Oil discoveries in 2015 lowest since 1947 — 2016 likely to be even lower. Bloomberg

2016 figure only shows exploration results to August. Discoveries were just 230 million barrels in 1947 but skyrocketed the next year when Ghawar was discovered in Saudi Arabia, and is till the world's largest oil field.  Source: Wood Mackenzie

2016 figure only shows exploration results to August. Discoveries were just 230 million barrels in 1947 but skyrocketed the next year when Ghawar was discovered in Saudi Arabia, and is till the world’s largest oil field. Source: Wood Mackenzie


Mikael, H. August 29, 2016. Oil Discoveries at 70-Year Low Signal Supply Shortfall Ahead. Bloomberg.

Explorers in 2015 discovered only about a tenth as much oil as they have annually on average since 1960. This year, they’ll probably find even less, spurring new fears about their ability to meet future demand.

With oil prices down by more than half since the price collapse two years ago, drillers have cut their exploration budgets to the bone. The result: Just 2.7 billion barrels of new supply was discovered in 2015, the smallest amount since 1947, according to figures from Edinburgh-based consulting firm Wood Mackenzie Ltd. This year, drillers found just 736 million barrels of conventional crude as of the end of last month.

That’s a concern for the industry at a time when the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that global oil demand will grow from 94.8 million barrels a day this year to 105.3 million barrels in 2026. While the U.S. shale boom could potentially make up the difference, prices locked in below $50 a barrel have undercut any substantial growth there. Ten years down from now this will have a “significant potential to push oil prices up. Given current levels of investment across the industry and decline rates at existing fields, a “significant” supply gap may open up by 2040″.

Oil companies will need to invest about $1 trillion a year to continue to meet demand, said Ben Van Beurden, the CEO of Royal Dutch Shell Plc, during a panel discussion at the Norway meeting. He sees demand rising by 1 million to 1.5 million barrels a day, with about 5 percent of supply lost to natural declines every year.

New discoveries from conventional drilling, meanwhile, are “at rock bottom,” said Nils-Henrik Bjurstroem, a senior project manager at Oslo-based consultants Rystad Energy AS. “There will definitely be a strong impact on oil and gas supply, and especially oil.

Global inventories have been buoyed by full-throttle output from Russia and OPEC, which have flooded the world with oil despite depressed prices as they defend market share. But years of under-investment will be felt as soon as 2025, Bjurstroem said. Producers will replace little more than one in 20 of the barrels consumed this year, he said.

There were 209 wells drilled through August this year, down from 680 in 2015 and 1,167 in 2014, according to Wood Mackenzie. That compares with an annual average of 1,500 in data going back to 1960.

Overall, the proportion of new oil that the industry has added to offset the amount it pumps has dropped from 30 percent in 2013 to a reserve-replacement ratio of just 6 percent this year in terms of conventional resources, which excludes shale oil and gas, Bjurstroem predicted. Exxon Mobil Corp. said in February that it failed to replace at least 100 percent of its production by adding resources with new finds or acquisitions for the first time in 22 years.

“That’s a scary thing because, seriously, there is no exploration going on today,” Per Wullf, CEO of offshore drilling company Seadrill Ltd., said by phone.

Posted in How Much Left, Peak Oil | Tagged , | 1 Comment

EROI explained and defended by Charles Hall, Pedro Prieto, and others

[ If you found this post interesting, the following posts are even better (more detailed and in-depth):

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

Questions about EROI at researchgate.net 2015-2017

Khalid Abdulla, University of Melbourne asks:  Why is quality of life limited by EROI with renewable Energy? There are many articles explaining that the Energy Return on (Energy) Invested (EROI, or EROEI) of the sources of energy which a society uses sets an upper limit on the quality of life (or complexity of a society) which can be enjoyed (for example this one).  I understand the arguments made, however I fail to understand why any energy extraction process which has an external EROI greater than 1.0 cannot be “stacked” to enable greater effective EROI.  For example if EROI for solar PV is 3.0, surely one can get an effective EROI of 9.0 by feeding all output energy produced from one solar project as the input energy of a second? There is obviously an initial energy investment required, but provided the EROI figure includes all installation and decommissioning energy requirements I don’t understand why this wouldn’t work. Also I realise there are various material constraints which would come into play; but why does this not work from an energy point of view?

Charles A. S. Hall replies:  As the person who came up with the term  EROI in the 1970s (but not the concept: that belongs to Leslie White, Fred Cotrell, Nicolas Georgescu Roegan and Howard Odum) let me add my two cents to the existing mostly good posts.  The problem with the “stacked” idea is that if you do that you do not deliver energy to society with the first (or second or third) investment — it all has to go to the “food chain” with only the final delivering energy to society.  So stack two EROI 2:1 technologies and you get 4:2, or the same ratio when you are done.

The second problem is that you do not need just 1.1:1 EROI to operate society.  We (Hall, Balogh and Murphy 2009) studied how much oil would need to be extracted to drive a truck including the energy to USE the energy.  So we added in the energy to get, refine and deliver the oil (about 10% at each step) and then the energy to build and maintain the roads, bridges, vehicles and so on.  We found you needed to extract 3 liters at the well head to use 1 liter in the gas tank to drive the truck, i.e. an EROI of 3:1 was needed.

But even this did not include the energy to put something in the truck (say grow some grain)  and also, although we had accounted for the energy for the depreciation of the truck and roads,  but not the depreciation of the truck driver, mechanic, street mender, farmer etc.: i.e. to pay for domestic needs, schooling, health care etc. of their replacement.    Pretty soon it looked like we needed an EROI of at least 10:1 to take care of the minimum requirements of society, and maybe 15:1 (numbers are very approximate) for a modern civilization. You can see that plus implications in Lambert 2014.

I think this and incipient “peak oil” (Hallock et al.)  is behind what is causing most Western economies to slow or stop  their energy and economic growth.   Low EROI means more expensive oil (etc) and lower net energy means growth is harder as there is less left over after necessary “maintenance metabolism”. This is explored in more depth in Hall and Klitgaard book  “Energy and the wealth of Nations” (Springer).

Khalid Abdulla asks: I’m still struggling a little bit with gaining an intuition of why it is not possible to stack/compound EROI. If I understand your response correctly part of the problem is that while society is waiting around for energy from one project to be fed into a second project (etc.) society needs to continue to operate (otherwise it’d all be a bit pointless!) and this has a high energy overhead.  I understand that with oil it is possible to achieve higher external EROI by using some of the oil as the main source of energy for extraction/processing. Obviously this means less oil is delivered to the outside world, but it is delivered at a higher EROI which is more useful. I don’t understand why a similar gearing is not possible with renewables.  Is it something to do with the timing of the input energy required VS the timing of the energy which the project will deliver over its life?

Charles A. S. Hall replies: Indeed if you update the QUALITY of the energy you can come out “ahead”.  My PhD adviser Howard Odum wrote a lot about that, and I am deeply engaged in a discussion about the general meaning of Maximum Power (a related concept) with several others.  So you can willingly turn more coal into less electricity because the product is more valuable.   Probably pretty soon (if we are not already) we will be using coal to make electricity to pump out ever more difficult oil wells….

I have also been thinking about EROI a lot lately and about what should the boundaries of analysis be.  One of my analyses is available in the book “Spain’s PV revolution: EROI and.. available from Springer or Amazon.

To me the issue of boundaries remains critical. I think it is proper to have very wide boundaries. Let’s say we run an economy just on a big PV plant. If the EROI is 8:1 (which you might get, or higher, from examining just the modules) then it seems like you could make your society work. But let’s look closer. If you add in security systems, roads, and financial services and the EROI drops to 3:1 then it seems more problematic. But if you add in labor (i.e. the energy it takes to make the food, housing etc that labor buys with its salaries, calculated from national mean energy intensities times salaries for all necessary workers) it might drop to 1:1. Now what this means is that the energy from the PV system will support all the purchases of the workers that are building/maintaining the PV system, let’s say 10% will be taken care of, BUT THERE WILL BE NO PRODUCTION OF GOODS AND SERVICES for the rest of the population. To me this is why we should include salaries of the entire energy delivery system (although I do not because it remains so controversial). I think this concept, and the flat oil production in most of the world, is why we need to think about ALL the resources necessary to deliver energy from a project/ technology/nation.”

Khalid Abdulla: My main interest is whether the relatively low EROI of renewable energy sources fundamentally limits the complexity of a society that can be fueled by them.

Charles A. S. Hall replies: Perhaps the easiest way to think about this is historical: certainly we had lots of sunshine and clever minds in the past.  But we did not have a society with many affluent people until the industrial revolution, based on millions of years of accumulated net energy from sunshine. An affluent king, living a life of affluence less than most people in industrial societies now, was supported by the labor of thousands or millions of serfs harvesting solar energy.  The way to get rich was to exploit the stored solar energy of other societies through war (see Plutarch or Tainter’s the collapse of complex societies).

But most renewable energy (good hydropower is an exception) are low EROI or else seriously constrained by intermittency. Look at all the stuff required to support “free” solar energy. We (and Palmer and Weisbach independently) found EROIs of about 3:1 at best when all costs are accounted for.

The lower the EROI the larger the investment needed for the next generation: that is why fossil fuels with EROIs of 30 or 50 to one have led to such wealth: the other 29 or 49 have been deliverable to society to do economic work or that can be invested in getting more fossil fuels.  If the EROI is 2:1 obviously half has to go into the next generation for the growth and much less is delivered to society.   One can speculate or fantasize about what one can do with some future technology but having been in the energy business for 50 years I have seen many come and go.  Meanwhile we still get about 75-80% of our energy from fossil fuels (with their attendant high EROI).

Obviously we could have some kind of culture with labor intensive, low energy input systems if people were willing to take a large drop in their life style.  I fear the problem might be that people would rather go to war than accept a decline in life style.

Lee’s assessment of the traditional  !Kung hunter gatherer life style implies an EROI of 10:1 and lots of leisure (except during droughts–which is the bottleneck).  Past agricultural societies obviously had a positive EROI based on human labor input — otherwise they would have gone extinct.  But it required something like a hectare per person.  According to Jared Diamond cultures became more complex with agriculture vs hunter gatherer.

The best assessment I have about EROI and quality of life possible is in:  Lambert, Jessica, Charles A.S. Hall, Stephen Balogh, Ajay Gupta, Michelle Arnold 2014 Energy, EROI and quality of life. Energy Policy Volume 64:153-167 http://authors.elsevier.com/sd/article/S0301421513006447 — It is open access.  Also our book:  Hall and Klitgaard, Energy and the wealth of nations.   Springer

At the moment the EROI of contemporary agriculture is 2:1 at the farm gate but much less, perhaps one returned for 5 invested  by the time the food is processed, distributed and prepared (Hamilton 2013).

As you can see from these studies to get numbers with any kind of reliability requires a great deal of work.

Sourabh Jain asks: Would it be possible to meet the EROI goal of, say for example 10:1, in order to maintain our current life style by mixing wind, solar and hydro? Can we have an energy system various renewable energy sources of different EROI to give a net EROI of 10:1?

Charles A. S. Hall replies:  Good question.  First of all I am not sure that we can maintain our current life style on an EROI of 10:1, but let’s assume we can (Hall 2014, Lambert 2014).  We would need liquid fuels of course for tractors , airplanes and ships — I cannot quite envision running those machines on electricity.

The problem with wind is that it tends to blow only 30% of the time, so we would need massive storage.  To the degree that we can meet intermittency with hydro that is good, although it is tough on the fish and insects below the dam.  The energy cost of that would be huge, prohibitive with respect to batteries, huge with respect to pumped storage, and what happens when the wind does not blow for two weeks, as is often the case?

Solar PV may or may not have an EROI of 10:1 (I assume you know of the three studies that came up with about 3:1: Prieto and Hall, Graham Palmer, Weisbach — but there are others higher and certainly the price and hence presumed energy cost is coming down –but you should also know that many structures are lasting only 12, not 25 years) — — this needs to be sorted out ).  But again the storage issue will be important.   (Palmer’s rooftop study included storage).

These are all important issues.  So I would say the answer seems to be no, although it might work well for let’s say half of our energy use.   As time goes on that percentage might increase (or decrease).

Jethro Betcke writes: Charles Hall: You make some statements that are somewhat inaccurate and could easily mislead the less well informed: Wind turbines produce electricity during 70 to 90% of the time. You seems to have confused capacity factor with relative time of operation.  Using a single number for the capacity factor is also not so accurate. Depending on the location and design choices the capacity factor can vary from 20% to over 50%.  With the lifetime of PV systems you seem to have confused the inverter with the system as a whole. The practice has shown that PV modules last much longer thatn the 25 years guaranteed by the manufacturer. In Oldenburg we have a system from 1976 that is still producing electricity and shows little degradation loss [1]. Inverters are the weak point of the system and sometimes need to be replaced. Of course, this would need to be considered in an EROEI calculation. But this is something different than what you state. [1] http://www.presse.uni-oldenburg.de/download/einblicke/54/parisi-heinemann-juergens-knecht.pdf

Charles A. S. Hall replies: I resent your statement that I am misleading anyone.   I write as clearly, accurately and honestly as I can, almost entirely in peer reviewed publications, and always have. I include sensitivity analysis while acknowledging legitimate uncertainty (for example p. 115 in Prieto and Hall).  Some people do not like my conclusions. But no one has shown with explicit analysis that Prieto and Hall is in any important way incorrect.  At least three other peer reviewed papers) (Palmer 2013, 2014; Weisbach et al. 2012 and Ferroni and Hopkirk (2016) have come up with similar conclusions on solar PV.  I am working on the legitimate differences in technique with legitimate and credible solar analysts with whom I have some differences , e.g. Marco Raugei.  All of this will be detailed in a new book from Springer in January on EROI.

First I would like to say that the bountiful energy blog post is embarrassingly poor science and totally unacceptable. As one point the author does not back his (often erroneous) statements with references. The importance of peer review is obvious from this non peer-reviewed post.

Second I do not understand your statement about wind energy producing electricity 70-90 percent of the time.  In England, for example, it is less than 30 percent (Jefferson 2015).

Third your statement on the operational lifetime of actual operational PV systems is incorrect. Of course one can find PV systems still generating electricity after 30 years.  But actual operational systems requiring serious maintenance (and for which we do not yet have enough data) often do not last more than 18-20 years, For example Spain’s “Flagship ” PV plant (which was especially well maintained) is having all modules replaced and treated as “electronic trash” after 20 years : http://renewables.seenews.com/news/spains-ingeteam-replaces-modules-at-europes-oldest-pv-plant-538875    Ferroni and Hopkirk found an 18 year lifespan in Switzerland.

Pedro Prieto replies: The production of electricity of wind turbines the 70-90% of time is a very inaccurate quote. Every wind turbine has a nominal capacity in MW. The important factor is not how many hours they move the blades at any working regime, but how many EQUIVALENT peak hours they work at the end of the year. That is, to know how much real energy they generate within one year. This is what the industry uses as a general and accurate measurement and it is the load factor or capacity factor.

Of course, this factor may change from the location or the design choices, but there is an incontrovertible figure: when we take the total world installed wind power in MW (435 Gw as of 2015) from January 2004 up to December 2015 and the total energy generated in Twh (841 Twh as of 2015) in the same period and calculate the averaged capacity factor, the resulting figure slightly varies around 15% AT WORLD LEVEL. This is REAL LIFE, much more than your unsupported theoretical figures of 20 to over 50% capacity factor in privileged wind fields for privileged wind turbines.

Interesting enough, some countries like the US, United Kingdom or Spain have capacity factors reaching 20% in the last years, but the world total installed capacity has not really improved so much in the last ten years, despite of theoretically much efficient wind turbines (i.e. multipole with permanent magnets), very likely for the reasons that good wind fields in some countries were already used up. Other countries like China, India or France show, on the contrary very poor capacity factors even in 2015.


With respect to the lifetime of the PV systems, nor Charles Hall neither myself have confused the inverter lifetime with the solar PV system as a whole. The practice has not shown that modules have lasted more than 25 years in general over the world installed base. The fact that one single system is still working after more than 30 years of operation, if it was carefully manufactured with high quality materials, and was well cared, cleaned and free from environmental pollutants, like several modules we have also in Spain, does not mean AT ALL that the massive deployments (about 250 GW as of 2015) are going to last over 25 years.

I have to clarify also a common mistake: almost all main world manufacturers guarantee a maximum of 25 years (NOT 30) to the modules, but this is the “power” guarantee. This means that they “guarantee” (assuming they will be still alive as companies in 25 years from the sales period, something which is rather difficult for many of the manufacturers that went out of business in shorter periods of time than the guarantee of their modules. Of course, this guarantee is given with the subsequent module degradation specs over time, which in many cases has been proved be higher than specified.

But not only that. Most of the module manufacturers have a second guarantee: the “material’s guarantee”. And this is offered for between 5 and 10 years. This is the one by which the manufacturer guarantees the module replacement if it fails. Beyond that date, if the module fails, the buyer has to buy a new one (if still being manufactured, with the same specs power and size), because the second guarantee SUPERSEDES the first one.

Last but not least, there is already quite a large experience in Europe (Germany, France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, etc.) of the number of faulty modules that have been decommissioned in the last years (i.e. period 2010-2015) as for instance, accounted by PV-Cycle, a company specialized in decommission and recycling modules in Europe. As the installed base is well known in volumes per year, it is relatively easy to calculate, in a very conservative (optimistic) mode the percentage over the total that failed and the number of years that lasted in this period and the average years for that sample that died before the theoretical 25-30 years lifetime and make the proportion on the total installed base.

The study conducted by Ferroni and Hopkirk gives an approximate lifetime for the installed base of lower than 20 years. And this is Europe, where the maintenance is supposed to be much better made than in the rest of the developing world. And the figures of failed modules given by PV-Cycle did not include the many potential plants that did not deliver their failed modules to this company for recycling

What it seems impossible for some academic people is to recognize that perhaps the “standards” they adhered to (namely IEA PVPS Task 12 in this case) and through which they published a big number of papers, should be revisited, because they lacked some essential measurements that could help to understand why renewables are not replacing fossils at the required speed, despite having claimed for years that they reached grid parity or that their Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) is cheaper than coal, nuclear or gas. 

I am afraid that peer reviewed authors are not immune to having preconceived ideas even more difficult to eradicate. Excessive pride, lack of humility, considerable distance between the academy (i.e. imagined solar production levels versus real data from actual solar PV plants and lack of a systemic vision due to an excess of specialization are the main hurdles. Of course in my humble opinion.


  • Hall, C.A.S., Balogh, S., Murphy, D.J.R. 2009. What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have? Energies, 2: 25-47.
  • Hall, Charles  A.S., Jessica G.Lambert, Stephen B. Balogh. 2014.  EROI of different fuels  and the implications for society Energy Policy Energy Policy. Energy Policy, Vol 64 141-52
  • Hallock Jr., John L., Wei Wu, Charles A.S. Hall, Michael Jefferson. 2014. Forecasting the limits to the availability and diversity of global conventional oil supply: Validation. Energy 64: 130-153. (here)
  • Hamilton A , Balogh SB, Maxwell A, Hall CAS. 2013. Efficiency of edible agriculture in Canada and the U.S. over the past 3 and 4 decades. Energies 6:1764-1793.
  • Lambert, Jessica, Charles A.S. Hall, et al.  Energy, EROI and quality of life.  Energy Policy
Posted in Charles A. S. Hall, EROEI Energy Returned on Energy Invested, Pedro Prieto | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Coal power plants depend on railroads to deliver coal

coal trains

[ The extract of a Senate hearing below is mostly spent on testimony by utilities bashing the railroads for not delivering enough coal due to a disaster in the Powder River Basin, Wyoming area, where coal dust infiltrated the stone ballast due to unusually wet weather, creating drainage problems that ultimately led to derailments which took several months to fix. Railroads deliver 72% of coal to coal power plants.

But it turns out the utilities are equally to blame. They’ve been reducing their coal stockpiles.  According to the EIA: “Coal stockpiles at electric power plants have generally been declining for years: end-of-year stocks declined from 135.9 million tons in 1989 to 101.2 million tons in 2005, down 26%, although coal-fired generation and coal consumption both increased during this period. The long-term us due to power plant operators trying to minimize their coal inventory holding costs.

What’s interesting to me about this hearing is how vulnerable our system is due to this interdependency. If trains can’t deliver coal, then coal plants can’t make electricity, which would make it impossible to refuel trains (pumps are electric).  Climate change is likely to buckled rail (extreme heat), wash away tracks (extreme storms and flooding), leading to even more unreliable coal delivery. Now natural gas and nuclear can still step in to keep the grid up, but as natural gas and uranium ores decrease, and up to half of nuclear power plants retire by 2030 with few new ones built, the electric grid will grow increasingly fragile, until it isn’t always up most of the time.

In 2006 reliance on coal for electricity, and soon COAL-TO-LIQUID (CTL) TRANSPORTATION FUEL, were expected to grow in the future because there wasn’t as much natural gas as hoped for.  And now again, there still isn’t — fracked gas did buy us an extra 10 years or so, but it is about to rapidly decline sometime between now and 2020.   When CTL hearings are heard again (the last ones were held 2005-2007), you’ll know the energy crisis is back with a vengeance.

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

Senate 109-601. May 25, 2006. Coal-based generation reliability. Senate hearing.

PETE V. DOMENICI, U.S. SENATOR FROM NEW MEXICO.  The purpose of today’s oversight hearing is to receive testimony on the reliability of coal-based electric generation in the short term and in the future. According to the EIA, coal has fueled about half of this Nation’s electricity for the past 50 years, and the use of coal is expected to grow. The EIA estimates coal will supply 57% of our electricity needs by the year 2030. That is substantially up. Coal is a resource that this country has in abundance, with 25% of the total world reserves. The United States has been dubbed the Saudi Arabia of coal.  In order to maintain coal as a reliable resource, we must be able to move coal from the mines to the generating plants. More and more, the country is relying on low sulfur coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to meet Clean Air Act requirements. Rail transportation is responsible for moving the coal for a majority of this load. With last year’s train derailments, the dependence on a reliable transportation system was highlighted. Some utilities were caught with low stocks of supplies and were forced to dramatically curtail generation. This, in turn, led to expensive replacement power, with the cost passed on to the end customer.

CRAIG THOMAS, U.S. SENATOR FROM WYOMING.  Half of our generation for electricity now is done by coal, and about 40% of that comes from the Powder River Basin, much of it from Wyoming. So that is even better. Sixty percent of the price paid for coal is transportation cost, and so we are going to be faced with making some changes and some ideas for getting more transportation available. Are we going to have to do more mine mouth generation and other kinds of things?

HOWARD GRUENSPECHT, DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR, ENERGY INFORMATION ADMINISTRATION, DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY.   For the past 50 years coal has fueled roughly half the Nation’s electricity generation. Between 1989 and 2005, net generation from coal increased by 27%, while total coal-fired generation capacity grew by only 3%. The average capacity factor or utilization rate of coal-fired plants increased from 60 percent to 72 percent over this period.

Rail shipments in 2005 accounted for 72% of all coal delivered to electric power plants. National average rail transportation costs, which now represent about 40 percent of delivered coal costs, increased from 51 cents per million Btu in 2004 to about 63 cents per million Btu early this year.  Contract rail transportation represented about 60 percent of the average total cost of rail-delivered Western subbituminous coal, which is primarily produced in the Powder River Basin, and only 25 percent of the average total cost of rail delivered Eastern bituminous coal.

Days of burn, a measure of the number of days a plant or group of plants can operate using only on-site inventories for supply, is a way of representing coal stockpiles of power plants in relation to anticipated use. At the national level, days of burn increased from 38 days to 40 days between February 2005 and February 2006. However, the increase has not been uniform. Stocks of bituminous coal increased 23 percent over that period, but inventories of subbituminous coal, again the vast majority of which comes from the PRB, dropped 7 percent over that period.

