines), settlement patterns, trade arbitrage and ultimately many of the structural and social characteristics of the economy. One cannot jump across energy carriers without time, effort and the working operational fabric of the globalized economy.

Thermodynamic-Economic.  To anybody with a basic knowledge of physics it should seem natural and necessary that rising energy flows are required for economic growth. More particularly, it is the amount of that energy that can be converted into useful work.

Economic. The thermodynamic constraints are expressed through the changing internal dynamics of the global economy. Rising oil prices affect the economy in two principal ways. Firstly, they squeeze discretionary income. Rising prices have direct effects on the cost of transport, pesticides and so on. More broadly, the indirect effects are upon every element of GWP because energy prices represent a cost of producing GWP. The price of oil is embedded in every good and service produced. Hamilton and Deutsche Bank have argued that when energy share of total consumer expenditure becomes too large, recessions occur.

The second impact of high oil prices is that importers experience a weakening of their balance of payments. More money leaks from a potentially already deflating economy.

High oil prices feed back into the economy through reduced economic activity, increasing pressure on discretionary income and rising defaults. This is an accelerator of debt deflation dynamics.

One can have rising prices in a deflationary environment

Debt deflation, even without rising food and energy prices, leads to reduced discretionary spending. Food and energy prices, because they are at the heart of non-discretionary expenditure, lead to further squeezes on discretionary spending, credit issuance, and the ability to service debt. Thus economies are caught between vice-grips of debt deflation arising from credit over-expansion, and the rising costs of its primary needs. This reinforces a debt deflationary spiral.

This leads to reduced economic activity and thus a fall in energy demand. The result is an overhang of spare production capacity and a deteriorating investment climate for energy investment.

After the oil price collapse in 2008, when oil prices dropped below the marginal cost of production for new developments, projects were cancelled. Credit conditions put further strain on project finance. According to the International Energy Agency about $17o billion of new projects were cancelled or delayed. The result will be further reductions in available oil in the future when those projects were expected to come on stream.

This situation demonstrates that constrained oil production, even if necessary to the economy does not necessarily lead to ever-rising prices. Economies can only pay so much for oil before their economies become damaged. Damaged economies use less energy and cannot invest in future oil (or other energy) production. This then becomes a harbinger of even deeper economic constraints.

One might assume that falling oil (and food) prices might lead to renewed economic activity, initiating an economic recovery until oil production constraints are again felt. But the production constraints would be felt at a lower level of production not only because of the natural decline rates associated with standard peak oil models, but because of the reduced levels of investment.

Economies would still remain in a debt deflationary environment arising from credit over expansion, so it is doubtful that any growth would be forthcoming. Rather economic contraction would continue, even while oil and all energy prices dropped. If however, by whatever means, a relatively painless debt write-off allowed economic growth to take off, it would soon be hit by rising oil and food prices, again initiating a new debt deflationary cycle, causing further economic contraction and reduced energy investment.

Even if we had the ‘perfect’ monetary and financial system, sustained contraction would still affect the production flow hub, the critical infrastructure hub, the energy and resource infrastructure hub, and the economies of scale hub – all of which are adaptive to growth or economic maintenance of the status quo. The de-stabilization of any of these hubs would be likely to lead to destabilization of other hubs. The net effect would be to collapse the globalized economy, for it is maintained and dependent upon those hubs.

Food production

Global food production has been hitting constraints as rising populations and changing diets hit against flattening productivity, water and fertility constraints, and the likely early effects of climate change.

One of the main effects of the Green Revolution of the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s was to put food production onto a fossil fuel platform. Modern food production relies on pesticides, fertilizers, machinery, drying systems, long-haul transport, packaging, freezing and so on, all fossil fuel dependent.

Modern seed varieties require more water, which requires more complex irrigation and aquifer pumping, again requiring more fossil fuel input, and putting more strain on already stressed water supplies. By various estimates, between six and ten fossil fuel calories are used to produce every calorie of food.

Food is now being converted into fuel, adding further pressure to already strained supplies. Today, 40% of the US corn crop is used to produce biofuels, and globally, biofuels consume 6.5% of grains and 8% of vegetable oil production.

Food is the most inelastic part of consumption. Like oil, rising prices drive out other consumption, which can lead to job losses, unemployment, and defaults. The most developed countries spend about 10% of their disposable income on food, however in many parts of the world it is over 50%.

The two rounds of QE were to support battered financial institutions. This injection helped drive a global commodity bubble, affecting an already stressed global food market. Pressure was displaced from the US onto the plates of citizens in the Middle-East and North Africa.

There is general agreement that one of the contributing factors to the rolling revolutions beginning at the end of 2010 was increasing food prices eating into already strained incomes. Food is, and always has been a mainstay of welfare and social peace.

A contracting economy

Proxy wealth can be created at virtually no cost and can expand in a wave of optimism. Real wealth is limited by available land, hard assets and GDP. GDP depends on the operation, stability and functionality of the globalized economy, which requires real energy and resource flows.

A terminally contracting global economy is incompatible with the credit backing of the global financial system, fractional reserve banking, and the monetary system, as we have seen in section III.3.1. This is simply because in an expanding economy credit (principal + interest) can be serviced in real terms; in a contracting economy not even the principal can be returned. So our problem of hyper-credit expansion is that debt expands beyond the GDP’s ability to service it, while debt deflation and peak oil causes GDP to contract undermining the ability of the economy to service debt.

The loss of faith, as is the way with markets and human behavior, will be waves of panic as holders of such proxy assets run for the exit, trying to convert a mountain of financial assets into a molehill of real assets. It would be a sellers-only market.

The conversion of financial to real assets would be further constrained as money is required for intermediation. But in such a crisis, people would cling to any cash they had, banks would be collapsing, there would be fears of currency re-issue, inflation, or even hyper-inflation.

Global financial markets and the assets they trade are, in their entirety, a Ponzi scheme, and like all Ponzi schemes, they live only as long as confidence is maintained before collapsing under the weight of lost illusions.

Something sets off an interrelated Eurozone crisis and banking crisis, a Spanish default say, which spreads panic and fear across other vulnerable Eurozone countries. This sets off a Minsky moment when overleveraged speculators in the banking and shadow banking system are forced to unwind positions into a one-sided (sellers only) market. The financial system contagion passes a tipping point where governments and central banks start to lose control and panic drives a (positive feedback) deepening and widening of the impact globally. In our tropic model of the globalized economy, the banking and monetary system keystone hub comes out of its equilibrium range, crosses a tipping point, and is driven away by positive feedbacks to some new state.

This directly links to another keystone-hub, production flows. Failing banks, fears of currency re-issue, fears of further default, collapse in Letters of Credit, and growing panic directly quickly shut down trade in the most affected countries. As the week progresses factories close, communications are impaired, social stress and government panic increases. After a week almost all businesses are closed, there is a rising risk to critical infrastructure.

Trade is impaired globally via a credit crunch. This undermines exports from some of the most trade-central countries, with some of the most efficient JIT dependencies in the world. This cuts inputs into the production and trade into countries that were initially weakly affected by direct financial contagion. Globally, the spread of trade contagion depends on complexity, centrality, and inventory times and once a critical threshold is passed spreads exponentially until the effect is damped by a large-scale global production collapse (implying another keystone-hub, economies of scale is driven out of equilibrium).

Trade contagion and its implications feed back into financial system contagion, helping drive further disintegration. The interacting and mutually destabilizing effects of keystone-hubs coming out of equilibrium destroy the equilibrium of the globalized economy initiating a systemic collapse.

Once the financial system contagion crosses a particular threshold the de-stabilization of the globalized economy will be exceedingly difficult to arrest; this point may be in as little as ten days.

As financial and monetary systems become more unstable, the risks associated with doing anything significant to change or alter the course increase (see also the discussion of lock-in in the final section). In addition, the diversity of national actors, public opinion, institutional players and perceptions works against a coherent consensus on action. Therefore the temptation is to displace immediate risk by taking the minimal action to avert an imminent crisis.

