The global threat of invasive species to marine biodiversity

Preface.  Although I consider peak oil to be the largest threat, since all other resources and economic activities depend on it, we’re faced with a convergence of hundreds of other problems enabled by fossil fuels, which caused the the huge population explosion of humans.  Marine biodiversity is just one of these problems.

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

Sardain, A., et al. 2019. Global forecasts of shipping traffic and biological invasions to 2050. Nature Sustainability.

Rising global maritime traffic could lead to sharp increases in invasive species around the world over the next 30 years, according to a new study by McGill University researchers.

“Biological invasions are believed to be a major driver of biodiversity change, and cause billions of dollars in economic damages annually,” says senior author Brian Leung, an associate professor in McGill’s Department of Biology and School of Environment. “Our models show that the emerging global shipping network could yield a 3 to 20-fold increase in global marine invasion risk between now and 2050.”

Shipping is responsible for over 80% of world trade, and 60-90% of marine bio-invasions, often in their ballast water, or attached to the hulls.

Molnar, J. L., et al. 2008. Assessing the global threat of invasive species to marine biodiversity. Frontiers in ecology and the environment #6

Although invasive species are widely recognized as a major threat to marine biodiversity, there has been no quantitative global assessment of their impacts and routes of introduction. Here, we report initial results from the first such global assessment. Drawing from over 350 databases and other sources, we synthesized information on 329 marine invasive species, including their distribution, impacts on biodiversity, and introduction pathways. Initial analyses show that only 16% of marine ecoregions have no reported marine invasions, and even that figure may be inflated due to under-reporting.

International shipping, followed by aquaculture, represent the major means of introduction.

Invasive species have transformed marine habitats around the world. The most harmful of these invaders displace native species, change community structure and food webs, and alter fundamental processes, such as nutrient cycling and sedimentation.

Alien invasives have damaged economies by diminishing fisheries, fouling ships’ hulls, and clogging intake pipes. Some can even directly impact human health by causing disease.


We defined “harmful” invasive species as those having ecological impact scores of 3 or 4 (disrupting multiple species or wider ecosystems). Using this definition, 57% of species in our database are harmful, ranging from 47% of cnidarians to 84% of plants

Our data reveal high levels of invasion in the following ecoregions:

  • Northern California, including San Francisco Bay (n = 85 species, 66% of which are harmful),
  • Hawaiian Islands (73, 42%)
  • North Sea (73, 64%)
  • Levantine Sea in the eastern Mediterranean (72, 50%).

Realms that feature the highest degree of invasion are:

  • Temperate Northern Atlantic (240, 57%)
  • Temperate Northern Pacific (123, 63%)
  • Eastern Indo-Pacific (76, 45%).

The least invaded realms are the Southern and Arctic Oceans (1, 100%, and 9, 56%, respectively).

More than 80% of species were introduced unintentionally. The most common pathway for 60 marine species in the database was shipping (ballast and/or fouling; 228 species, 57% of50which are harmful). Of the 205 species with more detailed shipping pathway information, 39% are known to have been, or are likely to have been transported only by ship fouling, 31% are transported only by ballast,30and 31% are transported by either ship foul ing or ballast. The aquaculture industry is the next most common pathway (13420 species, 64% of which are harmful;

Each invasive species was assigned a score (where data allowed) for the following categories: ecological impact, geographic extent, invasive potential, and management difficulty (Panel 1). The “ecological impact” score measures the severity of the impact of a species on the viability and integrity of native species and natural biodiversity. For example, the green alga, Caulerpa taxifolia, was assigned the highest ecological impact score (4), based on its ability to outcompete native species and reduce overall biodiversity (Jousson et al. 2000). The sea slug, Godiva quadricolor, was conservatively assigned a lower score (2), because its only known impact is feeding on one taxon – other sea slugs – with no wider effects documented (Hewitt et al. 2002). The ecological impact score was assigned globally for each species, not for specific occurrences.

Ecological impact:

  • 4 – Disrupts entire ecosystem processes with wider abiotic influences
  • 3 – Disrupts multiple species, some wider ecosystem function, and/or keystone species or species of high conservation value (eg threatened species)
  • 2 – Disrupts single species with little or no wider ecosystem impact
  • 1 – Little or no disruption
  • U – Unknown or not enough information to determine score

Geographic extent

  • 4 – Multi-ecoregion
  • 3 – Ecoregion
  • 2 – Local ecosystem/sub-ecoregion
  • 1 – Single site
  • U – Unknown or not enough information to determine score

Invasive potential

  • 4 – Currently/recently spreading rapidly (doubling in < 10 years) and/or high potential for future rapid spread
  • 3 – Currently/recently spreading less rapidly and/or potential for future less rapid spread 2 – Established/present, but not currently spreading and high potential for future spread
  • 1 – Established/present, but not currently spreading and/or low potential for future spread U – Unknown or not enough information to determine score

Management difficulty

  • 4 – Irreversible and/or cannot be contained or controlled
  • 3 – Reversible with difficulty and/or can be controlled with significant ongoing management
  • 2 – Reversible with some difficulty and/or can be controlled with periodic management
  • 1 – Easily reversible, with no ongoing management necessary (eradication)
  • U – Unknown or not enough information to determine score

We have compiled information from over 350 data sources. The database now includes 329 marine invasive species, with at least one species documented in 194 ecoregions (84% of the world’s 232 marine ecoregions; Figure 1).

The dominant groups of species in our database are crustaceans (59 species), mollusks (54), algae (46), fish (38), annelids (31), plants (19), and cnidarians (17). We scored all 329 species for ecological impact and geographic extent. The mean ecological impact score was 2.55 (SD = 1.04) – halfway between “disrupts single species with little or no wider ecosystem impact” and “disrupts multiple species, some wider ecosystem function. Most species have been found in multiple ecoregions (mean geographic extent score of 3.98, SD = 0.19). We scored 324 species for invasive potential, with a mean score of 2.05 (SD = 1.03; “established/present…high potential for future spread”). The 268 species scored for management difficulty had a mean of 3.56 (SD = 0.71), indicating that most are difficult if not impossible to remove or control.

Do your own research:

ocean-invasive-links-1 ocean-invasive-links-2

University of Tartu: Benthic Invertebrates

USGS’s Florida Integrated Science Center – Gainesville

USGS’s Marine Nuisance Species

WA State Noxious Weed Control Board’s Information about common cordgrass (Spartina anglica)

Weed Information Sheet: Hygrophila costata

Why do jellyfish sting? (author: B Galil)

Posted in Biodiversity Loss, BioInvasion | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Utility scale energy storage has a long way to go to make renewables possible

What follows comes from my book When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation , which is also where you’ll find the references backing up what I’ve written below.

I often get letters from people about energy breakthroughs in biofuels, solar, electric trucks, and so on. This post is about the “record breaking amount of battery storage add in 2018” (go here to read the article).

To enhance your own evaluation of the constant barrage of happy news in the media, here’s why I didn’t get excited or cheered up and go back to thinking the future was bound to be bright and shiny.

First, let’s go over the four possible ways to store electrical energy. We don’t need to store much now, because we still have natural gas, which kicks in to balance solar and wind power (but not coal and nuclear, which are damaged by trying to do this), and for much of the year provides 66% of electricity generation (along with coal), because wind and solar are so seasonal.

So if the grid is to be 100% renewable someday, which it has to be since the 66% of power coming from fossil fuels now to generate electricity is finite, then utility scale energy storage is essential Let’s look at what it would take each of the four methods to store just one day of U.S. electricity generation, 11.12 Terawatt Hours (TwH).

The only commercial way to store electricity is pumped hydro storage (PHS), which can store 2% of America’s electricity generation today. But we’ve run out of places to put new dams. Only two have been built since 1995. There are only 43 PHS dams now, and we’d need 7800 more to store one day of U.S. electricity.

The only other commercially proven way to store electricity is compressed air energy storage (CAES). But we only have one small 110 MW plant in Alabama. This is because they must be located above rare geological salt domes 1650-4250 feet underground that only exist in 3 gulf states and a small part of Utah, and they use quite a bit of fossil fuels to compress the air.

Then there’s Concentrated Solar Power with Thermal Energy storage (TES). But these plants only contribute 0.06% of our electricity and most don’t have any TES. The billion dollar Crescent Dunes plant is one of the few that does have TES. We’d need 8,265 more of them to store one day of electricity.

So that leaves batteries. As I mentioned above, the March 2019 article “US Energy Storage Broke Records in 2018, but the Best Is Yet to Come” gushes about the record deployments of energy storage batteries in 2018 and the expectations that even more will arrive in 2019 and thereafter.

But don’t get too excited. The total storage capability of the 2018 batteries was only 777 Megawatt Hours or 0.000777 Terawatt hours (TwH). Every day the United States generates 11.12 TwH, so to store one day of electricity generation would require 14,311 times more batteries than the ones installed in 2018.

On top of that, because wind and solar are so extremely seasonal, and there’s no national grid or ever likely to be one, on average a region would need to store at least 42 days of electricity to make it through long periods when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. That’s 600,000 times more batteries than installed in 2018.

There are three possible candidates for utility-scale energy storage: NaS (sodium–sulfur), advanced lead–acid (PbA), and lithium-ion. As with advanced auto batteries, there are challenges:

  • Storing energy in a battery is no free lunch. Energy is lost due to heat and other inefficiencies. Roundtrip efficiency defines how much energy is lost in a “round trip” between the time the battery is charged and then discharged. Batteries lose 10–40 % of the energy generated due to roundtrip efficiency losses, so to produce 11 TWh would require generation of between 12.1 and 15.4 TWh to make up for losses (depending on the battery technology used).
  • Lead–acid batteries take five times as long to recharge as to discharge.
  • Battery lifespan is reduced if charged or discharged beyond optimal range.
  • Li-ion are more expensive than PbA or NaS, can be charged and discharged only a discrete number of times, can fail or lose capacity if overheated, and the cost of preventing overheating is expensive. Lithium does not grow on trees. The amount of lithium needed for utility-scale storage is likely to deplete known resources (Vazquez et al. 2010).

Using data from the Department of Energy energy storage handbook, I calculated that the cost of NaS batteries capable of storing 24 hours of electricity generation in the United States came to $40.77 trillion dollars, covered 923 square miles, and weighed in at a husky 450 million tons.

Sodium Sulfur (NaS) Battery Cost Calculation: NaS Battery 100 MW. Total Plant Cost (TPC) $316,796,550. Energy Capacity @ rated depth-of-discharge 86.4 MWh. Size: 200,000 square feet. Weight: 7000,000 lbs, Battery replacement 15 years (DOE/EPRI p. 245). 128,700 NaS batteries needed for 1 day of storage = 11.12 TWh/0.0000864 TWh. $40.77 trillion dollars every 15 years = 128,700 NaS * $316,796,550 TPC. 923 square miles = 200,000 square feet * 128,700 NaS batteries. 450 million short tons = 7,000,000 lbs * 128,700 batteries/2000 lbs.

Using similar logic and data from DOE/EPRI, Li-ion batteries would cost $11.9 trillion dollars, take up 345 square miles, and weigh 74 million tons. Lead– acid (advanced) would cost $8.3 trillion dollars, take up 217.5 square miles, and weigh 15.8 million tons. These calculations exclude the round- trip losses. It is even more expensive if you take round-trip efficiency into account. NaS batteries have a round-trip efficiency of 75%. That means the U.S. would need to increase generation capacity by 33% (1/0.75−1). So it’s not just the cost that is prohibitive, we would need an insane amount of wind and solar to charge these goliath battery storage farms.

These batteries are so large that most of them will literally run out of the materials needed even if all of that mineral only was devoted to energy storage batteries. Barnhart looked at how much material and energy it would take to make batteries that could store up to 12 hours of average daily world power demand, 25.3 TWh. Eighteen months of worldwide primary energy production would be needed to mine and manufacture these batteries, and material production limits were reached for many minerals even when energy storage devices got all of the world’s production (with zinc, sodium, and sulfur being the exceptions). Annual production by mass would have to double for lead, triple for lithium, and go up by a factor of 10 or more for cobalt and vanadium, driving up prices. The best to worst in terms of material availability are CAES, NaS, ZnBr, PbA, PHS, Li-ion, and VRB

And these batteries aren’t cheap. Assuming a constant per-energy-unit battery price of $209/kWh, the system costs vary from $380/kWh to $895/kWh. So 777,000 kwh worth of these batteries cost from $295 million to $695 million dollars (Fu, R., et al. 2018. 2018 U.S. Utility-Scale PhotovoltaicsPlus-Energy Storage System Costs Benchmark. National Renwable Energy Laboratory).

Yet we need over 14,000 times more battery power to store just one day of U.S. electricity generation, 600,000 times more for 6 weeks of storage.