In addition to a draw down of inventories, the shortfall in shipments over the past year has led to some reduction in utilization at some coal-fired plants. To compensate, electric power companies bought power from other generators or relied more heavily on other plants within their systems. Under recent market conditions, substitution of power generated at natural gas-fired plants in lieu of coal-fired power can be an expensive option

Our Annual Energy Outlook projects that coal-based generation will continue to be the dominant source of the Nation’s electricity supplies through 2030. Reliance on all types of coal is projected to increase over time, but particularly the Powder River Basin coal, suggesting a requirement for increased capacity throughout the Nation’s rail transportation system.

Although coal-fired generation has grown by 27% since 1989, the coal consumption measured in tons increased by 34% (from 782 million tons to 1,051 million tons). Consumption of coal outpaced the growth in generation because of increasing use of subbituminous coal produced in the PRB. This subbituminous western coal has less energy content per ton than eastern and Midwestern bituminous coal, so more tons are needed to produce an equivalent amount of electricity. Western subbituminous coal is generally lower in sulfur and less expensive to produce than bituminous coal, which often makes subbituminous coal a preferred option for environmental and economic reasons despite its lower energy content.

Coal stockpiles at electric power plants have generally been declining for years: end-of-year stocks declined from 135.9 million tons in 1989 to 101.2 million tons in 2005, down 26%, although coal-fired generation and coal consumption both increased during this period. The long-term us due to power plant operators trying to minimize their coal inventory holding costs. Over the past several years, however, operators at times have found it difficult to maintain stockpiles because of intermittent disruptions in coal production and transportation. Concerns over coal deliveries and reduced stockpiles have grown over the past year due to problems with shipments of coal from the PRB.

RAILROAD TRANSPORTATION ISSUES.  In the PRB, a number of disruptions occurred in planned coal shipments during 2005. Structural failures in the rail roadbeds caused two major train derailments on the weekend of May 14. The roadbed failures were triggered by unusually wet weather for the region. Accumulated coal dust infiltrated the road foundations (stone ballast) and created drainage problems which led to the derailments.

This affected all three mainlines in the Joint Line shared by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) and Union Pacific Railroad (UP) used to move coal unit trains in and out of the PRB. Normally, the Joint Line operates 365 days a year, 24 hours per day and moves three loaded coal trains per hour out of the basin.

After the derailments, BNSF and UP replaced more than 100 miles of roadbed, including new concrete railroad ties and new tracks to facilitate trains passing. Rebuilding continued, as scheduled, through November 2005 and was restarted with the spring thaw in 2006. During this entire period, rail traffic in and out of the PRB has been disrupted at times, but it is now moving more fluidly, even though the reconstruction project is not yet quite complete. BNSF and UP have invested heavily over the past 20 years in rail infrastructure and equipment to serve the PRB coal market. Both railroads continue to make additional capital improvements throughout their respective rail systems: adding parallel tracks, upgrading classification yards, alleviating bottlenecks, and generally improving capacity for all types of rail traffic. On May 8, 2006, the UP and BNSF announced that they would spend $100 million over the next 2 years to construct more than 40 miles of third and fourth main line tracks on the PRB Joint Line. This follows the addition of 14 miles of third line track in 2005 and 19 miles currently under construction in 2006. The railroads believe the completion of these projects will raise Joint Line capacity to at least 400 million short tons per year, compared with the record 325 million short tons hauled in 2005.

The capacity of natural-gas-fired power plants (including oil-burning plants that can also use natural gas) more than doubled, from 165.9 to 409.2 gigawatts between 1989 and 2005. Most of this capacity is not fully utilized, but using it in lieu of coal-fired power can be an expensive option.

At the average cost of delivered natural gas to the electric power sector in January 2006, a new, efficient natural-gas-fired combined-cycle plant can produce electricity at a fuel cost of roughly 6.4 cents per kilowatthour. The comparable cost for a conventional coal-fired plant at the January 2006 national average delivered price was less than a third as much, about 1.5 cents per kilowatthour.

Because of the complex and (currently) capacity-constrained PRB operations and delivery schedules, it will take some time to rebuild sub-bituminous stocks. With the supply chain for PRB coal as fully committed and finely tuned as it is, any future weather, equipment or infrastructure failure has the potential to reverberate through the entire system.

Hardly a month goes by that delivery of PRB coal somewhere in the supply chain is not interrupted by a derailment, freezing, flooding, or other natural occurrence. In most cases, the events are small compared with the amount of PRB coal delivered each year, and the rail system and inventories are capable of absorbing them, unless the events are particularly severe or occur simultaneously.

The situation in the East is somewhat different. The primary eastern railroads, Norfolk Southern Railway (NS) and CSX Transportation (CSXT), divided and absorbed Conrail’s assets in 1998. Both railroads experienced a number of customer complaints related to slow deliveries in the years following the Conrail acquisition. The impact of population density and geography mean the eastern railroads must contend with more traffic per mile of track, more congested routes and delivery areas, steeper grades and narrower, winding right-of-ways and routes than the western railroads. Recent increases in the export coal market have further congested rail lines in the East. Therefore, deliveries of bituminous coal to eastern power plants may also have been disrupted, to some degree, by hauls to export docks.

It is important to note that railroad capacity constraints nationwide entail more than just the infrastructure improvements at important coal origins and destinations. Other parts of the rail system are also increasingly constrained in their capacity to handle all rail traffic, not just coal. Nationwide rail capacity is constrained in part because of growth in demand in other freight sectors, including agricultural products, consumer goods, and especially, intermodal shipments (trailers or containers on flat cars). Use of these has been growing as an alternative to long-haul trucking which has been impacted by a shortage of drivers and higher diesel fuel costs. Future economic growth and the possibility that railroads will reacquire market share for shipments previously lost to truck and barge will continue to challenge the railroads to provide sufficient capacity.

THE FUTURE OUTLOOK FOR COAL.   Over the next 25 years, EIA expects significant growth in the use of coal for the generation of electricity and the rail transportation system will need to be expanded to accommodate it. Over the same time period, coal use in the industrial sector is expected to grow as coal is used to produce liquid fuels together with electricity.

The wide-spread availability and relatively low cost of coal make it very economical for electricity generation. As a result, in the reference case in EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2006 (AE02006), total coal consumption is projected to increase from 1.1 billion short tons in 2004 to 1.3 billion short tons in 2015 and 1.8 billion short tons in 2030.

The increase in coal use over the next 5 to 10 years is driven primarily by greater use of existing coal plants, while in the longer term, a large number of new plants are expected to be added. The current average utilization rate of approximately 72% is projected to increase to 80% by 2013. In addition, over the 2004 to 2030 time period, 174 gigawatts of new coal-fired electricity generation capacity, including 19 gigawatts of coal-to-liquids capacity, are projected to be added. Most of the projected new coal plants, 126 gigawatts, are expected to be added after 2020, and a little over half of them are expected to be integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) plants.

To meet the growing demand for coal, most coal supply regions, particularly those in the West, are projected to increase their annual production volumes. The exceptions to this are the Central and Southern Appalachia regions where mining difficulties and reserve depletion are projected to contribute to lower production levels in 2030 compared to 2004. In contrast, the PRB has large, productive surface mines that are able to produce coal at a comparatively low cost. In 2030, the PRB is projected to produce 719 million short tons, 298 million tons higher than in 2004, accounting for 52 percent of the total increase in annual coal production between 2004 and 2030.

As with all long-term projections, there are significant uncertainties. With respect to coal markets, key areas of uncertainty include future economic growth, long-term productivity improvements that influence coal prices, competing natural gas prices, the development of competing technologies such as nuclear, and the possibility of new policies to curb the growth in CO2 emissions.

The EIA has projected that by 2030 Powder River will produce 719 short tons of coal. This year’s Annual Outlook was first to include a significant amount of coal to liquid production.  The amount of the coal used for coal to liquids production would be about 150 million tons out of the 719. So it is pretty substantial by 2030.

Senator BURNS. In some areas, we got reports of coal being imported from offshore when they had those big drawdowns, and that sort of concerns me. I would hate to get as dependent on foreign coal as we do on oil. Should we be concerned, from a domestic energy production standpoint, about some increased need of imported coal due to delivery system breakdowns?

Dr. GRUENSPECHT. We import and export coal. We export a lot of metallurgical coal and we import some coal mostly for power production, as you pointed out. Both the imports and the exports are pretty small in relation to our domestic production and consumption, on the order of 3 to 4%. And the imports and exports balance out. My understanding is that a lot of the imports come into Eastern and Southern ports. I think Colombia is our biggest source of coal imports, and we import some from Canada as well.  I do not think we are headed toward a situation in coal like the situation we have in oil.

Robert ‘‘Mac’’ McLennan, vice president of external affairs, for the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.   As a 24% owner in Laramie River Station in Wheatland Wyoming, we have a significant interest in what has happened there, as members have to date faced both increased rates and reduced coal shipments. In order to maintain efficiency, coal-based plants like Laramie River Station, or LRS, are run almost continuously. Maintaining full generation requires a train and a half a day. In addition to the train and a half a day, we try to maintain a 30-day supply of coal in the stockpile. Earlier this year we actually got to 6 days. If the stockpile had depleted any further, we would have been forced to curtail generation at a significant cost to our members. We would have had to either use natural gas, which as a fuel source is five to seven times more expensive than the underlying coal, or purchase off the purchase power market, if available, at much higher prices.

STEVEN JACKSON, DIRECTOR, POWER SUPPLY, MUNICIPAL ELECTRIC AUTHORITY OF GEORGIA, ATLANTA, GA.   MEAG Power’s primary purpose is to generate and transmit reliable and economic wholesale power to 49 Georgia communities—including approximately 600,000 citizens and many large and small businesses. BNSF provides the initial portion of the PRB haul under separate contract. The plant is approximately 2,000 miles (4,000 miles roundtrip) from the Powder River Basin and coal is delivered by thirty-seven sets of privately owned 124 car unit trains. These train sets are constantly in motion cycling from the PRB to our plants and back.

DAVID WILKS, PRESIDENT OF ENERGY SUPPLY, XCEL EN- ERGY, MINNEAPOLIS, MN, ON BEHALF OF THE EDISON ELECTRIC INSTITUTE AND CONSUMERS UNITED FOR RAIL EQUITY.   Xcel Energy is a major electric and natural gas company, with annual revenues of $10 billion. Xcel Energy generates 78.6 GWhs of electricity annually, 72% from coal-fired generation, 100% of the coal is supplied by rail.

Today, most coal moves in unit trains between the mines and the power plants. These trains typically consist of 100-130 cars owned or provided by the utility, with 100-120+ tons of coal per car, which shuttle continuously from the coal mine to the power plant without ever being uncoupled.

Unfortunately, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain adequate coal stockpiles, especially over the last couple of years.  Because of recent rail delays and other rail service problems, many utilities have been forced to reduce outputs from coal-fired generating plants—requiring greater reliance on natural gas-fired generation and some have even resorted to importing coal from overseas sources as far away as Indonesia, in order to meet the demand for electricity.

Like most utilities in the West and Midwest, Xcel receives most of its coal by rail from the Powder River Basin (PRB) coal seam of Wyoming and Montana. The PRB is the most significant coal producing region in the United States, with approximately 40% of all U.S. coal production mined there. PRB coal has been particularly attractive to electric utilities because of its relatively lower price and low sulfur content.

Two railroads, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) and the Union Pacific (UP), move all of the coal out of the PRB, much of it over a Joint Line they operate together. In the spring of 2005, two derailments occurred on the Joint Line, significantly reducing rail deliveries of coal by 15 to 20 percent. While significant repairs have been underway for months and are scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, train speeds remain reduced to avoid further derailments. Delivery levels have not yet recovered, and some utility coal stockpiles remain significantly lower than desired levels. In the case of Xcel, we have several plants that are struggling to maintain even 10 days of coal on the ground. At a minimum, the situation appears to bring into serious question whether the carriers are meeting their common carrier obligation to provide service to the public.

The significant additional costs resulting from rail service failures have put additional upward pressure on consumers’ electricity rates. In order to replace an estimated 20 million ton shortfall in PRB coal deliveries in 2006, electric generators may be forced to use approximately 340 billion cubic feet of natural gas, costing at least $2 billion more than the coal that will not be delivered this year.

In some cases, the situation has become so bad that utilities have found it necessary to sue the railroads for damages resulting from delivery shortfalls. For instance, Entergy Arkansas is involved in litigation against the Union Pacific over the failure of the rail carrier to meet its coal delivery obligations last year. The utility had to cut back production from two coal-fired plants, forcing it to increase its power purchases in the wholesale market. Also, Entergy is one of a handful of utilities that have taken the extraordinary step of importing foreign coal—in this case from Colombia—due to the inability of the railroads to move adequate amounts of domestic coal in a timely manner.

ROBERT K. SAHR, CHAIRMAN, SOUTH DAKOTA PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION, PIERRE, SD, ON BEHALF OF THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REGULATORY UTILITY COMMISSIONERS.   In 2005, coal plant operators experienced reduced coal deliveries under firm contract by an estimated 10 to 25%. Coal reserve levels at plants in the upper Midwest dropped below 10 days at times, as we heard earlier, where typically 30 days is considered prudent.  This crisis is endangering our energy security. Dangerously low reserves make plants more vulnerable to weather, rail accident, terrorist attacks, and other disruptions.

GAS VS. COAL-GENERATED ELECTRICITY.   Recently, the nation has experienced record high prices for natural gas, which has dramatically increased the cost of both natural gas and electricity service to the millions of business and residential customers in this country. Currently, the fuel cost component of producing electricity at gas-fired power plants can be as much as five times higher than the fuel component of producing electricity at a coal-fired power plant. As a prudent business practice, one would expect that, given existing gas prices, electricity producers would be seeking to utilize existing coal-fired electric generation as much as possible in lieu of gas-fired generation in order to produce electricity more economically and to avoid upward pressure on natural gas prices.

In March, the Big Stone Power Plant stockpile dwindled to a 10-day supply while the plant waited for their rail service provider to deliver the needed coal, Some of the coal at the bottom of the stockpile has been stored on open ground, exposed to the elements for 20 years in some cases, and can only be used as a last resort. According to Basin Electric Power Cooperative, a co-owner of Laramie River Station, using this coal also brings other issues of concern. The coal at the bottom of the Laramie River Station stockpile has significantly reduced BTU value and includes rocks that are being run through the plant’s turbines. Plant staff members are now cleaning the pulverizers on a daily basis, where in normal operation it is done every two to three weeks.

EDWARD R. HAMBERGER, PRESIDENT AND CEO, ASSOCIATION OF AMERICAN RAILROADS.  I am very pleased that the hearing is being held today and not last May. Last May, our ability to ensure reliability on coal shipments was certainly being challenged. That happened for several reasons. First and foremost, in May of last year, a heavy rainfall in Wyoming, combined with an accumulation of coal dust on the roadbed and a spring snowstorm put moisture into the track structure, causing instability and resulting in two derailments on a heavily used Powder River Basin rail line. The derailments and the subsequent repairs disrupted coal shipments out of the PRB for months afterward.

Later in the year, as Senator Landrieu knows, hurricanes Katrina and Rita created backups and congestion that affected the entire rail network. For example, much of Midwestern and Northern Plains grain had to move by rail rather than by barge down the Mississippi. Finally, in October, a deluge dumped a foot of rain in Kansas City, disrupting rail service on several major coal-carrying routes for about 2 weeks.

Second, demand for rail transportation in general was much higher in 2005 than in previous years, creating capacity constraints on important parts of the U.S. rail network. It is not just the Powder River Basin lines that are important here. It is the entire rail network, as these coal trains move 1,500-2,000 miles across country. Third—and this is a key point, Mr. Chairman—this entire supply chain is not just railroads. It is the production capability of the mines. It is our ability to move it. It is barge ability to move it, and it is what happens at the utility end, at the delivery end. As the EIA testimony indicates, between 1980 and 2000, utilities consciously reduced their inventories, their stockpiles by two-thirds, thereby cutting the zone of what they could rely on. Some would argue that they cut that stockpile much too fast, much too far. Fourth, the system was exacerbated by a dramatic increase in the price of natural gas, leading to an unprecedented increase in demand for coal-fired electricity generation. Now, this was a reversal of what had been happening. As you can see by the chart, during the previous 5 years, electric utilities brought nearly 200,000 megawatts of new natural gas generation capacity on line compared with almost null, about 1,200 new megawatts of coal generating capacity, and this continued the trend of the previous years. Utilities had shown their preference for natural gas and that that was the fuel of choice, and railroads and, undoubtedly, the mining companies as well developed their capital plans accordingly.

The vast majority of coal in the United States is used to generate electricity, with smaller amounts used in industrial applications like fueling cement kilns or producing coke. Coal accounted for 50 percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2005, far more than any other fuel.

The amount of electricity generated by coal in the United States rose from 1.6 billion megawatthours in 1990 to 2.0 billion megawatthours in 2005—an increase of 420 million, or 26%. But because overall U.S. electricity generation rose 33% during this period, coal’s share of total generation actually fell, from 52.5% in 1990 to 49.9% in 2005.

By contrast, natural gas’s share of U.S. electricity generation rose from 12.6% in 1990 to 19% in 2005. In fact, during the 1990s and into the first half of this decade, virtually no new coal-fired electricity generation capacity and no new nuclear facilities were built, but huge amounts of gas-fired capacity were added.

Natural gas was the fuel of choice for new capacity for several reasons. Gas plants could be constructed relatively quickly and enjoyed an easier permitting process, and thus were less expensive to build. They were also considered to be ‘‘environmentally friendly.’’ Perhaps most importantly, though, it was assumed that natural gas would remain cheap and plentiful.

This, of course, did not happen. Over the past few years, the price of natural gas to utilities has skyrocketed, making gas-fired generation less competitive and sparking increased demand for electricity generated from other fuels, including steam coal. In contrast to the delivered price of natural gas, the delivered price of coal to utilities has remained basically flat, and on a per-Btu basis is far below the comparable figure for natural gas. In addition, demand for metallurgical coal rose sharply because of a boom in steelmaking worldwide.

This unexpectedly strong increase in the demand for coal, which occurred at the same time that demand for rail transportation overall was rising sharply (discussed further below), has in some cases exceeded the capability of coal producers to supply the coal and coal transporters to haul it. That’s not surprising, especially since utilities, by their actions, had long been disfavoring coal in favor of natural gas, and neither coal suppliers nor coal transporters have unlimited spare capacity on hand ‘‘just in case.’’

Coal-fired power plants have been reducing their coal stockpiles since the early 1980s. A typical electric utility held nearly two months of full-load burn in the early 1980s; by the late 1990s, this had fallen to near one month.  According to EIA data, coal stocks at electric power producers as a percentage of coal consumption fell from more than 30% in 1980 to 10% by 2000. The decision to reduce stockpiles was part of a deliberate utility effort to shift to just-in-time inventory practices to limit capital tied up in fuel stocks. With inventory reduced to this degree, utilities eliminated a traditional buffer to withstand supply disruptions (like the May 2005 PRB derailments noted below).

Going forward, one of the root causes of the weather-related problems of 2005—coal dust ‘‘blow off’’—must be aggressively addressed. Just as with other coal delivery chain issues, the mines, utilities, and railroads must collectively identify, agree upon, and implement the best method to combat ‘‘blow off’’ so that the premature wear of rail infrastructure in the PRB can be eliminated.

OUTLOOK FOR COAL.  U.S. coal production and consumption will almost certainly continue to grow. In its Annual Energy Outlook 2006, released in December 2005, the EIA projects that U.S. coal production in 2015 will total 1.27 billion tons, a 140-million ton increase (12%) over the 1.13 billion produced in 2005. The EIA expects U.S. coal consumption to increase from 1.13 billion tons in 2005 to 1.28 billion tons in 2015, a 147-million ton increase. DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory reports that 140 coal-fired generating plants in 41 states representing 85 gigawatts have been announced or are in development. If ultimately built, this new generation would increase annual U.S. coal requirements by some 300 million tons.

Coal is by far the highest-volume single commodity carried by rail, and railroads are moving more coal today than at any time during their history. In 2005, Class I carriers originated 7.20 million carloads of coal (23 percent of total carloads), equal to 804 million tons (42 percent of total tonnage). Coal has long been a major source of rail revenue as well. Class I gross revenue from coal in 2005 was $9.4 billion, or 20 percent of total gross revenue. Coal is also carried by dozens of non-Class I railroads.

In light of current capacity and service issues, some shippers and others have inappropriately blamed railroads for not having enough infrastructure, workers, or equipment in place to handle the surge in traffic. Perhaps railroads and their customers could have done a better job of forecasting and preparing for the sharply higher traffic volumes of recent years. But to contend that railroads can afford to have significant amounts of spare capacity on hand ‘just in case’—or that shippers would be willing to pay for it, or capital providers willing to finance it—is completely unrealistic. Like other companies, railroads try to build and staff for the business at hand or expected to soon be at hand. ‘‘Build it and they will come’’ is not a winning strategy for freight railroads.

In part, this is because long-lived rail infrastructure installed long ago was often designed for types and quantities of traffic, and origin and destination locations, that are dramatically different than those that exist today. For example, only within the last two decades has Powder River Basin coal taken on

Similarly, the explosive growth of rail intermodal traffic is mainly a phenomenon of the past 20 years.

When business is unexpectedly strong, railroads cannot expand capacity as quickly as they might like. Locomotives, for example, can take a year or more to be delivered following their order; new entry-level employees take six months or more to become hired, trained, and qualified; and it can take a year or more to plan and build, say, a new siding. And, of course, before investments in these types of capacity enhancements are made, railroads must be confident that traffic and revenue will remain high enough to justify the enhancements for the long term, and that the investment will produce benefits greater than the scores of alternative possible investment projects.

STEVEN JACKSON. Our experience suggests that the supply chain is very fragile and any event weather related or otherwise that disrupts this supply line could quickly cause a major reduction in supply and inventory levels during the time of greatest needs and highest replacement costs.

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Do taxes cover the cost to maintain your street?

From: http://mapstoryblog.thenittygritty.org/costofstreets/ 

Are Your Taxes Paying for the Cost of Your Street?

Believe it or not, almost everywhere in the country, people are not paying for the cost of the street right in front of their own properties. I made a map of my home town to illustrate – you can hover over any property and see for yourself (click on the image below to open). I was recently interviewed about this on the Strong Towns podcast. This is the first in a series of maps and mapstories I’ll be making that show how city budgets are spread across cities. This map took a bit of ingenuity, which I have documented on a separate page if you want all the technical details.

So how are streets being built, if they’re not being paid for?

It’s simple – here’s how it works:
*Say a community is built in Year 1.
*The community’s streets need to be rebuilt every 30 years.
*In Year 30 a new, identical community is built. Now twice the amount of taxes are coming, and so for time being the property owners only need to pay half the amount.
*And 30 years later, in Year 60, two new communities are built; as long as the number of properties and property taxes are doubling every 30 years, they can continue to pay half the amount.

Most people don’t even know this is going on, even in city governments. Yet some people only need to look around and think – my Dad actually always used to say that there is no way we are paying for the cost of all the streets around us. It was years later that I finally read about this “Growth Ponzi Scheme” in the Strong Towns Blog. If you like real world examples like I do, the second part of the series is a must-read. As I wrote in the map description, make no mistake – except in our most dense cities, what you see in this map of Ames is happening everywhere, if not much worse. Ames is a remarkable town, tops many lists including being one of the most educated cities in the world; yet being a college town, even boasting a major Community and Regional Planning (CRP) college, like in most of academia, very little of its education is put into useful practice. If anything, modern city planning has brought about its own demise through its pseudo-intellectual hubris that Jane Jacobs compared to bloodletting.