The actions taken to prevent a crisis, or preparations for dealing with the aftermath of a crisis, may help precipitate the crisis. Therefore to avoid precipitation, the preparation has to be low key and below the radar of the public and markets. This limits the extent and scope of preparation, increasing the risk of a chaotic and slow response.

Black swans & brittle systems — the growing stress in our very complex globalized economy means it is much less resilient.

Rumors of default cause a run on Country A’s banks. The government, without full preparation, defaults and new lending to the government stops. Bills cannot be paid and it becomes immediately clear that the economy will experience a shock. Bond values plummet. The domestic banking system faces a wipe-out. Cash machines close and transactions cannot be processed. Those with access to cash stockpile food and medicines, building a public and political sense of panic.

Money is needed to pay bills and support banks. Will the country a) get new loans and stay in the Euro, or b) restore its national currency and leave the Euro?

Defaults and stays in Euro: The country should in theory be better able to service new loans after defaulting on old ones. The requirements could be enormous, they would need debt to run the state and re-capitalize the banking system rapidly. But if country A receives market support, worried creditors of countries B, C and D are likely to see their bond values plummet, and public debt and banking re-financing costs spiking, and thus spreading systemic risk through the banking system and sovereign debt markets. Thus, financing is unlikely to be forthcoming (we may also be in the grip of a credit crunch), and for the country concerned, having a new national currency would have been a part of the reason they entered a default. Thus it is more probable that a country would default and re-issue.

Defaults and re-issues new currency: How prepared are the government and local central bank authorities, how long will it take to be implemented? Further, how does the complexity of modern financial and monetary architecture within the real economy hinder implementation and what is the chance it will be botched?

One can assume that there would be forced conversion of Euros into the new currency at one or more conversion rates. The banking system would have been made insolvent by a flight of Euros overseas or into cash. The government would intend to re-capitalize the bank in the new currency. There would be a bank holiday over which all deposits and liabilities would be converted into the new national currency. Euro notes would have to be stamped with some sign of its new status. As the government would have been bounced into it, the banks could be shut for a week or more before electronic payments systems were again able to process transactions.

There would be an imposition of capital controls, including trade controls, to prevent an outflow of deposits. Trade controls would be needed to prevent companies falsifying imports in order to get money out. The practicalities in real-time of facilitating trade while at the same time instituting trade controls would be immense.

If it intends to issue a new national currency, it will need to re-denominate all assets and liabilities in the new currency. This will immediately destroy the balance sheets of many companies that had Euro liabilities, but now hold a devalued new currency asset base. This would spread losses directly to companies across the world.

The value of the new currency would fall rapidly against the euro and other currencies. This would lead to an immediate soaring of prices of the most basic goods and the overnight destruction of savings. Let us say the government of an exiting country decides to set an exchange rate with the euro that can be defended with the help of the IMF, say. Ideally, one would want a carefully controlled money supply. However in the growing intensity of the crisis, the temptation would be to print more and more cash to maintain government services and temper major social unrest. The result could be a break-up of the defended exchange rate, major inflation, or even hyper-inflation.

Once one country defaults, it undermines the confidence that the next weakest countries, B, C, and D will not default. Bank runs and asset flights undermine bank balance sheets as television pictures of queues forming outside banks in major European capitals are beamed around the world. How long would it take to introduce capital controls or bank holidays? Would they undermine trade? Bond values plummet, re-financing costs jump across the bond markets causing further contagion. National banks collapse, but cannot be bailed out. The process of default contagion undermines prospects for global economic growth and thus prospects for continued solvency of what were previously though to be ‘good’ credit risk countries. Trouble comes to countries E, F and G, which may or may not be in the Eurozone. An inverted pyramid of debt is vaporised.

The second interrelated track is what is likely to be rapid contagion across the global banking and shadow banking system. The process of bank contagion, like sovereign default, is a fear driven process of cascading de-stabilization. As sovereign bonds are defaulted on, national banks shut their doors, and the prospect for whole economies rapidly turn dire, all classes of debt become at risk. The mood turns fearful and pessimistic. France (say) and the Netherlands have to publicly ‘stand behind their bank depositors’, but in the context of increasing fear and paranoia, rather than re-assuring, this causes panic and bank runs. In many cases state guarantees and national deposit insurance turn out to be, or are perceived to be worthless (see the case of Belgium, discussed earlier).

A Minsky moment occurs when massively overleveraged speculators are forced to unwind their positions to a one-sided (sellers only) market forcing a “discontinuous price discovery”. Falling asset values, margin calls, a general flight from risk assets to cash, counter-party risk, forced asset sales to cover obligations (collateral, CDS contracts, capital ratios), discovery of competing claims on collateral, a collapse in credit markets, and collapsing hub banks would re-enforce a rapid and deepening global spread of the crisis. Trade credit and working credit for businesses would vanish. Oil prices would collapse as positions are closed and a flight to liquidity at any price occurs. The global economic outlook would turn awful, raising fears for all credit assets around the world. Raw fear and counter-party risk would paralyze even the banks thought most secure.

There would be a major flight to the dollar, but huge currency volatility would remain as major US banks have to be rescued with unlimited liquidity even though they are clearly insolvent. The outlook for the US economy would turn dire. Its rapidly appreciating currency, the prospective massive drop in GWP, and the prospective massive debt to income levels would mean a deflationary shock with the growing risk of inflation. Investment would stop. US, UK, Japanese, Chinese, and Australian banks would have to be rescued.

Central Banks & Governments to the Rescue?

Within a day or two we would see global bank runs, bank and credit collapses and food security crises spreading from one default country to prospective defaulters. The banking system would be transmitting profound insolvency across the world. There would be a race between the disintegration process and government and central bank response.

But as the US authorities prevented severe contagion after the fall of Lehman brothers, and bailed out the insurer AIG to protect counter-parties to derivative contracts, why could governments and central banks not do so again? The first reason is that the global financial system is understood to be in a more precarious state now than three years ago, with the cracks apparent not just in Europe and the US, but in China, and elsewhere and with that there is less confidence, and more of its flip-side, fear. Secondly, this would now include a sovereign debt crisis and the break up of the Euro. Third, the tools that officials could wield in 2008 have become worn. Interest rates are already very low, and the crisis is likely to emerge as a consequence of a loss of faith in yet more ‘ big bazooka’ patches, and even more ECB liquidity.

In the end the only backstop a central bank has is the ability to print infinite money, and if it has to go that far, it has failed because it will have destroyed confidence in the money.

Trade Credit & Insurance. The broadest effect on trade is through the issuance of Letters of Credit; this would have world-wide significance.   Letters of Credit are the method of payment for over 90% of international shipping. They are intermediated by banks over a period between when a buyer-seller agreement is made and when goods are delivered in exchange for a bill of landing. In 2008, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent credit crunch, banks withdrew from such financing. This was held to be responsible for a 93% drop in the Baltic Dry Shipping Index, which measures the cost of bulk dry shipping.

For Letters of Credit to operate, it requires that banks are willing and able to extend credit. Firstly, this requires that banks are solvent. Secondly, even if they are solvent, in a severe credit crunch and financial crisis they are likely to hoard cash on their own balance sheets. This is because they are at risk from closed inter-bank markets; a general collapse in asset values due to forced sales; opaque counter-party risks; and possible bank runs. Of all credit issuance, Letters of Credit are the easiest to pull so as to preserve core liquidity/ solvency.

A related issue is credit insurance. Most European exports are uninsured, though coverage rises as high as 25% for export focused Germany. Already Euler Hermes, Europe’s biggest trade credit insurer, has suspended cover on shipments to Greece. There are also indications that there is growing caution about coverage of exports to Spain and Italy. During the 2008 crisis, governments stepped in when private sector insurance was pulled. However, in the contagion scenario outlined in this section, many governments could not provide such coverage, or could not afford to risk open-ended contingent liabilities.