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

Posted in Alternative Energy, Batteries, Battery - Utility Scale, Critical Thinking, Electric Grid, Electricity, Renewable Integration | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth

Preface. Some of the points I found most alarming or interesting:

  • After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on Earth.
  • Concrete is a thirsty behemoth, sucking up almost a 10th of the world’s industrial water use. This often strains supplies for drinking and irrigation
  • If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest CO2 emitter, accounting for 4 to 8% of the world’s CO2
  • Puts roofs over the heads of billions, fortifies defenses against natural disasters, and the structure for healthcare, education, transport, energy and industry. When combined with steel, it is the material that ensures our dams don’t burst, our tower blocks don’t fall, our roads don’t buckle and our electricity grid remains connected.
  • But they also entomb vast tracts of fertile soil, constipate rivers, & choke habitats
  • we may have already passed the point where concrete outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet.
  • All the plastic produced over the past 60 years amounts to 8bn tonnes. The concrete industry pumps out more than that every two years.
  • The amount of concrete laid per square meter in Japan is 30 times the amount in America (the same as California using as much concrete as the entire U.S.)
  • Many engineers argue that there is no viable alternative. Steel, asphalt and plasterboard are more energy intensive than concrete. The world’s forests are already being depleted at an alarming rate

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

Watts, J. 2019-2-25. Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth. The Guardian.

After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on the planet. But its benefits mask enormous dangers to the planet, to human health – and to culture itself

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, the global building industry will have poured more than 19,000 bathtubs of concrete. By the time you are halfway through this article, the volume would fill the Albert Hall and spill out into Hyde Park. In a day it would be almost the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam. In a single year, there is enough to patio over every hill, dale, nook and cranny in England.

After water, concrete is the most widely used substance on Earth. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world with up to 2.8bn tonnes, surpassed only by China and the US.

The material is the foundation of modern development, putting roofs over the heads of billions, fortifying our defenses against natural disaster and providing a structure for healthcare, education, transport, energy and industry.

Concrete is how we try to tame nature. Our slabs protect us from the elements. They keep the rain from our heads, the cold from our bones and the mud from our feet. But they also entomb vast tracts of fertile soil, constipate rivers, choke habitats and – acting as a rock-hard second skin – desensitise us from what is happening outside our urban fortresses.

Our blue and green world is becoming greyer by the second. By one calculation, we may have already passed the point where concrete outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet.

Our built environment is, in these terms, outgrowing the natural one. Unlike the natural world, however, it does not actually grow. Instead, its chief quality is to harden and then degrade, extremely slowly.

All the plastic produced over the past 60 years amounts to 8bn tonnes. The concrete industry pumps out more than that every two years. But though the problem is bigger than plastic, it is generally seen as less severe. Concrete is not derived from fossil fuels [my noted: not as a feedstock but mainly coal is used as the energy source to create it]. It is not being found in the stomachs of whales and seagulls. Doctors aren’t discovering traces of it in our blood. Nor do we see it tangled in oak trees or contributing to subterranean fatbergs. We know where we are with concrete. Or to be more precise, we know where it is going: nowhere. Which is exactly why we have come to rely on it.

This solidity, of course, is what humankind yearns for. Concrete is beloved for its weight and endurance. That is why it serves as the foundation of modern life, holding time, nature, the elements and entropy at bay. When combined with steel, it is the material that ensures our dams don’t burst, our tower blocks don’t fall, our roads don’t buckle and our electricity grid remains connected.

Solidity is a particularly attractive quality at a time of disorientating change. But – like any good thing in excess – it can create more problems than it solves.

At times an unyielding ally, at times a false friend, concrete can resist nature for decades and then suddenly amplify its impact. Take the floods in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Houston after Harvey, which were more severe because urban and suburban streets could not soak up the rain like a floodplain, and storm drains proved woefully inadequate for the new extremes of a disrupted climate.

It also magnifies the extreme weather it shelters us from. Taking in all stages of production, concrete is said to be responsible for 4-8% of the world’s CO2. Among materials, only coal, oil and gas are a greater source of greenhouse gases. Half of concrete’s CO2 emissions are created during the manufacture of clinker, the most-energy intensive part of the cement-making process.

But other environmental impacts are far less well understood. Concrete is a thirsty behemoth, sucking up almost a 10th of the world’s industrial water use. This often strains supplies for drinking and irrigation, because 75% of this consumption is in drought and water-stressed regions. In cities, concrete also adds to the heat-island effect by absorbing the warmth of the sun and trapping gases from car exhausts and air-conditioner units – though it is, at least, better than darker asphalt.

It also worsens the problem of silicosis and other respiratory diseases. The dust from wind-blown stocks and mixers contributes as much as 10% of the coarse particulate matter that chokes Delhi, where researchers found in 2015 that the air pollution index at all of the 19 biggest construction sites exceeded safe levels by at least three times. Limestone quarries and cement factories are also often pollution sources, along with the trucks that ferry materials between them and building sites. At this scale, even the acquisition of sand can be catastrophic – destroying so many of the world’s beaches and river courses that this form of mining is now increasingly run by organized crime gangs and associated with murderous violence. Concrete is tipping us into climate catastrophe.

This touches on the most severe, but least understood, impact of concrete, which is that it destroys natural infrastructure without replacing the ecological functions that humanity depends on for fertilization, pollination, flood control, oxygen production and water purification.

Concrete can take our civilization upwards, up to 163 storeys high in the case of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper in Dubai, creating living space out of the air. But it also pushes the human footprint outwards, sprawling across fertile topsoil and choking habitats. The biodiversity crisis – which many scientists believe to be as much of a threat as climate chaos – is driven primarily by the conversion of wilderness to agriculture, industrial estates and residential blocks.

For hundreds of years, humanity has been willing to accept this environmental downside in return for the undoubted benefits of concrete. But the balance may now be tilting in the other direction.

The Pantheon and Colosseum in Rome are testament to the durability of concrete, which is a composite of sand, aggregate (usually gravel or stones) and water mixed with a lime-based, kiln-baked binder. The modern industrialized form of the binder – Portland cement – was patented as a form of “artificial stone” in 1824 by Joseph Aspdin in Leeds. This was later combined with steel rods or mesh to create reinforced concrete, the basis for art deco skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building.

Rivers of it were poured after the second world war, when concrete offered an inexpensive and simple way to rebuild cities devastated by bombing. This was the period of brutalist architects such as Le Corbusier, followed by the futuristic, free-flowing curves of Oscar Niemeyer and the elegant lines of Tadao Ando – not to mention an ever-growing legion of dams, bridges, ports, city halls, university campuses, shopping centers and uniformly grim car parks. In 1950, cement production was equal to that of steel; in the years since, it has increased 25-fold, more than three times as fast as its metallic construction partner. Advertisement

Debate about the aesthetics has tended to polarize between traditionalists like Prince Charles, who condemned Owen Luder’s brutalist Tricorn Centre as a “mildewed lump of elephant droppings”, and modernists who saw concrete as a means of making style, size and strength affordable for the masses.

The politics of concrete are less divisive, but more corrosive. The main problem here is inertia. Once this material binds politicians, bureaucrats and construction companies, the resulting nexus is almost impossible to budge. Party leaders need the donations and kickbacks from building firms to get elected, state planners need more projects to maintain economic growth, and construction bosses need more contracts to keep money rolling in, staff employed and political influence high. Hence the self-perpetuating political enthusiasm for environmentally and socially dubious infrastructure projects and cement-fests like the Olympics, the World Cup and international exhibitions.

The classic example is Japan, which embraced concrete in the second half of the 20th century with such enthusiasm that the country’s governance structure was often described as the doken kokka (construction state).

At first it was a cheap material to rebuild cities ravaged by fire bombs and nuclear warheads in the second world war. Then it provided the foundations for a new model of super-rapid economic development: new railway tracks for Shinkansen bullet trains, new bridges and tunnels for elevated expressways, new runways for airports, new stadiums for the 1964 Olympics and the Osaka Expo, and new city halls, schools and sports facilities.

This kept the economy racing along at near double-digit growth rates until the late 1980s, ensuring employment remained high and giving the ruling Liberal Democratic party a stranglehold on power. The political heavyweights of the era – men such as Kakuei Tanaka, Yasuhiro Nakasone and Noboru Takeshita – were judged by their ability to bring hefty projects to their hometowns. Huge kickbacks were the norm. Yakuza gangsters, who served as go-betweens and enforcers, also got their cut. Bid-rigging and near monopolies by the big six building firms (Shimizu, Taisei, Kajima, Takenaka, Obayashi, Kumagai) ensured contracts were lucrative enough to provide hefty kickbacks to the politicians. The doken kokka was a racket on a national scale.

But there is only so much concrete you can usefully lay without ruining the environment. The ever-diminishing returns were made apparent in the 1990s, when even the most creative politicians struggled to justify the government’s stimulus spending packages. This was a period of extraordinarily expensive bridges to sparsely inhabited regions, multi-lane roads between tiny rural communities, cementing over the few remaining natural riverbanks, and pouring ever greater volumes of concrete into the sea walls that were supposed to protect 40% of the Japanese coastline.

In his book Dogs and Demons, the author and longtime Japanese resident Alex Kerr laments the cementing over of riverbanks and hillsides in the name of flood and mudslide prevention. Runaway government-subsidised construction projects, he told an interviewer, “have wreaked untold damage on mountains, rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, everywhere — and it goes on at a heightened pace. That is the reality of modern Japan, and the numbers are staggering.

He said the amount of concrete laid per square meter in Japan is 30 times the amount in America, and that the volume is almost exactly the same. “So we’re talking about a country the size of California laying the same amount of concrete [as the entire US]. Multiply America’s strip malls and urban sprawl by 30 to get a sense of what’s going on in Japan.

Traditionalists and environmentalists were horrified – and ignored. The cementation of Japan ran contrary to classic aesthetic ideals of harmony with nature and an appreciation of mujo (impermanence), but was understandable given the ever-present fear of earthquakes and tsunamis in one of the world’s most seismically active nations. Everyone knew the grey banked rivers and shorelines were ugly, but nobody cared as long as they could keep their homes from being flooded.

Which made the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami all the more shocking. At coastal towns such as Ishinomaki, Kamaishi and Kitakami, huge sea walls that had been built over decades were swamped in minutes. Almost 16,000 people died, a million buildings were destroyed or damaged, town streets were blocked with beached ships and port waters were filled with floating cars. It was a still more alarming story at Fukushima, where the ocean surge engulfed the outer defences of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and caused a level 7 meltdown.

Briefly, it seemed this might become a King Canute moment for Japan – when the folly of human hubris was exposed by the power of nature. But the concrete lobby was just too strong. The Liberal Democratic party returned to power a year later with a promise to spend 200tn yen (£1.4tn) on public works over the next decade, equivalent to about 40% of Japan’s economic output.

Construction firms were once again ordered to hold back the sea, this time with even taller, thicker barriers. Their value is contested. Engineers claim these 12-metre-high walls of concrete will stop or at least slow future tsunamis, but locals have heard such promises before. The area these defenses protect is also of lower human worth now the land has been largely depopulated and filled with paddy fields and fish farms. Environmentalists say mangrove forests could provide a far cheaper buffer. Tellingly, even many tsunami-scarred locals hate the concrete between them and the ocean.

“It feels like we’re in jail, even though we haven’t done anything bad,” an oyster fisherman, Atsushi Fujita, told Reuters. “We can no longer see the sea,” said the Tokyo-born photographer Tadashi Ono, who took some of the most powerful images of these massive new structures. He described them as an abandonment of Japanese history and culture. “Our richness as a civilisation is because of our contact with the ocean,” he said. “Japan has always lived with the sea, and we were protected by the sea. And now the Japanese government has decided to shut out the sea.

There was an inevitability about this. Across the world, concrete has become synonymous with development. In theory, the laudable goal of human progress is measured by a series of economic and social indicators, such as life-expectancy, infant mortality and education levels. But to political leaders, by far the most important metric is gross domestic product, a measure of economic activity that, more often than not, is treated as a calculation of economic size. GDP is how governments assess their weight in the world. And nothing bulks up a country like concrete.

That is true of all countries at some stage. During their early stages of development, heavyweight construction projects are beneficial like a boxer putting on muscle. But for already mature economies, it is harmful like an aged athlete pumping ever stronger steroids to ever less effect. During the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, Keynesian economic advisers told the Japanese government the best way to stimulate GDP growth was to dig a hole in the ground and fill it. Preferably with cement. The bigger the hole, the better. This meant profits and jobs. Of course, it is much easier to mobilise a nation to do something that improves people’s lives, but either way concrete is likely to be part of the arrangement. This was the thinking behind Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, which is celebrated in the US as a recession-busting national project but might also be described as the biggest ever concrete-pouring exercise up until that point. The Hoover Dam alone required 3.3m cubic metres, then a world record. Construction firms claimed it would outlast human civilization.

But that was lightweight compared to what is now happening in China, the concrete superpower of the 21st century and the greatest illustration of how the material transforms a culture (a civilization intertwined with nature) into an economy (a production unit obsessed by GDP statistics). Beijing’s extraordinarily rapid rise from developing nation to superpower-in-waiting has required mountains of cement, beaches of sand and lakes of water. The speed at which these materials are being mixed is perhaps the most astonishing statistic of the modern age: since 2003, China has poured more cement every three years than the US managed in the entire 20th century. Advertisement

Today, China uses almost half the world’s concrete. The property sector – roads, bridges, railways, urban development and other cement-and-steel projects – accounted for a third of its economy’s expansion in 2017. Every major city has a floor-sized scale model of urban development plans that has to be constantly updated as small white plastic models are turned into mega-malls, housing complexes and concrete towers.