The Calculations

Now with my mapping skills, I figured I could put my Dad’s intuition to the test, and apply those examples across a whole town. For the cost of streets, I simply asked a civil engineer what the typical range is of the costs of repairs and the typical lifecycle of streets. Now, many people might jump up and down and say “that varies”… the thing is, numbers like these hardly vary outside an average. If the cost of something like streets varied infinitely, then we would never be able to plan ahead. Really, if 80% of the time the numbers don’t vary by much more than 20%, then we’re fine. I used the upper end of the lifecycles to be conservative.

Average cost of streets per square foot:
*Asphalt = $17.77/sq ft, 25-30 yrs
*Bituminous Seal Coat = $18.10/sq ft, 25-30 yrs
*Concrete = $15.22/sq ft, 35-40 years
*Composite = averaging cost of Concrete and Asphalt = $16.50, 35-40 years

The overall cost of a street, using my own parents house, the house I grew up in:
*Street frontage: 82.88 ft
*Road width: 26 ft
*Pavement type: Asphalt
*Expected lifecycle: 30 years
*Cost: 82.88 ft x (26 ft /2) x $17.77/sq ft = $19,146.11
*Cost per year: $19,146.11 /30 years = $638.20

Then I looked into how we pay for streets. Many people, even in city government, are under the assumption that local streets are paid for by the gas tax. This is wrong, this is only the case with state and federal roads. As the following map illustrates, of the 250 miles of streets in Ames, 90% of them are local, and are either handled by the City of Ames via property taxes (brown lines, 200 miles) or Iowa State University (most of the gold lines, 25 miles).


What is being paid for streets, in the case of my parents:
*Property taxes: $2,601
*Street Levy: 2.18924 per $1,000 valuation
– can be seen on Page 310 of the City of Ames 2015-15 Budget
*Value of property: $310,200
*Residential rollback: 0.557335
*Amount of taxes going to streets: 2.18924 /1,000 *310,200 *0.557335 = $378.49

And finally, the portion of the overall cost (this is what you see on the map):
*$378.49 /$638.20 = 60%

Now, this is only for what is right in front of each property; a lot of streets are not directly in front of any property, and they have to be added to each property’s shared costs: these include the streets leading up to circles, intersections, additional streets along corner lots, and collector and arterial roads. I made two separate buttons in the upper-right, one for the lane right in front of each property, the other adding these shared costs. For my parents’ property, that adds another $326.51 of shared costs, which brings the total up to: $964.71, which is about $378.49 /$964.71 = 40% of its costs.

And that’s still above average – for the whole city, our annual liability is about $15.9 million, and the total property taxes going towards streets is about $4.7 million, or 30% of what our streets actually cost.

In conclusion – we are all deadbeats. We are earning money from our children and children’s children. My parents and their parents did not intend for this, but there it is, it’s happening. And the richer deadbeats are the bigger deadbeats. We are financing our own unraveling, using our wealthier inner cores to finance our outward expansion. If you think the value of properties in the newer, richer parts of town say otherwise – wait another generation – just like how people fled one suburb for another, it will happen again, unless we get our act together.

The Choices Ahead

The solution? This comes down to math, and there are 3 options or a combination thereof:

(1) Pay more taxes. In the case of Ames:
– how much we need: $15.9 million – $4.7 million = $11.2 million
– how much we have: $26 million in property taxes (2015-16 Adopted Budget)
how much we would need to increase property taxes: $11.2 million /26 million = 43%

(2) Adjust the balance sheet – increase expenses to meet future liabilities, and reduce expenses on other things. This would mean vast cuts. Most of the property taxes that don’t go towards paying debts goes into the general fund. I made a nice Sankey Diagram of our general fund, below using a nice free online program. The General Fund is $30 million, and moving $11.2 million out of it would mean cutting most general government expenditures by about a third on average – including law enforcement, fire, inspections, parks and rec and the public library.

By the way – as you can see, Sankey Diagrams are awesome; if you find this diagram impressive, I plan on doing this for the whole City budget, and hope to help develop an application where someone can explore any budget, and exactly where their taxes go.


(3) Reduce our liabilities. This means halting any and all sprawl going forward, growing in and not out, and reducing our public infrastructure by reducing the number, length, width, and material needs of streets. This is what makes the most sense, and will bring the bulk of change.

In the map, you’ll notice that there are areas that are green. I marked some in blue which provide much more than they require – in most cases these are correct, but in some cases are mistakes in the data. In any case the green and blue areas are providing vast surpluses compared to the rest of the city. Now check out the map I made below, which was inspired by Strong Towns’ incredible Curbside Chat – this shows height by property value (and thus also property taxes) per square foot. As you can see, there are three areas of Ames that tower above all others. The tallest is Campustown, the second is downtown, and the third is actually a New Urbanist subdivision called Somerset, which is a recent development that is an attempt to get back to the way things once were. These three areas are barely financing their own infrastructure, and what surpluses they provide are lost across the rest of the city, which like all cities in America, is growing like a cancer.

We do need to adjust our finances a bit, but really, we need to grow intelligently, like we always did. And don’t be mistaken by the surpluses run by our mall or our “miracle mile” strip mall that was built in a floodplain, or our industrial park or research park – as you can see, the surpluses these provide are spread out, and they could have very easily been built in the city, where they would create vital, thriving communities as our traditional areas have from their beginning. One tech company, Kingland Systems, decided not to build in the ISU Research Park and instead decided to stay in Campustown – they will soon be providing the largest bang for the buck to the city, by orders of magnitude. On the other hand, our largest single taxpayer – Barilla Pasta – provides the lowest value per square foot to the city; it could have been built on a much smaller lot in a better location, if only things were zoned that way. I produced this map to be used in Google Earth, with a time slider that I used as  a “data slider”, that divides everything into 0.1-percentiles; you can download and play around with the file, in both 2D and 3D versions. One day we will use data sliders like this in MapStory as well.


First and foremost, we need to abolish the laws that caused this all to happen. Yes, that’s right – all of this was required to happen, by law. Many people think that sprawl is a free market phenomenon, and they are exactly wrong. Sprawl is caused by the following policies – I call these Sprawl Laws; you can find them for yourself in your local city code (for the most succinct explanation, see this paper):

*Minimum parking requirements
*Minimum lot sizes
*Maximum units per lot
*Minimum road widths

And these laws were in turn were driven by none other than our Federal Government in the postwar era, particularly the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which to this day continues to require all mortgages they insure (over 95% of all mortgages in the US) to be unmixed with commercial and other uses. This in turn creates a cookie-cutter financial industry and building industry that is made in the image of generations of regulations and repetitive know how. And on top of this, there is the vast spending on all levels on roads, roads, roads as opposed to more efficient and convenient modes of transportation.

As noted in the Growth Ponzi Scheme, city governments regard new infrastructure like it’s free. I experienced this personally with the Intermodal Facility in Ames – a large parking structure that was funded a few years ago by federal stimulus money to benefit the city and university. To this day, the public portion of the multi-million dollar facility is empty, simply because it lacks signs that say “Public Parking”, and when I asked the City whose liability the structure is, the City’s or Iowa State’s, they actually told me that they hadn’t decided that yet. This same lack of accountability that comes from not paying for your own things is repeated every day in Ames and in every city in America, where the building of infrastructure has been financed by governments further up the hierarchy, leaving us all pathetically dependent. We need to adjust our attitude and have the self-respect to remain solvent by paying for our own things, within our own means.

We need to go back to how all the best places in our country were built. In any area of town where over 80% of the buildings were built before 1940, you can take a look around – it is mixed, and the area is probably actually worth caring about, or at least has a lot of potential. As Ames is the pilot project for MapStory Local, you can see how we grew for yourself in the video below – the first few seconds show what was there before our city and country’s postwar development policy, and they are the only parts of town that are really worth visiting:

A lot is changing for the better – people are moving back into cities by the millions, fed up with the soullessness of suburban monotony. In Ames, there is an enormous demand for housing in the urban cores, which is in disrepair after decades of neglect. Unfortunately, many developers, like Kingland Systems, which I mentioned earlier, are demolishing entire blocks of historic buildings that have local businesses, and replacing them with chains that they can easily line up, again in a cookie-cutter fashion. To avoid these harsh ironies and to make real change, we need to make leaps in the right direction, just like how we made a leap in the postwar era, in the wrong direction. Luckily, we won’t be going too much out on a limb, because this has already been done forever. Problem is, we have to relearn what our ancestors have done forever, and it really goes against the way we think in the modern world. While a lot has been done by the New Urbanists in this regard, I personally lean towards the work of Christopher Alexander, who has studied the way towns grew organically, and has successfully shown how development can take place by adopting age old principles. I will be helping launch some community efforts in Ames to adopt his ideas, which I’ll be documenting as they unfold.

What’s Next?

As with everything I do with MapStory, next I need to create a “mapstory”, or animated version of this map, showing how this financial situation changed over time. Imagine the mapstory you see above of Ames growing, with properties shaded like in the map featured here. I’m imagining it looking like a bomb of debt going off, with the city spreading further out and turning deeper red. To collect historic data will mean going into the history of property values for properties, and how much of the owners’ property taxes were going to streets, as well as the historic costs of street construction. While the City of Ames handed over their assessment records to the Ames Historical Society, which only appear to go back to the 1960s (examples below), I’m not sure what it has as far as its historic financial records. It would be sad if this was all thrown away, which would not be surprising – more useful data is deleted every day than burned in the libraries of Alexandria (perhaps not always as useful). There may be something as far as bond records however, which can perhaps be used to determine what has been paid over time. As for the cost of street construction, that would require reading up on how tech has changed, and perhaps digging into historic capital improvement records.

All of this will be daunting, but perhaps I can just get a general idea to start. Perhaps I can start with a single property or a sample of assessment records and determine what portion of their taxes went to streets. Or perhaps find information that’s even more general. As of now, I’m even having a little trouble even finding the history of municipal finance – I’m guessing that in the early days, everything was done with savings, and financial instruments like general obligation bonds became popular and standardized over time. All is yet to be seen, and if anyone can provide help, it would be much appreciated. Once a mapstory is told, it will do much more than this map to demonstrate how we got to the place we are today financially, and convey a deep lesson that we can hopefully add to our wisdom going forward.

In addition to the one below, examples:
*1960s to 1980s: Front | Back
*1980s to recent: Front | Back
*Multiple Listing Service (MLS)

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Book review of “Empires and Barbarians: the fall of Rome and the birth of Europe”

[ After these introductory comments is my book review of Heather’s “Empires and Barbarians: the fall of Rome and the birth of Europe.

What follows is from Ward-Perkins “The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilizationabout the role barbarians played.  Keep it in mind as you read Heather’s account, and the parallels with illegal immigration and refugees in Europe today.  In the past migrations were driven both by a desire for a better life and fear of the “terrorist” Huns, likewise today (except now it’s ISIS):

 “What the empire required was a concerted and united effort against the Goths (then marching through much of Italy and southern Gaul, and sacking Rome itself in 410), and against the Vandals, Sueves, and Alans (who entered Gaul at the very end of 406 and Spain in 409). What it got instead were civil wars, which were often prioritized over the struggle with the barbarians…these invading armies were able to pick up and assimilate other adventurers, ready to seek a better life in the service of a successful war band.”   Especially with “fleeing Gothic slaves, but also by miners escaping the harsh conditions of the state’s gold mines and by people oppressed by the burden of imperial taxation.”

These Goths on entering the empire left their homelands for good. They were, according to circumstance (and often concurrently), refugees, immigrants, allies, and conquerors, moving within the heart of an empire that in the early fifth century was still very powerful. Recent historians have been quite correct to emphasize the desire of these Goths to be settled officially and securely by the Roman authorities. What the Goths sought was not the destruction of the empire, but a share of its wealth and a safe home within it, and many of their violent acts began as efforts to persuade the imperial authorities to improve the terms of agreement between them.

The incoming peoples were not ideologically opposed to Rome–they wanted to enjoy a slice of the empire rather than to destroy the whole thing. Emperors and provincials could, and often did, come to agreements with the invaders. For instance, even the Vandals, the traditional ‘bad boys’ of this period, were very happy to negotiate treaty arrangements, once they were in a strong enough negotiating position. Indeed it is a striking but true fact that emperors found it easier to make treaties with invading Germanic armies who would be content with grants of money or land than with rivals in civil wars-who were normally after their heads.

Because the military position of the imperial government in the fifth century was weak, and because the Germanic invaders could be appeased, the Romans on occasion made treaties with particular groups, formally granting them territory on which to settle in return for their alliance.

Is it really likely that Roman provincials were cheered by the arrival on their doorsteps of large numbers of heavily armed barbarians under the command of their own king?  The interests of the center when settling Germanic peoples, and those of the locals who had to live with the arrangements, certainly did not always coincide. The granting to some Alans of lands in northern Gaul in about 442, on the orders of the Roman general Aetius, was resisted in vain by at least some of the local inhabitants. All this, as our text makes very clear, cost the locals a very great deal. But the cost to the central government was negligible or non-existent, since it is unlikely that this area of Gaul was any longer providing significant tax revenues or military levies for the emperor. If things went well (which they did not), the settlement of these Alans might even have been a small step along the path of reasserting imperial control in northern Gaul. The imperial government was entirely capable of selling its provincial subjects downriver, in the interests of short-term political and military gain.

European scholars have come to the conclusion that the fall of the Western Roman Empire was mainly due to barbarian invasions.  These invasions, just as in 1177 BC, broke vital supply chains, which were far more complex than most people realized until recently, though certainly nowhere near as complex as today:

“We sit in tiny productive pigeon-holes, making our minute and highly specialized contributions to the global economy and we are wholly dependent for our needs on thousands, indeed hundreds of thousands, of other people spread around the globe, each doing their own little thing. We would be quite incapable of meeting our needs locally, even in an emergency. The ancient world had not come as far down the road of specialization and helplessness as we have…The enormity of the economic disintegration that occurred at the end of the empire was almost certainly a direct result of this specialization. The post-Roman world reverted to levels of economic simplicity, lower even than those of immediately pre-Roman times, with little movement of goods, poor housing, and only the most basic manufactured items.

The sophistication of the Roman period, by spreading high-quality goods widely in society, had destroyed the local skills and local networks that, in pre-Roman times, had provided lower-level economic complexity. It took centuries for people in the former empire to reacquire the skills and the regional networks that would take them back to these pre-Roman levels of sophistication.”

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

Heather, Peter. 2009. Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe. Oxford University Press.

Wealthy Rome at the birth of Christ was a “politically sophisticated, economically advanced and culturally developed civilization, a world of philosophy, banking, professional armies, literature, stunning architecture and rubbish collection.

Rome didn’t invade Europe because it was too poor

Poor Europe had subsistence-level farmers, organized in small-scale political units. Much of it was dominated by Germanic-speakers, who had some iron tools and weapons, but who worked generally in wood, had little literacy and never built in stone. The further east you went, the simpler it became: fewer iron tools, less productive agriculture, and a lower population density. A dominant Mediterranean circle lorded it over an undeveloped northern hinterland. This area was still heavily wooded, and the primitive farming techniques there couldn’t produce as much food as today on thick clay soils.  Less food production meant less agricultural surplus and fewer warriors, smiths producing metalwork, and other craftsmen.  Their poverty is one reason the Romans left them alone – the potential taxes weren’t enough to pay for the cost of invasion or garrisoning Roman troops afterwards.

The old view of Rome’s Collapse

Before WW II, migration was seen as a phenomenon of overwhelming importance in the transformation of barbarian Europe [when] large-scale Germanic migration in the 4th and 5th centuries brought down the western Roman Empire.  They were succeeded by more Germans and, above all, Slavs, whose activities put many more pieces of the European national jigsaw in place. Still more immigrants from Scandinavia and the steppe, towards the end of the period, completed the puzzle. Quarrels over details were fierce, but no one had any doubt that the mass migration of men and women, old and young, had played a critical role in the unfolding saga of Europe’s creation.

Migration, particularly in the form of the mass replacement of one population group by another, thus became the characteristic means by which observable changes to archaeological remains were explained.  In modern parlance, although the term had not yet been coined, the peopling of Europe was envisaged as being driven forward by one massive episode of ethnic cleansing after another, in what has been evocatively dubbed the ‘invasion hypothesis’ view of the past.

Thinking of archaeological cultures as ‘peoples’ carried within it a powerful tendency to explain major archaeological change in terms of migration. Given that each people had its own ‘culture’, when you suddenly found a new ‘culture’ on top of another, you then might well think that one ‘people’ must have replaced another.

The new view began in the 1960s.  Migrations weren’t easy. Transport costs in the past were huge.  Emperor Diocletian’s Edict on Prices (from c.300 AD) stated that the cost of a wagon of wheat doubled for every fifty miles it was carried.  That expense limited the ability of people to migrate as well.  Information didn’t spread widely, making it hard to know where a better place to live might even be.

Instead of one people replacing another, new artifacts found by archeologists may reflect new skills learned from another culture, or obtained in trade, not necessarily conquest followed by ethnic cleansing.

In the last generation or so, scholarly consensus around these big ideas has broken down because they have been shown to have been far too simple. No new overview has emerged, but the overall effect of a wide variety of work has been massively to downgrade the role of migration in the emergence of at least some of those distant first-millennium ancestors of the modern nations of Europe. It is now often argued, for instance, that only a few people, if any, moved in the course of what used to be understood as mass migrations.  From a position of overwhelming dominance before the 1960s, migration has become the great Satan of archaeological explanation.

We have now reached a point that is the mirror image of where we were 50 years ago. But while this is satisfyingly symmetrical as an intellectual progression, is it convincing history? Should migration be relegated to such a minor, walk-on part in the history of barbarian Europe in the first millennium AD?

The middle path (Heather’s theory)

Ambitious leaders and warriors naturally were attracted by Rome’s wealth.  Successful small raiding parties would have attracted increasing numbers of warriors, many of whom had migrated from somewhere else in the past who were used to moving onward for better land and greater wealth.  This eventually snowballed with their families and tens of thousands of others in the region migrating in large numbers to the border regions of the Roman Empire.   A billiard-ball view of group X entirely replacing group A, has been replaced by a snowball. Instead of large, compact groups of men, women and children moving with determination across the landscape, many now think in terms of demographic snowballs: originally small groupings, probably composed largely of warriors, who, because of their success, attracted large numbers of recruits as they traveled.

At times the migration members were mainly elite warriors, who replaced the old elite, sparing peasants and slaves from slaughter so they could continue to grow food.  The classic example of this phenomenon in medieval history is the Norman Conquest of England, where a few thousand Norman landholding families replaced their slightly more numerous Anglo-Saxon predecessors at the top of the 11th-century English heap.

The invasion hypothesis is dead and buried. No longer would we even want to litter prehistoric and first-millennium Europe with a succession of ancient ‘peoples’ carving out their chosen niches via a lethal cocktail of large-scale movement and ethnic cleansing.

The rise of Hunnic power was responsible for two bouts of mass migration into the Roman Empire before this (in 376-80 and 405-8).  These migrants then proceeded to generate huge disruptions on Roman territory, but it wasn’t until Attila the Hun died in 452 that so many migrated to the Roman territory that the empire collapsed.  This happened because the ethnic tribes the Huns had conquered were able to break away and migrate into Roman territory in the chaos and civil war that erupted after Atilla the Huns died.  If not for this, the Roman military could have held in check smaller migrations happening years apart from overwhelming the empire.

By the 460s, the Empire’s central authorities had lost control of much of their tax base, with the result that its power was in terminal decline. In Gaul, this manifested itself in an increasing difficulty in exercising control over both the Empire’s own army commanders and the various groups of outsiders (such as Alaric’s Visigoths) who had already been settled there.

As Europe evolved over the next 500 years, migration lessened as empires grew.  So much wealth lay in the stone structures of churches, homes, buildings, and productive farms, it made no sense for mass migrations into unknown or partially known territories with no certainty of success in gaining more wealth.  Social elites could gain wealth without relocating.  And the less they moved, the less likely there were to move, unlike centuries earlier, when farmers moved every generation after exhausting the soil and raiding could likely be profitable.  Everyone, elites and peasants alike became rooted in their localities.

Why empires don’t last forever

Even without the Huns the political and economic development of societies outside of the Roman world would eventually have undermined the Roman Empire. This is because living next to a militarily more powerful and economically developed imperial neighbor promotes a series of political changes in the societies on the periphery, which eventually enables them to fend off imperial aggression. In the first millennium, this happened twice. First in the emergence of Germanic client states of the Roman Empire in the 4th century, and again in the rise of the new Slavic states of the 9th and 10th. This repeated pattern is not accidental and provides a fundamental reason why empires, unlike diamonds, do not last forever. The way that empires behave, the mixture of economic opportunity and intrusive power inherent in their nature, prompts responses from those affected which in the long run undermine their capacity to maintain the initial power advantage that originally made them imperial.

Not all empires suffer the equivalent of Rome’s Hunnic accident and fall so swiftly to destruction. In the course of human history, many more have surely been picked apart slowly from the edges as peripheral dynasts turned predator once their own power increased. The exercise of imperial power generates an opposite and equal reaction among those affected by it, until they so reorganize themselves as to blunt the imperial edge. Whether you find that comforting or frightening, I guess, will depend on whether you live in an imperial or peripheral society, and what stage of the dance has currently been reached. The existence of such a law, however, is one more general message that exploring the interactions of emperors and barbarians in the first millennium AD can offer us today.


Migration played a major role in this unfolding story. And the Hunnic ‘accident’ threw enough more organized Germanic groupings on to Roman soil in a short enough space of time both to undermine the central Roman state and to generate a massive collapse in the old power structures of barbarian central Europe. This in turn allowed for an extraordinary Slavic diaspora whose cultural effects – the widespread Slavicization of central and Eastern Europe – remain a central feature of the European landmass to this day.

But aside from particular and unusual moments like the Hunnic or Avar accidents, patterns of migration were entirely dictated by and secondary to patterns of development. It was only when nomadic intruders became politically organized that migration was able to undermine both the west Roman state and Germanic Europe in one fell swoop.

In thinking about the transformation of barbarian Europe in the first millennium in overall terms, there is no doubt that development played a profoundly more important role in the process than migration.

Much more important than these occasional moments of arrival, many of which led precisely nowhere, were the dynamic interactions between the imperial powers of more developed Europe and the barbarians on their doorstep: Germanic, largely, in the first half of the millennium, then Slavic, largely, in the second. It was these interactions, not acts of migration, that were ultimately responsible for generating the new social, economic and political structures which brought former barbarian Europe much more to resemble its imperial counterpart by the end of the millennium.

The kinds of large-scale predatory migration flow studied in this book – essentially combining peasants and elites within the same migrating groups, where the later Middle Ages saw them move separately – were equally appropriate to their own area. In the first millennium, highly disparate patterns of development then combined with a lack of agricultural rootedness and relatively low agricultural outputs. This meant that the economy of barbarian Europe could support only very few military specialists, so that it was necessary and possible for ambitious leaders to put together large and hence necessarily broad-based expeditions to secure wealth-generating positions on the fringes of more developed, imperial Europe.

This in turn generated forms of migration that were different from those operating in the central Middle Ages, and different again from those we are used to in the modern world.

There is every reason to respond to the limitations of the old invasion-hypothesis model not by rejecting migration as an important explanatory factor in first-millennium history, but by bringing a series of more complex migration models back into the picture. Migration then ceases to be a catch-all, simplistic alternative to ‘more complex’ lines of explanation focusing on social, economic and political change. Understood properly, and this is the central message screaming out from the comparative literature, migration is not a separate and competing form of explanation to social and economic transformation, but the complementary other side of the same coin. Patterns of migration are dictated by prevailing economic and political conditions, and reflect existing inequalities, and sometimes even help to equalize them, and when viewed from this perspective the real significance of migratory phenomena can begin to emerge. So historians should not be too quick to reject predatory migration as a periodic contributor to the evolution of Europe. If predatory forms of migration in the first millennium were generated by geographical proximity between zones of highly disparate levels of development, combined with the existence of societies where those who farmed also fought and were not deeply rooted in one particular patch of soil, then these conditions likely existed in many other ancient contexts with periodic predatory migration could expected as a natural consequence.