Almost all trade within the country would stop as banks would be rendered insolvent and be shut down in order to enable re-issue. People and businesses would be left with cash on hand. Supermarkets, pharmacies, and petrol stations would quickly run out of stock. Re-supply of businesses, factories, and hospitals would become increasingly difficult as inventories vanished. Within days there would be the beginnings of a food security crisis and a lack of medicines. Panic buying could be expected. Initially the most exposed would be those with little cash at hand, low home inventories, mobility restrictions, and weak family and community ties. The number of people affected would increase significantly as the days went on.

Businesses could not re-stock because they could not pay their suppliers. While it is sometimes mentioned that a currency re-issue could be completed over a weekend, this seems exceedingly optimistic for some of the reasons already mentioned (the uniqueness of the experience, the complexity of financial and monetary systems and infrastructure, the reflexivity trap). It could be days, or even weeks.

Even if the exchange rate of the new currency with the Euro was known, and had the new currency available to businesses and the public, re-pricing would highly problematic. For example, suppose Italian bank accounts underwent a one Euro to one new Lira re-issue. Further, assume there is a defended 50% devaluation of the new Lira against the Euro. One cannot assume that every price along the supply-chain would just be the same nominal value in the new currency. In broad terms, the more import dependent the good or service, the higher the new price would have to be.

This makes re-pricing highly opaque. Firstly because there are so many links in complex supply-chains, and the more links, the greater uncertainty in what the end price might be. Further, because of the dispersed delocalization of supply-chains, they would be subject to growing volatility across many exchange rates.

This brings us back to another facet of the stable surround idea. That is, large-scale stability can support new elements integrating with a system, or help a failed part re-equilibriate. So pricing a new good or service is possible because of the wide stability of prices along the supply-chain, the price stability of essential services, and the pricing of competitors. But if there is a systemic pricing fog (massive volatility) across a whole economy, there is no stable point of reference. This adds to the time over which transactions may not occur, even after a ‘successful’ re-issue.

Even if the re-issue was successful, speedy, and the effect of the pricing fog was minimal, there would remain many challenges. Many businesses would be bankrupt, having lost Euro assets. People and businesses would hoard any remaining Euros, but even the new currency would be spent guardedly. One would expect a massive and rapid reorientation away from discretionary consumption towards primary needs-food, essential energy, medicines and communication.

Certain businesses could argue that as ‘essential’ they should have access to larger currency transfers. Firstly, this may take time (days, weeks?) to organize and institute mechanisms to prevent capital flight. However, the ability of the business to produce is not its own gift, it exists interdependently in a complex society. Because of the number of conditions that are required for production of goods and services in complex societies, the failure of only one element can cause a general output failure- this we have linked with Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. Increasing complexity means the company may be unable to spot its vulnerabilities as they depend not just upon the direct but also indirect dependencies. Further, the more extensive the shut-down of wider economic activity the greater the chance that any of their critical inputs might be compromised. For example, remembering the discussion of pandemic planning, key employees, or inputs/ services may not be able to arrive due to lack of transport fuel, so shutting down production. So while some larger companies have been preparing for a break-up of the Eurozone, they can never guarantee production in a crisis.

Red Countries are the ones in the worst shape and fail first

Red countries’ imports would collapse as companies had no access to, or limited access to money and credit. Exporters to red countries would fear they would not get paid, or be paid in a devalued currency.

Even if a red company had money kept in the bank of an Amber or Green country its ability to utilize imports from elsewhere will be increasingly impaired due to other failures in its local supply-chain. Furthermore, it may be tempted to hold onto any deposits elsewhere even at the risk of shutting down its own production if it feared a major economic collapse.

Barter might work for simple exchanges, but not the diversity of goods and services in a complex economy. Red imports would collapse.

Red Exports. The value of earning potentially ‘hard’ currency which could be deposited in a green country bank would be immense. However, the ability to export would be undermined by an inability to produce (Liebig’s law of the minimum). Even if a good or service could be produced, the company would have increasing difficulty exporting it. This could be due to transport and shipping problems, getting and paying for insurance, or the availability of customs agents. If the product could be produced and shipped, there would be no demand from other red countries.

Green (better off than red nations) imports: There would be a severe drop in imports from red countries, and increasing drops from amber countries. Lack of trade credit would also affect imports from other green countries. Imports from amber countries could drop because of production/ supply-chain failures in those countries, fear over getting paid, and exchange rate volatility.  Weak currency green countries would see drops in exports from rapidly appreciating US dollar/ sterling. Green imports would drop.

Green Exports Production would begin to be affected by lack of inputs from red and amber countries in particular, but even from some green countries. This could begin to ripple through wider supply-chain networks, affecting local production and goods and services available for export. Green exports would drop.

Supply-Chain Contagion

The second phase is the links, via supply-chains, to other nodes that are not affected by the primary cause. That is, the high complexity de-localization of dependencies means that supply-chain failure in one place can propagate elsewhere on the planet, causing further failures elsewhere. This is supply-chain contagion.

In our scenario, the impact is in some of the most high centrality countries in the world (section III.4); the Garas et. al. list of most central countries is: China, Russia, Japan, Spain, UK, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, USA, France. We would be expecting at least three of them to be in the red/ amber phase along with a number of other countries such as Greece, Portugal, and Ireland (which probably has high centrality even if not in the top 10).

Non-Eurozone countries would also be likely to see plummeting bond markets, bank-runs and bank collapses, and while they could print money in a crisis, exporters to those countries would no doubt fear rapid inflation and thus question real returns, thus hampering imports and exports. In addition, the Minsky moment impact would freeze credit worldwide, and see banks failing across the world. The UK would probably be in the midst of a major banking and shadow banking crisis as the City of London froze.

These countries produce some of the most complex and least easily substitutable goods and services in the world. So the loss of such outputs to the world economy would be of very high impact.

These countries would also have high levels of vulnerability as they are the most complex with high levels of interdependencies. This would also reflect a long term habituation to normalcy. Those many decades of stability will have embedded increasingly complex, high efficiency JIT logistics.

For a trade collapse or a wider system collapse, one does not need everything to fail, only certain things. The impact can then cascade across businesses, economies and society.

A supply-chain crisis becomes non-linear in time. That is, the damage caused by the disruption does not rise in proportion to the length of time the disruption occurs, rather it starts to accelerate. We can hypothesize that this is firstly because inventories and buffer stocks cushion the early impact of the crisis. If the crisis-causing event is shorter than inventory times, there should be minimal supply-chain problems. As inventories have fallen, tolerance for largescale and shorter-timed interruptions has fallen.

Secondly, the level and structure of interconnections mean that the more people, businesses, goods, and services (nodes) that are affected, the greater the chance of infecting any remaining unaffected nodes.

The number of infected nodes starts to rise exponentially. Later, the rate of supply-chain failure slows as the pool of unaffected nodes declines. Ultimately, all globally interconnected nodes fail. This is the localization limit, where the only transactions are gift, barter, or residual trading between closely linked people.

The contagion spreads fastest where the inventories are shortest, that is where JIT logistics are most efficient.

The connection between critical infrastructure elements is probably too complex to understand.

The functioning of core elements of critical infrastructure does not occur in a vacuum. Because of interdependencies between elements of critical infrastructure, and because of the general level of complexity (many critical dependencies, consumables, higher levels of low substitutability inputs), there is considerable scope for failure. Thus while a power and grid company might be confident that it has a vast inventory of all the things it needs, it can never be confident that its co-dependents have had such foresight. Water, telecommunications or transport companies might not be so well-prepared, and so pose a contagion risk.