But, like the US, Japan, South Korea and every other country that “developed” before it, China is reaching the point where simply pouring concrete does more harm than good. Ghost malls, half-empty towns and white elephant stadiums are a growing sign of wasteful spending. Take the huge new airport in Luliang, which opened with barely five flights a day, or the Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium, so underused that it is now more a monument than a venue. Although the adage “build and the people will come” has often proved correct in the past, the Chinese government is worried. After the National Bureau of Statistics found 450 sq km of unsold residential floor space, the country’s president, Xi Jinping, called for the “annihilation” of excess developments.

Empty, crumbling structures are not just an eyesore, but a drain on the economy and a waste of productive land. Ever greater construction requires ever more cement and steel factories, discharging ever more pollution and carbon dioxide. As the Chinese landscape architect Yu Kongjian has pointed out, it also suffocates the ecosystems – fertile soil, self-cleansing streams, storm-resisting mangrove swamps, flood-preventing forests – on which human beings ultimately depend. It is a threat to what he calls “eco-security”.

Yu has been consulted by government officials, who are increasingly aware of the brittleness of the current Chinese model of growth. But their scope for movement is limited. The initial momentum of a concrete economy is always followed by inertia in concrete politics. The president has promised a shift of economic focus away from belching heavy industries and towards high-tech production in order to create a “beautiful country” and an “ecological civilization”, and the government is now trying to wind down from the biggest construction boom in human history, but Xi cannot let the construction sector simply fade away, because it employs more than 55 million workers – almost the entire population of the UK. Instead, China is doing what countless other nations have done, exporting its environmental stress and excess capacity overseas.

Yu has led the charge against concrete, ripping it up whenever possible to restore riverbanks and natural vegetation. In his influential book The Art of Survival, he warns that China has moved dangerously far from Taoist ideals of harmony with nature. “The urbanization process we follow today is a path to death,” he has said.

Beijing’s much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative – an overseas infrastructure investment project many times greater than the Marshall Plan – promises a splurge of roads in Kazakhstan, at least 15 dams in Africa, railways in Brazil and ports in Pakistan, Greece and Sri Lanka. To supply these and other projects, China National Building Material – the country’s biggest cement producer – has announced plans to construct 100 cement factories across 50 nations.

This will almost certainly mean more criminal activity. As well as being the primary vehicle for super-charged national building, the construction industry is also the widest channel for bribes. In many countries, the correlation is so strong, people see it as an index: the more concrete, the more corruption.

According to the watchdog group Transparency International, construction is the world’s dirtiest business, far more prone to graft than mining, real estate, energy or the arms market. No country is immune, but in recent years, Brazil has revealed most clearly the jawdropping scale of bribery in the industry.

As elsewhere, the craze for concrete in South America’s biggest nation started benignly enough as a means of social development, then morphed into an economic necessity, and finally metastasized into a tool for political expediency and individual greed. The progress between these stages was impressively rapid. The first huge national project in the late 1950s was the construction of a new capital, Brasília, on an almost uninhabited plateau in the interior. A million cubic meters of concrete were poured on the highlands site in just 41 months to encase the soil and erect new edifices for ministries and homes.

This was followed by a new highway through the Amazon rainforest – the TransAmazonia – and then from 1970, South America’s biggest hydroelectric power plant, the Itaipu on the Paraná river border with Paraguay, which is almost four times bulkier than the Hoover Dam. The Brazilian operators boast the 12.3m cubic meters of concrete would be enough to fill 210 Maracaña stadiums. This was a world record until China’s Three Gorges Dam choked the Yangtze with 27.2m cubic metres.

With the military in power, the press censored and no independent judiciary, there was no way of knowing how much of the budget was siphoned off by the generals and contractors. But the problem of corruption has become all too apparent since 1985 in the post-dictatorship era, with virtually no party or politician left untainted.

For many years, the most notorious of them was Paulo Maluf, the governor of São Paulo, who had run the city during the construction of the giant elevated expressway known as Minhocão, which means Big Worm. As well as taking credit for this project, which opened in 1969, he also allegedly skimmed $1bn from public works in just four years, part of which has been traced to secret accounts in the British Virgin islands. Although wanted by Interpol, Maluf evaded justice for decades and was elected to a number of senior public offices. This was thanks to a high degree of public cynicism encapsulated by the phrase most commonly used about him: “He steals, but he gets things done” – which could describe much of the global concrete industry.

But his reputation as the most corrupt man in Brazil has been overshadowed in the past five years by Operation Car Wash, an investigation into a vast network of bid-rigging and money laundering. Giant construction firms – notably Odebrecht, Andrade Gutierrez and Camargo Corrêa – were at the heart of this sprawling scheme, which saw politicians, bureaucrats and middle-men receive at least $2bn worth of kickbacks in return for hugely inflated contracts for oil refineries, the Belo Monte dam, the 2014 World Cup, the 2016 Olympics and dozens of other infrastructure projects throughout the region. Prosecutors said Odebrecht alone had paid bribes to 415 politicians and 26 political parties. Advertisement

As a result of these revelations, one government fell, a former president of Brazil and the vice president of Ecuador are in prison, the president of Peru was forced to resign, and dozens of other politicians and executives were put behind bars. The corruption scandal also reached Europe and Africa. The US Department of Justice called it “the largest foreign bribery case in history”. It was so huge that when Maluf was finally arrested in 2017, nobody batted an eyelid.

Such corruption is not just a theft of tax revenue, it is a motivation for environmental crime: billions of tonnes of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere for projects of dubious social value and often pushed through – as in the case of Belo Monte – against the opposition of affected local residents and with deep concerns among environmental licensing authorities.

Although the dangers are increasingly apparent, this pattern continues to repeat itself. India and Indonesia are just entering their high-concrete phase of development. Over the next 40 years, the newly built floor area in the world is expected to double. Some of that will bring health benefits. The environmental scientist Vaclav Smil estimates the replacement of mud floors with concrete in the world’s poorest homes could cut parasitic diseases by nearly 80%. But each wheelbarrow of concrete also tips the world closer to ecological collapse.

Chatham House predicts urbanization, population growth and economic development will push global cement production from 4 to 5bn tonnes a year. If developing countries expand their infrastructure to current average global levels, the construction sector will emit 470 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide by 2050, according to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

This violates the Paris agreement on climate change, under which every government in the world agreed that annual carbon emissions from the cement industry should fall by at least 16% by 2030 if the world is to reach the target of staying within 1.5C to 2C of warming. It also puts a crushing weight on the ecosystems that are essential for human well being.

The dangers are recognized. A report last year by Chatham House calls for a rethink in the way cement is produced. To reduce emissions, it urges greater use of renewables in production, improved energy efficiency, more substitutes for clinker and, most important, the widespread adoption of carbon capture and storage technology – though this is expensive and has not yet been deployed in the industry on a commercial scale.

Architects believe the answer is to make buildings leaner and, when possible, to use other materials, such as cross-laminated timber. It is time to move out of the “concrete age” and stop thinking primarily about how a building looks, said Anthony Thistleton.

“Concrete is beautiful and versatile but, unfortunately, it ticks all the boxes in terms of environmental degradation,” he told the Architects Journal. “We have a responsibility to think about all the materials we are using and their wider impact.”

But many engineers argue that there is no viable alternative. Steel, asphalt and plasterboard are more energy intensive than concrete. The world’s forests are already being depleted at an alarming rate even without a surge in extra demand for timber.

Phil Purnell, a professor of materials and structures at Leeds University, said the world was unlikely to reach a “peak concrete” moment.

“The raw materials are virtually limitless and it will be in demand for as long as we build roads, bridges and anything else that needs a foundation,” he said. “By almost any measure it’s the least energy-hungry of all materials.

Instead, he calls for existing structures to be better maintained and conserved, and, when that is not possible, to enhance recycling. Currently most concrete goes to landfill sites or is crushed and reused as aggregate. This could be done more efficiently, Purnell said, if slabs were embedded with identification tags that would allow the material to be matched with demand. His colleagues at Leeds University are also exploring alternatives to Portland cement. Different mixes can reduce the carbon footprint of a binder by up to two-thirds, they say.

Arguably more important still is a change of mindset away from a developmental model that replaces living landscapes with built environments and nature-based cultures with data-driven economies. That requires tackling power structures that have been built on concrete, and recognizing that fertility is a more reliable base for growth than solidity.

Posted in Concrete, Infrastructure | Tagged | 8 Comments

Will California’s high-speed rail go off the tracks? Challenges facing California’s high-speed rail. House Hearing 2014.

Preface.  In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom said “there simply isn’t a path” for completing the project “from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A”.

Originally the project was going to cost $33 billion, by 2014 when the house hearing below was held the cost had risen to $55 billion, and today the estimate is $77 billion.

Other issues include:

To afford high-speed rail, it would have to be subsidized per ticket to the true cost of operating it. If not, tickets will cost around $300 one way from L.A. to San Francisco, far more than an airline ticket.   I calculated that a $77 billion project cost at $300 per one-way ticket would require 250 million tickets, and meanwhile maintenance and operational costs will subtract a great deal from that payback.

There are a lot more important priorities such as drought, water supplies, water and road infrastructure, sea-level rise, wildfire prevention and so on.

And a 100% renewable electricity system comprised of mostly wind and solar with seasonal hydropower kicking in is impossible as I make a case for in my book “When Trucks Stop Running”, and natural gas is finite like oil.  The energy crisis is likely to strike within 10 years, and there are literally hundreds of other projects that need to be done to mitigate the resulting loss of life and social unrest energy decline will cause.

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


House 113-49. January 15, 2014. A review of the challenges facing California high-speed rail. House of Representatives.

[ Excerpts from the 166 page transcript of this House hearing ]

Jeff Denham, California, ChairI think the question that every member of this committee needs to see and understand is the $55 billion that is still needed is more than we spend on infrastructure across the entire Nation. So is every member of this committee, every Member of this Congress willing to give up the money for their State for California to expand a rail system that goes from L.A. to San Francisco, may not relieve our traffic congestion?

In 2008, the voters of California approved a $9.95 billion ballot measure, Prop 1A. I was serving in the State senate at the time, and voted in favor of this proposition because of the guarantee to taxpayers it would be fiscally responsible, and not need an ongoing subsidy.

What was sold to voters was a $33 billion project that would receive equal parts of financing from the State, Federal Government, and private investors. Since that vote, as costs have skyrocketed and the outcomes of the project have remained in flux, I have consistently called for the California High-Speed Rail Authority to develop a viable plan that accepts economic and budgetary realities.

Sadly, after 5 years, we are nowhere closer to that viable plan, nor have any construction jobs been created, even though the premise for the Recovery Act was to create jobs immediately.

In fact, in November the project received two new setbacks in the California State court system:

  • The courts found that the California high-speed rail funding plan did not comply with Prop 1A. Those requirements were identified as $26 billion needed to build the entire 300 miles of rail between Merced and San Fernando, and that all environmental clearances be completed for the entire initial operating segment.
  • The courts found that California High-Speed Rail Authority did not provide sufficient justification for the issuance of $8.6 billion in Prop 1A bond funds. Those bond funds were to be the source of the State match for the $2.55 billion the Federal Government has provided to this project through the Recovery Act. Therefore, as of now, California does not have the funding in hand to begin supplying the State match for the Recovery Act grant, and the Federal Railroad Administration’s grant agreement with California requires the first State match, that payment, due on April 1.

In this hearing I want to hear from the Authority about how they are going to resolve these deficiencies, where the total $26 billion will come from, and how they complete the environmental reviews for the entire 300 initial operating segments.

I also want to understand how the Authority believes that Governor Brown’s proposal to use revenue from California’s cap and trade program to support the project is constitutional, since independent observers have stated that the high-speed rail program is not an eligible use for those revenues.

After the rulings, I sent a letter to the FRA on December 12th with a number of commonsense, simple questions. The Administration sent back this letter that basically states, ‘‘Everything is fine. Nothing has changed.’’ They didn’t answer a question, and staff has basically refused to provide the data that we feel is necessary to conduct proper oversight.

Further, despite the loss of matching funds, FRA has continued to reimburse California for spending on the project. We need to understand what FRA has reimbursed California to date, including since the adverse rulings, and how much matching funds California is required to contribute to the project. Under FRA’s grant agreement, the Administration has the ability today, right now, to suspend reimbursements until the California High-Speed Rail Authority presents a viable plan to identify a new source of the required State match. Given so much uncertainty around this project, why wouldn’t FRA take the prudent step to hold off spending more taxpayer dollars until they are satisfied that California has remedied these legal setbacks? If the Administration continues to march down this same path, operating as though it is business as usual, then I am prepared to take my own action through legislation to force FRA to act in a more prudent fashion. Frankly, after 5 years filled with cost overruns, lawsuits, lost promises of immediate job creation in the valley, and reduced expectations, unless they can come up with a viable plan that meets the requirements of Prop 1A, I believe it is time to end this project.

Doug La Malfa, California. The voters of California in 2008 were told that this would be a $33 billion project, up to $45 billion if you add a spur to Sacramento and one to San Diego. Those two have been long since abandoned in this project. And the price ballooned at that hearing we had in November of 2011 in the State senate to just under $100 billion.

So what did the audit folks think about that, what the voters were sold when they were originally told $33 billion? So, the Governor revised the plan down to $68 billion, utilizing transport in the bay area and Los Angeles. Now, I can understand why those folks would want to have their areas enhanced with electrifying Caltrain, I am sure that is a good thing. It is not the domain of high-speed rail to be doing so. This revised plan is not even legal under Proposition 1A, because it doesn’t deliver a true high-speed rail all the way from San Francisco to all the way to downtown Los Angeles. So, in time, this will be exposed.