As currently construed, elite replacement fails to distinguish the particularity of a case such as the Norman Conquest, where the invading elite could fit easily into existing socio-economic structures, leaving them intact, and any broader effects on the total population remain correspondingly small, if not so minimal as those wanting to undermine the importance of migration might think.  But this kind of elite replacement applies only when the incoming elite was of broadly the same size as its indigenous counterpart, and I strongly suspect, even if I could never prove it, that, over the broad aeons of human history, this will have been true only in a minority of instances.

Certainly the first millennium AD throws up more examples of a different kind of case, where the intruding elite, if still a minority – and even quite a small one – compared to the totality of the indigenous population, was still too numerous to be accommodated by redistributing the available landed assets. This kind of elite migration could not but have huge socioeconomic consequences, and potentially also much greater cultural ones as the indigenous population came into intense contact with an intrusive elite, which was more numerous than its old indigenous counterpart.

Different again were cases of only partial elite replacement, particularly common in more Mediterranean regions of the old Roman west in the fifth and sixth centuries. Here there was some economic restructuring to accommodate the intruders – Goths, Vandals, Burgundians and others – but considerable elements of the old Roman landowning elites survived. In the longer term, it was the immigrants in these cases who struggled to hold on to their existing culture, and long-term linguistic change moved in the other direction.

The disappearance in the medium to longer term of large-scale, centrally organized taxation of agricultural production, and the consequent weakening of state structures in the post-Roman west, are best explained in terms of the militarization of elite life that followed the creation of those structures at the hands of intrusive new elites.

Goods and ideas can move without being attached to people, and if what you observe archaeologically is no more than a limited transfer of either, it will always be possible to explain it in terms of something other than population displacement. But the fact that it will always be possible to do this does not mean that it will necessarily be correct to do so, and the inherent ambiguity of archaeological evidence is sometimes misinterpreted. Ambiguity means exactly that. If the archaeological evidence for any possible case of migration is ambiguous – which it usually will be – then it certainly does not prove that migration played a major role in any observable material cultural change – but neither does it disprove it. What all this actually amounts to is that archaeological evidence alone cannot decide the issue. It is important to insist on this point because there has been a tendency in some recent work to argue that ambiguous archaeological evidence essentially disproves migration, when it absolutely does not. Overall, of course, this forces us back on to the historical evidence. How good a case can be made from historical sources for the importance of large, organized and diverse groups of invaders on the move in the first millennium? The answer has to be complex.

The final modification that must be made to the old invasion-hypothesis model of large-group migration concerns its supposition that large-scale intrusions drove out existing populations. There are several good examples of large-scale invasion in the first millennium, but none where the evidence suggests mass ethnic cleansing. Indigenous populations were often faced with a choice between accepting subjugation or moving on, a choice which would have felt particularly brutal to indigenous elites who had most to lose from the arrival of a new set of masters. But there is no convincingly documented case where the response to this choice led to the complete evacuation of an extensive landscape. At the very least, indigenous populations supplied good agricultural labor, and many of our immigrant groups anyway had lower social-status categories into which newly subjugated indigenous populations could easily be slotted. These alterations are important, but they remain modifications rather than denials of the basic proposition that the evidence for large, mixed, and organized migrant groups from the first millennium is convincing.

Nationalist visions of whole ancestral ‘peoples’ clearing out new landscapes for themselves to enjoy can be consigned to the recycle bin of history. The groups documented in our sources were political entities, which could grow or fragment, which contained individuals occupying lesser- and higher-status categories, and which inserted themselves in correspondingly complex ways into new but already thoroughly inhabited environments.

Kindle Notes

Barbarians. Archaeologically, the picture of the inhabitants of these wooded and forested zones of eastern Europe around the birth of Christ is reasonably straightforward. As Tacitus’ comment about permanent settlements implies, it was a world of farmers, but farmers with an extremely simple material culture, less developed even than that prevailing further west in Germanic Europe. The remains of its pottery, tools and settlement are so simple, in fact, that they frustrate any attempt at stylistic or even chronological categorization, being extremely slow to change before the second half of the first millennium AD.

With only a little simplification, therefore, barbarian Europe at the start of our period can be divided into three main zones. Furthest west and closest to the Mediterranean was the most developed, with the highest levels of agricultural productivity and a material culture that in its pottery and metalwork was already rich and sophisticated. This had long been controlled largely by Celtic-speakers, and much of it had just been brought under Roman rule. Further east lay Germanic-dominated Europe, where agriculture was less intensive, and which consequently lacked the same richness of material culture. Even Germanic Europe practiced a relatively intensive agriculture, however, compared with the inhabitants of the woods and forests of eastern Europe, whose material culture has left correspondingly minimal remains. Nothing in this brief survey is really controversial, except, perhaps, where Slavs might be found. What has become highly disputable, however, is the role played by migration in the astounding transformation of barbarian Europe which unfolded over the next thousand years.

The Details (if you’re interested): History of the barbarian invasion

In 452, after a decade of mayhem stretching from Constantinople to Paris, Attila the Hun died from the after-effects of one too many wedding nights. Following the odd drink or two, the great conqueror retired to bed, burst a blood vessel and died. This sudden demise fired the starting gun on a frenzied race for power among his sons, which quickly degenerated into outright civil war. Events then took a yet more dangerous turn. Attila’s Empire consisted not just of Huns but large numbers of non-Hunnic subjects besides.

The vast majority of these non-Huns, like the Huns themselves, were living in and around the Middle Danube c.450 AD. But many of them had not occupied land in the Middle Danube in the 4th century, and neither would they in the 6th. Not only did the Huns themselves move west into the heart of Europe, but they seem to have been responsible in some way for gathering many other groups together on the Great Hungarian Plain, most of whom subsequently left as Attila’s Empire collapsed.

Of all the migrants featured in this book, the Huns are perhaps the most mysterious. They wrote absolutely nothing themselves, but that’s pretty much par for the first-millennium course. More problematic is the fact that very little appears about them even in Roman sources until the time of Attila, or perhaps half a generation before: the later 420s onwards, but above all the 440s. By that date, profound transformations had distanced the Hunnic world from its counterpart of c.370, when the region north of the Black Sea first felt the weight of Hunnic assault. The reason for this dearth of information is not hard to deduce. From a Roman perspective, the crises of 376–80 and 405–8 both saw the Huns push other groups across the imperial frontier. As a result, our ignorance of the Huns is astounding.  We do not know what language the Huns spoke, and probably never will.

The Huns did not just meander around the Great Eurasian Steppe until they happened to come across its western edge north of the Black Sea and take a liking to it. The decisions to switch their centers of operation westwards – in two distinct stages separated by about a generation – must have been taken for specific reasons, and carefully calculated. The potential gains of these moves had always to be balanced against the dangers of failing to find, or – more likely – establish, rights over sufficient grazing for their flocks at the new destinations. But no easy answers are available.

One of the possible factors is climate change. Around the year 400 AD, Western Europe was basking in a climatic optimum, with long hot summers and plenty of sunshine. But what was good for western Europeans was less good for the world beyond the Don, where the same climatic optimum meant that there was less summer rainfall to make the grass grow. The trouble with applying this argument to the fourth century, however, is that, for the moment at least, it is impossible to know how severe or, indeed, limited the effects of fourth-century climate change actually were. There are no precise data.

Also, Huns under ecological pressure could have moved in any of several directions.

The other possible factor is political revolution. At least two of the nomadic groups that followed the Huns out of the steppe into Europe in the later first millennium did so, in part, because they were under political and military pressure from other nomadic groups to their east. The 6th-century Avars were on the run from the Empire of the Western Turks, while the 9th-century Magyars moved from north of the Black Sea to the Great Hungarian Plain because of the attacks of Petchenegs. In the absence of specific information about the western steppe in the 4th century, it would be foolish to rule out the possibility that the Huns too were facing this kind of pressure.

From c.390 and particularly the 420s onwards, we find Huns engaged in a variety of activities in relation to the Roman world. Sometimes they raided it.  Sometimes Huns served the Empire as mercenaries.

With the arrival of Huns in large numbers in central Europe from c.410 onwards, however, mercenary service reached its apogee. They were possibly already providing major military support to the de facto ruler of the western Empire, Flavius Constantius, in the 410s, but it was in the time of Aetius, from the 420s, that they became a crucial bulwark of the western Empire. Not only did Aetius use their support to keep himself in power against Roman rivals, but they were also deployed to keep in check the aggressive ambitions of the other barbarian groups now well established on western imperial territory: most notably in major campaigns against the Visigoths and the Burgundians in the 430s. Then, finally, as Hunnic power grew in the time of Attila, the Huns turned from raiding and mercenary service to large-scale invasion. Two massive attacks on the east Roman Balkans, in 442 and 447, were followed by invasions of Gaul and Italy in 451 and 452.

What all of these activities had in common was that they were different methods of tapping into the greater wealth available within the more developed economy of the Mediterranean-based Roman world. Raiding, obviously enough, was all about movable shiny stuff and other forms of negotiable booty, and this too was the point of mercenary service. For all of Aetius’s Hunnic connections, the Huns did not fight for him without receiving generous payment. And even Attila’s invasions were undertaken with cash in mind. We have very detailed accounts of the diplomatic contacts that preceded and followed these attacks, and Attila’s central concern was always the size of the diplomatic subsidy he could secure. Extra territory and other types of gain were of only marginal interest. If it is legitimate to import this vision of the Huns’ basic attitude towards the Roman Mediterranean back to the 370s then the Huns’ decisions to move westwards in two stages make complete sense. Increased proximity to the political centers of the Roman world in northern Italy and Constantinople meant greater opportunities for extracting a share of Roman wealth. The Huns were acting like the Goths and the other largely Germanic-speaking predators of the third century AD: their migrations were a response to fundamental inequalities of wealth. Like the Goths, they were moving from the less developed outer periphery of the Empire, and perhaps from beyond even that, into richer inner zones where there was a wide variety of wealth-generating opportunities available to groups able, like themselves, to deploy military force of sufficient potency.

The evidence suggests that Hunnic migration into Europe was similar to reasons it happened in the 3rd century.  It began when war bands raided the richer Roman lands on the periphery to get rich, not to migrate there.  But when the war band activity proved highly profitable, larger and more organized groups became involved, probably aiming to maximize the amount of wealth that could be extracted by actually seizing total control of the landscape. In this case, the Huns’ later actions suggest that the attraction was not the land of the Middle Danube in terms of its agricultural, but the fact that it was conveniently placed for maximizing profits via closer ties of various kinds with the Roman world. As a result, small-scale raiding north of the Black Sea elided into a population flow of steadily increasing momentum, until large-scale group migration emerged as the logical mechanism for maximizing profits by seizing control of the Great Hungarian Plain.

Like the nineteenth-century Boers, the Huns enjoyed a telling advantage in military hardware. One of their characteristic weapons was the composite reflex bow, long known on the steppe. Now, however, they employed a longer bow – up to 150 centimeters rather than the usual 100 – than had previously been seen on the western steppe. This gave them longer-range hitting power whose effects are visible in the rhetoric of Roman sources. These report Huns able to devastate the ranks of their Gothic opponents while themselves staying safely out of range.

The Huns large-scale predatory migration eventually involved women and children. The numerous dependents of large military forces assembled from non-professional sources cannot be left behind in safety when the military activity encompasses any intent to migrate. As with so many of the other immigrants we have encountered, moreover, the Huns had established traditions of mobility which, all the comparative evidence again emphasizes, must have greatly facilitated their decision to respond to potential gains to be had from the Roman world by upping sticks and moving closer towards it. The biannual migrations common to the nomadic lifestyle meant that the Huns had a greater than usual capacity to organize large-group movement.

Another major reason for the substantial chronological gap between the two main phases of Hunnic intrusion into Europe must have been the need to build up geographical knowledge about the new possibilities that opened up for them after they had displaced Goths and Alans from regions north of the Black Sea. From this perspective, the massive Hunnic raid launched into the Roman and Persian Empires through the Caucasus in 395 can be seen as part of a learning curve. This caused huge disruption and attracted a great deal of coverage in Roman sources, not least because one group of raiders even got close to the Holy Land. But the raiders suffered heavy losses, and the experiment was never repeated.  Its relative failure may well have played a role in their eventual decision to move further west on to the Hungarian Plain rather than in any other direction

When Olympiodorus visited them in 411/12 he encountered a political structure based on a series of ranked kings, which was highly appropriate for a nomadic society. Economic logistics require nomad populations to be relatively dispersed. Bunched populations with herds would quickly lead to exhausted grazing and economic disaster. At the same time, subgroups need their own organization for matters such as settling disputes, and the larger group has to be able to act decisively as one on occasion, above all to protect the grazing rights upon which all depend. Well-organized devolution rather than centralized rule is a natural political form for nomadic societies, therefore, and a kingly hierarchy fits the bill nicely.

But when a second east Roman historian and diplomat – the famous Priscus – visited the Huns in the mid-440s in the time of Attila, the system of ranked kings had disappeared. Attila was surrounded by many great men, and although he had originally shared power with his brother, there were no other individuals of royal rank to be seen.

This relates to migration for the following reasons. What went on was that one leader came to monopolize the political support that used to be divided between several. This requires the successful leader to have access to unprecedented wealth so as to outbid his rivals in the patronage stakes and win over enough of their supporters, in the process forcing them either to leave the group or to accept more junior, non-royal positions. In the case of the Huns, the source of that new wealth was the profits that flowed from the new relationships they were able to develop with the Roman Empire. Putting yourself by hook or by crook in charge of distributing the combined profits flowing from a potent mixture of raiding, mercenary service and diplomatic subsidy was the shortest path to political triumph. Hunnic migration to the Middle Danube naturally brought political revolution in its wake.

There is not the slightest doubt that the Huns’ intrusion into Europe in the later 4th and early 5th centuries must be considered mass migration. It was a flow of gradually increasing momentum, not a sudden, single migratory pulse.

It may well be correct that it was the wealth of the Roman Empire’s periphery that first sucked in the Hunnic raiders, and that migration momentum built up slowly from that point. New information on climate change or on political developments may transform this view in due course, but for the moment, the attractions of the wealthy imperial periphery seem the best option.

The Hunnic Empire was not something that people joined voluntarily. Evidence for this is plentiful and consistent. Non-Huns became part of the Empire through conquest and intimidation.  All of our evidence indicates that the ranks of Attila’s subjects were filled not with volunteers, but with those who had failed to get out of the way in time. This suggests that relations between the Huns and their subjects are unlikely to have been that harmonious.

In the 420s, for instance, the east Romans stripped away a large body of Goths from Hunnic control when they expelled the Huns from parts of Pannonia. The Goths were transferred to Thrace and seem to have served loyally thereafter in the east Roman military. On other occasions, the subjects took the initiative themselves: When Rua was king of the Huns, the Amilzuri, Itimari, Tounsoures, Boisci and other tribes who were living near to the Danube were fleeing to fight on the side of the Romans.

This records how the separate contingents in a mixed force of Goths and Huns was brought to blows by a Roman agent provocateur. He did so by reminding the Gothic contingent of exactly how the Huns generally behaved towards them: These men have no concern for agriculture, but, like wolves, attack and steal the Goths’ food supplies, with the result that the latter remain in the position of slaves and themselves suffer food shortages.

For most people, the reality of becoming part of the Hunnic Empire was a nasty experience of military conquest followed by economic exploitation, spiced up from time to time by being marched out to fight Attila’s wars.

This is where it differed so markedly from the Roman Empire – the Hunnic Empire lacked the governmental capacity to run the affairs of its subject peoples at all closely. Famously, the Hunnic bureaucracy consisted of one Roman secretary supplied by Aetius, the de facto ruler of the western Empire, and a Roman prisoner who could write letters in Latin and Greek. What this meant in practice is that, once conquered, subject groups still had to be left largely to run their own day-to-day affairs themselves. This does not mean that everything carried on absolutely as before. Hunnic supervision often involved preventing the emergence of overall rulers among the larger concentrations of their defeated subjects. By suppressing the rise of an overall leader by stimulating political competition within a group, the possibility of mounting effective resistance was lessened.

Gold, it should be stressed, is a rare find in Germanic archaeological remains before the Hunnic period, so the amount of new wealth that became available as Attila ransacked the Roman world can hardly be over-stressed. Alongside military domination, then, he clearly also used the distribution of booty captured in his campaigns against the Romans to give subject leaders a further incentive to consent to his rule, just as the Romans granted annual gifts even to barbarian leaders they had just defeated or otherwise subdued.

The Hunnic Empire was certainly multicultural, but, as is often the case in multicultural societies, this did not mean that group identities within it were either infinitely malleable or easily eroded. Because being a Hun meant higher status, the Empire’s multicultural character effectively erected barriers around Hunnic identity. The Huns’ lack of bureaucratic capacity left their subjects with at least their intermediate leaderships intact, thereby perpetuating the structures around which their existing sense of group identity might survive. At the same time, the exploitation they had to endure gave them the incentive to maintain these identities, since they were the only vehicle through which they might be able to overthrow Hunnic domination, either by escaping into the Roman Empire or at some point regaining their political independence by force. Neither of these options would be possible for a group that fragmented and lost all capacity for group action. There is every reason, then, why old identities should not have slipped easily away under Hunnic rule.

Recitach’s assassination thus completed an astonishing process of amalgamation. Theoderic’s uncle Valamer had probably been the first member of the family to achieve an unusual pre-eminence by killing, subduing and forcing out rival Gothic warband leaders in order to unite the Amal-led Goths: manoeuvrings that occurred either in Ukraine before the Goths’ move to Pannonia, or in the Middle Danube after Attila’s death (if these Goths were already established there). None of these warbands can have numbered much more than a thousand fighting men, and perhaps even only several hundreds. Within two lifetimes, therefore, uncle and nephew had taken the Amal line from one among a set of warband leaders to pre-eminent Gothic kings commanding in excess of twenty thousand warriors. It was this much larger force, complete with women, children and wagon train and amounting to between fifty and a hundred thousand souls, that took the road for Italy in the autumn of 488. There’s more you’d like to know, of course, but for the mid-first millennium this is pretty decent evidence. It also gives us some parameters for considering the other forces that came and went from the Middle Danube as the Hunnic Empire rose and fell, and it’s instantly clear that none of the other population groups on the move in this period was quite as big as this truly monstrous force.

In 473 several tens of thousands of people left Hungary for the Balkans, possibly the same group that had moved to Hungary from Ukraine about twenty years before; and in 488 an even larger group, close to a hundred thousand souls if you add in the Thracian Goths and the refugee Rugi, set off from the Balkans for Italy. Other moves were made by smaller population groups, refugees from the military defeats that had dismantled old hegemonies, notably the Huns and Sciri in the 460s, the Rugi in the 480s and the various groups of Heruli after 508. And to complete the picture, the period also saw one predatory flow of migration of the kind we have met before, in the form of the Lombards.

In broad terms, the demographic effect of the Hunnic Empire was to suck large numbers of militarized groups into the heart of central Europe. Once the constraining influence of Hunnic power had disappeared, such a concentration of military potential could not but generate intense competition in which some of the smaller entities lost their independence, but which, overall, prompted many of the groups to leave the region quite as quickly as they had entered it.

The Huns built their war machine in the Middle Danube region because it was a conveniently situated base from which to launch the raids and protection rackets that would give them a share of the wealth of the Mediterranean as mobilized by the taxation structures of the Roman Empire.  Attila’s demands really were all about cash. Holding the Huns’ war machine together would have been quite impossible without Roman wealth. Variations in the prevailing levels of economic development also dictated, after Attila’s death, the general directions of the moves made by the various groups who wanted to opt out of the competition. The vast majority, as we have seen, moved south, attracted, again, by the wealth of the Mediterranean.

The rise of Frankish power under the Merovingian dynasty was essentially a phenomenon of Roman imperial collapse.  At this point, like so many Germani all along Rome’s European frontiers, the different Frankish groups were the Empire’s semi-subdued clients. Individual Franks were regularly recruited into the Roman army, some rising to top commands, while whole auxiliary contingents occasionally served on particular campaigns. Yet at the same time, campaigning was periodically required to keep them from raiding the Empire too successfully and too often; or even, when opportunity presented itself, from seeking to annex pieces of Roman territory.

With the decline of the western Empire in the fifth century, this balance of power was undermined, and the Frankish cat leapt vigorously out of the bag.

It was in these centuries, too, that the history of the British Isles took a decisive turn with the arrival of Anglo-Saxon immigrants from Denmark and northern Germany. Of greater importance still, arguably, was Slavic migration. Slavic origins were always hotly debated, but, wherever they came from, there was no doubting the fact that from relative obscurity in the 6th century Slavic-speakers spread across vast tracts of central and eastern Europe over the next two hundred years. Substantial parts of this landscape had previously been dominated by Germanic-speakers, so the rise of the Slavs represented a huge cultural and political shift. It created the third major linguistic zone of modern Europe alongside the Romance and Germanic tongues, and the boundaries between the three have remained little altered since they were first created. Scandinavian migration in the ninth and tenth centuries then completed a millennium of mass migration. In the Atlantic, entirely new landscapes were colonized for the first time in Iceland and the Faroes, while Viking migrants in western Europe established Danelaw in England and the Duchy of Normandy on the continent. Further east, other Scandinavian settlers played a key role in creating the first, Kievan, Russian state, whose limits established and delineated the boundaries of Europe down to the modern era.  No single view of any of these migrations and their significance ever won universal acceptance. Many of the details, as we shall see in the chapters that follow, have always been and will remain highly controversial.

The kinds of national identities that came to the fore in 19th-century Europe were created in historical time, and did not represent the re-emergence of something fundamental but long submerged. Without the kind of mass communications that became available in the 18th and 19th centuries, it would have been totally impossible to bind together numerically huge and geographically dispersed populations into national communities. Group identity simply did not function in the same way in earlier eras without canals, railways and newspapers, a world where ‘country’ meant ‘county’, for instance, for the vast majority of the British population. The creation of modern nationalism also required the conscious input of intellectuals, who created national dictionaries, identified national costumes, and collected the dances and folktales which were then used to ‘measure’ ethnicity. These same individuals then also generated the educational programs that solidified the elements of national culture that they had identified into a self-reproducing cultural complex which could be taught at school, and by that means reach a still larger body of humanity in an era when mass primary education was rapidly becoming – for the first time – a European norm. The emergence of nationalism is a great story in itself, and has rightly attracted a lot of attention in the last generation or so of scholarship. The point for us, though, is straightforward. Europe has not been peopled since the first millennium by large blocks of population conscious of distinct nationalist affiliations which fundamentally shaped their lives and activities. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century affiliations cannot be imposed on the deeper past.

Major material cultural changes can have causes other than outside invasion. Since patterns of observable archaeological similarity can be generated for a variety of reasons – trade, social interaction, shared religious belief or anything else you can think of – then changes in one or more of any number of these areas might be responsible for an observable change. Changes do not have to reflect the arrival of a new social group but might be caused by any substantial alteration in the system that originally created it. Indeed, it was deep dissatisfaction with the intellectual limits of the invasion hypothesis, overemployed as a monolithic model of change, as much as the impact of the new understandings of group identity, that drove a whole generation of archaeologists in the English-speaking world to reject its tenets in the 1960s, and in many other parts since. For very good reasons, therefore, archaeologists have increasingly looked beyond the invasion hypothesis to other types of explanation altogether, since the 1960s. These new approaches have been highly fruitful, and in the process undercut much of the broader sweep of the old Grand Narrative. Up to about 1960, European prehistory was envisaged as one population group after another using their new skills – in farming technology or metallurgy – to establish dominance over the landmass and expel their predecessors. Nowadays, much of the evolution of central-western European society between the Bronze Age and the Roman Iron Age (roughly the last two millennia BC) can be convincingly explained without recourse to mass migration and ethnic cleansing. Instead of one set of invaders after another overthrowing each other, the European past is now peopled with human beings who could learn new skills and, over time, develop new economic, social and political structures.