The period of financial and supply-chain crisis would have changed societies. As the financial system resumed operation, many people may not have been paid and confidence would be shattered. Non-discretionary consumption would have fallen dramatically, leading to further economic contraction, rising unemployment, and a growing share of falling national income spent on necessities. Thus large parts of the globalized economy could lose significant productive output. Spare capacity that existed could be directed to deal with the devastation of the crisis, rather than restarting what existed before. Further, the operational fabric of countries and regions could be so impaired that complex planning and delivery of reconstruction could be impossible.

One cannot just shut down production lines and infrastructure for an extended period and expect them to work again on demand. Systems rust and decay, valves leak and chemicals go out of date, the longer systems remain idle, the harder they are to resume. This is particularly true for more complex systems. Even with a fully viable operational fabric, a shut-down in a semi-conductor or pharmaceutical plant can take weeks to resume.

We do not like to think of ourselves as potentially irrational herd animals. We seek narrative frameworks that purport to explain our good fortune, ideally in ways that flatter. Reinhardt and Rogoff called it the This Time It’s Different syndrome as each age sought to deflect warnings by arguing we’re smarter now, better organized, or living in a different world. Just as the sellers of an overpriced home will convince themselves that it was their interior decorating skills, not an inflating bubble that got them the good deal.

Of course warnings may keep coming, and almost by definition, from the fringes. When assessing risks that challenge consensus, people are more likely to defer to authority, which generally sees itself as the representative of the consensus. Furthermore, as a species with strong attachments to group affirmation, being wrong in a consensus is often a safer option than being right but facing social shaming, or especially if found to be wrong later. Far better to say: “Look, don’t blame me, nobody saw this coming, even the experts got it wrong!

But even if we can appreciate a warning, the inertia of the status quo generally ensures acting on such warnings is difficult. In general we choose the easiest path in the short-term, and the easiest path is the one we are familiar and adaptive with. We would rather put off a hard and high consequence decision now, even if it meant much higher consequences sometime in the future.

The consensus can often be correct and the marginal voices may be deluded. The point for the risk manager is to try and step through cognitive and social blind-spots by first recognizing them. This is particularly true if the risks (probability times impact) considered are very high.

Unfortunately, it is very clear that we have learned almost nothing general about risk management as a societal practice arising from the financial crisis. We have merely adopted a new consensus, with a questionable acknowledgement that we will not let this type of crisis happen again. However, the argument in this following report is that we are facing growing real-time, severe, civilization transforming risks without any risk management.  We live in a culture that often assumes that being able to conceptualize major change, means such change is possible-if only vested interests could be tamed, or politicians were as wise and virtuous as their critics.

The real practical and intellectual challenge is not in the elegance of the solutions, but how it might be introduced in real-time and in a manner that would not unravel the global financial and monetary system that we depend upon for trade, food and medicines, also in real-time. The form of the monetary system is not a merely a ‘thing’ controlled by ‘them’. It is not like replacing some components in a machine (a complex system), but like pulling out a key organ of the living fabric of the globalized economy (a complex adaptive system). But we know far less about the economy’s dispersed connectedness then we do of the body’s. However, we should be able to intuit that as our dependencies have become ever more complex, high speed and interdependent, our vulnerability to such potential tinkering has increased. Likewise, we might acknowledge that our JIT, high complexity food systems are increasingly vulnerable. But changing that system at scale would increase food prices just as discretionary income is contracting, food poverty is increasing, and our ability to service debt is being undermined by debt deflation.

Collectively, it is like we are passengers travelling in an unimaginably complex plane locked onto a perilous course. Our understanding of the engine and guidance system is partial, nor do we know many of the connections between them. We may want to change course by retooling the guidance system, but there’s a meaningful risk it will stall the engine, and we’ll plummet to the ground. Good risk management might argue that before repairs are done, we ensure the passengers have parachutes, but time is running out, maybe it already has.


We are locked into an unimaginably complex predicament and a system of dependency whose future seems at growing risk. To avoid catastrophe we must prepare for failure.

We are entering a time of great challenge and uncertainty, when the systems, ideas and stories that framed our lives in one world are torn apart, but before new stories and dependencies have had time to evolve. Our challenge is to let go, and go forth.

Our immediate concern is crisis and shock planning. It should now be clear that this is far more extensive than merely focusing on the financial system. It includes how we might move forward if a reversion to current conditions proves impossible. That is we also need transition planning and preparation. Even while subject to lock-in and the reflexivity trap, this will be most effective if it works from bottom-up as well as top-down.

Finally, neither wealth nor geography is a protection. Our evolved co-dependencies mean that we are all in this together.



Posted in 2) Collapse, Cascading Failure, Critical Thinking, David Korowicz, Interdependencies, Liebig's Law, Social Disorder, Supply Chains | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Why world leaders are terrified of water shortages

[ The article blow shows how water crisis in Yemen and Syria led to civil war, mass migration, roadblocks by angry citizens, water riots, increased dengue fever as people hard water, and 1 million refugees fleeing to Europe.  Egypt also has extreme water scarcity, with nearly twice the population of Yemen and Syria combined.

About 75% of China’s remaining coal reserves are in water scarce regions that use 80 to 99% of their water for agriculture now.  I question whether China will be able to shift water use to water intensive coal mining, coal generation of electricity, coal to chemicals, and eventually coal to liquids as governments become desperate to replace declining oil with a drop-in fuel.  If China tries to develop their last coal reserves this will lead to civil war, chaos, mass migrations, riots, and so on, as it has in the Middle East.  And where would the water come, from since already aquifers are being drained that won’t refill for tens of thousands of years.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Halverson, N. 2016. Why world leaders are terrified of water shortages. Mother Jones.

Secret conversations between American diplomats show how a growing water crisis in the Middle East destabilized the region, helping spark civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and how those water shortages are spreading to the United States.

Classified US cables, made public years ago by WikiLeaks, reviewed by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting show a mounting concern by global political and business leaders that water shortages could spark unrest across the world, with dire consequences.

Many of the cables read like diary entries from an apocalyptic sci-fi novel.

“Water shortages have led desperate people to take desperate measures with equally desperate consequences,” according to a 2009 cable sent by US Ambassador Stephen Seche in Yemen as water riots erupted across the country.

On September 22 of that year, Seche sent a stark message to the US State Department in Washington relaying the details of a conversation with Yemen’s minister of water, who “described Yemen’s water shortage as the ‘biggest threat to social stability in the near future.’ He noted that 70% of unofficial roadblocks were set up citizens angry about  water shortages, which are increasingly a cause of violent conflict.”  He noted that 14 of the country’s 16 aquifers had run dry.

The classified 2009 cable by Ambassador Stephen Seche states “Water remains a socially threatening, yet politically sensitive subject in Yemen; government action has stagnated as water resources continue to decline. The lack of regulation of drilling rigs and the cultivation of qat are largely responsible for the continuing decline of water resources. The lack of water has resulted in water riots in the governorates of Aden, Lahj, and Abyan. Water scarcity has health consequences and has been linked to a dengue fever outbreak, as people hoard water in Taiz”.  He predicted that conflict between urban and rural areas over water would lead to violence.

Less than two years later, rural tribesmen fought their way into Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and seized two buildings: the headquarters of the ruling General People’s Congress and the main offices of the water utility. The president was forced to resign, and a new government was formed. But water issues continued to amplify long-simmering tensions between various religious groups and tribesmen, which eventually led to a full-fledged civil war.

Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, found similar classified US cables sent from Syria. Those cables also describe how water scarcity destabilized the country and helped spark a war that has sent more than 1 million refugees fleeing into Europe.