In order to afford to ride high-speed rail, it would have to be subsidized per ticket in the true cost of operating it, or someone is going to have to pay probably $300 per ticket to ride it from L.A. to San Francisco, or vice versa, in order to sustain itself. It is not going to meet the mark of matching airline ticket prices.

What is the utility of this project? It is being compared to a lot of other important infrastructure projects in the history of California, or in the history of the Nation. I think nobody would dispute the interstate system or California water project, the Federal water project. Other comparable issues have been very useful to many Californians and many Americans. We have heard some pretty grand claims on what it would provide for California. The Authority at one time was trying to claim a million jobs for Californians. We had a hearing in the State legislature on it, finally pinned them down, said they meant a million job years, which might translate to approximately 20,000 jobs during the time it is to be built.

So, we have to ask ourselves here today, as a Federal body, are we being good stewards of Federal tax dollars with the $3-plus billion of stimulus money that is still captured for this plan, as well as telling State voters that your investment of $9-plus billion in State bonds, which have to be paid back in a two-to-one ratio—is this a good investment for you, for a plan that no private investors want to come in on? We can see that a forward-thinking project like the Maglev, perhaps, running from DC to Baltimore, has already attracted Japanese investors as a possibility. High-speed rail is using 18th-century technology. It is steel wheels running on a rail. It might go faster if it is not stopping in every burg up and down the valley in order to gain the votes of those legislators to put high-speed rail on the ballots. Indeed, how many true high-speed rail end-to-end trains are going to be run, or will be able to run, at 220 miles per hour on this project?

It is not going to meet the goals. It is not going to meet the cost goals. We heard some creative ridership numbers posed in the past by the Authority. There might be 32 million riders, and it is going to replace the airplane riders from S.F., to L.A., vice versa. There are only 8 million people that use airlines between those two towns. And so we are going to replace that with 32 million riders? There are only 31 million riders that use Amtrak nationwide, in the 48 States, per year. High-speed rail in California is going to surpass that?

So, we can only identify $13 billion of real funding so far to go into this project. By Governor Brown’s estimate, it would be $68 billion. Where is the other $55 billion going to come from to build this thing?

The Governor’s proposal was to divert $250 million from California’s new cap and trade into this project. That is not fulfilling the goal of whatever cap and trade is, because high-speed rail won’t be operable for at least 30 years to replace and start on the positive side on reducing CO2. In the meantime, they are going to be constructing it, using heavy equipment to build the project.

In California, because of all the CO2 emissions that are going to be happening during the 30 years of construction, they proposed they are also going to plant thousands of trees to offset the CO2 output from its construction. So we are not going to realize benefits any time soon to the CO2 equation of this project.

David G. Valadao, California. I have watched as the estimated costs of this project have ballooned tens of billions of dollars more than was promised to the voters in 2008. I have watched as the California High-Speed Rail Authority has invented a plan that takes thousands of acres of farmland out of production and destroys hundreds of homes and businesses throughout our communities.

The current path, which is constantly changing, calls for the tracks to cut across the entire length of the San Joaquin Valley through some of our Nation’s most productive farmland. Fields will be cut in half, fertile ground will be taken out of farming, and production will suffer.

While estimates of the project’s price tag continue to escalate, I find it increasingly difficult to reconcile the tremendous cost of the project with the limited benefits it provides to my constituents and to all taxpayers in California, as a whole. When California voters approved the project in 2008, they were told the project would cost $33 billion, and burden would be shared equally between State and Federal Governments and private investors. Since then, cost estimates skyrocketed to over $90 billion for a fully operational high- speed rail line, and nearly $70 billion for a new blended line that is only high speed some of the time.

When the State of California chooses to spend the taxpayers’ money on high-speed trains, they are forced to set aside other priorities. This year, California faces a drought that leaves the availability of clean, high-quality water in jeopardy for families and farmers. At the same time, California’s aging water infrastructure is struggling to keep up with demand from a growing population. When the State of California chooses to spend taxpayer money on high-speed rail, they are choosing to neglect addressing our valley’s water crisis, and they are choosing to jeopardize water availability for over 30 million Californians.

Mr. DUNCAN. a few weeks ago there was an article in the Washington Times saying that estimated cost has gone from $33 billion to $68.5 billion. Does anybody know how much this is going to cost us? Are these cost estimates going to keep going up? That same article said 52 percent of the Californians were against this, and with some undecided,

Mr. LAMALFA. Indeed, it was sold to the voters as a $33 billion project for the San Francisco-to-L.A. line. A year later, it was revised to $42 billion, after the voters had already left. When we had the hearing in September—excuse me, November 2011, they finally admitted it was a $98.5 billion project to do the legal project, true high speed from San Francisco all the way to Los Angeles, or vice versa. So, the modified project, to get the cost down and not scare everybody so much, did reduce to $68 billion. But that means it is not a true high speed from San Francisco all the way to L.A. They are going to use Caltrain, they are going to pay to help electrify that track in the North and do other infrastructure in the South. So, the real number, for a legal Proposition 1A project, is somewhere around $100 billion as an old estimate. With inflation, who knows where it is: 120, 130, 150? We see how these things go.

Just ask the Bay Bridge what that cost.

Mr. VALADAO. No one disagrees that L.A.-San Francisco has horrible traffic. From a Central Valley perspective, it doesn’t make any sense why you would start the project in the Central Valley, if L.A.’s traffic is so bad. I have no problem with helping fix the traffic in L.A. Do something there, spend the money there. Getting from where I live in Hanford down into L.A., if I wanted to get on Amtrak today, or if they built the high-speed rail, it would stop in Bakersfield. I would get off the proposed rail project, get on a Greyhound Bus, go over the Grapevine, then go into L.A. There is no connection there, there is no rail there. You would think we would start by filling in some holes in our current system with newer technology, versus building a train literally right next to an existing train that we already have and we already lose money on. It just doesn’t make any sense. If you are hell bent on spending money and building rail, start somewhere where we actually need rail.

Mr. DENHAM. There is a $20 billion hole [in funding to fill to have a high-speed electrified track that goes around Palmdale and to San Fernando Valley. So, either you have to come up with that $20 billion to comply with the court, or you have to comply with Prop 1A, which says, if you are redefining that usable segment, that usable segment cannot operate with a subsidy, and it cannot operate outside of high speed.

So, you are saying that this construction segment will not be high speed, it will not be electrified, it will just be a second Amtrak, which I know Mr. McCarthy, if he were still here, has huge issues with having two Amtraks that stop in his district and you get on a bus on both of them to go over Tehachapis. So, if it is not high speed, because it is not electrified, and it is running a subsidy, how does that initial construction segment comply with Prop 1A? My concern is that we build another Amtrak that stops in Bakersfield, and the rest of the Nation looks at California and says, ‘‘You just spent $6 billion,’’ and it is decades, if ever, that this thing ever gets accomplished.



Posted in Railroads, Transportation | Tagged | 3 Comments

Part 2. How long do civilizations last on average? 336 years

I stopped trying to find out why each civilization failed in Wiki because it’s not always clear and historians bicker over it, though it’s clear drought, invasions, civil wars, and famines played a role in most of them.  Yet what’s seldom mentioned is that deforestation (Perlin “A forest journey”) and topsoil erosion (Montgomery “Dirt: the erosion of civilization”) were often the main or one of the key reasons for collapse.

But what’s clear is that societies always collapse, and our civilization will fail as well, since it depends on a one-time only supply of fossil fuels.

Kemp, L. 2019. Are we on the road to civilization collapse? Studying the demise of historic civilisations can tell us how much risk we face today says collapse expert Luke Kemp. Worryingly, the signs are worsening. BBC

In the graphic below, I have compared the lifespan of various civilizations, which I define as a society with agriculture, multiple cities, military dominance in its geographical region and a continuous political structure. Given this definition, all empires are civilizations, but not all civilizations are empires.

Civilization [Duration in years]

  1. Ancient Egypt, Old Kingdom [505]  The power of pharaoh gradually weakened in favor of powerful nomarchs (regional governors)…. The country slipped into civil wars mere decades after the close of Pepi II’s reign.  The final blow was the 22nd century BC drought in the region that resulted in a drastic drop in precipitation. For at least some years between 2200 and 2150 BC, this prevented the normal flooding of the Nile. The collapse of the Old Kingdom was followed by decades of famine and strife.
  • Ancient Egypt, Middle Kingdom [405]   
  • Ancient Egypt, New Kingdom [501]  Egypt was increasingly beset by droughts, below-normal flooding of the Nile, famine, civil unrest and official corruption
  • Norte Chico Civilisation [827]  when this civilization is in decline, we begin to find extensive canals farther north. People were moving to more fertile ground and taking their knowledge of irrigation with them
  • Harappan Civilisation (Indus Valley Civilisation) [800]  Aridification of this region during the 3rd millennium BCE eventually also reduced the water supply enough to cause the civilisation’s demise, and to scatter its population eastward
  • Kerma [400]   Egypt grew increasingly powerful and envious of Kerma’s resources. They launched a series of military campaigns that destroyed Kerma
  • Akkadian Empire [187] The empire of Akkad fell, perhaps in the 22nd century BC, within 180 years of its founding, ushering in a “Dark Age”  collapsing outright from the invasion of barbarian peoples from the Zagros Mountains known as the Gutians.  Another theory is a century of drought.
  • Elam Civilisation (Awan Dynasty) [157]   The Assyrians had utterly destroyed the Elamite nation
  • Minoan Civilisation (Protopalatial) [500]   Volcanic explosion
  1. Xia Dynasty [500]
  2. Third Dynasty of Ur [46]
  3. Old Assyrian Empire [241]
  4. Middle Assyrian Empire [313]
  5. Neo Assyrian Empire [322]
  6. Elam Civilisation (Eparti Dynasty) [210]
  7. First Babylonian Dynasty [299]
  8. Old Hittie Empire [250]
  9. Minoan Civilisation (Neopalatial) [250]
  10. Shang Dynasty [478]
  11. Mycenae [400]
  12. Vedic Civilisation [1000]
  13. Middle Hittite Kingdom [70]
  14. Elam Civilisation (Middle Elamite Period) [342]
  15. New Hittite Kingdom [220]
  16. Olmecs [1000]
  17. Phoenicia [661]
  18. Zhou Dynasty (Western Period) [351]
  19. Kingdom of Israel and Judah [298]
  20. Chavin Culture [700]
  21. Urartu [225]
  22. Kushite Kingdom [1150]
  23. Etruscans [404]
  24. Zhou Dynasty (Eastern Zhou Spring Period) [330]
  25. Zhou Dynasty (Eastern Zhou Warring States Period) [411]
  26. Ancient Rome [244]
  27. Elam Civilisation (Neo-Elamite Period) [203]
  28. Phrygia [43]
  29. Lydia [144]
  30. Magadha Empire [364]
  31. Chaldean Dynasty (Babylon) [87]
  32. Medean Empire [66]
  33. Orontid Dynasty [540]
  34. Scythians [800]
  35. Mahanjanapadas [200]
  36. Carthage [667]
  37. Achaemenid Empire [220]
  38. Roman Republic [461]
  39. Nanda Empire [24]
  40. Ptolemaic Egypt           [302]
  41. Classical Greek [265]
  42. Hellenistic [177]
  43. Maurya Empire [137]
  44. Seleucid Empire [249]
  45. First Chera Empire [500]
  46. Early Chola Empire [500]
  47. Maghada-Maurya [90]
  48. Parthian Empire [469]
  49. Satavahana Dynasty [450]
  50. Qin Dynasty [14]
  51. Xiongnu Empire [184]
  52. Han Dynasty (Western Period) [197]
  53. Numidia [156]
  54. Teotihuacans [735]
  55. Kingdom of Armenia [442]
  56. Hsiung Nu Han [120]
  57. Sunga Empire [112]
  58. Andhra [370]
  59. Aksumite Empire [1100]
  60. Kanva Dynasty [45]
  61. Three Kingdoms of Korea [725]
  62. Saka [140]
  63. Roman Empire [525]
  64. Han Dynasty (Eastern Period) [195]
  65. Kushan [200]
  66. Bactria [70]
  67. Ptolemaic [290]
  68. Liu-Sung [250]
  69. Gupta [90]
  70. Hun [100]
  71. Byzantine [350]
  72. Yuen-Yuen [30]
  73. Toba [130]
  74. White Hun [100]
  75. Visigoth [240]
  76. T’u Chueh Turk [90]
  77. Avar [220]
  78. Western Turk [70]
Posted in Cambridge Centre Study of Existential Risk, Collapsed, Scientists Warnings to Humanity | Tagged | 4 Comments

Part 1. How long do civilizations last?

This is most, but not all of Kemp’s BBC article, which you ought to read in its entirety at the link in the title below.  I disagree with him when he says that:

“The collapse of our civilization is not inevitable. We will only march into collapse if we advance blindly. We are only doomed if we are unwilling to listen to the past. The energy cliff need not be terminal if renewable technologies continue to improve and energy efficiency measures are speedily implemented.” 