Anyone dealing with the geographical displacement of archaeologically observable artefact types or habits, who wants to produce an account of the past that is at all ‘subtle’ or ‘complex’, should avoid migration at all costs. The tables have turned.

So convinced now are some historians that large, mixed migration units could never have been a feature of the past that they have started to argue that the handful of historical sources that apparently report the opposite – the source of the invasion-hypothesis model of migration – must be mistaken. Graeco-Roman sources, it has been suggested, are infected with a migration topos, a cultural reflex that made Mediterranean authors describe any barbarians on the move as a ‘people’, whatever the real nature of the group. A European history composed of long-distance, large-scale population moves is being replaced by a history of small-scale mobile groupings, gathering in followers as they went.

Two alternatives to the invasion-hypothesis model of mass migration have consequently come into use. The first is the ‘wave of advance’ model. Applicable to small migration units, it provides an alternative view of how a group of outsiders might take over a landscape. It has been applied in particular to the spread across Europe of its first proper farmers in the Neolithic period, and shows how, even with individually undirected moves, farming populations might nonetheless have come to dominate all suitable points in that landscape.  According to this model, Neolithic farmers did not arrive en masse and oust the hunter-gatherers in an invasion. Rather, the farmers’ capacity to produce food in much greater quantities meant that their population numbers grew so much more quickly that, over time, they simply swamped the hunter-gatherers,

Even more popular among archaeologists, because of its greater range of potential applications, is the ‘elite transfer’ model. Here, the intrusive population is not very large, but does aggressively take over a territory by conquest. It then ousts the sitting elite of the target society and takes over its positions of dominance, while most of the underlying social and economic structures which created the old, now expelled or demoted, elite are left intact.

Again the vision of migration suggested by this model is much less dramatic than that envisaged under the invasion hypothesis. It retains the latter’s intentionality, and some violence, but because we’re talking only of one elite replacing another, with broader social structures left untouched, this is a much less nasty process than the ethnic cleansing that was central to the old model. And because it is merely a question of swapping a few elites around, the outcome is likewise much less dramatic and in one sense less important, since all the main existing social and economic structures are left in place, as they were in England by the Norman Conquest.

The changes that took place in Germanic society in the early Roman era have another dimension: we can discern in them the first glimmers of the overarching process that would eventually even out the massive regional disparities in development characteristic of the European landscape at the beginning of the first millennium. Well beyond those regions that had fallen under direct Roman control, contact with the Empire on every level unleashed forces whose cumulative effect was to transform Germanic society. The result by the fourth century  was that much more substantial political structures had come to hold sway over a much larger population. These forces were felt most intensely close to the frontier, but they had some effects beyond, most obviously because some of the economic networks – those producing amber and slaves, for instance – extended long tendrils.

Barbarian Migration and the First Millennium. That some migration occurred within and out of barbarian Europe in the first millennium would be accepted by everyone.

This was the era when Goths from the northern Black Sea littoral moved over 1200 miles to south-western France in three discrete leaps over a thirty-five-year period (c.376–411 AD). Vandals from central Europe went nearly twice that distance and crossed the Mediterranean to end up, again after three discrete moves, in the central provinces of Roman North Africa. This took 33 years (c.406–39), including a lengthy sojourn in Spain (411–c.430).

Of still greater importance was the appearance of a richer inner periphery, surrounding the Roman Empire proper, which generated a tendency towards predatory migration into it from the regions beyond. Thus, much more than a thin client strip around Rome’s European frontiers now fell within range of wider-ranging processes of transformation that would eventually undermine the Mediterranean’s dominion. Even by the late Roman period, however, vast areas of east-central and eastern Europe remained unaffected. This would change when the new political order of client states created by the second-and third-century migration flows was thrown into tumult in the later fourth century. And if migration had so far played a secondary role to development that too was about to change. The era of the Huns had begun.


By the late summer of 376, the majority of the Gothic Tervingi, the Empire’s main clients on the Lower Danube frontier for most of the 4th century, turned up on the northern banks of the river asking for asylum. They were led by Alavivus and Fritigern, who had broken away from the confederation’s overall ruler Athanaric. The equally Gothic Greuthungi, who had previously lived further from the frontier, east of the River Dniester, soon followed them. Both Tervingi and Greuthungi had been established south and east of the Carpathian Mountains for at least three generations, so it is not surprising that their sudden displacement towards the Danube was associated with a broader wave of regional unrest. After some thought, the east Roman Emperor Valens decided to admit the Tervingi into the Empire, offering them assistance across the Danube, but to exclude the Greuthungi. The latter, however, soon found an opportunity to cross the river without help or permission, and were quickly joined by other uninvited guests: Taifali plus some Huns and Alans in 377, more Alans in 378, and some of Rome’s Middle Danubian Sarmatian clients in 379. Long-established inner clients like the Tervingi, Taifali and Sarmatians, outer clients such as the Greuthungi and Alans, and previously unknown Hunnic intruders were battling it out for control of the zone north of Rome’s east European frontier, and the struggle had spilled over on to imperial territory. About a generation after 376, the established order beyond Rome’s central European frontier – the Middle Danube basin west of the Carpathians – suffered an equally spectacular collapse.

Four major groupings of barbarians figured in the action. A largely Gothic group, first of all, led by a certain Radagaisus, crossed the Alps into Italy in 405/6. These were followed at the end of 406 by a mixed force of Vandals, Alans and Sueves, who crossed the Rhine into Gaul and cut a swathe of destruction through to Spain. Shortly afterwards, a mixed force of Huns and Sciri crossed into the east Roman Balkans, capturing the fortress of Castra Martis in the province of Dacia. Finally, Burgundians elbowed their way past their western neighbors, the Alamanni, to establish themselves on and over the River Rhine around Speyer and Worms. We don’t know when the Burgundians did this, exactly, but it was sometime between 406 and 413. In fourth-century terms, this again represented a mixture of established frontier clients (Sueves), groups who were occasionally part of Rome’s diplomatic web (Burgundians and Vandals), and complete outsiders to the Middle Danubian region (Alans).

From a Roman perspective, sequential collapse of its eastern and central European frontiers was not the end of the misery. The Tervingi and Greuthungi who crossed the Danube in 376 eventually made a kind of peace with the Roman state in 382, after six years of warfare which, famously, had seen them destroy the Emperor Valens and two-thirds of his field army on 9 August 378. Some of them gathered round the leadership of Alaric and his successors. This force moved first around the Balkans, then into Italy – twice – and finally on to Gaul, where another agreement rooted them more firmly this time, in Aquitaine, from 418. From this settlement eventually emerged the Visigothic kingdom: a first-generation successor state to the western Roman Empire. A similar capacity for continued movement was shown by some of the groups bound up in the central European frontier collapse. Most famously, some of the Vandals and Alans who had ended up in Spain from 409 took ship, twenty years later, for North Africa, where they too eventually established an independent kingdom. And in the meantime the Burgundians too moved on, if in less dramatic fashion. After a heavy defeat at the hands of the Huns, many were resettled by the Roman state around Lake Geneva in the later 430s. From this settlement eventually emerged a third successor state to the old Roman west.

Some of the distances here are extraordinary. The extended trek of the Tervingi and Greuthungi from the north-west corner of the Black Sea to Aquitaine totaled about two and a half thousand kilometers, even just as the crow flies (and as the Goths didn’t). The Vandals went from Slovakia or thereabouts to Tunisia, via Spain and Morocco, not far short of four thousand kilometers, and the Alans who accompanied them even further.

In traditional accounts of the first millennium, these tumultuous events on Rome’s European frontiers and beyond were heralded as the beginning of the great Germanic Völkerwanderung: literally, ‘the movement of peoples’ (even if not all of those involved were Germanic-speakers). The Goths, Vandals, Burgundians and many others who feature in the two chapters that follow were thought of as complete populations of both genders and all ages who had long-standing group identities and deliberately moved in compact groups from one piece of territory to the next. In the process, they destroyed the power of the Roman state in western Europe, and in some accounts of the action this represented the denouement of a struggle that had begun as long ago as 9 AD when Arminius’ coalition destroyed Varus and his three legions in the Teutoburger Wald. And if this were not a big enough story, the events associated with Roman frontier collapse had, as we have seen, a still bigger role to play in understandings of the creation of Europe. The model they seemed to provide – of entire peoples on the move – was applied wholesale to European pre-history, which was all explained in terms of migration, invasion and ‘ethnic cleansing’. The frontier intrusions of the late Roman period thus provide a crucial test case. Were they undertaken by large population aggregates, mixed in age and gender, or were they not?

Several contemporary sources mention the arrival of the Goths on the Danube in 376. All share the same basic view that its ultimate cause was the emergence of a new force on the fringes of Europe: the mysterious Huns (of whom more in a moment). One even puts a figure on the number of refugee Goths gathered on the riverbank: two hundred thousand people of all ages and both genders.

The scale and character of the migration flows of 376 are not out of step with modern case studies. For, as Ammianus and all our sources unanimously report, the underlying cause of the Goths’ move to the river was political and negative. The Huns were undermining the stability of the entire north Pontic region, and the Goths were looking to remove themselves to a safer locale. In Ammianus’ formulation, the Goths had two motives in mind: the attractions of Roman territory and a desire to escape the insecurity of life north of the Danube.

FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL. The histories of all the major groups who crossed into the Empire at the two moments of frontier collapse followed a similar course. Their initial – overwhelmingly uninvited – penetrations of Roman territory were followed by periods of armed struggle. They had to force the Empire to accept that they could not be defeated, and that its normal policies for the subjugation and integration of immigrants could not be imposed upon them. For the Tervingi and Greuthungi, these initial struggles lasted for about six years until the negotiation of a compromise peace agreement with the Roman state, which came into force on 3 October 382. That the Empire was willing to agree to such a deal was entirely due to the Goths’ military capacity, in particular their successive defeats of two Roman emperors – Valens, most famously, at Hadrianople on 9 August 378, then Theodosius in Macedonia in the summer of 380. Other, smaller migrant groups of the period – Taifali, Sarmatians and isolated Gothic subgroups – who failed this initial military test received much harsher treatment, their defeats being followed by total loss of identity, as group members were distributed as unfree labor to Roman landowners.

The history of the migrants involved in the crisis of 405–8 is similar. Again uninvited, they had to fight, initially, to carve out new homes for themselves. Some failed. Many of the followers of Uldin and Radagaisus, as we have seen, met with disaster, killed or distributed again as unfree labor, though some elements of each group managed to do a deal with the Roman authorities. Initially at least, the Vandals, Alans and Sueves were more fortunate. After a career of wild violence in Gaul, in 409 or 410 they forced their way over the Pyrenees into Roman Spain, which offered them new opportunities. In 412, six years after their initial crossing, they divided up the bulk of its provinces between them. The Siling Vandals took Baetica, the Hasdings most of Gallaecia, the Sueves north-western Gallaecia, and the Alans, underlining that they were the largest component of the force at this stage, the richer provinces of Lusitania and Carthaginensis. There is no evidence that this partition was authorized by the central Roman authorities, but it would seem to represent a more ordered exploitation of economic assets, beyond mere looting.

History shows that migrants into the Roman Empire could – and did on occasion – come in large blocks of organized military manpower with their families in tow. If they entertained ambitions that went beyond mere integration into the Roman system as military cannon fodder or agricultural labor, this kind of migratory unit was essential. Only by recruiting well outside military retinues could enough military manpower be put together for expeditions likely to stand any chance of success. Equally important, the better evidence indicates that the immigrants could and did engage in repeat migrations. The vast majority had a well-established tradition of movement even before they crossed into Roman territory, and repeat migration, alongside a renegotiation, under Roman pressure, of group identity which steadily increased overall numbers, provided a two-pronged strategy for long-term survival on Roman soil.

The inclusion of freemen warriors and their social and familial dependents made for major migrant groups numbering several tens of thousands of individuals. The migrations were also mass in the qualitative sense used in migration studies, in that the flow administered a distinct political shock at its points of departure or arrival, or indeed both. The migrants who brought down Rome’s east and central European frontiers quickly stacked up between them one emperor dead on a battlefield along with his army, a forced reversal of standard imperial policies towards migrants, and the extraction of some key provinces from full imperial control. The shock in the lands they left behind is equally marked.

Migration Mechanics.  The crucial importance of active fields of information in dictating precise destinations is just as prominent in the first millennium as in later eras. Germanic expansion towards the Black Sea in the third century was clearly exploiting information about the region which had built up through the operations of the Amber Route. Slavic groups first came to know the Roman Balkans as raiders before exploiting that knowledge to turn themselves into settlers as and when political conditions permitted. Scandinavian expansion to the west in the Viking era likewise operated on the back of intelligence acquired by participation in the emporia trading networks of the eighth century, while those working to the east took a generation or so to find their way down the river routes of western Russia to the great centers of Islamic demand for northern goods, having originally opened up the eastern hinterland of the Baltic to feed western markets. To these entirely uncontroversial examples, I would also add some others. A major contributory factor to the apparently odd stop/start migratory patterns of some of the groups entering Roman territory either side of the year 400 was the need to acquire information about further possible destinations before hitting the road again. The Goths, especially the Tervingi who entered the Empire in 376, already knew about the Balkans, for instance, but not about Italy and Gaul, to where they moved on in the next generation. It took twenty years (and their participation in two Roman civil wars that took some of them lengthy distances in that direction) before they were ready to take the next step.

Likewise the Vandals and Alans: Spain marked the end of their original migratory ambitions, and it again took twenty years and some exploratory sea raids before they were prepared to venture across the Straits of Gibraltar to North Africa. The phenomenon of migration flows of increasing momentum is clearly a product of growing knowledge. It was precisely the fact that exploratory expansionary ventures into a new region produced profitable outcomes for the pioneers that encouraged others to participate.

In the cases of large-group migration reported in any detail in our sources, there is no instance where the decision to move did not generate some kind of split among the affected population group. The same is true, only more so, of the more extended migration flows. For all the Germani of Polish origin who ended up by the Black Sea in the third century, there were many others who stayed behind, shown by the fact that the Wielbark and Przeworsk cultural systems continued to operate. Likewise, many Angles and Saxons did not relocate to England in the 5th and 6th centuries, and Scandinavia was not emptied in the Viking period.

All modern migration flows see substantial numbers of immigrants returning to their original homelands.  The initial phases of Scandinavian expansion were all about gathering wealth, whether by raiding or trading, or both. Having gathered their wealth, different individuals then made different choices about how to invest it. Some chose, even early on, to stay put at their points of destination in the east and west (as shown by the early settlements in northern Scotland and the isles), whereas others chose to take their new wealth back home to Scandinavia, eventually prompting a massive shake-up in Baltic politics.

At least two of the broader population flows, those of the Wielbark and Przeworsk Germani in the second and third centuries, and of the early Slavs three hundred years later, involved populations whose farming techniques were then insufficient to maintain the fertility of any individual piece of arable land for more than a generation or two. A general, periodic local mobility was simply a fact of life for these populations, and there is every reason to suppose that this facilitated the eventual transformation of a more random wave-of-advance-type expansion into a channeled migration flow when information began to filter back about the opportunities available at an entirely new set of longer-distance destinations.

The fourth-century Gothic Tervingi are probably most famous for the fact that a majority of them decided to seek asylum inside the Roman Empire in 376. That decision was greatly facilitated, however, by active memories of recent migrations. This same Gothic group had taken possession of their existing lands in Wallachia and Moldavia between the Lower Danube and the River Dniester only in the decades either side of the year 300, and a generation or so later, in the 330s, had attempted to move bodily to new locations on the fringes of the Middle Danube region. It was the children of those who had moved into Moldavia and Wallachia who were on the move again in the 330s, and their children and older grandchildren who decided to seek a new life inside the Roman Empire in 376.

The willingness of some Norse to move on to Iceland and Greenland in the later 9th century was likewise facilitated by the fact that they were the immediate descendants of Viking immigrants to Scotland and the isles.

Aside from the emotional costs of migration, financial ones were also a major factor in any migrant’s calculations. Most first-millennium migration that we know anything about was a question, more or less, of walking and wagons. It involved no major transportation costs, apart from wear and tear to animals, peoples and wheels, and participation was consequently open to many. It nonetheless involved many indirect costs, above all the potential food shortages that were bound to result when movement disrupted normal agricultural activity. As a result, food stocks had to be maximized before moving, unless circumstances were completely overwhelming, and this meant that autumn was the classic moment to make a move – just after the current year’s harvest had been gathered and while there was still a chance of some grass growing to feed the oxen pulling the wagons and other animals. Alaric’s Goths moved into Italy in both 401 and 408 in the autumn, Radagaisus’ Goths in autumn 405. The Vandals, Alans, and Sueves who crossed the Rhine at the very end of 406 likewise presumably began their trek from the Middle Danube in the autumn of that extended periods of movement left groups particularly vulnerable in economic terms. Flavius Constantius was able to bring Alaric’s Goths – now led by Athaulf and Vallia – to heel by starving them out in 414/15. By that date, they had been living off the land without planting crops for six or seven years.

Later in the fifth century, similarly, after the collapse of the Hunnic Empire, the surviving sources give us just a little insight into the logistic strategies adopted by Theoderic the Amal. His grouping journeyed around the Balkans with wagonloads of seedcorn in the 470s, and one dimension of its diplomatic negotiations with the Roman state involved providing it with agricultural land. Even on the march, noticeably, this group always sought to establish more regular economic relationships with Balkan communities, rather than merely robbing them. This meant that the communities could keep on farming and producing surpluses, from which the Goths could siphon off a regular percentage, whereas destroying them by pillage would only have fed Theoderic’s followers once.

Mass access to sea transport did not even become a possibility until the advent of steerage class in the enormous transatlantic liners of the later nineteenth century. Before that point, travel costs necessarily limited participation in any kind of maritime-based expansion. Again, the Viking period provides the best-documented first-millennium example. Ships were highly expensive, and even specialist cargo ships could carry only limited numbers of people and their goods. Thus Viking raiding required the less well-off to come to some kind of joint arrangement for funding the purchase or hire of a ship (though how many ship owners, I wonder, would be willing to hire out shipping for raiding ventures?), or to attach themselves to a leader of higher status.11 Logistic limitations figured even more strongly when it came to the settlement phases, when so many more types of people and a wider range of bulky farming equipment were required.

Logistics may also have limited the number of Scandinavian women who participated in the Norse migration flow compared to the other land-based movements of our period. Modern DNA patterns suggest that only one-third of immigrant women to Iceland came all the way – directly or indirectly – from Scandinavia, with the rest moving a shorter distance from the British Isles. This may reflect the fact that it was too expensive for more than a minority of warriors to bring their Scandinavian sweethearts with them.

Comparative studies provide two basic points of orientation when thinking about the likely causes of any observable migration flow. First, it is overwhelmingly likely that a substantial difference in levels of economic development between adjacent areas will generate a flow between the two, from the less-developed towards its richer neighbor.

In the vast majority of cases, the precise motivation of any individual migrant will be a complex mixture of free-will and constraint, of economic and political motives. There are exceptions, not least when political refugees are driven forward by fear of imminent death, but most migrants are motivated by some combination of all four factors.

Comparative migration studies would lead you to expect flows of population from less developed regions to the more developed (i.e. in broadly southerly and westerly directions). And in the Roman period – the first three centuries AD – this is essentially what occurred. The economic and sociopolitical structures of more developed Roman Europe sucked in population from its less developed neighbors in a variety of forms, particularly from adjacent, largely Germanic-dominated post-Jastorf Europe. Many individuals entered the Empire as voluntary recruits for Roman armies or involuntary slaves. These population flows are well known. But the larger and more contentious Germanic population flows of the second and third centuries also fall into line with this pattern, in the general sense that they too moved broadly south and west towards more developed Europe.

The military and political structures of the Roman Empire fundamentally explain the geographically asymmetrical outcome of Germanic expansion in these years. The forces behind the expansion seem to have been operating very generally in Germanic-dominated central Europe, but the resulting population flows had much more dramatic effects in the south-east, and particularly north of the Black Sea, than in the south-west. Where Germanic immigrants took over no more than the Agri Decumates in the south-west, further east Dacia was abandoned and political structures north of the Black Sea were entirely remade. There may have been some difference in the scale of the migratory flows in operation in each direction, but this, too, was reflective of the more fundamental cause of the different scale of outcome. Flows south and east were operating against the clients of Rome’s inner frontier zone, rather than directly against the military power of the Empire itself. As a result, the likelihood of success was that much greater than in the south-west, where the Empire’s military power had to be tackled directly.

Not only was it militarily much less dangerous for the leaders of Germanic expansion to restrict their operations to areas beyond the imperial frontier, but two centuries of interaction with the Empire, and the subsequent accumulations of wealth, had made the frontier zone an attractive target for predatory expansion in its own right. Before these processes had unfolded, there would have been little point for ambitious Germanic warlords in moving, say, from northern central Europe to southern central Europe, or from north of the Carpathians to the south-east, since the potential material gains for such efforts would have been minimal.  The best opportunities to benefit from the new wealth-generating interactions with the Roman Empire were all limited geographically to the immediate frontier zone, so it is therefore hardly surprising that raiding gave way to migration in the second and third centuries as more ambitious leaders and followings from the outer periphery looked to win control of the new Rome-centered wealth flows operating in barbarian Europe.

But by the end of the first century AD, there was no potentially lucrative spot along the frontier that was not already occupied by a warlord of some kind, and no sitting tenants were likely to surrender their highly advantageous position without a fight. Any permanent relocation towards Rome’s frontier therefore necessarily required the destruction of existing political structures, and this explains why the second- and third-century migration flows eventually encompassed substantial military forces numbered in the thousands, rather than war bands of just one or two hundred men. War bands might raid effectively enough, but their power was insufficient to remake an entire political structure, so that ambitious wannabes from the outer periphery had no choice but to recruit larger expeditionary forces to achieve their aims.

It is worth pausing to consider this pattern of migratory expansion in the light of more recent and better-documented examples. This kind of intentional, predatory intrusion on the part of thousands of armed individuals is not generally seen in the modern world, and this is sometimes put forward as an objection to supposing that it ever occurred in the past. Half of the answer to this objection is that, though not common, this kind of activity has indeed been seen in the relatively modern world: it is exactly the same basic kind of migratory pattern observable among the Boers of the Great Trek. In that case, the intrusive units could be smaller because the Boers enjoyed a massive advantage in firepower over their Zulu and Matabele opponents. In the second and third centuries, any technological advantage was probably more likely to have lain with the groups of the inner periphery being targeted, since they may well have been buying Roman weaponry, so that the intrusive forces from the outer periphery had to be more or less as large as those deployed by the sitting kings of the frontier region.

All the economies of first-millennium Europe were essentially agricultural, and extremely low-tech. As a result, even in the developing periphery of the Roman Empire, they did not offer many well-paid jobs for individual migrants, except for a few who could attach themselves to the military followings of frontier kings. For those with ambitions to unlock the wealth of this world on a much larger scale, coming as an individual immigrant, or merely within a small group, was a pointless exercise. In such a context, you had to arrive with enough force to defeat the sitting tenant, and prompt the Empire to identify you now as its preferred trading and diplomatic partner on your particular sector of the frontier. Although this kind of migrant group is not commonly seen in the modern world, it actually accords with the fundamental principles behind all observed migration flows. Large-scale predatory intrusion was as appropriate to wealth acquisition via migration in the first millennium, as individual movement is now.