In 2008 a Syrian cable asked the UNFAO for seed and technical assistance to 15,000 small-holding farmers in northeast Syria in an effort to preserve the social and economic fabric of this rural, agricultural community.  If UNFAO efforts fail, Yehia predicts mass migration from the northeast, which could act as a multiplier on social and economic pressures already at play and undermine stability Syria.  Syria Representative Abdullah bin Yehia briefed econoff and USDA Regional Minister-Counselor for Agriculture on what he terms the “perfect storm,” a confluence of drought conditions with other economic and social pressures that Yehia believes could undermine stability in Syria. Without direct FAO assistance, Yehia predicts that most of these 15,000 small-holding farmers would be forced to depart Al Hasakah province to seek work in larger cities in western Syria (Damascus and Aleppo, primarily). Approximately 100,000 dependents — women, children and the elderly or infirm — would be left behind to live in poverty, he said.  Children would be likely to be pulled from school, he warned, in order to seek a source of income for families left behind.  In addition, the migration of 15,000 unskilled laborers would add to the social and economic pressures presently at play in major Syrian cities.  A system already burdened by a large Iraqi refugee population may not be able to absorb another influx of displaced persons, Yehia explained, particularly at this time of rising costs, growing dissatisfaction of the middle class, and a perceived weakening of the social fabric and security structures that Syrians have come to expect and – in some cases – rely on.

The classified diplomatic cables, made public years ago by WikiLeaks, now are providing fresh perspective on how water shortages have helped push Syria and Yemen into civil war, and prompted the king of neighboring Saudi Arabia to direct his country’s food companies to scour the globe for farmland. Since then, concerns about the world’s freshwater supplies have only accelerated.

It’s not just government officials who are worried. In 2009, US Embassy officers visited Nestlé’s headquarters in Switzerland, where company executives, who run the world’s largest food company and are dependent on freshwater to grow ingredients, provided a grim outlook of the coming years. An embassy official cabled Washington with the subject line, “Tour D’Horizon with Nestle: Forget the Global Financial Crisis, the World Is Running Out of Fresh Water.

“Nestle thinks one-third of the world’s population will be affected by fresh water scarcity by 2025, with the situation only becoming more dire thereafter and potentially catastrophic by 2050,” according to a March 24, 2009, cable. “Problems will be severest in the Middle East, northern India, northern China, and the western United States.”

At the time of that meeting, government officials from Syria and Yemen already had started warning US officials that their countries were slipping into chaos as a result of water scarcity.

The water-fueled conflicts in the Middle East paint a dark picture of a future that many governments now worry could spread around the world as freshwater supplies become increasingly scarce. The CIA, the State Department, and similar agencies in other countries are monitoring the situation.

In the past, global grain shortages have led to rapidly increasing food prices, which analysts have attributed to sparking the Arab Spring revolution in several countries, and in 2008 pushed about 150 million people into poverty, according to the World Bank.

Water scarcity increasingly is driven by three major factors: Global warming is forecast to create more severe droughts around the world. Meat consumption, which requires significantly more water than a vegetarian or low-meat diet, is spiking as a growing middle class in countries such as China and India can afford to eat more pork, chicken, and beef. And the world’s population continues to grow, with an expected 2 billion more stomachs to feed by 2050.

The most troubling signs of the looming threat first appeared in the Middle East, where wells started running dry nearly 15 years ago. Having drained down their own water supplies, food companies from Saudi Arabia and elsewhere began searching overseas.

In Saudi Arabia, the push to scour the globe for water came from the top. King Abdullah decreed that grains such as wheat and hay would need to be imported to conserve what was left of the country’s groundwater. All wheat production in Saudi Arabia will cease this year, and other water-intensive crops such as hay are being phased out, too, the king ruled.

A classified US cable from Saudi Arabia in 2008 shows that King Abdullah directed Saudi food companies to search overseas for farmland with access to freshwater and promised to subsidize their operations. The head of the US Embassy in Riyadh concluded that the king’s goal was “maintaining political stability in the Kingdom.”

In a 2014 speech, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said food and water scarcity are contributing to the “most diverse array of threats and challenges as I’ve seen in my 50-plus years in the intel business. “As time goes on, we’ll be confronting issues I call ‘basics’ resources—food, water, energy, and disease—more and more as an intelligence community,” he said.

These problems are not just happening overseas, but already are leading to heated political issues in the United States. In the western part of the country, which Nestlé forecast will suffer severe long-term shortages, tensions are heating up as Middle Eastern companies arrive to tap dwindling water supplies in California and Arizona.

Almarai, which is Saudi Arabia’s largest dairy company and has publicly said it’s following the king’s directive, began pumping up billions of gallons of water in the Arizona desert in 2014 to grow hay that it exports back to the Middle East. Analysts refer to this as exporting “virtual water.” It is more cost effective to use the Arizona water to irrigate land in America and ship the hay to Saudi Arabia than it is to fill a fleet of oil tankers with the water.

Arizonans living near Almarai’s hay operation say their groundwater is dropping fast as the Saudis and other foreign companies increase production. They are now worried their domestic wells might suffer the same fate as those in Syria and Yemen.  In January, more than 300 people packed into a community center in rural La Paz County to listen to the head of the state’s water department discuss how long their desert aquifer would last.

Five sheriff’s deputies stood guard at the event to ensure the meeting remained civil—the Arizona Department of Water Resources had requested extra law enforcement, according to county Supervisor Holly Irwin.  “Water can be a very angry issue,” she said. “With people’s wells drying up, it becomes very personal.

Thomas Buschatzke, Arizona’s water director, defended the Saudi farm, saying it provides jobs and increases tax revenue. He added that “Arizona is part of the global economy; our agricultural industry generates billions of dollars annually to our state’s economy.”

But state officials admit they don’t know how long the area’s water will last, given the increased water pumping, and announced plans to study it.

After the meeting, the state approved another two new wells for the Saudi company, each capable of pumping more than 1 billion gallons of water a year.

Back in Yemen in 2009, US Ambassador Seche described how as aquifers were drained, and groundwater levels dropped lower, rich landowners drilled deeper and deeper wells. But everyday citizens did not have the money to dig deeper, and as their wells ran dry, they were forced to leave their land and livelihoods behind.

“The effects of water scarcity will leave the rich and powerful largely unaffected,” Seche wrote in the classified 2009 cable. “These examples illustrate how the rich always have a creative way of getting water, which not only is unavailable to the poor, but also cuts into the unreplenishable resources.”

2008 Saudia Arabia cable

One of the unintended consequences of the dramatic increase in oil prices has been huge inflation in basic commodities, including grain. Food security continues to be a concern in Saudi Arabia, especially with regard to lower and middle income population, and foreign workers.  The Saudi Arabian government (SAG) is seeking alternative sources for grain importation, particularly investing in agricultural initiatives in third-world and developing countries in return for reduced prices on grains.  The SAG also hopes to use these investments to help create sustainable development and jobs in less-developed countries.  Rising costs of food have caused considerable concern among lower income groups, both Saudis and guest workers.  If inflation continues unabated, it could undermine political stability in the Kingdom.  End summary.

On July 27, Econoff met with Taha Alshareef, Assistant Director General for Foreign Trade,  and Ahmed Al Sadhan, General Manager of the National Office for Industrial Strategies, at the Ministry of Commerce.  In this meeting, Al Sadhan stated the need for Saudi Arabia to seek alternative grain sources in response to rising global food prices. Saudi Arabia has 1.76% arabale land, and water scarcity makes it impossible to sustain the current levels of grain production in the Kingdom.

Saudi concern over food security is not new. Historically, all grains have been imported into Saudi Arabia, apart from wheat, which was grown in the Qassim region using fossil water from the aquifer.  In the 1980s and 90s, the government employed massive subsidies, the result of which Saudi Arabia was even briefly a wheat exporter until water depletion drove them to import all grains.

Al Sadhan said the SAG is currently in its sixth week of feasibility studies of investing in farms in third-world and developing countries, whereby Saudi rials would pay the operating costs of the farms and provide management; in exchange for local land, labor, and a portion of the grain produced (particularly wheat and rice).  He also said the countries in which the farms operated could use the remainder of the grain produced to ameliorate their own rising food costs.  Alshareef noted that private Saudi companies have had success with similar ventures in the past.