Nope, renewables aren’t renewable and dependent on fossils for their entire life-cycle. We are utterly dependent on fossils for transportation, manufacturing, construction, petrochemicals, and more, and used them to deplete fresh water (aquifers), topsoil, fisheries, take over 75% of the earth’s land, and reduce biodiversity, all of which we depend on to live.  When fossils begin to decline at 6% exponentially a year globally, it’s all over in about 16 years.  At least we won’t have the energy to destroy the resources we depend on to the degree we are today, or turn the planet into a hothouse earth.  I suspect that Kemp was required to throw a few softball optimistic statements in by his editor.

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

Kemp, L. 2019. Are we on the road to civilization collapse? Studying the demise of historic civilizations can tell us how much risk we face today says collapse expert Luke Kemp. Worryingly, the signs are worsening. BBC.

Collapse can be defined as a rapid and enduring loss of population, identity and socio-economic complexity. Public services crumble and disorder ensues as government loses control of its monopoly on violence.

Virtually all past civilisations have faced this fate. Some recovered or transformed, such as the Chinese and Egyptian. Other collapses were permanent, as was the case of Easter Island. Sometimes the cities at the epicenter of collapse are revived, as was the case with Rome. In other cases, such as the Mayan ruins, they are left abandoned as a mausoleum for future tourists. 

What can this tell us about the future of global modern civilisation? Are the lessons of agrarian empires applicable to our post-18th Century period of industrial capitalism?

I would argue that they are. Societies of the past and present are just complex systems composed of people and technology. The theory of “normal accidents” suggests that complex technological systems regularly give way to failure. So collapse may be a normal phenomenon for civilisations, regardless of their size and stage.

We may be more technologically advanced now. But this gives little ground to believe that we are immune to the threats that undid our ancestors. Our newfound technological abilities even bring new, unprecedented challenges to the mix.

And while our scale may now be global, collapse appears to happen to both sprawling empires and fledgling kingdoms alike. There is no reason to believe that greater size is armour against societal dissolution. Our tightly-coupled, globalised economic system is, if anything, more likely to make crisis spread.

If the fate of previous civilisations can be a roadmap to our future, what does it say? One method is to examine the trends that preceded historic collapses and see how they are unfolding today.

While there is no single accepted theory for why collapses happen, historians, anthropologists and others have proposed various explanations, including:

CLIMATIC CHANGE: When climatic stability changes, the results can be disastrous, resulting in crop failure, starvation and desertification. The collapse of the Anasazi, the Tiwanaku civilisation, the Akkadians, the Mayan, the Roman Empire, and many others have all coincided with abrupt climatic changes, usually droughts.

ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION: Collapse can occur when societies overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment. This ecological collapse theory, which has been the subject of bestselling books, points to excessive deforestation, water pollution, soil degradation and the loss of biodiversity as precipitating causes.

INEQUALITY AND OLIGARCHY: Wealth and political inequality can be central drivers of social disintegration, as can oligarchy and centralisation of power among leaders. This not only causes social distress, but handicaps a society’s ability to respond to ecological, social and economic problems.

The field of cliodynamics models how factors such as equality and demography correlate with political violence. Statistical analysis of previous societies suggests that this happens in cycles. As population increases, the supply of labour outstrips demand, workers become cheap and society becomes top-heavy. This inequality undermines collective solidarity and political turbulence follows.

COMPLEXITY: Collapse expert and historian Joseph Tainter has proposed that societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity and bureaucracy. Societies are problem-solving collectives that grow in complexity in order to overcome new issues. However, the returns from complexity eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. After this point, collapse will eventually ensue.

Another measure of increasing complexity is called Energy Return on Investment (EROI). This refers to the ratio between the amount of energy produced by a resource relative to the energy needed to obtain it. Like complexity, EROI appears to have a point of diminishing returns. In his book The Upside of Down, the political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon observed that environmental degradation throughout the Roman Empire led to falling EROI from their staple energy source: crops of wheat and alfalfa. The empire fell alongside their EROI. Tainter also blames it as a chief culprit of collapse, including for the Mayan. 

EXTERNAL SHOCKS: In other words, the “four horsemen”: war, natural disasters, famine and plagues. The Aztec Empire, for example, was brought to an end by Spanish invaders. Most early agrarian states were fleeting due to deadly epidemics. The concentration of humans and cattle in walled settlements with poor hygiene made disease outbreaks unavoidable and catastrophic. Sometimes disasters combined, as was the case with the Spanish introducing salmonella to the Americas.

RANDOMNESS/BAD LUCK: Statistical analysis on empires suggests that collapse is random and independent of age. Evolutionary biologist and data scientist Indre Zliobaite and her colleagues have observed a similar pattern in the evolutionary record of species. A common explanation of this apparent randomness is the “Red Queen Effect”: if species are constantly fighting for survival in a changing environment with numerous competitors, extinction is a consistent possibility.

Studies suggest that the EROI for fossil fuels has been steadily decreasing over time as the easiest to reach and richest reserves are depleted. Unfortunately, most renewable replacements, such as solar, have a markedly lower EROI, largely due to their energy density and the rare earth metals and manufacturing required to produce them.  This has led much of the literature to discuss the possibility of an “energy cliff” as EROI declines to a point where current societal levels of affluence can no longer be maintained.

That’s not all. Worryingly, the world is now deeply interconnected and interdependent. In the past, collapse was confined to regions – it was a temporary setback, and people often could easily return to agrarian or hunter-gatherer lifestyles. For many, it was even a welcome reprieve from the oppression of early states. Moreover, the weapons available during social disorder were rudimentary: swords, arrows and occasionally guns.

Today, societal collapse is a more treacherous prospect. The weapons available to a state, and sometimes even groups, during a breakdown now range from biological agents to nuclear weapons. New instruments of violence, such as lethal autonomous weapons, may be available in the near future. People are increasingly specialised and disconnected from the production of food and basic goods. And a changing climate may irreparably damage our ability to return to simple farming practices.

Think of civilisation as a poorly-built ladder. As you climb, each step that you used falls away. A fall from a height of just a few rungs is fine. Yet the higher you climb, the larger the fall. Eventually, once you reach a sufficient height, any drop from the ladder is fatal.

With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, we may have already reached this point of civilisational “terminal velocity”. Any collapse – any fall from the ladder – risks being permanent. Nuclear war in itself could result in an existential risk: either the extinction of our species, or a permanent catapult back to the Stone Age.  

While we are becoming more economically powerful and resilient, our technological capabilities also present unprecedented threats that no civilisation has had to contend with. For example, the climatic changes we face are of a different nature to what undid the Maya or Anazasi. They are global, human-driven, quicker, and more severe.

Posted in Collapsed, Interdependencies, Scientists Warnings to Humanity | Tagged | 2 Comments

Book review: the stranger in the woods. The extraordinary story of the last true hermit

Preface.  This has nothing to do with peak everything, but it was an interesting and profound book, and those of you who are survivalists may find yourself in a similar situation…

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

Michael Finkel. 2018. The Stranger in the Woods. The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. Vintage

Being all alone in the Maine woods is an amazing mental and physical feat – winters are brutal.  Being completely alone for 27 years may have never even been done before. Past hermits were always fed by the greater society at large, and usually sought out by local people eager for wisdom. Psychologists diagnosed Knight with autism and schizoid personality disorder, but the author Finkel doesn’t think he fits any category, and is simply a real outlier on the human spectrum.  This book is far more than an odd biography of an eccentric hermit, it is profound, and I enjoyed the history of hermits and what they learned from the experience, including Knight.  I also liked Knight a great deal, he’s quite bright and has a good sense of humor.

The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives, but they’re tangled over giant boulders with deadfall everywhere like pick-up sticks. There are no trails. Navigation, for nearly everyone, is a thrashing, branch-snapping ordeal, and at dark the place seems impenetrable. This is when the hermit moves. He waits until midnight, shoulders his backpack and his bag of break-in tools, and sets out from camp. A penlight is clipped to a chain around his neck, but he doesn’t need it yet. Every step is memorized. He threads through the forest with precision and grace, twisting, striding, hardly a twig broken. On the ground there are still mounds of snow, sun-cupped and dirty, and slicks of mud—springtime, central Maine—but he avoids all of it. He bounds from rock to root to rock without a bootprint left behind. One print, the hermit fears, might be enough to give him away. Secrecy is a fragile state, a single time undone and forever finished. A bootprint, if you’re truly committed, is therefore not allowed, not once. Too risky. So he glides like a ghost between the hemlocks and maples and white birches and elms until he emerges at the rocky shoreline of a frozen pond.

Motion-detecting floodlights and cameras are scattered around the Pine Tree grounds, installed chiefly because of him, but these are a joke. Their boundaries are fixed—learn where they are and keep away.

Then he climbs a slope to the parking lot and tests each vehicle’s doors. A Ford pickup opens. He takes a rain poncho, unopened in its packaging, and a silver-colored Armitron analog watch. It’s not an expensive watch.

People have sought out solitary existences at all times across all cultures, some revered and some despised. Confucius, who died in 479 B.C., seems to have spoken in praise of hermits—some, he said, as recorded by his disciples, had achieved great virtue. In the third and fourth centuries A.D., thousands of hermits, devout Christians known as the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers, moved into the limestone caves on both banks of the Nile River in Egypt. The nineteenth century brought Thoreau; the twentieth, the Unabomber. None of these hermits remained secluded as long as Knight did, at least not without significant help from assistants, or without being corralled into a monastery or convent, which is what happened to the Desert Fathers and Mothers. There might have existed—or, it’s possible, currently exist—hermits more completely hidden than Knight, but if so, they have never been found.

Capturing Knight was the human equivalent of netting a giant squid. His seclusion was not pure, he was a thief, but he persisted for twenty-seven years while speaking a total of one word and never touching anyone else. Christopher Knight, you could argue, is the most solitary known person in all of human history.

He began his three-page note with a description of one of his attempts to practice speaking. He had approached a half dozen of his fellow inmates, many of whom were young and hardened, and tried to initiate a conversation. The topic he had chosen to discuss with them was the pleasing synchronicity of the summer solstice and the supermoon. “I thought it of at least trivial interest,” he wrote. “Apparently not. You should have seen the blank looks I got.” Many of the people he attempted to talk with simply nodded and smiled and thought him “stupid or crazy.” Or they just stared at him unabashedly, as if he were some oddity on display.

Soon he essentially stopped talking. “I am retreating into silence as a defensive mode,” he mentioned. Eventually, he was down to uttering just five words, and only to guards: yes; no; please; thank you. “I am surprised,” he wrote, “by the amount of respect this garners me. That silence intimidates puzzles me. Silence is to me normal, comfortable.

He shared only brief details about his time in the woods, but what he did reveal was harrowing. Some years, he made it clear, he barely survived the winter. In one letter, he said that to get through difficult times, he tried meditating. “I didn’t meditate every day, month, season in the woods. Just when death was near. Death in the form of too little food or too much cold for too long.” Meditation worked, he concluded.

The media was apparently clamoring to view a real live hermit, and Knight, by growing out his beard wildly, had provided the character they envisioned. His facial hair served not just as a calendar but also as a mask, absorbing the stares of others while allowing him a little privacy in plain sight. “I can hide behind it, I can play to stereotypes and assumptions. One of the benefits of being labeled a hermit is that it permits me strange behavior.

You can take virtually all the hermits in history and divide them into three general groups to explain why they hid: protesters, pilgrims, pursuers. Protesters are hermits whose primary reason for leaving is hatred of what the world has become. Some cite wars as their motive, or environmental destruction, or crime or consumerism or poverty or wealth. These hermits often wonder how the rest of the world can be so blind, not to notice what we’re doing to ourselves. “I have become solitary,” wrote the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “because to me the most desolate solitude seems preferable to the society of wicked men which is nourished only in betrayals and hatred.

Across much of Chinese history, it was customary to protest a corrupt emperor by leaving society and moving into the mountainous interior of the country. People who withdrew often came from the upper classes and were highly educated. Hermit protesters were so esteemed in China that a few times, tradition holds, when a non-corrupt emperor was seeking a successor, he passed over members of his own family and selected a solitary. Most turned down the offer, having found peace in reclusion.

The first great literary work about solitude, the Tao Te Ching, was written in ancient China, likely in the sixth century B.C., by a protester hermit named Lao-tzu. The book’s eighty-one short verses describe the pleasures of forsaking society and living in harmony with the seasons. The Tao Te Ching says that it is only through retreat rather than pursuit, through inaction rather than action, that we acquire wisdom. “Those with less become content,” says the Tao, “those with more become confused.” The poems, still widely read, have been hailed as a hermit manifesto for more than two thousand years.

Around a million protester hermits are living in Japan right now. They’re called hikikomori—“pulling inward”—and the majority are males, aged late teens and up, who have rejected Japan’s competitive, conformist, pressure-cooker culture. They have retreated into their childhood bedrooms and almost never emerge, in many cases for more than a decade. They pass the day reading or surfing the web. Their parents deliver meals to their doors, and psychologists offer them counseling online. The media has called them “the lost generation” and “the missing million.

Pilgrims—religious hermits—are by far the largest group. The connection between seclusion and spiritual awakening is profound. Jesus of Nazareth, after his baptism in the River Jordan, withdrew to the wilderness and lived alone for forty days, then began attracting his apostles. Siddhartha Gautama, in about 450 B.C., according to one version of the story, sat beneath a pipal tree in India, meditated for forty-nine days, and became Buddha. Tradition holds that the prophet Muhammad, in A.D. 610, was on a retreat in a cave near Mecca when an angel revealed to him the first of many verses that would become the Koran.