Levels of development also explain the other fundamental oddity of these 2nd and 3rd-century population flows: that many of the warriors were accompanied by women and children. Germanic-dominated Europe of the early centuries AD was a world of low-tech, small-scale farms producing only limited food surpluses. As a result, the economy could not support large warrior retinues; the kind of food renders available even to 4th-century kings could support only one or two hundred men. Again like the Boers, therefore, the kind of larger military expeditions that were required to take over a revenue-producing corner of the Roman frontier could never have been mounted using just the small numbers of military specialists that existed in the Germanic world. Recruits were required from a broader cross-section of society, many of whom already had dependents. These participants would obviously not have wanted to leave their dependents behind in the long term – aside, perhaps, from a few of the younger teenage ones – but even to have left them in the short term, while the expedition reached a hopefully successful conclusion, would have been to expose them to substantial risks. In context again, therefore, it was only natural for Germanic expeditionary forces of more than one or two hundred men to be accompanied by numerous familial dependents.

Völkerwanderung and Beyond. The evolving patterns of development and migration unfolding in the Roman era came to a head in the Völkerwanderung. In the later 4th and 5th centuries, documented European history is marked by the appearance of a whole series of migrant groups comprising 10,000 or more warriors and a large number of dependents, which were powerful enough to survive direct confrontation with the military and political structures of the Roman imperial state. Seen in the broadest of terms, these extraordinary pulses of large-group migration were produced by the intersection, at a critical moment, of a number of related lines of development. First, by the mid- to late fourth century, processes of economic and political development among the Germani had reached a point where political structures had sufficient strength to hold together such enormous groups of warriors and their dependents within a reasonably solid edifice. But, second, these structures had been generated by the expansionary processes of the second and third centuries, and were close enough in time to those events to retain a tradition of migration that could be mobilized when circumstances were appropriate or demanded it. And, third, perhaps the other side of the same coin, their economic structures were not yet so rooted in the arable cultivation of any particular landscape that it was impossible for them to conceive of shifting their center of operations to another locality.

The existence and activities of these very large migrant groups are certainly explicable, but that should not take away from the extraordinary nature of the action. For, though larger and more cohesive than their counterparts of the first century, none of the groups that initially emerged from the imperial periphery was in itself large enough to confront the Roman Empire with success, and yet the aggregate outcome of their collective activities, as we have seen, was the destruction of the west Roman state.

First, it took the unintentional stimulus provided by the Huns to get sufficient numbers of these largely Germanic groups from beyond Rome’s Rhine and Danube frontiers moving on to Roman soil at broadly the same time to make it impossible for the Roman state merely to destroy them. Had these groups – even given that they were larger and more cohesive – arrived separately on Roman territory, the result would eventually have been their destruction, and there were still far too many of them to organize any unified plan for the Empire’s destruction. The key element missing from the Germanic world of the imperial periphery, as opposed to its Arab counterpart, was the lack of a Muhammad to provide an alternative and unifying ideology to that of the Roman state. But, second, once established on Roman soil, the processes of political amalgamation that had been unfolding over the long term beyond the frontier reached a relatively swift climax. This key point was missed in much of the traditional nationalist historiography. By insisting on treating the groups who eventually founded successor states to the western Roman Empire as ancient and unchanging ‘peoples’, this historiography missed the fact that most of them were explicitly documented as new coalitions which formed on Roman territory out of several groups – usually three or four – and who had been independent of one another beyond the frontier. Visigoths and Ostrogoths, Merovingian Franks, the Vandal–Alan coalition – all represented a further step-change in the organization of barbarian political structures, and it was this further evolution which really produced groups that were large enough (deploying now 20,000 warriors and more) to destroy the western Empire.

Contingent as much of this was – there is no sign that there would have been such an influx on to Roman soil without the intrusion of the Huns – one dimension of the action was far from accidental. The new and much larger political formations that became the basis of the successor states could not have come into being on the far side of the frontier. The level of economic development prevalent in the periphery of the Empire in the fourth century did not produce sufficient surplus to allow political leaderships enough patronage to integrate so many followers in that context. Only when the economy of the Empire could be tapped directly for extra wealth, and when the Roman state was providing extra political stimulation towards unification in the form of a real outside threat, was there a sufficient economic and political basis for these larger entities to come into existence. Political structures were the product of, and limited by, prevailing levels of development, and the new state-forming groups could not have emerged in a purely barbarian context.

The epicenter of supra-regional power in western Europe shifted decisively north around the year 500, the second half of the millennium being marked not by Mediterranean-based imperial power, but a series of broadly Frankish dynasties whose prominence was based on economic and demographic assets located north of the Alps between the Atlantic and the Elbe. Again, this can be seen as a culmination of trends of development set in place in the Roman period. The fact that the new imperial power of western Europe should be based on a combination of a chunk of former Roman territory with a substantial part of its ex-periphery is a clear sign of how profoundly that periphery had been transformed by its interaction with Roman power in the preceding centuries. At the birth of Christ, this landscape on either side of the Rhine could never have supported an imperial power, not being remotely wealthy or populous enough, but Roman-era development on both banks of the river radically transformed this situation.

The militarization of its landed elites, meant that this new imperial state was different in kind to its Roman predecessor. Lacking the power to tax agricultural production systematically, it was a less dominant and less self-sufficient kind of entity, which required the profits of expansion to provide its rulers with enough patronage to integrate its constituent landowners. And when broader circumstances did not allow for expansion, fragmentation followed, with power quickly seeping away from the center to the peripheral localities. Periods of great central authority and external aggression – the hallmarks of empire – thus alternated with others of disunity in the second half of the millennium, where Roman imperialism had previously presented a more consistently cohesive face.

At this point, a second nomadic ‘accident’ bent existing processes of development substantially out of shape, and acted as a crucial catalyst in the further transformation of barbarian Europe. Like the Huns, the Avars swiftly built a powerful military coalition in central Europe, one of whose main effects was to siphon off still larger amounts of Mediterranean-generated wealth into now largely Slavic-dominated central Europe. This, of course, further stimulated the competition for control of that wealth, which had already been producing a new kind of military kingship in the Slavic world even before the Avars appeared. Equally important, and just like the Huns, the Avars lacked the governmental capacity to rule their large number of subject groups directly, operating instead through a series of intermediate leaders drawn in part from those subject groups. We lack much in the way of detailed information, but there is every reason to suppose that this would have had the political effect of cementing the social power of chosen subordinates, further pushing at least their Slavic subjects in the direction of political consolidation. The third major effect of the Avars was both to prompt and to enable a wider Slavic diaspora, as some Slavic groups moved further afield to escape the burden of Avar domination. Large-scale Slavic settlement in the former east Roman Balkans – as opposed to mere raiding – only became possible when the Avar Empire (in combination with the Persian and then Arab conquests) destroyed Constantinople’s military superiority in the region. But at least some of these Slavs were as much negatively motivated by a desire to escape Avar domination as they were by a positive desire to move on to Roman territory. Elsewhere we lack historical narratives, but the same desire to escape Avar domination surely played a substantial role in the widespread further dispersals of Slavic groups from c.550 onwards: westwards towards the Elbe, northwards to the Baltic, and even eastwards into the heart of Russia and Ukraine. It remains unclear to what extent this eastern expansion represented the first intrusion of Slavic-speakers into western Russia, or whether we are really looking at the expansion of particular groups of Slavic-speakers who had been made more politically organized and militarily potent through their interactions with the East Romans and Avars, and were thus able to assert their dominance over fellow Slavic-speakers who had not participated in the same process.

Either way, the process of Slavicization – the establishment of the dominance of Slavic-speaking groups across vast areas of central and eastern Europe – again combined processes of migration and development in intimate embrace. Interaction with the Roman Empire’s more developed economy generated new wealth flows which prompted political consolidation and militarization among at least some Slavs. But the groups who benefited from this new wealth were only able to do so because they had already physically moved into a tighter Roman orbit after the collapse of the Hunnic Empire, presumably in order to make precisely these kinds of gain. The sociopolitical revolution they experienced as a consequence then pre-prepared them, especially under the extra stimulus provided by the Avars, to spread their domination by further migration across broad swathes of central and eastern Europe. Some of this certainly involved the absorption of the clearly numerous indigenous populations that had survived the processes of Germanic collapse. Some of that absorption will have been peaceful, as some east Roman sources suggest, but at the same time many Slavic groups were becoming increasingly militarized, and the results of Slavicization were strikingly monolithic.

The Birth of Europe

East Roman wealth and Avar interference marked only the beginning of a much broader development process, which unfolded right across the vast area of Slavic-dominated Europe in the second half of the millennium. By the tenth century, this had produced the first state-like dynastic structures that much of northern and eastern Europe had ever seen.

Much bigger in geographical scale than the Germanic client states that emerged on the fringes of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, they were also capable of greater acts of power. They built more and bigger buildings, supported larger, better-equipped, and more professional armies, and quickly adopted some of the cultural norms of more developed, imperial Europe: above all the Christian religion.

Everything suggests that the transformative mechanisms that produced these new entities were similar in nature to those that had generated the larger Germanic client states of the fourth-century Roman periphery. In both cases, a whole range of new contacts – via trading, raiding, and diplomacy – led to unprecedented flows of wealth into the non-imperial societies. The internal struggle to control these flows of wealth then led to both militarization and the emergence of pre-eminent dynasts, who eventually used their domination of this wealth to generate permanent military machines that could institutionalize their authority by destroying and/or intimidating pre-existing, more local authority structures. As a result, potential rivals were steadily eliminated and power was increasingly centralized.

The other obvious explanation for the faster development of Slavic Europe is the impact of the new military technologies of the last two centuries of the millennium – notably armored knights and castles – which made it much easier for those dynasts who could establish control over the new wealth flows to intimidate potential opponents. For even if the new states all encompassed less intensively governed peripheries, the power that they could exercise in dynastic core territories is (horribly) impressive. The brutal power inherent in the destruction of old tribal strongholds and their replacement with new dynastic ones – in both Bohemia and Poland – emerges strikingly from the dramatic archaeological evidence that has become available in recent years

For the purposes of this study, however, the processes of development are more immediately important for the role they played in bringing to an end the kind of conditions that had generated the large-scale often predatory forms of migration, whether in the concentrated pulse form of the Völkerwanderungen or the more usual flows of increasing momentum, which had been a periodic feature of first-millennium Europe. Inequalities of development across the European landmass had not completely disappeared, but they had been greatly reduced. Essentially, the new trade networks, combined with more general agricultural expansion (the latter still very much a work in progress), meant that politically organized power structures in central and eastern Europe were now able to access wealth in large quantities in their existing locations. Agricultural and broader economic development also meant that they were busy entrenching themselves in some entirely new ways in some specific geographical zones of operation, at least in their core territories.

Migration was never an easy or universally prevalent option in first-millennium Europe, but rather a strategy that was sometimes adopted when the gains were worth the stress of mounting expeditions into only partly known territory with no absolute guarantees of success. Once social elites could access wealth without the extra insecurity of relocation, they became much less likely to resort to that strategy. And, of course, the less they did so in practice, the less they were ever likely to, as previously ingrained migration habits unwound both among themselves, and among the broader population under their control as more intense patterns of arable farming were generating more permanent patterns of cultivation. Overall, both elites and broader populations within barbarian Europe were becoming much more firmly rooted in particular localities, and, as a result, were much less likely to respond by migration even when faced with powerful stimuli that might in other circumstances have led them to shift location.

Where many Goths and other Germani (though certainly not all) responded to the Hunnic menace, and the Slavs to its Avar counterpart, by seeking new homes elsewhere, the arrival of the nomadic Magyars on the Great Hungarian Plain engendered no known secondary migration. The actions, nature and eventual fate of the Moravian state encapsulate the difference. Rather than run away, the Moravians stood and fought the Magyars, just like the armies of Frankish imperial Europe. They lost, but the fact that the Moravians stayed put reflects the deeper roots they had sunk in their own particular locality, and the fundamentally different nature of political power in barbarian Europe as it had developed by the end of the first millennium. Earlier, the prevailing limitations of agricultural technique in barbarian Europe generated a broad local mobility, and large disparities in levels of wealth and development had encouraged the more adventurous periodically to attempt to take over some more attractive corner of the landscape, closer, usually, to imperial sources of wealth. The Moravians, by contrast, built castles and churches in stone, on the back of wealth generated by more intense agricultural regimes and wider exchange networks. With so much invested where they stood, it was not going to be easy to shift their center of operations. The same was true of the other new dynasties of the late first millennium too. All were much more firmly fixed in particular localities than their earlier counterparts, both because of developing agricultural technique and because trade networks made other types of wealth available well beyond the imperial borderlands. In overall terms, processes of development had both eliminated the massive inequalities that had previously made long-distance, large-group migration a reasonably common option for Europe’s barbarians, and rooted central and east European populations more deeply in particular landscapes.

This is what really spelled the end of migration. Some human beings are always on the move in search of greater prosperity or better conditions of life, and European history from the 10th century onwards is still marked by migration on a periodically massive scale. From late in the first millennium onwards, however, medieval migration generally took one of two characteristic forms. On the one hand, we see knight-based elite transfers. The Norman Conquest is a particularly large-scale and successful example of this phenomenon. Much more usual were bands of one or two hundred well-armed men looking to establish small principalities for themselves by ousting sitting elites and/or establishing their rights to draw economic support from a dependent labor force.  The productive rootedness of peasantry and the empowering effect of new military technologies were key factors in dictating the characteristics of this particular migratory form. Castles and armor allowed them to establish a form of local domination based on quite small numbers of men that was extremely hard to shift.

The other common form of migration was the deliberate recruitment of peasantry to work the land, with lords offering attractive tenurial terms to provide the incentive, and employing agents to run recruiting campaigns. Again, new patterns of development were of crucial importance here, since the extra agricultural productivity of the new arable farming technologies being put into practice in the late first millennium made it highly desirable for the masters of the landscape to secure sufficient labor to maximize agricultural outputs.

Though they had come a long way, the new Slavic states still lagged behind western and southern Europe in levels of economic development. They therefore figured among the chief customers for the new peasant labor being mobilized from more developed parts of Europe where higher population levels reduced opportunities for ambitious peasants to get more land on better terms. As a result, hundreds of thousands of peasants from west-central Europe would be attracted eastwards by the offer of land on much better terms than could be secured at home, and the Slavicization of much of old Germanic Europe that had occurred in the early Middle Ages was partly reversed by an influx of Germanic-speaking peasants.

The prevalence of these different forms in a later era, however, is no objection to the broader argument of this book, that larger-scale, socially more broadly based predatory forms of migration than knight-based expansion had played a hugely important role in the making of Europe in the first millennium. The later migratory forms were entirely appropriate to the economic and political conditions prevailing across the Europe of the central Middle Ages.

Note: The Barbarian Europe of this book is the non-Roman, non-imperial world of the east and north and the word barbarian is not being used in a moral sense, since certainly the Romans woulc be considered barbarians for feeding people to animals for entertainment.

Posted in Collapse of Civilizations, Roman Empire, Supply Chains | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Book review of “Empires and Barbarians: the fall of Rome and the birth of Europe”

Nuclear war between India and Pakistan more likely, up to a billion deaths

[ It doesn’t take an all out war between the United States and Russia to cause a billion or more deaths.  Even a small war could do that (Robok, A. 2007. Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics).

It appears a war may be brewing. The armies of Pakistan and India are practicing for nuclear war on the battlefield: Pakistan is rehearsing the use of nuclear weapons

There is also a chance nuclear weapons will fall into the wrong hands and used by terrorists.

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

Hoodbhoy, P., Mian, Z. 4 May 2016. Nuclear battles in South Asia. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.


The armies of Pakistan and India are practicing for nuclear war on the battlefield: Pakistan is rehearsing the use of nuclear weapons.

What were once mere ideas and scenarios dreamed up by hawkish military planners and nuclear strategists have become starkly visible capabilities and commitments. When the time comes, policy makers and people on both sides will expect—and perhaps demand—that the Bomb be used.

Pakistan has long been explicit about its plans to use nuclear weapons to counter Indian conventional forces. Pakistan has developed “a variety of short range, low yield nuclear weapons,” claimed retired General Khalid Kidwai in March 2015. Kidwai is the founder—and from 2000 until 2014 who ran Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, which is responsible for managing the country’s nuclear weapons production complex and arsenal. These weapons, Kidwai said, have closed the “space for conventional war.” Echoing this message, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry declared in October 2015 that his country might use these tactical nuclear weapons in a conflict with India. There already have been four wars between the two countries—in 1947, 1965, 1971, and 1999—as well as many war scares.

The United States, which at one time deployed over 7,000 tactical nuclear weapons in Europe aimed at Soviet conventional forces, has expressed alarm about Pakistan’s plans. Amplifying comments made by President Barack Obama, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest explained in April 2016 that “we’re concerned by the increased security challenges that accompany growing stockpiles, particularly tactical nuclear weapons that are designed for use on the battlefield. And these systems are a source of concern because they’re susceptible to theft due to their size and mode of employment. Essentially, by having these smaller weapons, the threshold for their use is lowered, and there is a risk that a conventional conflict between India and Pakistan could escalate to include the use of nuclear weapons.”

Responding to US concerns, Kidwai has said that “Pakistan would not cap or curb its nuclear weapons program or accept any restrictions.”The New York Times reported last year that so far, “an unknown number of the tactical weapons were built, but not deployed” by Pakistan.

India is making its own preparations for nuclear war.

The Indian Army conducted a massive military exercise in April 2016 in the Rajasthan desert bordering Pakistan, involving tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, and 30,000 soldiers, to practice what to do if it is attacked with nuclear weapons on the battlefield. An Indian Army spokesman told the media, “our policy has been always that we will never use nuclear weapons first. But if we are attacked, we need to gather ourselves and fight through it. The simulation is about doing exactly that.” This is not the first such Indian exercise. As long ago as May 2001, the Indian military conducted an exercise based on the possibility that Pakistan would use nuclear weapons on Indian armed forces. Indian generals and planners have anticipated such battlefield nuclear use by Pakistan since at least the 1990s.

Driving the current set of Indian strategies and capabilities is the army’s search for a way to use military force to retaliate against Pakistan for harboring terrorists who, from time to time, have launched devastating attacks inside India. In 2001, Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed credit for an attack on India’s parliament. India massed troops on the border, but had to withdraw them after several months. International pressure, a public commitment by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to restrain militants from future strikes, and Pakistan’s threat to use nuclear weapons if it was attacked caused the crisis to wind down. Following the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants, General Deepak Kapoor, then India’s army chief, argued that India must find a way to wage “limited war under a nuclear overhang.”

Paths to destruction. It could come to pass that Pakistan’s army uses nuclear weapons on its own territory to repel invading Indian tanks and troops. Pakistan’s planners may intend this first use of nuclear weapons as a warning shot, hoping to cause the Indians to stop and withdraw rather than risk worse. But while withdrawal would be one possible outcome, there would also be others. It is more likely, for instance, that the use of one—or even a few—Pakistani battlefield nuclear weapons would fail to dent Indian forces. While even a small nuclear weapon would be devastating in an urban environment, many such weapons may be required to have a decisive military impact on columns of well-dispersed battle tanks and soldiers who have practiced war-fighting under nuclear attack.

India’s nuclear doctrine, meanwhile, is built on massive retaliation. In 2003, India’s cabinet declared nuclear weapons “will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces anywhere … nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be massive and designed to inflict unacceptable damage.” According to Admiral Vijay Shankar, a former head of Indian strategic nuclear forces, such retaliation would involve nuclear attacks on Pakistan’s cities. Kidwai describes such Indian threats as “bluster and blunder,” since they “are not taking into account the balance of nuclear weapons of Pakistan, which hopefully not, but has the potential to go back and give the same kind of dose to the other side.” For nuclear planners in both countries, threatening the slaughter of millions and mutual destruction seems to be the order of the day.

There are also risks short of war, of course. Nuclear weapon units integrated with conventional forces and ready to be dispersed on a battlefield pose critical command-and-control issues. Kidwai believes that focusing on “lesser issues of command and control, and the possibility of their falling into wrong hands is unfortunate.” He claims “Our nuclear weapons are safe, secure and under complete institutional and professional control.” The implication is that communications between the nuclear headquarters and deployed units in the field will be perfectly reliable and secure even in wartime, and that commanders of individual units will not seek—or have the capability to launch—a nuclear strike unless authorized.

It is difficult to believe these claims. Peering through the fog of war, dizzied by developments on a rapidly evolving battlefield, confronting possible defeat, and fueled by generations of animosity towards India as well as a thirst for revenge from previous wars, it cannot be guaranteed that a Pakistani nuclear commander will follow the rules.

Add to this the risks in what now passes for peacetime in Pakistan. The Strategic Plans Division may dismiss fears that its nuclear weapons will be hijacked. However, the military has rarely succeeded in anticipating and preventing major attacks by militant Islamist groups in Pakistan. Look no further than the May 2011 attack on Karachi’s Mehran naval base. The attackers, who may have numbered up to 20 and had insider help, “scaled the perimeter fence and continued to the main base by exploiting a blind spot in surveillance camera coverage, suggesting detailed knowledge of the base layout,” The Guardian reported. It took elite troops 18 hours to regain control of the base.

It is also unclear how the officers who are in charge of Pakistan’s military bases and those who make security-clearance decisions are chosen, and whether their own commitment to fighting Islamic radicalism is genuine. In 2009, the former commander of Pakistan’s Shamsi Air Force Base was arrested for leaking “sensitive” information to a radical Islamist organization. In 2011, a one-star general serving in Pakistan’s General Headquarters was arrested for his contacts with a militant group. In a religion that stresses its own completeness, and in which righteousness is given higher value than obedience to temporal authority, there is room for serious conflict between piety and military discipline.



Posted in Extinction, Nuclear, Terrorism | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Gail Tverberg: 2017 The year the world economy starts coming apart

[ Note: In a 2016 post “Overly Simple Energy-Economy Models Give Misleading Answers” Tverberg points out that:
“The common lay interpretation of simple models is that running out of energy supplies can be expected to be our overwhelming problem in the future. A more complete model suggests that our problems as we approach limits are likely to be quite different: growing wealth disparity, inability to maintain complex infrastructure, and growing debt problems. Energy supplies that look easy to extract will not, in fact, be available because prices will not rise high enough. These problems can be expected to change the shape of the curve of future energy consumption to one with a fairly fast decline, such as the Seneca Cliff.It is not intuitive, but complexity-related issues create a situation in which economies need to grow, or they will collapse (The Physics of Energy and the Economy). The popular idea that we extract 50% of a resource before peak, and 50% after peak will be found not to be true–much of the second 50% will stay in the ground.”
Original January 10, 2017 ourfiniteworld.com article here.]

Some people would argue that 2016 was the year that the world economy started to come apart, with the passage of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Whether or not the “coming apart” process started in 2016, in my opinion we are going to see many more steps in this direction in 2017. Let me explain a few of the things I see.[1] Many economies have collapsed in the past. The world economy is very close to the turning point where collapse starts in earnest.  

Figure 1

Figure 1

The history of previous civilizations rising and eventually collapsing is well documented.(See, for example, Secular Cycles.)

To start a new cycle, a group of people would find a new way of doing things that allowed more food and energy production (for instance, they might add irrigation, or cut down trees for more land for agriculture). For a while, the economy would expand, but eventually a mismatch would arise between resources and population. Either resources would fall too low (perhaps because of erosion or salt deposits in the soil), or population would rise too high relative to resources, or both.