Al Sadhan said this initiative comes directly from King Abdullah, as part of his effort to make KSA  a “good world citizen” and implement his view that “rich countries have an obligation to help less wealthy nations.”  However, he stressed a desire to maintain a low profile on the feasibility study, for fear that target countries might inflate the cost of farm-land in anticipation of investment. Al Sadhan specifically mentioned Sudan and India as potential target countries.  He also suggested the possibility of future collaboration with the U.S. farming industry.

SAG interest in these investments appears genuine for the primary purpose of addressing the fundamental food security issue, though the driver behind this new initiative is the sudden price inflation of basic commodities.  Rapid rise of oil prices has caused sudden price inflation, but because of variants in income distribution, there is the risk of civil unrest if food prices become too high, particularly from the lower and middle class Saudis, as well as the foreign worker population.

Food price inflation could pose a direct threat to the social contract between the House of Saud and the bulk of the population.  Therefore these programs seem aimed less directly at the economy and more at the goal of maintaining political stability in the Kingdom.  Although keen to keep these projects quiet during the initial fact-finding stages, it seems highly probable that upon announcement, the SAG will accentuate the public relations angle of sustainable development and job development in less-developed countries.

2009 Yemen cable (rest of it here)

… small riots take place nearly every day in neighborhoods in the Old City of Sana’a because of lack of water, and he predicted that the capital could run out of water as soon as next year. One of the major causes of Yemen’s dwindling water supply is the lack of water governance. Hundreds of privately owned, unregulated rigs are used to drill private wells deep into the earth in search of water. The owners of these drills are “running wild, drilling holes everywhere.  We need to control these private rigs.”  A major obstacle to doing so is that fact that the rig owners are powerful individuals – army officers, sheikhs, members of the president’s family, and certain government ministers – who are “untouchable” by the law.  Another major cause is agriculture.  Up to 85 percent of water is used for agriculture, and half of that is for growing the narcotic drug qat.

O one “very easy way to make water use more efficient” is to lift diesel subsidies.  Cheap diesel is leading to the water crisis because, on the one hand, “many farms would no longer be sustainable if their owners were paying the right price for diesel,” and on the other, it fuels the private rigs that are running rampant across the country.

This story was originally published by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting  

Further reading

Posted in Caused by Scarce Resources, Drought, Mass migrations, Middle East, Social Uprising, Starvation, Water | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Renewable EROI must include storage, low capacity factor, wide boundaries

[ Trainer argues that when you consider how the capacity factor of wind and solar are to fossil plants, seasonality of wind and solar the number of facilities is quite large to deal with the intermittency problem.  Therefore the storage (hydropower, batteries, biomass, etc) must be included in the EROI calculation, the renewable system can’t operate without them.  Plus the capacity factors of wind and solar are getting lower, because the best sites have already been built on, so the future capacity factor will be less, not equal or more than today’s.  The lifetime of 25-30 years is questionable, plus the erosion of their performance over time usually isn’t included (i.e. dust impairing solar panels).  Trainer makes a case that boundaries need to be as wide as possible, including the EROI of the workers, transmission, and so on.  Prieto, Hall and others have pointed this out too.  In summary, Trainer makes a good argument that the EROI values for wind and solar are far lower than commonly assumed, and that what would be more effective is reduction in demand, De-growth.  He writes that “a core claim of The Simpler Way project (2017) is that a sustainable and just society based on 100% renewable energy supply is desirable and could be easily achieved, but only if there is a radical transition to new settlement patterns, economies, political systems, and most difficult of all, new values and non-affluent conceptions of the good life”.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Trainer, Ted. August 14, 2017. The overlooked significance of the EROI for renewable energy supply systems.   $$$ awaiting publication

Abstract. Until recently it has not been possible to estimate the energy return on energy invested (EROI) for 100% renewable energy supply systems, because simulations of the amount of capacity required have not been available.  This study takes the finding of a simulation for Australian electricity, along with commonly quoted EROI values for the technologies assumed, and derives a conclusion for total system EROI.  The EROI values for individual renewable technologies do not provide a reliable guide to this value because of the large amount of redundant plant that must be on hand to enable whole systems to meet demand reliably despite intermittency. Problems and uncertainties regarding commonly assumed EROI values for renewables are discussed and it is argued that in future more defensible values are likely to indicate lower system values than this study arrives at.  The general finding is that 100% renewable supply systems could have values that are too low to sustain energy intensive societies.


Although considerable attention has been given to the energy return on energy invested (EROI) for individual renewable technologies, especially for PV, there does not appear to have been any attempt to estimate the significance of this factor for whole renewable systems. This is somewhat remarkable as the impact can be expected to be significant because in order to deal with intermittency whole renewable systems have to involve a large amount of differing types of renewable plant that remains idle much of the time.  Whereas 1.2 GW of coal-fired generating plant is capable of meeting a constant 1 GW demand (taking into account a 0.8 capacity factor), various studies have found that for a 100% renewable system to do this would require enough plant to generate 4 – 6 GW.  This much greater amount of generating equipment would involve a greater embodied energy cost of construction.

No generally valid conclusion on system embodied energy cost can be arrived at.  Any finding would depend on the particular mix of renewable technologies involved in a specified system, and this mix would be determined by the climatic conditions characteristic of the region.  It has not been possible to carry out meaningful studies of whole system embodied energy costs until recently, because simulations providing estimates of renewable technology mixes have only recently been attempted.  These estimate the amounts of various technologies that seem to be required to meet demand reliably, and therefore they enable estimation of the associated total system capacities and embodied energy costs.


The following discussion explores the significance of embodied energy costs for a 100% renewable electricity supply for Australia.  It is based on the mix and quantities of various renewable technologies found by Lenzen et al (2015) to be capable of meeting 2010 demand reliably at minimum cost.  The approach has been to take estimates of the embodied energy costs of each of the technologies involved in the simulation, to multiply theses by the quantities of each that were found to be needed, to derive a total cost, and to consider its significance.

In principle this approach is relatively straight forward but it is complicated by uncertainties to do with the embodied energy concept and the estimation of EROI values. Some of these will be discussed later, along with their probably significant implications for calculating system EROI. However at this point it is important to say that it is not appropriate to approach the question of system EROI by using estimates of “buffered” EROIs for each renewable technology.  Some studies have attempted to deal with the effect of intermittency on a technology’s EROI by estimating the effect of including the plant needed to enable energy supply from it taking into account its intermittency.  For instance Weissbach et al. (2013) do this assuming that the lowest back-up cost option for this purpose, i.e., pumped hydro storage. The effects found are large; the wind EROI value falls from 16 to 3.9.

However, these values are of little or no use when it comes to estimating the EROI of a whole supply system.  These systems are designed so that technologies can complement and substitute for each other as much as possible. If wind input falls for a period it might not be necessary to draw on any “buffering” capacity specifically provided for wind if solar or some other input happens to be high in that period. Thus it is not that in a whole system each component technology would need to come equipped with its own “buffering” capacity capable of allowing it to go on contributing despite no availability of its particular energy source. The way the problem is tackled in the main simulations is simply to provide one or a few back-up sources capable of topping up combined input from all components when necessary. System EROI can therefore be estimated using the “un-buffered” EROI values for each component along with that of the backup system.


This study begins by taking commonly stated EROI values for the main renewable technologies(…see Table 1), and derives a system EROI for a particular combination of these. As noted, some difficulties with these values will be considered later. The values to be used are close to those Hall (2017) gives in his review of the energy return field.

What capacities might be needed?

The following analysis will be based on the findings of the simulation of a 100% electricity supply carried out by Lenzen et al. (2015.) Though secondary to their main findings, they consider a case which “…might come close to what would be implemented in the real world.” Their Table 2 gives the capacities of various renewable technologies that would be needed to meet demand in this scenario. These add to 162 GW, about 7 times average Australian demand. Others arrive at significant multiples; for instance in their earlier simulation of Australian supply Elliston, Diesendorf and MacGill (2012) arrive at a multiple of 3.3, and Hart and Jacobson (2011) arrive at 4.3.