In Hindu philosophy, everyone ideally matures into a hermit. Becoming a sadhu, renouncing all familial and material attachments and turning to ritual worship, is the fourth and final stage of life. Some sadhus file their own death certificates, as their lives are considered terminated and they are legally dead to the nation of India. There are at least four million sadhus in India today.

During the Middle Ages, after the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt died out, a new form of Christian solitary emerged, this time in Europe. They were called anchorites—the name is derived from an ancient Greek word for “withdrawal”—and they lived alone in tiny dark cells, usually attached to the outer wall of a church. The ceremony initiating a new anchorite often included the last rites, and the cell’s doorway was sometimes bricked over. Anchorites were expected to remain in their cells for the rest of their lives; in some cases, they did so for over forty years. This existence, they believed, would offer an intimate connection with God, and salvation. Servants delivered food and emptied chamber pots through a small opening.

Virtually every large town across France, Italy, Spain, Germany, England, and Greece had an anchorite. In many areas, there were more females than males. A woman’s life in the Middle Ages was severely bound, and to become an anchorite, unburdened by social strictures or domestic toil, may have felt paradoxically emancipating. Scholars have called anchorites the progenitors of modern feminism.

Pursuers are the most modern type of hermits. Rather than fleeing society, like protesters, or living beholden to higher powers, like pilgrims, pursuers seek alone time for artistic freedom, scientific insight, or deeper self-understanding. Thoreau went to Walden to journey within, to explore “the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being.

“Not till we have lost the world,” wrote Thoreau, “do we begin to find ourselves.” “Thoreau,” said Chris Knight, offering his appraisal of the great transcendentalist, “was a dilettante.” Perhaps he was. Thoreau spent two years and two months, starting in 1845, at his cabin on Walden Pond in Massachusetts. He socialized in the town of Concord. He often dined with his mother. “I had more visitors while I lived in the woods than at any other period in my life,” he wrote. One dinner party at his place numbered twenty guests.

Thoreau’s biggest sin may have been publishing Walden. Knight said that writing a book, packaging one’s thoughts into a commodity, is not something a true hermit would do. Nor is hosting a party or hobnobbing in town. These actions are directed outward, toward society. They all shout, in some way, “Here I am!” Yet almost every hermit communicates with the outside world. Following the Tao Te Ching, so many protester hermits in China wrote poems—including poet-monks known as Cold Mountain, Pickup, Big Shield, and Stonehouse—that the genre was given its own name, shan-shui.

Saint Anthony was one of the first Desert Fathers, and the inspiration for thousands of Christian hermits who followed. Around A.D. 270, Anthony moved into an empty tomb in Egypt, where he stayed alone for more than a decade. He then lived in an abandoned fort for twenty years more, subsisting only on bread, salt, and water delivered by attendants, sleeping on the bare ground, never bathing, devoting his life to intense and often agonizing piety.

For much of his time in the desert, the biography adds, Anthony was inundated by parishioners seeking counsel. “The crowds,” Anthony said, “do not permit me to be alone.

Even the anchorites, locked up by themselves for life, were not separate from medieval society. Their cells were often in town, and most had a window through which they counseled visitors. People realized that speaking with a sympathetic anchorite could be more soothing than praying to a remote and unflinching God. Anchorites gained widespread fame as sages, and for several centuries, much of the population of Europe discussed great matters of life and death with hermits.

In the forest, Knight never snapped a photo, had no guests over for dinner, and did not write a sentence. His back was fully turned to the world. None of the hermit categories fit him properly. There was no clear why. Something he couldn’t quite feel had tugged him away from the world with the persistence of gravity. He was one of the longest-enduring solitaries, and among the most fervent as well. Christopher Knight was a true hermit. “I can’t explain my actions,” he said. “I had no plans when I left, I wasn’t thinking of anything. I just did it.

He still remained hungry. He wanted more than vegetables, and even if he did stick with gardens, the Maine summer, as every local knows, is that rare lovely guest who leaves your house early. Once it ended, Knight understood, for the next eight months the gardens and cornfields would lay fallow beyond snacking. Knight was realizing something almost every hermit in history has discovered: you can’t actually live by yourself all the time. You need help. Hermits often end up in deserts and mountains and boreal woodlands, the sorts of places where it’s nearly impossible to generate all your own food.

To feed themselves, several Desert Fathers wove reed baskets, which their assistants sold in town, using the proceeds to buy rations. In ancient China, hermits were shamans and herbalists and diviners. English hermits took jobs as toll collectors, beekeepers, woodcutters, and bookbinders. Many were beggars.

In eighteenth-century England, a fad swept the upper class. Several families felt their estate needed a hermit, and advertisements were placed in newspapers for “ornamental hermits” who were slack in grooming and willing to sleep in a cave. The job paid well, and hundreds of hermits were hired, typically on seven-year contracts, with one meal a day included. Some would emerge at dinner parties and greet guests. The English aristocracy of this period believed hermits radiated kindness and thoughtfulness, and for a couple of decades it was deemed worthy to keep one around.

To commit a thousand break-ins before getting caught, a world-class streak, requires precision and patience and daring and luck. It also demands a specific understanding of people. “I looked for patterns,” Knight said. “Everyone has patterns.” Knight perched at the edge of the woods and meticulously observed the families of North Pond, quiet breakfasts to dinner parties, visitors to vacancies, cars up and down the road, like some Jane Goodall of the human race. Nothing he saw tempted him to return.

He wasn’t a voyeur, he insisted. His surveillance was clinical, informational, mathematical. He did not learn anyone’s name. All he sought was to understand migration patterns—when people went shopping, when a cabin was unoccupied. He watched the families move about and knew when he could steal.

After that, he said, everything in his life became a matter of timing. The ideal time to steal was deep in the night, midweek, preferably when it was overcast, best in the rain. A heavy downpour was prime. People stayed out of the woods when it was nasty, and Knight wished to avoid encounters. Still, he did not walk on roads or trails, just in case, and he never launched a raid on a Friday or Saturday,

He liked to vary his methods, and he even varied how often he varied them.

He didn’t want to develop any patterns of his own, though he did make it a habit to embark on a raid only when freshly shaved or with a neatly groomed beard, and wearing clean clothing, to reduce suspicion on the slight chance that he was spotted.

Sometimes, if he was headed far or needed a load of propane or a replacement mattress—his occasionally grew moldy—it was easier to travel by canoe. He never stole one. Canoes are difficult to hide, and if you steal one, the owner will call the police. It was wiser to borrow; there was a large selection around the lake.

When he arrived at his chosen cabin, he’d make sure there were no vehicles in the driveway, no sign of someone inside—all the obvious things. This wasn’t sufficient. Burglary is a dicey enterprise, a felony offense, with a low margin for error. One mistake and the outside world would snatch him back. So he crouched in the dark and waited. Two hours, three hours, four hours, more. He needed to be sure no one was nearby, no one was watching, no one had called the police. This was not difficult for him; patience is his forte.

He never risked breaking into a home occupied year-round—too many variables—and he always wore a watch so he could monitor the time. Knight, like a vampire, did not want to stay out past sunrise.

He noticed when several cabins left out pens and paper, requesting a shopping list, and others offered him bags of books, hanging from a doorknob. But he was fearful of traps, or tricks, or initiating any sort of correspondence, even a grocery list. So he left everything untouched, and the trend faded away.

As the residents of North Pond invested in security upgrades, Knight adapted. He knew about alarms from his one paying job, and he used this knowledge to continue stealing—sometimes disabling systems or removing memory cards from surveillance cameras, before they became smaller and better hidden.

A burglary report filed by one police officer specifically noted the crime’s “unusual neatness.” The hermit, many officers felt, was a master thief. It was as if he were showing off, picking locks yet

The crime scenes themselves were so clean that the authorities offered their begrudging respect. “The level of discipline he showed while he broke into houses,” said Hughes, “is beyond what any of us can remotely imagine—the legwork, the reconnaissance, the talent with locks, his ability to get in and out without being detected.” A burglary report filed by one police officer specifically noted the crime’s “unusual neatness.” The hermit, many officers felt, was a master thief. It was as if he were showing off, picking locks yet stealing little, playing a strange sort of game.

It was always best, Knight believed, for a home owner to have no clear evidence that he or she had been robbed. Then he’d load everything into a canoe, if it was a canoe-borrowing trip, and paddle to the shore closest to his camp and unload. He’d return the canoe to the spot he’d taken it from, sprinkle some pine needles on the boat to make it appear unused, then haul his loot up through the Jarsey, between the elephant rocks, to his site.

Each raid brought him enough supplies to last about two weeks, and as he settled once more into his room in the woods—“back in my safe place, success”—he came as close as he could to experiencing joy.

The price of sociability is sometimes our health. Knight quarantined himself from the human race and thus avoided our biohazards. He stayed phenomenally healthy. Though he suffered deeply at times, he insists he never once had a medical emergency, or a serious illness, or a bad accident, or even a cold.

Poison ivy: leaves of three, let it be”—and so ably memorized where each patch grew that even at night he didn’t brush against it. He says he was never once afflicted.

Lyme disease, a bacterial illness transmitted through tick bites that can cause partial paralysis, is endemic to central Maine, but Knight was spared that as well. He brooded about Lyme for a while, then came to a realization: “I couldn’t do anything about it, so I stopped thinking about it.

At first, Knight worried about everything: snowstorms might bury him, hikers could find him, the police would capture him. Gradually, methodically, he shed most of his anxiety.

But not all. Being too relaxed, he felt, was also a danger. In appropriate doses, worry was useful, possibly lifesaving. “I used worry to encourage thought,” he said. “Worry can give you an extra prod to survive and plan. And I had to plan.

He never stole homemade meals or unwrapped items, for fear someone might poison him, so everything he took came sealed in a carton or can. He ate every morsel, scraping the containers clean. Then he deposited the wrappers and cartons in his camp’s dump, stuffed between boulders at the boundary of his site.

As long as it was food, it was good enough.” He spent no more than a few minutes preparing meals, yet he often passed the fortnight between raids without leaving camp, filling much of the time with chores, camp maintenance, hygiene, and entertainment.

His chief form of entertainment was reading. The last moments he was in a cabin were usually spent scanning bookshelves and nightstands. The life inside a book always felt welcoming to Knight. It pressed no demands on him, while the world of actual human interactions was so complex

The reading selection offered by the cabins was often dispiriting. With books, Knight did have specific desires and cravings—in some ways, reading material was more important to him than food—though when he was famished for words, he’d subsist on whatever the nightstands bestowed, highbrow or low.

Nor did he spend any nights away from his camp. “I have no desire to travel. I read. That’s my form of travel.

He claimed that he did not speak to himself aloud, not a word. “Oh, you mean like typical hermit behavior, huh? No, never.

He acknowledged, forthrightly, that a couple of cabins were enticing because of their subscriptions to Playboy. He was curious. He was only twenty years old when he disappeared, and had never been out on a date. He imagined that finding love was something like fishing. “Once I was in the woods, I had no contact, so there was no baited hook for me to bite upon. I’m a big fish uncaught.

It wasn’t reading or listening to the radio that actually occupied the majority of Knight’s free time. Mostly what he did was nothing. He sat on his bucket or in his lawn chair in quiet contemplation. There was no chanting, no mantra, no lotus position. “Daydreaming,” he termed it. “Meditation. Thinking about things. Thinking about whatever I wanted to think about.

He was never once bored. He wasn’t sure, he said, that he even understood the concept of boredom. It applied only to people who felt they had to be doing something all the time, which from what he’d observed was most people.

Hermits of ancient China had understood that wu wei, “non-doing,” was an essential part of life, and Knight believes there isn’t nearly enough nothing in the world anymore.

He began observing the mushroom when its cap was no bigger than a watch face. It grew unhurriedly, wearing a Santa’s hat of snow all winter, and eventually, after decades, expanded to the size of a dinner plate, striated with black and gray bands. The mushroom meant something to him; one of the few concerns Knight had after his arrest was that the police officers who’d tromped through his camp had knocked it down. When he learned that the mushroom was still there, he was pleased.

Even in the warm months, Knight rarely left his camp during the daytime. The chief exception to this came at the tail end of each summer, as the cabin owners were departing and the mosquitoes died down, when Knight embarked on a brief hiking season.

The chief problem with environmental noise one can’t control is that it’s impossible to ignore. The human body is designed to react to it.

The body responds immediately, even during sleep. People who live in cities experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones. These hormones, especially cortisol, increase one’s blood pressure, contributing to heart disease and cellular damage. Noise harms your body and boils your brain. The word “noise” is derived from the Latin word nausea.

All of Knight’s survival tactics were focused on winter. Each year, just as the cabins were shutting down for the season, often with food left behind in the pantry, Knight embarked on an intensified streak of all-night raids.

His first goal was to get fat. This was a life-or-death necessity. Every mammal in his forest, mouse to moose, had the same basic plan. He gorged himself on sugar and alcohol—it was the quickest way to gain weight, and he liked the feeling of inebriation.

He filled plastic totes with nonperishable food. He took warm clothes and sleeping bags. And he stockpiled propane, hauling the potbellied white tanks from barbecue grills all around North and Little North Ponds. The tanks were vital—not for cooking (cold food still nourishes) or heat (burning gas in a tent can create enough carbon monoxide to kill you) but for melting snow to make drinking water. It was a fuel-intensive task; Knight required ten tanks per winter. When each tank was finished, he buried it near his site. He never returned an empty.