Even as resources per capita began falling, economies would continue to have overhead expenses, such as the need to pay high-level officials and to fund armies. These overhead costs could not easily be reduced, and might, in fact, grow as the government attempted to work around problems. Collapse occurred because, as resources per capita fell (for example, farms shrank in size), the earnings of workers tended to fall. At the same time, the need for taxes to cover what I am calling overhead expenses tended to grow. Tax rates became too high for workers to earn an adequate living, net of taxes. In some cases, workers succumbed to epidemics because of poor diets. Or governments would collapse, from lack of adequate tax revenue to support them.

Our current economy seems to be following a similar pattern. We first used fossil fuels to allow the population to expand, starting about 1800. Things went fairly well until the 1970s, when oil prices started to spike. Several workarounds (globalization, lower interest rates, and more use of debt) allowed the economy to continue to grow. The period since 1970 might be considered a period of “stagflation.” Now the world economy is growing especially slowly. At the same time, we find ourselves with “overhead” that continues to grow (for example, payments to retirees, and repayment of debt with interest). The pattern of past civilizations suggests that our civilization could also collapse.

Historically, economies have taken many years to collapse; I show a range of 20 to 50 years in Figure 1. We really don’t know if collapse would take that long now. Today, we are dependent on an international financial system, an international trade system, electricity, and the availability of oil to make our vehicles operate. It would seem as if this time collapse could come much more quickly.

With the world economy this close to collapse, some individual countries are even closer to collapse. This is why we can expect to see sharp downturns in the fortunes of some countries. If contagion is not too much of a problem, other countries may continue to do fairly well, even as individual small countries fail.

[2] Figures to be released in 2017 and future years are likely to show that the peak in world coal consumption occurred in 2014. This is important, because it means that countries that depend heavily on coal, such as China and India, can expect to see much slower economic growth, and more financial difficulties.

While reports of international coal production for 2016 are not yet available, news articles and individual country data strongly suggest that world coal production is past its peak. The IEA also reports a substantial drop in coal production for 2016.

Figure 2. World coal consumption. Information through 2015 based on BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Estimates for China, US, and India are based on partial year data and news reports. 2016 amount for "other" estimated based on recent trends.

Figure 2. World coal consumption. Information through 2015 based on BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Estimates for China, US, and India are based on partial year data and news reports. 2016 amount for “other” estimated based on recent trends.

The reason why coal production is dropping is because of low prices, low profitability for producers, and gluts indicating oversupply. Also, comparisons of coal prices with natural gas prices are inducing switching from coal to natural gas. The problem, as we will see later, is that natural gas prices are also artificially low, compared to the cost of production, So the switch is being made to a different type of fossil fuel, also with an unsustainably low price.

Prices for coal in China have recently risen again, thanks to the closing of a large number of unprofitable coal mines, and a mandatory reduction in hours for other coal mines. Even though prices have risen, production may not rise to match the new prices. One article reports:

. . . coal companies are reportedly reluctant to increase output as a majority of the country’s mines are still losing money and it will take time to recoup losses incurred in recent years.

Also, a person can imagine that it might be difficult to obtain financing, if coal prices have only “sort of” recovered.

I wrote last year about the possibility that coal production was peaking. This is one chart I showed, with data through 2015. Coal is the second most utilized fuel in the world. If its production begins declining, it will be difficult to offset the loss of its use with increased use of other types of fuels.

Figure 3. World per capita energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

Figure 3. World per capita energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

[3] If we assume that coal supplies will continue to shrink, and other production will grow moderately, we can expect total energy consumption to be approximately flat in 2017. 

Figure 5. World energy consumption forecast, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data through 2015, and author's estimates for 2016 and 2017.

Figure 4. World energy consumption forecast, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data through 2015, and author’s estimates for 2016 and 2017.

In a way, this is an optimistic assessment, because we know that efforts are underway to reduce oil production, in order to prop up prices. We are, in effect, assuming either that (a) oil prices won’t really rise, so that oil consumption will grow at a rate similar to that in the recent past or (b) while oil prices will rise significantly to help producers, consumers won’t cut back on their consumption in response to the higher prices.

[4] Because world population is rising, the forecast in Figure 4 suggests that per capita energy consumption is likely to shrink. Shrinking energy consumption per capita puts the world (or individual countries in the world) at the risk of recession.

Figure 5 shows indicated per capita energy consumption, based on Figure 4. It is clear that energy consumption per capita has already started shrinking, and is expected to shrink further. The last time that happened was in the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Figure 5. World energy consumption per capita based on energy consumption estimates in Figure 4 and UN 2015 Medium Population Growth Forecast.

Figure 5. World energy consumption per capita based on energy consumption estimates in Figure 4 and UN 2015 Medium Population Growth Forecast.

There tends to be a strong correlation between world economic growth and world energy consumption, because energy is required to transform materials into new forms, and to transport goods from one place to another.

In the recent past, the growth in GDP has tended to be a little higher than the growth in the use of energy products. One reason why GDP growth has been a percentage point or two higher than energy consumption growth is because, as economies become richer, citizens can afford to add more services to the mix of goods and services that they purchase (fancier hair cuts and more piano lessons, for example). Production of services tends to use proportionately less energy than creating goods does; as a result, a shift toward a heavier mix of services tends to lead to GDP growth rates that are somewhat higher than the growth in energy consumption.

A second reason why GDP growth has tended to be a little higher than growth in energy consumption is because devices (such as cars, trucks, air conditioners, furnaces, factory machinery) are becoming more efficient. Growth in efficiency occurs if consumers replace old inefficient devices with new more efficient devices. If consumers become less wealthy, they are likely to replace devices less frequently, leading to slower growth in efficiency. Also, as we will discuss later in this  post, recently there has been a tendency for fossil fuel prices to remain artificially low. With low prices, there is little financial incentive to replace an old inefficient device with a new, more efficient device. As a result, new purchases may be bigger, offsetting the benefit of efficiency gains (purchasing an SUV to replace a car, for example).

Thus, we cannot expect that the past pattern of GDP growing a little faster than energy consumption will continue. In fact, it is even possible that the leveraging effect will start working the “wrong” way, as low fossil fuel prices induce more fuel use, not less. Perhaps the safest assumption we can make is that GDP growth and energy consumption growth will be equal. In other words, if world energy consumption growth is 0% (as in Figure 4), world GDP growth will also be 0%. This is not something that world leaders would like at all.

The situation we are encountering today seems to be very similar to the falling resources per capita problem that seemed to push early economies toward collapse in [1]. Figure 5 above suggests that, on average, the paychecks of workers in 2017 will tend to purchase fewer goods and services than they did in 2016 and 2015. If governments need higher taxes to fund rising retiree costs and rising subsidies for “renewables,” the loss in the after-tax purchasing power of workers will be even greater than Figure 5 suggests.

[5] Because many countries are in this precarious position of falling resources per capita, we should expect to see a rise in protectionism, and the addition of new tariffs.

Clearly, governments do not want the problem of falling wages (or rather, falling goods that wages can buy) impacting their countries. So the new game becomes, “Push the problem elsewhere.”

In economic language, the world economy is becoming a “Zero-sum” game. Any gain in the production of goods and services by one country is a loss to another country. Thus, it is in each country’s interest to look out for itself. This is a major change from the shift toward globalization we have experienced in recent years. China, as a major exporter of goods, can expect to be especially affected by this changing view.

[6] China can no longer be expected to pull the world economy forward.

China’s economic growth rate is likely to be lower, for many reasons. One reason is the financial problems of coal mines, and the tendency of coal production to continue to shrink, once it starts shrinking. This happens for many reasons, one of them being the difficulty in obtaining loans for expansion, when prices still seem to be somewhat low, and the outlook for the further increases does not appear to be very good.

Another reason why China’s economic growth rate can be expected to fall is the current overbuilt situation with respect to apartment buildings, shopping malls, factories, and coal mines. As a result, there seems to be little need for new buildings and operations of these types. Another reason for slower economic growth is the growing protectionist stance of trade partners. A fourth reason is the fact that many potential buyers of the goods that China is producing are not doing very well economically (with the US being a major exception). These buyers cannot afford to increase their purchases of imports from China.

With these growing headwinds, it is quite possible that China’s total energy consumption in 2017 will shrink. If this happens, there will be downward pressure on world fossil fuel prices. Oil prices may fall, despite production cuts by OPEC and other countries.

China’s slowing economic growth is likely to make its debt problem harder to solve. We should not be too surprised if debt defaults become a more significant problem, or if the yuan falls relative to other currencies.

India, with its recent recall of high denomination currency, as well as its problems with low coal demand, is not likely to be a great deal of help aiding the world economy to grow, either. India is also a much smaller economy than China.

[7] While Item [2] talked about peak coal, there is a very significant chance that we will be hitting peak oil and peak natural gas in 2017 or 2018, as well.  

If we look at historical prices, we see that the prices of oil, coal and natural gas tend to rise and fall together.

Figure 6. Prices of oil, call and natural gas tend to rise and fall together. Prices based on 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 6. Prices of oil, coal and natural gas tend to rise and fall together. Prices based on 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

The reason that fossil fuel prices tend to rise and fall together is because these prices are tied to “demand” for goods and services in general, such as for new homes, cars, and factories. If wages are rising rapidly, and debt is rising rapidly, it becomes easier for consumers to buy goods such as homes and cars. When this happens, there is more “demand” for the commodities used to make and operate homes and cars. Prices for commodities of many types, including fossil fuels, tend to rise, to enable more production of these items.

Of course, the reverse happens as well. If workers become poorer, or debt levels shrink, it becomes harder to buy homes and cars. In this case, commodity prices, including fossil fuel prices, tend to fall.  Thus, the problem we saw above in [2] for coal would be likely to happen for oil and natural gas, as well, because the prices of all of the fossil fuels tend to move together. In fact, we know that current oil prices are too low for oil producers. This is the reason why OPEC and other oil producers have cut back on production. Thus, the problem with overproduction for oil seems to be similar to the overproduction problem for coal, just a bit delayed in timing.

In fact, we also know that US natural gas prices have been very low for several years, suggesting another similar problem. The United States is the single largest producer of natural gas in the world. Its natural gas production hit a peak in mid 2015, and production has since begun to decline. The decline comes as a response to chronically low prices, which make it unprofitable to extract natural gas. This response sounds similar to China’s attempted solution to low coal prices.

Figure 7. US Natural Gas production based on EIA data.

Figure 7. US Natural Gas production based on EIA data.

The problem is fundamentally the fact that consumers cannot afford goods made using fossil fuels of any type, if prices actually rise to the level producers need, which tends to be at least five times the 1999 price level. (Note peak price levels compared to 1999 level on Figure 6.) Wages have not risen by a factor of five since 1999, so paying the prices that fossil fuel producers need for profitability and growing production is out of the question. No amount of added debt can hide this problem. (While this reference is to 1999 prices, the issue really goes back much farther, to prices before the price spikes of the 1970s.)

US natural gas producers also have plans to export natural gas to Europe and elsewhere, as liquefied natural gas (LNG). The hope, of course, is that a large amount of exports will raise US natural gas prices. Also, the hope is that Europeans will be able to afford the high-priced natural gas shipped to them. Unless someone can raise the wages of both Europeans and Americans, I would not count on LNG prices actually rising to the level needed for profitability, and staying at such a high level. Instead, they are likely to bounce up, and quickly drop back again.

[8] Unless oil prices rise very substantially, oil exporters will find themselves exhausting their financial reserves in a very short time (perhaps a year or two). Unfortunately, oil importers cannot withstand higher prices, without going into recession. 

We have a no win situation, no matter what happens. This is true with all fossil fuels, but especially with oil, because of its high cost and thus necessarily high price. If oil prices stay at the same level or go down, oil exporters cannot get enough tax revenue, and oil companies in general cannot obtain enough funds to finance the development of new wells and payment of dividends to shareholders. If oil prices do rise by a very large amount for very long, we are likely headed into another major recession, with many debt defaults.

[9] US interest rates are likely to rise in the next year or two, whether or not this result is intended by the Federal reserve.

This issue here is somewhat obscure. The issue has to do with whether the United States can find foreign buyers for its debt, often called US Treasuries, and the interest rates that the US needs to pay on this debt. If buyers are very plentiful, the interest rates paid by he US government can be quite low; if few buyers are available, interest rates must be higher.

Back when Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters were doing well financially, they often bought US Treasuries, as a way to retain the benefit of their new-found wealth, which they did not want to spend immediately. Similarly, when China was doing well as an exporter, it often bought US Treasuries, as a way retaining the wealth it gained from exports, but didn’t yet need for purchases.

When these countries bought US Treasuries, there were several beneficial results:

  • Interest rates on US Treasuries tended to stay artificially low, because there was a ready market for its debt.
  • The US could afford to import high-priced oil, because the additional debt needed to buy the oil could easily be sold (to Saudi Arabia and other oil producing nations, no less).
  • The US dollar tended to stay lower relative to other currencies, making oil more affordable to other countries than it otherwise might be.
  • Investment in countries outside the US was encouraged, because debt issued by these other countries tended to bear higher interest rates than US debt. Also, relatively low oil prices in these countries (because of the low level of the dollar) tended to make investment profitable in these countries.

The effect of these changes was somewhat similar to the US having its own special Quantitative Easing (QE) program, paid for by some of the counties with trade surpluses, instead of by its central bank. This QE substitute tended to encourage world economic growth, for the reasons mentioned above.

Once the fortunes of the countries that used to buy US Treasuries changes, the pattern of buying of US Treasuries tends to change to selling of US Treasuries. Even not purchasing the same quantity of US Treasuries as in the past becomes an adverse change, if the US has a need to keep issuing US Treasuries as in the past, or if it wants to keep rates low.

Unfortunately, losing this QE substitute tends to reverse the favorable effects noted above. One effect is that the dollar tends to ride higher relative to other currencies, making the US look richer, and other countries poorer. The “catch” is that as the other countries become poorer, it becomes harder for them to repay the debt that they took out earlier, which was denominated in US dollars.

Another problem, as this strange type of QE disappears, is that the interest rates that the US government needs to pay in order to issue new debt start rising. These higher rates tend to affect other rates as well, such as mortgage rates. These higher interest rates act as a drag on the economy, tending to push it toward recession.

Higher interest rates also tend to decrease the value of assets, such as homes, farms, outstanding bonds, and shares of stock. This occurs because fewer buyers can afford to buy these goods, with the new higher interest rates. As a result, stock prices can be expected to fall. Prices of homes and of commercial buildings can also be expected to fall. The value of bonds held by insurance companies and banks becomes lower, if they choose to sell these securities before maturity.

Of course, as interest rates fell after 1981, we received the benefit of falling interest rates, in the form of rising asset prices. No one ever stopped to think about how much of the gains in share prices and property values came from falling interest rates.

Figure 8. Ten year treasury interest rates, based on St. Louis Fed data.

Figure 8. Ten year treasury interest rates, based on St. Louis Fed data.

Now, as interest rates rise, we can expect asset prices of many types to start falling, because of lower affordability when monthly payments are based on higher interest rates. This situation presents another “drag” on the economy.

In Conclusion

The situation is indeed very concerning. Many things could set off a crisis:

  • Rising energy prices of any kind (hurting energy importers), or energy prices that don’t rise (leading to financial problems or collapse of exporters)
  • Rising interest rates.
  • Defaulting debt, indirectly the result of slow/negative economic growth and rising interest rates.
  • International organizations with less and less influence, or that fall apart completely.
  • Fast changes in relativities of currencies, leading to defaults on derivatives.
  • Collapsing banks, as debt defaults rise.
  • Falling asset prices (homes, farms, commercial buildings, stocks and bonds) as interest rates rise, leading to many debt defaults.

Things don’t look too bad right now, but the underlying problems are sufficiently severe that we seem to be headed for a crisis far worse than 2008. The timing is not clear. Things could start falling apart badly in 2017, or alternatively, major problems may be delayed until 2018 or 2019. I hope political leaders can find ways to keep problems away as long as possible, perhaps with more rounds of QE. Our fundamental problem is the fact that neither high nor low energy prices are now able to keep the world economy operating as we would like it to operate. Increased debt can’t seem to fix the problem either.

The laws of physics seem to be behind economic growth. From a physics point of view, our economy is a dissipative structure. Such structures form in “open systems.” In such systems, flows of energy allow structures to temporarily self-organize and grow. Other examples of dissipative structures include ecosystems, all plants and animals, stars, and hurricanes. All of these structures constantly “dissipate” energy. They have finite life spans, before they eventually collapse. Often, new dissipative systems form, to replace previous ones that have collapsed.

The one thing that gives me hope is the fact that there seems to be some type of a guiding supernatural force behind the whole system that allows so much growth. Some would say that this supernatural force is “only” the laws of physics (and biology and chemistry). To me, the fact that so many structures can self-organize and grow is miraculous, and perhaps evidence of a guiding force behind the whole universe.

I don’t know precisely what is next, but it seems quite possible that there is a longer-term plan for humans that we are not aware of. Some of the religions of the world may have insights on what this plan might be. It is even possible that there may be divine intervention of some type that allows a change in the path that we seem to be on today.

Posted in Limits To Growth, Net Energy Cliff | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Why is Detroit falling apart so fast?

Detroit homes falling apart goobingUsing Google street view history, www.goobingdetroit.com records the decay of homes in Detroit. Above shows homes September 2009, September 2011, and September 2013

I’ve been fascinated with the decline of Detroit since a guy in my dormitory told me back in 1972 that he’d moved into an abandoned mansion because it was free.  Several weeks later a gang broke in. He barricaded his bedroom door with furniture and jumped out the window, never to return. After the financial crash, the photos of Yves Marchand and Romaine Meffre  and goobingdetroit rekindled my interest in Detroit.

So why do houses fall apart?  The best answer can be found in Alan Weisman’s book “The world without us”, but here’s the short answer.  According to HowStuffWorks:

  • “The amount of time necessary for your home to fall to pieces depends on several factors. The quality of your home’s construction, the type of climate you live in, the shape your house is in and the materials your house is made of all contribute to the amount of time it would take for your home to deteriorate.”
  • Water wreaks the worst destruction. In addition to your roof, the caulk around windows will decay and disintegrate, letting water in within 25 years of last application, rotting the wall around the window. From other sites, here’s how: Roofs get leaks when trees add hundreds of pounds of leaves and seeds that clog the drains after rain or heavy snow that weights 8 lbs/gallon, causing leaks which leach glue and materials from the plywood, tearing off the membrane of roof materials. About 1.5 years later, the roof falls in, letting water and snow inside.  Broken windows also allow moisture, mold, and so on. Mold starts to grow and dry rots walls. Tree seeds take root.   Brick houses with flat roofs rot when the roof leaks because the cross beams rot, the walls bow, and gravity caves the house in. Moisture will get into the shell inside the brick exterior, and if there’s more than one layer of brick, in the gap between the layers where it will freeze and contract, collapsing the walls eventually.
  • Water attracts termites, carpenter ants and other insects which further devour your home
  • Tall dry grass outside the home can catch on fire and spread to a home
  • Tree roots will shift the foundation, crack it, and a potential crash unsound walls

Other websites said:

  • People loot abandoned homes of copper, walls, conduits, and destroy drywall for fun.
  • Empty buildings experience far more fluctuations in heat and cold, which causes materials to expand and contract and a faster breakdown (i.e. water freezing inside cracks).
  • Many homes built the past few decades used inferior materials and were designed poorly and won’t last nearly as long as older, better-built homes
  • If streets weren’t cleaned, over the years a 2-inch dirt layer would form from leaves and other detritus, allowing trees and other plants to grow which would tear up the pavement.

Yet it can take decades or more for a home to actually cave in on itself and crumble.  So why are Detroit homes falling apart so quickly?  Here are a few possible reasons:

  • The price of copper and other metals as thieves trip scrap metal out of homes
  • Each year at Halloween homes and buildings in Detroit are burned down in a mixture of wild destruction and insurance fraud
  • Crack cocaine swept Detroit in the 70s and 80s
  • High unemployment, low wages, and poverty led to homeowners not making needed repairs as far back as 1967, and the crack cocaine epidemic exacerbated this. After riots in 1967 white flight to more distant suburbs exploded, and far more families moved out than moved in, resulting in abandoned homes for many decades already
  • According to the New York Times “About 36 percent of the city’s population is below the poverty level, and, by 2010, the residential vacancy rate was 27.8 percent. With fewer people paying taxes, the city has starved financially and has struggled to maintain social services. Swaths of the city are in total darkness because of nonfunctioning street lights. And the average police response time, including top priority calls, is 58 minutes, according to a report by the emergency manager.”

The decline and fall of our fossil-fueled Western civilization is the framework of energyskeptic.  Clearly what’s happened to Detroit will happen to all cities and towns as it becomes impossible to maintain everything once oil is rationed, mainly to the military and agriculture, leaving less and less oil for all other uses.  Supply chains will break as manufacturers go out of business.  Someday, perhaps a scenario like the one in James Howard Kunstler’s Peak Oil series “World Made by Hand” will come to pass, where the most lucrative and easy way to make a living is salvaging materials from structures and garbage dumps.

Ironically, as oil shortages start to threaten lives, Detroit (and even Flint Michigan) may be among the best places to be. There is plenty of rain, and 40 of 139 square miles are vacant lots with good farmland. Don’t believe it?  Read John W. Day and Charles Hall’s book “America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions: Surviving the 21st Century Megatrends“ to learn why this region is more ecologically sound and sustainable than many regions of America.

Although every type of infrastructure is decaying across the U.S., the $552 billion dollars of corrosion damage per year is out of sight and out of mind of most people. Attention is paid when something breaks or when the ASCE issues a new report card every 4 years.  Meanwhile, millions of miles of water, sewage, oil, and gas lines, bridges, roads, and 83,000 tons of highly radioactive nuclear waste (Cornwall) in eroding casks are corroding and crumbling.

We’re lucky the infotainment industry ever publishes anything at all on infrastructure, though it’s often just for a day, and mainly about a specific incident, like a gas line explosion (“if it bleeds it leads”).  Otherwise politics and which bathroom a transgender person should use fill up the news cycle, distracting people from the real news, which is that a few corporations and wealthy families have looted public resources (i.e. topsoil, oil, coal, natural gas, minerals, and so on) over the past 100 years.

In the 1920s, the Technocracy movement, realizing a huge energy boom was underway, thought that if everyone shared the energy, the rich could be kept from gaining control over its production and sale and everyone would benefit and lead richer and more rewarding lives. The technocrats estimated people would have 16-hour work weeks, allowing them time to spend more time with family, travel, and pursue their dreams. Energy would be the new “currency” with a limited number of bonds issued for a person’s lifetime.  This would have led to oil, coal, and natural gas lasting for thousands of years instead of peaking around now, a century later, and rapidly declining in the future to a far lower level (Inman).  Bet you worked more than 16 hours last week….

At some point in oil decline, this means that living in cities will grow increasingly difficult to live in as sewage goes untreated, garbage isn’t picked up, clean water isn’t available, and pavement and buildings cover what little land could be used to grow food.

Detroit is a visible reminder of the hidden crumbling of infrastructure everywhere, perhaps the future of all cities as energy declines.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation, 2015, Springer


Cornwall, W. July 10, 2015. Deep Sleep. Boreholes drilled into Earth’s crust get a fresh look for nuclear waste disposal. Science Vol. 349: 132-135

Inman, Mason. 2016. The Oracle of Oil.  A Maverick Geologists Quest for a Sustainable Future. W W Norton.

Posted in Crash Coming Soon, Infrastructure, Infrastructure, Poverty | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Why is Detroit falling apart so fast?

Matchmaking for trucks so fewer run empty after deliveries

[ These apps have the potential to prevent some trucks from returning empty after their delivery, which wastes finite diesel fuel.  See the full article here.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation, 2015, Springer]

Russ Banham. February 23, 2016.  How “Uber For Trucking” Apps Are Driving Change In The Freight Industry. Forbes.