The use of biomass for energy supply is controversial, including questions to do with quantities available.  Lenzen et al. note that if no biomass is to be used in the Australian situation total renewable capacity would have to be in far greater, in the region of 320 GW, 14 times average demand. However it is likely that use of “Turkey Nest” pumped hydro storage would be the best option. Substituting this for the contribution biomass makes in this case would not alter total system capacity needed.

Table1 below makes transparent the simple derivation of an overall system EROI given the quantities set out by Lenzen et al. for the scenario they describe.

Table 1: Derivation of a system embodied energy estimate.

*    Uncertain: Lenzen et al. assume 15 hour storage.

**   Uncertain: Plant lifetime assumed to equal coal-fired plant.

These figures indicate that the embodied energy of the whole system corresponds to a constant flow of approximately 3.42 GW, or 26 TWh/y. Lenzen et al. report total system output at 287 TWh/y for the case being considered, corresponding to a constant flow of 32.7 GW. The EROI for energy generated would therefore be c. 32.7/3.41 = 9.6.


However this is not the most appropriate measure; what matters most is the energy cost in relation to the amount of energy needed and thus delivered for use. Lenzen et al. find that the system must spill 61 TWh/y, meaning that the ER value that is of most concern relates to the c. 220TWh/y the system would deliver for use. Thus the EROI of a system capable of meeting the average demand of c. 220 TWh/y or 25.1 GW would be 25.1/3.42 = 7.3. This means that in order to meet demand the amount of additional electricity that must be generated to cover embodied energy costs would be an amount more or less equal to 3.42/25.1 = 14% of demand.

This analysis does not include the energy cost of the extensive transmission system that the Lenzen et al., simulation found would be required to connect remote generating areas and demand sites across the nation.

There are reasons for suspecting that actual EROI values for the specific renewable technologies would be significantly lower than those used in column 1 of Table1 above.

Complications regarding capacity factors.

Debates over the EROI of renewables has focused almost exclusively on the denominator in the ratio, leaving concerns about the numerator almost largely unexamined. Central among these are the actual generating conditions and therefore capacity factors to assume. The convention is to assume capacity factors achieved in favourable conditions.

Table 2 in Lenzen et al. shows that except for PV the capacity factors achieved by the major renewables wind and CSP in the locations they occupy in the cost-minimizing solution are much lower than is commonly assumed. For instance the figure for wind is 0.18 whereas the usually quoted figure is 0.33 – 0.4, and for CSP it is only 0.26 despite the 15 hour storage assumed which should enable approximately three times that value in ideal conditions.  This is because 100% renewable scenarios have to involve a mix of renewables and locations that will minimize overall system production cost while achieving the reliability standard all through the year. The resulting pattern requires many of the renewable components to be located at less than ideal sites.  The task is to ensure that enough renewables are in sites that can contribute to meeting demand all through the year and during periods when all renewable input is low and at times when wind for instance is only at significant strength in a few locations.

This is the downside of common claim that “…the wind is always blowing somewhere.”  It is, but if a system is designed to maintain input by locating many farms in many locations to ensure that enough are where wind is blowing at any time, then it is likely that there will be times when a few farms are providing the input and the rest are more or less idle.  This means the capacity factor of the wind sector within a 100% renewable system will be much lower than normally assumed 0.33 – 0.4.

Thus the energy contributed by the wind sector in the Lenzen et al. case would be only around 0.18/0.33 = 55% of the amount that would be contributed had all the farms been located in the favourable conditions assumed for normal EROI estimation, and therefore the EROI of turbines in this “real-world” situation is likely to be in the region of 10, not the usually assumed18.

It is important to recognize that wind farms installed to date have probably not been significantly affected by this factor.  They have been located at the best available sites for wind performance, not in the regions that will enable them to contribute to maintaining system output in difficult times even though these might not be ideal for wind. Despite this it is somewhat sobering to find that the world average capacity factor has been reported at 0.15. (Damn the Matrix, 2017.) This suggests that large scale development of wind energy in future will see movement to less ideal sites and thus an even lower value.

Another issue involved in the numerator of the EROI ratio concerns the lifetime assumed for renewable devices.  These assumptions must be tentative as it will take time to provide confident data. For wind turbines and PV modules the assumption is often 25 to 30 years but some believe it is less than 20 years. (Damn the Matrix, 2017.) The decline in PV module output with age also affects life time output, (…although it is usually included in estimates of their “performance factor”.)

It is appropriate to compare the above renewable system value with that for existing fossil-fueled systems.  About 90+% of the present Australian electricity supply system is made up of fossil-fuelled generators, and most of the rest is hydro.  If an EROI of 40 is assumed for both, then the total system EROI would be about 40. Therefore the value for the renewable system arrived at above is less than one-fifth of this.

These issues to do with capacity factors also add to the case against the value of estimating “buffered” values for renewable technologies. They show that the EROI of a renewable technology depends primarily on what its role in a particular system is, especially on where it is located and the extent to which it is called upon to maintain system performance in conditions that are less than ideal for it. In Europe where there might be no solar contribution for long periods in winter, along with calm conditions providing little wind, capacity factors for very large wind or solar sectors spread over less than ideal sites would probably be quite low.

In addition renewable systems must spill energy (even with hydrogen or PHS storage; see Trainer 2017b) and the effect of this cannot be estimated from preconceived “buffered” values for each component technology.

To summarise, when interpreting standard EROI values it needs to be kept in mind that these assume output in good conditions, but output in the locations and conditions in which various technologies must be placed in order to play their role in a renewable system may well be around half as high.

The significance of CSP efficiency on system EROI.

In the above case taken from Lenzen et al. CSP is called upon to make a major contribution, providing 59% of energy generated.  It’s role is especially significant In their Fig. 5 illustration of how the system arrived at would get through the worst five days in the year.  This task required about 1,680 GWh, 61 % of supply, to come from CSP plus biomass storage, and (from inspection of the plot) CSP made up just over half of this of this, averaging c. 15.6 GW and rising to 19.4 GW for a time. It is therefore important to consider reasons for suspecting that this very significant contribution would have required far more capacity than the simulation found to be necessary.

In view of the complexity of the modeling task it made sense for the simulation not to take into account embodied energy costs or to delve into the unsettled issue of the efficiency of CSP in poor conditions. Trainer (2017b) explored the efficiency question and found that the effect evident in data from various studies was likely to be large; in fact it could mean that to get through difficult periods in winter would require three or more times as much CSP capacity as the simulation found to be necessary.

If this is correct it would show that meeting demand would require significant upward revision of the amount of renewables the approach Lenzen et al. estimated to be sufficient, and this would markedly reduce the 7.3 system EROI value derived above.

How sound are the EROI values used above?

There are reasons for thinking that the EROI values assumed above and set out in Table 1 are much too high, i.e., favourable to renewables. Unfortunately there has been relatively little study of EROI values for renewable plant apart from PV and even in that case there is intense debate.  The EROI field in general is unsettled and difficult to interpret, especially in view of differing definitions and items included in embodied energy tallies.

The main issue has been the “boundaries” that should be set when deciding which energy costs to include.  For instance in addition to the energy used in the factory making PV panels energy is used “upstream” to make the refineries etc. providing the aluminum. Should the energy used to make the bulldozers that mined the alumina that eventually went into module frames be included?  Should the worker’s clothes, and the energy used in their travel to the factory be included?

In addition there are many “downstream” energy costs and losses, including losses in transmission and in inverters, breakdowns, dust on panels, poor maintenance and alignment etc.  Prieto and Hall (2013) demonstrate the marked effect of drawing relatively wide boundaries. In their study of the Spanish PV system they list many factors that detract from the useful energy delivered by the system and when several but not all of these are taken into account they find that the system EROI is not the commonly claimed 8 – 14 but around 2.4.