The supply-gathering process was a race against the weather. With the first significant snowfall of the season, typically in November, all operations shut down. It is impossible to move through snow without making tracks, and Knight was obsessive about not leaving a print. So for the next six months, until the spring thaw in April, he rarely strayed from his clearing in the woods. Ideally, he wouldn’t depart from his camp at all the entire winter.

The blackflies can swarm so thickly in central Maine that you can’t breathe without inhaling some; every forearm slap leaves your fingers sticky with your own blood. Many North Pond locals find peak insect season more challenging than the severest cold snap.

It’s natural to assume that Knight just slept all the time during the cold season, a human hibernation, but this is wrong. “It is dangerous to sleep too long in winter,” he said. It was essential for him to know precisely how cold it was, his brain demanded it, so he always kept three thermometers in camp:

When frigid weather descended, he went to sleep at seven-thirty p.m. He’d cocoon himself in multiple layers of sleeping bags and cinch a tie-down strap near his feet to prevent the covers from slipping off.

Once in bed, he’d sleep six and a half hours, and arise at two a.m. That way, at the depth of cold, he was awake.

At extreme temperatures, it didn’t matter how well wrapped he was—if he remained in bed much longer, condensation from his body could freeze his sleeping bag. His core temperature would plunge, and the paralyzing lethargy of an extreme chill would begin to creep over him, starting at his feet and hands, then moving like an invading army to his heart. “If you try and sleep through that kind of cold, you might never wake up.

The first thing he’d do at two a.m. was light his stove and start melting snow. To get his blood circulating, he’d walk the perimeter of his camp. “Out of the tent. Turn left. Fifteen paces. Turn left. Eight paces. To my winter toilet. Do my business. Twenty paces back. A big triangle. Around again. And again. I like to pace.” He’d air out his sleeping bags, wicking away moisture. He did this every bitter-cold night for a quarter century. If it had snowed he’d shovel his site, pushing the snow to the camp’s perimeter, where it accumulated in great frozen mounds, walling him in.

His feet never seemed to fully thaw, but as long as he had a fresh pair of socks, this wasn’t really a problem. It is more important to be dry than warm.

By dawn, he’d have his day’s water supply. No matter how tempted he was to crawl back into his covers, he resisted. He had complete self-control. Naps were not permitted in his ideology, as they ruined his ability to achieve deep, rejuvenating sleep.

A short distance from his camp, Knight kept what he called his upper cache. Buried in the ground, so well camouflaged with twigs and leaves that you could walk right over it and never know, were two metal garbage bins and one plastic tote. They contained camping gear and winter clothes, enough so that if someone found his site, Knight could instantly abandon it and start anew. His commitment to isolation was absolute.

Knight was sensitive about being thought of as insane. “The idea of crazy has been attached to me,” he acknowledged. “I understand I’ve made an unusual lifestyle choice. But the label ‘crazy’ bothers me. Annoys me. Because it prevents response.” When someone asks if you’re crazy, Knight lamented, you can either say yes, which makes you crazy, or you can say no, which makes you sound defensive, as if you fear that you really are crazy. There’s no good answer. If anything, Knight thought of himself, in the grand tradition of Stoicism, as the opposite of crazy—as entirely clearheaded and rational.

When he learned that the bundles of magazines buried at his site were regarded by some locals as an eccentric habit, he was infuriated. Those bundles were a sensible recycling of reading material into floorboards.

It’s possible that Knight believed he was one of the few sane people left. He was confounded by the idea that passing the prime of your life in a cubicle, spending hours a day at a computer, in exchange for money, was considered acceptable, but relaxing in a tent in the woods was disturbed. Observing the trees was indolent; cutting them down was enterprising. What did Knight do for a living? He lived for a living.

Knight insisted that his escape should not be interpreted as a critique of modern life. “I wasn’t consciously judging society or myself. I just chose a different path.” Yet he’d seen enough of the world from his perch in the trees to be repulsed by the quantity of stuff people bought while the planet was casually poisoned, everyone hypnotized into apathy by “a bunch of candy-colored fluff” on a billion and one little screens. Knight observed modern life and recoiled from its banality.


Posted in (Auto)biography, Real Estate | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Replacing diesel tractors with horses or oxen – what will that be like?

Preface.  Since fossil fuels are clearly finite, at some point increasing numbers of farmers with diesel vehicles and equipment will want to replace them with horses, which can do the work of six people.  Here’s what  energy expert Vaclav Smil has to say about that.

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: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Vaclav Smil. 2017. Energy and Civilization A History. MIT Press.

During the 1890s a dozen powerful American horses needed some 18 tonnes of oats and corn per year, about 80 times the total of food grain eaten by their master.

Only a few land-rich countries could provide so much feed. Feeding 12 horses would have required about 15 ha of farmland. An average U.S. farm had almost 60 ha of land in 1900, but only one-third of it was cropland. Clearly, even in the United States, only large grain growers could afford to keep a dozen or more working animals; the 1900 average was only three horses per farm.

Even in land-rich agricultures with extraordinary feed production capacities the substitution trend could not have continued much beyond the American achievements of the late 19th century. Heavy gang plows and combines took animal-drawn cultivation to its practical limit. Besides the burden of feeding large numbers of animals used for relatively short periods of field work, much labor had to go into stabling, cleaning, and shoeing the animals. Harnessing and guiding large horse teams were also logistical challenges. There was a clear need for a much more powerful prime mover—and it was soon introduced in the form of internal combustion engines.

The simplest way of transporting loads is to carry them. Where roads were absent people could often do better than animals: their weaker performance was often more than compensated for by flexibility in loading, unloading, moving on narrow paths, and scrambling uphill. Similarly, donkeys and mules with panniers were often preferred to horses: steadier on narrow paths, with harder hooves and lower water needs they were more resilient. The most efficient method of carrying is to place the load’s center of gravity above the carrier’s own center of gravity—but balancing a load is not always practical.

In relative terms, people were better carriers than animals. Typical loads were only about 30% of an animal’s weight (that is, mostly just 50–120 kg) on the level and 25% in the hills. Men aided by a wheel could move loads far surpassing their body weight. Recorded peaks are more than 150 kg in Chinese barrows where the load was centered right above the wheel’s axle.

The superiority of horses could be realized only with a combination of horseshoes and an efficient harness. Performance in land transport also depended on success in reducing friction and allowing higher speeds. The state of roads and the design of vehicles were thus two decisive factors. The differences in energy requirements between moving a load on a smooth, hard, dry road and on a loose, gravelly surface are enormous. In the first case a force of only about 30 kg is needed to wheel a 1 t load, the second instance would call for five times as much draft, and on sandy or muddy roads the multiple can be seven to ten times higher. Axle lubricants (tallow and plant oils) were used at least since the second millennium BCE.

The roads in ancient societies were mostly just soft tracks that seasonally turned into muddy ruts, or dusty trails.  Roads in continental Europe were in similarly bad shape, and coach horses harnessed in teams of four to six animals lasted on average less than three years.

The stabling of the animals in mews and the provision and storage of hay and straw made an enormous demand on urban space. At the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, London had some 300,000 horses. City planners in New York were thinking about setting aside a belt of suburban pastures to accommodate large herds of horses between the peak demands of rush-hour transport. The direct and indirect energy costs of urban horse-drawn transport—the growing of grain and hay, feeding and stabling the animals, grooming, shoeing, harnessing, driving, and removal of wastes to periurban market gardens—were among the largest items on the energy balance of the late 19th-century cities.

The importance of horses, both in cavalry units and harnessed to heavy wagons and field artillery, persisted in all major Western conflicts of the early modern era (1500–1800), as well in the epoch-defining Napoleonic Wars. Large armies projected far from their home base had to rely on animals to move their supplies: pack animals (donkeys, mules, horses, camels, llamas) were used in difficult terrain;

Opening the road to Russia to Napoleon: that is how Philip Paul, Comte de Ségur (1780–1873), one of Napoleon’s young generals and perhaps the most famous chronicler of the disastrous Russian invasion, described the Prussian contribution. By this treaty, Prussia agreed to furnish many goods: 22,046 tons of rye, 264 tons of rice, two million bottles of beer,  44,092 tons of wheat, 71,650 tons of straw, 38,581 tons of hay, six million bushels of oats, 44,000 oxen, 15,000 horses, 300,600 wagons with harness and drivers, each carrying a load of 1700 pounds; and finally, hospitals provided with everything necessary for 20,000 sick.

When in 1900 a Great Plains farmer held the reins of six large horses while plowing his wheat field, he controlled—with considerable physical exertion, perched on a steel seat, and often enveloped in dust—no more than 5 kW of animate power. A century later his great-grandson, sitting high above the ground in the air-conditioned comfort of his tractor cabin, controlled effortlessly more than 250 kW of diesel engine power.

The mechanization of field work has been the main reason behind the rising labor productivity rise and the reduction of agricultural populations: a strong early 20th-century Western horse worked at a rate equal to the labor of at least six men, but even early tractors had power equivalent to 15–20 heavy horses, and today’s most powerful machines working on Canadian prairies rate up to 575 horsepower.

American draft horses reached their highest number in 1915, at 21.4 million animals, but mule numbers peaked only in 1925 and 1926, at 5.9 millio.

Replacing the existing American field machinery by draft animals would require horse and mule stock at least ten times as large as its record numbers from the early 20th century. Some 300 Mha, or twice the total area of U.S. arable land, would be needed just to feed the animals, and masses of urbanites would have to leave the cities for farms.

In single-cropping regimes of northern Europe draft horses would do only 60–80 days of strenuous field work during the fall and spring plowing and the summer harvesting, but most of them were used extensively for transport. A typical working day ranged from just five hours for oxen in many African locations to more than ten hours for water buffaloes in Asian rice fields and for horses during European or North American grain harvests.

A typical draft is 15% of animal’s body weight but for horses it is up to 35% during brief exertions (about 2 kW) and even more during a few seconds of supreme effort (Collins and Caine 1926). The combination of large mass and relatively high speed makes horses the best draft animals, but most horses could not work steadily at the rate of one horsepower (745 W), and usually delivered between 500 and 850 W.

Horses are the most powerful draft animals. Unlike cattle, whose body mass is almost equally divided between the front and the rear, horses’ fronts are notably heavier than their rears (ratio of about 3:2), and so the pulling animal can take a better advantage of inertial motion than cattle. Except in heavy, wet soils, horses can work in fields steadily at speeds of around 1 m/s, easily 30–50% faster than oxen.

Horses also have better endurance (working 8–10 hours a day compared to 4–6 hours for cattle) and they live longer, and while both oxen and horses started working at 3–4 years of age, oxen lasted usually just for 8–10 years, while horses carried on commonly for 15–20 years.

A horse’s leg anatomy gives the animal a unique advantage by virtually eliminating the energy costs of standing. The horse has a very powerful suspensory ligament running down the back of the cannon bone and a pair of tendons (superficial and deep digital flexors) that can “lock” the limb without engaging muscles. This allows the animals to rest, even to doze, while standing, with hardly any metabolic cost, and to spend little energy while grazing. All other mammals need about 10% more energy when standing as compared to lying down.

Besides speeding up plowing and harvesting, animal labor also made it possible to lift large volumes of irrigation water from deeper wells. Animals were used to operate such food-processing machines as mills, grinders, and presses at rates far surpassing human capabilities. Relief from long hours of tiresome labor was no less important than the higher output rates, but more animal work required more cultivated land to grow feed crops.

In North America and in parts of Europe, the upkeep of horses at times claimed up to one-third of all agricultural area.

An average 19th-century European or American horses annual useful labor equal to about six working farmers, and the land used for its feeding (including all the nonworking animals) could have grown food for about six people. Strong, well-fed horses could perform tasks beyond human capacity and endurance.

American farmers were advised to feed their working horses 4.5 kg of oats and 4.5 kg of hay a day (Bailey 1908), which translates to about 120 M J/day. With an average power of 500 W, a horse would do about 11 MJ of useful work during six hours, and while an average male human would contribute less than 2 MJ, though he could not maintain steady exertion above 80 W and managed only brief peaks above 150 W, a horse could work steadily at 500 W and have brief peak pulls in excess of 1 kW, an effort that would require the exertions of a dozen men.

Horses could drag logs and pull out stumps when humans converted forests to cropland, break up rich prairie soils by deep plowing, or pull heavy machinery. There were additional energy costs of animal labor beyond maintaining a breeding herd and providing adequate feeding for field labor; these additional energy costs appeared above all in the making of harnesses and shoes and the stabling of the animals. But there were also additional benefits derived from the recycled manure and from milk, meat, and leather. Manure recycling has been important in all intensive traditional agricultures as the source of scarce nutrients and organic matter. In largely vegetarian societies, meat (including horsemeat in parts of Europe) and milk were valuable sources of perfect protein. Leather was used in making a large number of tools essential in farming and in traditional manufactures. And, of course, the animals were self-reproducing.