Nearly 70% of all freight moved in the United States travels by truck,  10 billion tons each year, according to the American Trucking Associations, a trade group.

Without trucks, the American economy brakes to a halt.

Despite the industry’s importance, its progress has long been impeded by its fragmentation into tens of thousands of small trucking carriers needing intermediaries to transact business with shippers. Such brokers typically rely on telephone calls to engage the parties, which is neither the most efficient or cost-effective way to move cargo. Brokers aren’t cheap. For local trucking jobs, the fees can be up to 45 percent of the job.

Several mobile applications hope to change this by replacing the traditional middleman linking truckers to shippers and vice versa. These apps could end up being as disruptive to the trucking industry as Uber was for the taxi business.

One of these new apps is Cargomatic, the brainchild of a tech entrepreneur from Silicon Valley and a logistics expert from Los Angeles, which launched in 2014. Another is Convoy, a Seattle-based startup launched in September 2015.

Not surprisingly, both companies leverage the similarities of their apps to Uber in their marketing materials. The comparisons are obvious, although the apps transport freight and not people. Like Uber, both companies have created algorithms that address the transportation needs between two parties, with all the financial logistics, such as billing and payment, handled by the app.

Posted in Fuel Efficiency | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Book review of Failing states, collapsing systems biophysical triggers of political violence by Nafeez Ahmed

[ In this post I summarize the sections of Nafeez’s book about the biophysical factors that bring nations down (i.e. climate change drought & water scarcity, declining revenues after peak oil, etc.) The Media tend to focus exclusively on economic and political factors.

My book review is divided into 3 parts: 

  • Why states collapse for reasons other than economic and political
  • How BioPhysical factors contribute to systemic collapse in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia Egypt, Nigeria
  • Predictions of when collapse will begin in Middle East, India, China, Europe, Russia, North America

In my opinion, war is inevitable in the Middle East where over half of oil reserves exist.  Oil is life itself.  If war happens,  collapse of the Middle East, India, and China could happen well before 2030.  If nuclear weapons are used, most nations collapse from the nuclear winter and ozone depletion that would follow.   Indonesia blew up their oil refineries to keep Japan from getting oil in WWII. If Middle Eastern governments or terrorists do the same after they’re attacked, that brings on the energy crisis sooner.  Although this would leave some high EROI oil in the ground, the energy to rebuild refineries, pipelines, oil rigs, roads, and other infrastructure would lower the EROI considerably.

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

Ahmed, Nafeez. 2017. Failing States, Collapsing Systems BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence. Springer.

1) Why states collapse for reasons other than economic and political

Since the 2008 financial crash, there’s been an unprecedented outbreak of social protest: Occupy in the US and Western Europe, the Arab Spring, and civil unrest from Greece to Ukraine, China to Thailand, Brazil to Turkey, and elsewhere. Sometimes civil unrest has resulted in government collapse or even wars, as in Iraq-Syria and Ukraine- Crimea. The media and experts blame it on poor government, usually ignoring the real reasons because all they know is politics and economics.

In the Middle East, experts should also talk about geology.  Oil-producing nations like Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Nigeria, and Iraq have all reached peak oil and declining government revenues after that force rulers to raise the prices of food and oil.  This region was already short on water, and now climate change (from fossil fuels) is making matters much worse with drought and heat waves causing even greater water scarcity, which in turn lowers agricultural production.  Many of these nations have some of the highest rates of population growth on earth at a time when resources essential to life itself are declining.

The few nations still producing much of the oil – Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. are about to join the club and stop exporting oil so they can provide for their domestic population.

Ahmed points out that “because these and other factors are so nested and interconnected, even small perturbations and random occurrences in one can amplify effects on other parts of the system, sometimes in a feedback process that continues.  If thresholds are reached, these tipping points can re-order the whole system”.  These ecological and geological factors result in social disorder, which makes it even harder for government to do anything, such as putting more money into water and food production infrastructure, which accelerates climate change and energy decline impacts, which leads to even more violence at an accelerating rate until state failure.

2) How BioPhysical factors contribute to systemic collapse in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia Egypt, Nigeria


Table 1. Overview of biophysical factors (water scarcity, peak oil, population) for nations Ahmed discusses in this book

The UN defines a region as having now water scarcity above 1700 cubic meters per capita (green).  Water stressed nations have 1000 to 1700 cubic meters per capita (yellow).  Water scarcity is 500-1000 per capita (orange) and absolute water scarcity 0-500 (red).  Countries already experiencing water stress or far worse include Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Syria, Yemen, India, China, and parts of the United States. Many, though not all, of these countries are experiencing protracted conflicts or civil unrest (Patrick 2015).


The media portray warfare in Syria as due to the extreme repression of President Bashar al-Assad and the support he receives from Russia.  Although there has been awareness that climate change drought played a role in causing conflict, there is no recognition that peak oil was one of the main factors.

Here’s a quick summary of how peak oil and consequent declining revenues from oil production, rising energy and food prices, drought, water scarcity, and population growth led to social unrest, violence, terrorism and war.

It shouldn’t be surprising that peak oil in 1996 triggered the tragic events we see today.  After all, the main source of Syrian revenue came from their production of 610,000 barrels per day (bpd).  By 2010 oil production had declined by half. Falling revenues caused Syria to seek help from the IMF by 2001, and the onerous market reform policies required resulted in higher unemployment and poverty, especially in rural Sunni regions, while at the same time enriching and corrupting ruling minority Alawite private and military elites.

In 2008 the government had to triple oil prices resulting in higher food prices. In 2010 food prices rose even more due to the global price of wheat doubling in 2010-2011. On top of that, the 2007-2010 drought was the worst on record, causing widespread crop failures. This forced mass migrations of farming families to cities (Agrimoney 2012; Kelley et al. 2015). The drought wouldn’t have been so bad if half the water hadn’t been wasted and overused previously from 2002 to 2008 (Worth 2010). All of these violence-creating events were worsened by one of the highest birth rates on earth, 2.4%.  Most of the additional 80,000 people added in 2011 were born in the hardest-hit drought areas (Sands 2011).

Rinse and repeat.  Social unrest and violence led to war, oil production dropped further, so there is even less money to end unrest with subsidized food and energy or more employment, aid farmers, and build desalination plants.

Syria, once able to feed its people, now depends on 4 million tonnes of grain imports at a time when revenues continue to drop.  Syrian oil production didn’t really take off until 1968 when there were 6.4 million people.  Since oil revenues allowed their population to explode, another 13.6 million have been born.


Like Syria, Iraq’s agricultural production has been reduced by heat, drought, heavy rain, water scarcity, rapid population growth, and the inability of government to import food and provide goods and services as oil revenues decline.  ISIS has worsened matters and filled in the gaps of state-level failure.  Peak oil is likely by 2025.  Or sooner given the ongoing war, lack of investment to keep existing production flowing, and low oil prices (Dipaola 2016).


Like Syria, Iraq, and Iran, Yemen has long faced serious water scarcity issues. The country is consuming water far faster than it is being replenished, an issue that has been identified by numerous experts as playing a key background role in driving local inter-tribal and sectarian conflicts (Patrick 2015).

Yemen is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. In 2012, the average Yemeni had access to just 140 cubic meters of water a year for all uses and just three years later a catastrophic 86 m3, far below the 1000 m3 level minimum requirement standards.    Cities often only have sporadic access to running water— every other week or so.  Sanaa could become the first capital in the world to run out of water (IRIN 2012).

Yemen reached peak oil production in 2001, declining from 450,000 barrels per day (bbd) to 100,000 bpd in 2014, and will be zero by 2017 (Boucek 2009).   This has led to a drastic decline in Yemen’s oil exports, which has eaten into government revenues, 75% of which had depended on oil exports. Oil revenues also account for 90% of the government’s foreign exchange reserves. The decline in post-peak Yemen state revenues has reduced the government’s capacity to sustain even basic social investments. When the oil runs out … the capacity to sustain a viable state-structure will completely collapse.

Yemen has 25 million people and an exorbitantly high growth rate and expected to double by 2050. In 2014 experts warned that within the next decade, these demographic trends would demolish the government’s ability to meet the population’s basic needs in education, health and other essential public services. This is already happening to over 15 million people (Qaed 2014).  Over half the Yemeni population lives below the poverty line, and unemployment is at 40% (60% of young people).

To cope, too many people have turned to growing qat (a mild narcotic) on 40% of Yemen’s irrigated land, increasing water use to 3.9 billion cubic meters (bcm), but the renewable water supply is just 2.5 bcm. The 1.4 bcm shortfall is made up by pumping water from underground water reserves that are starting to run dry.

Energy, overpopulation, drought, water scarcity, poverty, and a government unable to do much of anything without oil revenue is in a downward loop of social tensions, local conflicts and even mass displacements.  This in turn adds to the dynamics of the wider sectarian and political conflicts between the government, the Houthis, southern separatists and al-Qaeda affiliated militants.

Violence undermines food security, feeding back into the downward spiraling loop.  Making matters worse is that rain-fed agriculture has dropped by about 30% since 1970, making Yemen ever more food import dependent at a time when revenues are shrinking. The country now imports over 85% of its food, including 90% of its wheat and all of its rice (World Bank 2014). Most Yemenis are hungry because they can’t afford to buy food, which also rises in price when global prices rise.  The rate of chronic malnutrition as high as 58%, second only to Afghanistan (Arashi 2013).

Epidemic levels of government corruption, mismanagement and incompetence, have meant that what little revenue the government receives ends up in Swiss bank accounts.  With revenues plummeting in the wake of the collapse of its oil industry, the government has been forced to slash subsidies while cranking up fuel and diesel prices. This has, in turn, cranked up prices of water, meat, fruits, vegetables and spices, leading to fuel and food riots (Mawry 2015).

Is Saudi Arabia Next?

Summary: Within the next decade, Saudi Arabia will become especially vulnerable to the downward feedback loop of peak oil.  The most likely date for peak oil is 2028 (Ebrahimi 2015). But because the Saudi exports have been going down since 2005 at 1.4% a year as their own population rises and consumes more and more, world exports could end as soon as 2031 (Brown and Foucher 2008).

Saudi revenues will decline to zero, so the Saudis will be less able to buy their way out of food shortages.  Their own food production will drop as well from drought and water scarcity — the kingdom is one of the most water scarce in the world, at 98 m per inhabitant per year.

Most water comes from groundwater, 57% of which is non-renewable, and 88% of it goes to agriculture. Desalination plants produce 70% of the kingdom’s domestic water supplies. But desalination is very energy intensive, accounting for more than half of domestic oil consumption. As oil exports run down, along with state revenues, while domestic consumption increases, the kingdom’s ability to use desalination to meet its water needs will decrease (Patrick 2015; Odhiambo 2016).

According to the Export Land Model (ELM) created by Texas petroleum geologist Jeffrey J Brown and Dr. Sam Foucher, the key issue is the timing of when there will be no more exports because the domestic population of oil producing nations is using it all for domestic consumption.   Brown and Foucher showed that the tipping point to watch out for is when an oil producer can no longer increase the quantity of oil sales abroad because of the need to meet rising domestic energy demand.

Saudi Arabia is the region’s largest energy consumer. Domestic demand has increased 7.5% over the last 5 years, mainly due to population growth. Saudi population may grow from 29 million people now to 37 million by 2030, using ever more oil and therefore less available for export.

Declining Saudi peak oil exports will affect every nation on earth that imports Saudi oil, especially top customers China, Japan, the United States, South Korea, and India.  As Saudi oil declines, there will be few other places oil for importing nations to turn to, since other exporting nations will also be using their oil domestically.

A report by Citigroup predicted net exports would plummet to zero in the next 15 years. This means that 80% of money from oil sales the Saudi state depends on are trending downward, eventually terminally (Daya 2016). In this case, the peak oil production date could happen far before 2028, as well as violent social unrest, since so far, Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth, and its unique ability to maintain generous subsidies for oil, housing, food and other consumer items, has kept civil unrest at bay. Energy subsidies alone make up about a fifth of Saudi’s gross domestic product. But as revenues are increasingly strained by decreasing exports after peak oil, the kingdom will need to slash subsidies (Peel 2013).  Even now a quarter of the Saudi’s live in poverty, and unemployment is 12%, especially young people who have a 30% unemployment level.

Saudi Arabia is experiencing climate change as temperatures rise in the interior and far less rainfall occurs in the north.  By 2040, local average temperatures are expected to increase by as much as 4 °C at the same time rain levels are falling, resulting in more extreme weather events like the 2010 Jeddah flooding when a year of rain fell in 4 hours.  The combination could dramatically impact agricultural productivity, which is already facing challenges from overgrazing and unsustainable industrial agricultural practices leading to accelerated desertification (Chowdhury 2013).

80% of Saudi Arabia’s food requirements are purchased through heavily subsidized imports.  Without the protection of oil revenue subsidies, and potential rises in the global prices of food (Taha 2014), the Saudi population would be heavily impacted. But with net oil revenues declining to zero—potentially within just 15 years—Saudi Arabia’s capacity to finance continued food imports will be in question.


Like Syria, Egypt has had increasing problems paying for food, goods, and services after peak oil in 1993 while at the same time population keeps growing.   Worse yet, there are no oil revenues at all, because since 2010 the population has been using more oil than what is produced and has had to import oil, with no oil revenues to pay for food, goods, and services.  Two-thirds of Egypt’s oil reserves have likely been depleted and oil produced now is declining at 3.4% a year.

Nor are there revenues coming from natural gas sales made up for the loss of oil revenues.  Over the past decade domestic use nearly doubled to consumption of nearly all the production (Kirkpatrick 2013a).

The Egyptian population since 2000 has grown 21% to 80 million $$$ more than that! people and isn’t slowing down, with 20 million more expected over the next 10 years.  A quarter are children half of them living in poverty and unemployed  (EI 2012) at the same time the elites have grown wealthier from IMF and World Bank policies.

In the 1960s there were 2800 cubic meters of water per capita, now just 660 – well below international the standard of water poverty of 1000 per person (Sarant 2013).   Water scarcity and population growth lave led to tens of thousands of hectares of farmland to be abandoned.  There is some water that can be obtained, but most farmers can’t afford the price of diesel fuel to power pumps  (Kirkpatrick 2013b)

Egypt was self-sufficient in food production in the 1960s but now imports 70% of its food (Saleh 2013). One of the many reasons Mubarak fell was the doubling of wheat prices in 2011 since half of Egypt’s people depend on food rations.  But the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood party and their leader Morsi couldn’t alleviate declining government revenues due to the biophysical realities of food, water, and energy shortages either.  Morsi desperately tried to get a $4.8 billion IMF loan by slashing energy subsidies and raising sales taxes, but the economic crisis made it hard to make the payments and wheat imports dropped to a third of what was imported a year ago.

This led to Morsi being ousted by army chief Abdul Fateh el-Sisi in a coup.  Like his predecessors, El-Sisi has also been unable to meet IMF demands for increased hydrocarbon production and has resorted to unprecedented levels of brutal force to crush protests. He has also rationed electricity, which led to key industries cutting production, leading to further economic losses, declining exports and foreign reserves.  Without more money, energy companies can’t be paid, so energy production continues to drop, and debt goes up, reducing the value of Egyptian currency and higher costs for imports and shortages of energy for industrial production. Egypt’s energy and economy find themselves caught in an amplifying feedback loop (Barron 2016).

How Boko Haram arose in Nigeria

Nigeria’s climate change has led to water and land shortages from desertification, which in turn has led to illness, hunger, and unemployment followed by conflict (Sayne 2011).

Perhaps the Boko Haram wouldn’t have arisen, if the Maitatsine sect in northern Nigeria hadn’t been hit so hard by ecological disasters.  To survive they fanned out to search for food, water, shelter, and work (Sanders 2013).  Niger and Chad refugees from drought and floods also became Boko Haram foot soldiers, some 200,000 displaced farmers and herdsmen.

In northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is from, about 70% of the population subsists on less than a dollar a day. As noted by David Francis, one of the first western reporters to cover Boko Haram: “Most of the foot soldiers of Boko Haram aren’t Muslim fanatics; they’re poor kids who were turned against their corrupt country by a charismatic leader” (Francis 2014)

The Nigerian military sees a correlation between regional climatic events, and an upsurge in extremist violence: “It has become a pattern; we saw it happen in 2006; it happened again in 2008 and in 2010. President Obasanjo had to deploy the military in 2006 to Yobe State, Borno State and Katsina State. These are some of the states bordering Niger Republic and today they are the hotbeds of the Boko Haram” (Mayah 201).

Drought caused desertification is decreasing food production, in turn leading to “economic decline; population displacement and disruption of legitimized authoritative institutions and social relations.” The net effect was an acceleration of the attractiveness of groups like “Boko Haram and other forms of Jihadi ideology,” resulting in escalating “herder-farmer clashes emanating from the north since 1980s” (Onyia 2015).

The rapid spread of Boko Haram also coincided with the Lake Chad’s shrinking from 25,000 square km in 1963 to less than 2500 square km today, mainly due to climate change. At this rate, Lake Chad is will dry up in 20 years, and has already caused millions of people to lose their livelihoods.

The government has exacerbated problems by cutting fuel subsidies, which led to fuel shortages, angering the public who engaged in civil unrest  (Omisore 2014).

A senior Shell official said that crude oil production decline rates are as high as 15–20%.  But Nigeria doesn’t have the money to explore to find more oil to offset this high decline rate. Nigeria’s petroleum resources department said that Nigeria had reached a plateau of production in the Niger Delta and were already going down (Ahmed 2014).

About $15 billion of investment is required just to maintain current production levels and compensate for a natural decline in production of about 250,000 b/d each year. A 2011 study by two Nigerian scholars concluded that “there is an imminent decline in Nigeria’s oil reserve since peaking could have occurred or just about to occur (Akuru and Okoro 2011). A 2013 report backs this up, finding that Nigeria’s crude oil production has decreased since its peak in 2005, largely due to the impact of internal conflicts, leading to the withdrawal of oil companies and lack of investments. Since then production has fluctuated along a plateau. The UK Department for International Development report noted that new offshore fields might bring additional oil on-stream, surpassing the 2005 peak—but also noted that rising domestic demand “at some point in the future may cut into the amount of oil available for export” (Hall et al. 2014).

POPULATION. With Nigeria’s population expected to rise from 160 to 250 million by 2025 and oil accounting for some 96% of export revenue as well as 75% of government revenue, the state has resorted to harsh austerity measures. Sharp reductions in public spending, power cuts, fuel shortages and conditional new loans will probably widen economic inequalities and further stoke the grievances that feed groups like Boko Haram in the North. With domestic oil production decline undermining Nigeria’s oil export revenues and consequent fuel subsidy cuts, the public grows poorer and increases the number of young men more likely to join Islamist terrorist groups.

3) Predictions of when collapse will begin in Middle East, India, China, Europe, Russia, North America

When will  Middle-East oil producing nations fail?

Ahmed says that so far after peak oil production, Middle-Eastern economies have declined as revenues declined, leading to systemic state-failure in roughly 15 years, more or less, depending on how hard hit a nation was by additional (climate-change) factors such as drought, water scarcity, food prices, and overpopulation.

Saudi Arabia, and much of the rest of Arabian Gulf peninsula, may experience state-failure well within 10 to 20 years. If forecasts of Saudi oil depletion are remotely accurate, then by 2030 the country will simply not exist as we know it. Coupled with the accelerating impacts of climate-induced water scarcity, the Kingdom is bound to begin experiencing systemic state-failure at most within 20 years, and probably much earlier.

Marin Katusa, chief energy strategist at Casey Research, reports that “many Middle Eastern countries may stop exporting oil and gas altogether within the next few years, while some already have” (Katusa 2016). Oil analysts at Lux Research estimate that OPEC oil reserves may have been overstated by as much as 70%. True OPEC reserves could be as low as 429 billion barrels, which could mean a global net export crunch as early as 2020 (Lazenby 2016).

The period from 2020 to 2030 will see Middle East oil exporters experiencing a systemic convergence of energy and food crises.

When will India & China collapse?

India and China are widely assumed to be the next superpowers, but at this stage of energy and resource depletion, can’t possibly mimic the exponential growth of the Western world.

India, South Asia, and China face enormous ecological challenges Irregularities in the pattern of monsoon rains and drought are likely to lower food production and increase water scarcity, while higher temperatures will increase the range of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and become prevalent year-round (DCDC 2013). As sea levels rise, millions of people will be displaced permanently.

These impacts will unravel regional political and economic order well within 20 years and manifest at first as civil unrest.  Depending on how the Indian and Chinese states respond, it is likely that these outbreaks of domestic disorder will become more organized, and will eventually undermine state territorial integrity before 2030.  Near-term growth will further undermine environmental health and deplete resources, making these nations even more vulnerable to climate and food crises.

European and Russian collapse timeframe

Within Europe, resource depletion has meant that the European Union as a whole has become increasingly dependent on energy imports from Russia, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. Yet exports from these regions will become tighter as major oil producers approach production limits.

The geopolitical turmoil that has unfolded in Ukraine provides a compelling indication that such processes are rapidly moving from the periphery of the global system into the core. For the most part, the Euro-Atlantic core—traditionally representing the most powerful sections of the world system—has insulated itself from global crisis convergence impacts by diversifying energy supply sources. However, there is only so much that diversification can achieve when the total energetic and economic quality of global hydrocarbon resource production is declining.


Faced with these converging crises, the Euro-Atlantic core will continue to see the creation of cheap debt-money through quantitative easing as an immediate solution to generate emergency funds to stabilize the financial system and shore-up ailing industries. This will likely play out in one of these business-as-usual scenarios:

  1. The lower resource quality (EROI) of the global energy system may act as a fundamental geophysical ceiling on the capacity of the economy to grow. It may act as an invisible brake on growth in demand, so fossil fuel prices would remain at chronically low levels, endangering the profitability of the fossil fuel industries. This would lead to an acceleration of the demise of the fossil fuel industries, which could lead to debt-defaults across industries in the financial system. Declining hydrocarbon energy production would cause a self-reinforcing recessionary economic process. This would escalate vulnerability to water, food and energy crises and hugely strain the capacity of European and American states to deliver goods and services to even their own populations, and other nations dependent as much on importing food as they are oil.
  2. Scarcity of net exports on the world market may raise oil prices and provide some sectors of ailing fossil fuel industries to be profitable again. But previous slashing of investments and cutbacks in exploration will mean that only the most powerful sections of the industry would be able to capitalize on this, which means production is unlikely to return to former high levels. Price spikes would trigger economic recession, causing a drop in demand, while lower production levels would exacerbate the economy’s inability to grow substantially, if at all. In effect, the global economy would likely still experience a self-reinforcing recessionary economic process.

In both scenarios, escalating economic crises are likely to invite the Euro-Atlantic core to respond by using debt-money to shore-up as much of the existing core financial and energy industries as possible. Prices spikes and shortages in water, food and energy would be experienced by general populations as a dramatic lowering of purchasing power, leading to an overall decrease in quality of life, an increase in poverty, and a heightening of inequality. This would undermine their internal cohesion, giving rise to new divisive, nationalist and xenophobic movements, and lead states into a tightening spiral of militarization to police domestic order. As instability in the Middle East and elsewhere intensifies, manifesting in further unrest, political violence and terrorist activity, states will also be drawn increasingly into short- sighted military solutions. In particular, scarcity of net oil exports on the world market will heighten geopolitical and military competition to control and/or access the world’s remaining hydrocarbon energy resources. With the Middle East still holding the vast bulk of the world’s reserves, the region will remain a central flashpoint for such competition, even as major producers such as Saudi Arabia approach systemic state-failure due to reaching inevitable production declines.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that as we near 2045, the European and American projects will face escalating internal challenges to their internal territorial integrity, increasing the risk of systemic state-failure. Likewise, after 2030, Europe, India, China (and other Asian nations) will begin to experience symptoms of systemic state-failure.


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