It can be argued that there should be no dispute or confusion regarding the concept or definition of EROI or where to draw boundaries. The core question is, what is the total amount of net energy a technology can deliver, and therefore all factors detracting from this should be taken into account, meaning that in principle no boundaries should be set.  They only become relevant and important in the practical task of getting actual measures. At some point it will be too inconvenient or impossible to estimate energy used far “upstream”, or what the fraction of energy used at some point (e.g., in producing the bulldozer) should be accounted to module production. (The fact that had the worker not been producing PV modules the energy cost of his clothes or tools or lunches would still have been paid if he had been working on something else, is irrelevant; these were costs of module production.) In other words, at some point in the path upstream an inevitable “truncation” in the chain of cost factors taken into account will occur, and the sum of those cut out of consideration could be significant. (For steel production Lenzen and Dey (2000) estimate that 50% of actual costs might not be included.)

It would seem therefore that total system EROI studies should follow the Prieto and Hall approach to the Spanish PV system, attempting to use the widest possible boundaries.  Many of the (relatively few) pronouncements on wind and CSP values are either clearly not based on wide boundaries (at times only the embodied energy of construction materials is included) or no information is given on factors included. The fact that when Prieto and Hall attempted to take into account (almost) all possible costs and losses in a whole system and arrived at an EROI value less that one-third the commonly stated value for PV modules suggests that when similarly inclusive studies are carried out for wind or CSP farms values reported will be significantly lower than those in column 2 of Table 1 above.

Conclusions and policy implications.

This has been a tentative first exploration of what seems to have been a neglected issue and its main value might be in indicating the kind of analysis that needs to be carried out more thoroughly.  Nevertheless its findings add difficulties to the quest for 100% renewable supply.

Hall, Balough and Murphy (2009) are among those who have considered the minimum EROI for an energy supply system that would enable rich world societies to maintain their present levels of economic and cultural activity. Although quite speculative at this point in time, the estimates ventured tend to be around 7 -10.

The total system EROI for rich societies is presently estimated by people like Hall (2017) to be in the region of 18, which means that if 18 units of energy are produced a net 17 are available for use.  If a renewable supply involved a fall of EROI to 7.3 then the amount of net energy available for use per unit produced would be only 6.3/17 = 37% of the present amount. This suggests that the critical level would be well above 7.

Trainer (2017a) outlines a case that 100% renewable supply of all energy, including the 80% that is not presently in the form of electricity, would be unaffordable. That case was based on the dollar costs associated with the Lenzen et al. study which did not take into account any embodied energy costs. Taking them into account appears from above to increase the amount that needs to be generated by 3.42/25.1 = 14%. This in turn suggests that the 20c/kWh production cost Lenzen et al. arrive at would rise to 23 c/kWh. Trainer (2017c) lists 10 factors operating on production cost that the study did not deal with (e.g., added cost for remote area construction, a higher cost now for imported components…) and when the four that could be quantified were taken into account production cost was multiplied by 2.3.  This indicates a production cost of 52.4 c/kWh when embodied energy costs are included, and adding distribution and related costs might bring the retail price to 74 c/kWh, around three times the price at the time the study was carried out.

Electricity makes up only 20% of total energy demand, but to provide the other 80% from renewable sources would involve more than scaling up production by four, given the need to convert electricity to other energy forms and the energy inefficiency of doing this. It would also involve embodied energy costs for conversion equipment, such for hydrogen production, pumping and storage. If the embodied energy costs of 100% renewable systems are in the region of those arrived at above then including these would add significantly to the weight of the case that 100% renewable energy supply is unaffordable.

These issues set formidable policy problems and choices. This study and that of Trainer (2017a) add to the grounds for thinking that 100% electricity supply for Australia would be at least severely economically disruptive and that 100% total energy supply would not be affordable. If so it would seem that the energy problems being encountered can only be solved on the supply side by an extremely large commitment to fourth generation breeder reactors. The alternative, on the demand side, is De-growth. A core claim of The Simpler Way project (2017) is that a sustainable and just society based on 100% renewable energy supply is desirable and could be easily achieved, but only if there is a radical transition to new settlement patterns, economies, political systems, and most difficult of all, new values and non-affluent conceptions of the good life.


Damn the Matrix, (2017), Questions about EROI at 2015-2017l, 29th May.

Elliston B., Diesendorf, M., and I. MacGillll, (2012). “Simulations of scenarios with 100% renewable electricity in the Australian National Electricity Market”, Energy Policy, 45, 606 – 613.

Hall, C. A. S., (2017), Energy Return on Energy Investment, Dordrecht, Springer.

Hall, C. A. S., S. Balogh, S. and D. J. R. Murphy, (2009), “What is the minimum EROI that a sustainable society must have?”, Energies, 2, 25–47.

Hart, E. K., and M. Z. Jacobson, (2011), “A Monte Carlo approach to generator portfolio planning and carbon emissions assessments of systems with large penetrations of variable renewables”, Renewable Energy, 36, 2278 – 2286.

Lenzen, M., and C. Dey, (2000), “Truncation error in embodied energy analyse of basic iron and steel products”, Energy, 25, 577 – 585.

Lenzen, M., B. McBain, T. Trainer, S. Jutte, O. Rey-Lescure, and J. Huang, (2016), “Simulating low-carbon electricity supply for Australia”, Applied Energy, 179, Oct., 553 – 564.

The Simpler Way Project, (2017),

Trainer, T., (2017), “Can renewables meet total Australian energy demand: A  “disaggregated” approach”, Energy Policy,109, 539-544.

Trainer, T.,  (2017) “Some difficulties in storing renewable energy”, Energy Policy, (In press.)

Weißbach, D., G. Ruprecht, A. Huke, K. Czerski, S. Gottlieb, A. Hussein,

(2013), “Energy intensities, EROIs (energy returned on invested),

and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants”, Energy, 52, 210-221.









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Biodiversity loss has gone beyond the planetary boundaries

Source: Tanja Folnovic, June 23, 2015 “Loss of Biodiversity”.

[ The survival of homo sapiens depends on the ecosystem that supports us, so a loss of biodiversity is a threat to our survival and ultimately can lead to extinction.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Newbold, T., et al. July 15, 2016. Has land use pushed terrestrial biodiversity beyond the planetary boundary? A global assessment. Science (253):288-291

For 58.1% of the world’s land surface, which is home to 71.4% of the global population, the level of biodiversity loss is substantial enough to question the ability of ecosystems to support human societies. The loss is due to changes in land use and puts levels of biodiversity beyond the ‘safe limit’ recently proposed by the planetary boundaries — an international framework that defines a safe operating space for humanity.

This is the first time we’ve quantified the effect of habitat loss on biodiversity globally in such detail and we’ve found that across most of the world biodiversity loss is no longer within the safe limit suggested by ecologists” explained lead researcher, Dr Tim Newbold from UCL and previously at UNEP-WCMC.

The team found that grasslands, savannas and shrub lands were most affected by biodiversity loss, followed closely by many of the world’s forests and woodlands. The ability of biodiversity to support key ecosystem functions where plants and animals can grow and nutrients are recycled is becoming increasingly uncertain.

Levels of biodiversity loss are so high that if left unchecked, they could prevent long-term sustainable development.

It’s worrying that land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” said Professor Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum, London, who also worked on the study. “Decision-makers worry a lot about economic recessions, but an ecological recession could have even worse consequences — and the biodiversity damage we’ve had means we’re at risk of that happening. Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette.”

The team used data from hundreds of scientists across the globe to analyze 2.38 million records for 39,123 species at 18,659 sites to estimate how biodiversity in every square kilometer land has changed since before humans modified the habitat.

They found that biodiversity hot spots — those that have seen habitat loss in the past but have a lot of species only found in that area — are threatened, showing high levels of biodiversity decline.

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