In Chinese cities, high shares of human waste (70–80%) were recycled. Similarly, by the 1650s virtually all of Edo’s (today’s Tokyo) human wastes were recycled (Tanaka 1998). But the usefulness of this practice is limited by the availability of such wastes and their low nutrient content, and the practice entails much repetitive, heavy labor. Even before storage and handling losses, the annual yield of human wastes averaged only about 3.3 kg N/capita (Smil 1983). The collection, storage, and delivery of these wastes from cities to the surrounding countryside created large-scale malodorous industries, which even in Europe persisted for most of the 19th century before canalization was completed. Barles (2007) estimated that by 1869, Paris was generating annually about 4.2 Mt N, about 40% from horse manure and about 25% from human wastes;

The recycling of much more copious animal wastes—which involved cleaning of stalls and sties, liquid fermentation or composting of mixed wastes before field applications, and the transfer of wastes to fields—was even more time-consuming. And because most manures have only about 0.5% N, and pre-application and field losses of the nutrient had commonly added up to 60% of the initial content, massive applications of organic wastes were required to produce higher yields.

Every conceivable organic waste was used as a fertilizer in traditional farming: pigeon, goat, sheep, cattle, all other dung, composts made of straw, lupines, chaff, bean stalks, husks, and oak leaves.

Any theoretical estimates of nitrogen in recycled wastes are far removed from its eventual contribution. This is because of very high losses (mainly through ammonia volatilization and leaching into groundwater) between voiding, collection, composting, application, and eventual nitrogen uptake by crops. These losses, commonly of more than two-thirds of the initial nitrogen, further increased the need to apply enormous quantities of organic wastes. Consequently, in all intensive traditional agricultures, large shares of farm labor had to be devoted to the unappealing and heavy tasks of collecting, fermenting, transporting, and applying organic wastes.

Scale of traditional recycling (and hence the energies devoted to gathering, handling and applying the waste biomass) had to be so large because the organic materials applied to field or plowed in (as green manures) had very low nitrogen content: human and animal wastes are largely water, as are green manures; only oil cakes (residues after pressing edible oils) have relatively high nitrogen content. For comparison, urea, the leading modern synthetic fertilizer, contains 46% of nitrogen.

The performance of the best twine-binding harvester was soon surpassed with the introduction of the first horse-drawn combines, marketed by California’s Stockton Works during the 1880s. Housers, the company’s standard combines after 1886, cut two-thirds of California’s wheat by 1900, when more than 500 machines were working in the state’s fields. The largest ones needed up to 40 horses and could harvest a hectare of wheat in less than 40 minutes—but they tested the limits of animal-powered machinery because harnessing and guiding up to 40 horses was an enormous challenge.

At its beginning, a farmer (80 W) working in a field was aided by about 800 W of draft power (two oxen); by its end, a farmer combining his Californian wheat field had at his disposal 18,000 W (a team of 30 horses).

In 1800 New England farmers (seeding by hand, with ox-drawn wooden plows and brush harrows, sickles, and flails) needed 150–170 hours of labor to produce their wheat harvest. By 1900 in California, horse-drawn gang-plowing, spring-tooth harrowing, and combine harvesting could produce the same amount of wheat in less than nine hours. In 1800 New England farmers needed more than seven minutes to produce a kilogram of wheat, but less than half a minute was needed in California’s Central Valley in 1900, roughly a 20-fold labor productivity gain in a century.

Naturally, these huge advances were only partially due to much higher efficiencies resulting from better machinery. The other principal reason for the rapidly rising energy returns of human labor was the substitution of horse power for human muscles. American inventors produced a vast range of efficient implements and machines, but they had only limited success in displacing draft animals as farming prime movers.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century the numbers of American horses and mules stayed around 25 million. Growing enough feed for their maintenance and work required about one quarter of America’s cultivated land

In 1910 America had 24.2 million farm horses and mules (and only 1,000 small tractors); in 1918 the draft animal herd peaked at 26.7 million and the number of tractors rose to 85,000. With an average daily need of 4 kg of grain for working animals and 2 kg of concentrate feed for the rest, the annual feed requirements were roughly 30 Mt of oats and corn. With grain yields of about 1.5 t/ha, this would have required planting at least 20 Mha to feed grains. To supply roughage, working horses needed at least 4 kg/day of hay, while the rest could be maintained with about 2.5 kg/day, requiring an annual total of roughly 30 Mt of hay. With average hay yields of about 3 t/ha, at least 10 Mha of hay had to be harvested. Land devoted to horse feed had to be no less than about 30 Mha, compared to around 125 Mha of annually harvested land, which means that America’s farm horse herd (working and nonworking animals) required almost 25% of the country’s cultivated land. The USDA’s (1959) calculation came up with a nearly identical total of 29.1 Mha.

In early 19th-century Europe the typical ratio of human/animal power capacity rose to around 1:15, but on the most productive American farms it was well above 1:100 during the 1890s. Human labor became a negligible source of mechanical energy, and the value of farmers’ work shifted mostly to management and control, tasks of low-power needs but high-output rewards.


Posted in Agriculture, Life Before Oil, Muscle Power, Peak Food, Vaclav Smil | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Fish scraps could power some cruise ships by 2021

Preface.  Some black humor for those following energy descent.

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:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]


CNN Wire. November 20, 2018. Fish scraps could power some cruise ships by 2021.  

“As the appetite for ocean travel rapidly grows, there’s been growing concern about its environmental impact.

Fish scraps might be part of the solution, according to a Norwegian cruise operator.

Hurtigruten, known for its trips through Norway’s fjords and to the Arctic, will power a fleet of ships partly through liquified biogas — which is produced as dead fish and other organic waste decompose, the company said in a press release.

A 2017 report by German environmental association Nature And Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) found that a midsize cruise ship can use well over 100 tons of fuel a day, producing as much particulate as a million cars.”

Posted in Far Out | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Using manure for fertilizer in the future – it won’t be easy

Animals produce 44 times more manure than humans in the U.S.

Preface. At John Jeavons Biointensive workshop back in 2003, I learned that phosphorous is limited and mostly being lost to oceans and other waterways after exiting sewage treatment plants.  He said it can be dangerous to use human manure without proper handling, and wasn’t going to cover this at the workshop, but to keep it in mind for the future.

Modern fertilizers made with the Nobel-prizing winning method of using natural gas as feedstock and energy source can increase crop production up to 5 times, but at a tremendous cost of poor soil health and pollution (see Peak soil).  Fossil fuels will inevitably decline some day, and force us back to organic agriculture and using crop wastes, animal and human manure again.

Below are excerpts from three sources.

The first is about North Korea. Despite tremendous efforts to use all manure, this country is a barren, destroyed landscape that can grow little food, which McKenna describes here: Inside North Korea’s Environmental Collapse.

The second section describes what it was like to live over a century ago when human and animal manure was routinely collected.

The third Below is a NewScientist book review of The Wastewater Gardener: Preserving the planet, one flush at a time by Mark Nelson.

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:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity]

Park, Y. 2015. In order to live: A North Korean girl’s journey to freedom. Penguin.

“One of the big problems in North Korea was a fertilizer shortage. When the economy collapsed in the 1990s, the Soviet Union stopped sending fertilizer to us and our own factories stopped producing it. Whatever was donated from other countries couldn’t get to the farms because the transportation system had also broken down. this led to crop failures that made the famine even worse. So the government came up with a campaign to fill the fertilizer gap with a local and renewable source: human and animal waste. Every worker and schoolchild had a quota to fill.  Every member of the household had a daily assignment, so when we got up in the morning, it was like a war. My aunts were the most competitive.

“Remember not to poop in school! Wait to do it here!” my aunt in Kowon told me every day. Whenever my aunt in Songnam-ri traveled away from home and had to poop somewhere else, she loudly complained that she didn’t have a plastic bag with her to save it.

The big effort to collect waste peaked in January so it could be ready for growing season. Our bathrooms were usually far from the house, so you had to be carefu lneighbors didn’t steal from you at night. Some people would lock up their outhouses to keep the poop thieves away. At school the teachers would send us out into the streets to find poop and carry it back to class.  If we saw a dog pooping in the street, it was like gold. My uncle in Kowon had a big dog who made a big poop—and everyone in the family would fight over it.

Our problems could not be fixed with tears and sweat, and the economy went into total collapse after torrential rains caused terrible flooding that wiped out most of the rice harvest…as many as a million North Koreans died from starvation or disease during the worst years of the famine.

When foreign food aid finally started pouring into the country to help famine victims, the government diverted most of it to the military, whose needs always came first. What food did get through to local authorities for distribution quickly ended up being sold on the black market”

Vaclav Smil. 2015. Energy and Civilization A History. MIT Press. 

“In Chinese cities, high shares of human waste (70–80%) were recycled. Similarly, by the 1650s virtually all of Edo’s (today’s Tokyo) human wastes were recycled. But the usefulness of this practice is limited by the availability of such wastes and their low nutrient content, and the practice entails much repetitive, heavy labor. Even before storage and handling losses, the annual yield of human wastes averaged only about 3.3 kg N/capita. The collection, storage, and delivery of these wastes from cities to the surrounding countryside created large-scale malodorous industries, which even in Europe persisted for most of the 19th century before canalization was completed. By 1869, Paris was generating annually about 4.2 Mt N, about 40% from horse manure and about 25% from human wastes…

The recycling of much more copious animal wastes—which involved cleaning of stalls and sties, liquid fermentation or composting of mixed wastes before field applications, and the transfer of wastes to fields—was even more time-consuming. And because most manures have only about 0.5% N, and pre-application and field losses of the nutrient had commonly added up to 60% of the initial content, massive applications of organic wastes were required to produce higher yields.  Every conceivable organic waste was used as a fertilizer in traditional farming: pigeon, goat, sheep, cattle, all other dung, composts made of straw, lupines, chaff, bean stalks, husks, and oak leaves.

Any theoretical estimates of nitrogen in recycled wastes are far removed from its eventual contribution. This is because of very high losses (mainly through ammonia volatilization and leaching into groundwater) between voiding, collection, composting, application, and eventual nitrogen uptake by crops. These losses, commonly of more than two-thirds of the initial nitrogen, further increased the need to apply enormous quantities of organic wastes. Consequently, in all intensive traditional agricultures, large shares of farm labor had to be devoted to the unappealing and heavy tasks of collecting, fermenting, transporting, and applying organic wastes.

Barnett, A. August 2, 2014. Excellent excrement. Why do we waste human waste? We don’t have to. NewScientist.

Below is a review of The Wastewater Gardener: Preserving the planet, one flush at a time, by Mark Nelson, Synergetic Press.

Would you dine in an artificial wetland laced with human waste? In The Wastewater Gardener, Marc Nelson makes an inspiring case for a new ecology of water

Rainforest destruction, melting glaciers, acid oceans, the fate of polar bears, whales and pandas. You can understand why we get worked up about them ecologically. But wastewater?

The problem is excrement. Psychologically, we seem to be deeply averse to the stuff and want to avoid contact whenever possible – we don’t even want to think about it, we just want it out of the way.

The solution, a universal pipe-based waste network, works well until domestic and industrial chemicals and other non-biological waste are mixed in. Treating the resulting toxic soup, as Mark Nelson explains in The Wastewater Gardener, is not only a major technological challenge, but also uses enormous amounts of one of the planet’s most limited resources: fresh water.

Each adult produces between 7 and 18 ounces of faeces per day. With our current population, that’s a yearly 500 million tonnes. Centralized sewage systems use between 1000 and 2000 tons of water to move each ton of faeces, and another 6000 to 8000 tons to process it.

Even then, this processed waste often ends up in waterways, affecting wildlife and communities downstream, and it eventually finds its way to the ocean. There it contributes to the process of eutrophication, which creates dead zones, killing coral reefs and other sea creatures.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. As head of Wastewater Gardens International, Nelson has traveled the world, developing and promoting artificial wetlands as the most logical way to use what we otherwise flush away.

Except that, as Nelson points out, with 7 billion-plus people, there really is no “away”. Besides, what the public purse pays to detox and dump can be put to profitable work, fertilising greenery for urban spaces and fruits and vegetables for domestic and commercial use, for example.

Less than 3% of Earth’s water is fresh, and only a tiny portion of that is easily available to us. Most of the water that standard sewage systems use to move human waste is drinkable. Diminishing water resources mean alternatives are pressingly needed. Wastewater gardens, where marsh plants are used to filter lavatory output and allow cleaned water to enter natural watercourses, are very much part of that solution.

Nelson clearly understands the yuck factor and goes to great lengths to show that having a shallow vat of human-waste-laced water nearby is far less vile than we might imagine, especially when it is covered by gravel and interlaced with plant roots. Restaurants with tables dotted between ponds containing the ever-filtering artificial wetlands provide convincing proof.

Constructed wetlands can take on big jobs, too: a mixture of papyrus, lotus and other plants have successfully and beautifully detoxified water from Indonesian batik-dying factories. This water had killed cows downstream and caused running battles between farmers and factory workers.

The Wastewater Gardener is not a “how to” story, but more a “how it was done” account. Nelson tells how these wetlands started to become mainstream in less than 30 years. With humility and humour, he recounts how, as a boy from New York City, he acquired hands-on ranching knowledge in New Mexico, then studied under American ecology guru, Howard Thomas Odum.

And stories of his experiences everywhere from urban Bali and the Australian outback to Morocco’s Atlas mountains and Mexico’s Cancún coast illustrate the gravelly, muddy evolution of his big idea. An inspiring read, not just for the smallest room.

Posted in Life Before Oil, Soil, Waste, Water | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments