France is trying to get rid of pesticides

Preface.  This article discusses how France is doing so far in their attempt to use less pesticides.  This is the direction we should be going in post fossils.  Many of the solutions are too high-tech to be used after the Great Simplification that will come after energy decline though.

But in the long run, pesticides are going to have to go away as I explain in this post: “Chemical industrial farming is unsustainable. Why poison ourselves when pesticides don’t save more of our crops than in the past?

Good for France for even trying, since I can’t find any other nations that have made it a government priority. Let’s hope they have succeed!

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


Stokstad, E. 2018. A new leaf. A decade ago France launched an ambitious effort to cut pesticide use by half. It failed. Now the country is trying again. Science 362: 144-147.

Months earlier, Fremont had planted this vetch and clover along with the rapeseed. The two legumes had grown rapidly, preventing weeds from crowding out the emerging rapeseed and guarding it from hungry beetles and weevils. As a result, Fremont had cut by half the herbicide and insecticide he sprayed. The technique of mixing plant species in a single field had worked “perfectly,” he said.

This innovative approach is just one of many practices, now spreading across France, that could help farmers achieve an elusive national goal. In 2008, the French government announced a dramatic shift in agricultural policy, calling for pesticide use to be slashed in half. And it wanted to hit that target in just a decade. No other country with as large and diverse an agricultural system had tried anything so ambitious. The goal “was very revolutionary,” says Henriette Christensen of the Pesticide Action Network in Brussels, especially because France is the second largest consumer of pesticides in Europe.

Since then, the French government has spent nearly half a billion euros on implementing the plan, called Ecophyto. It created a network of thousands of farms that test methods of reducing chemical use, improved national surveillance of pests and plant diseases, and funded research on technologies and techniques that reduce pesticide use. It has imposed taxes on farm chemicals in a bid to decrease sales, and even banned numerous pesticides, infuriating many farmers.

The effort has helped quench demand on some farms. Overall, however, Ecophyto has failed miserably. Instead of declining, national pesticide use has increased by 12%, largely mirroring a rise in farm production. “We lost 10 years since 2008,” says François Veillerette of Générations Futures, an environmental advocacy organization in Paris. “We can’t afford to waste 10 more.”

Officials are now finalizing a revised plan dubbed Ecophyto 2+ to boost research, add demonstration farms, increase taxes on pesticides, and prohibit more compounds. President Emmanuel Macron has even urged a ban of glyphosate, the world’s best-selling weed killer and an important tool for many farmers.

Details of the revised plan, including funding levels, are still being decided. But some observers are already skeptical. Farmers fear burdensome rules and increased costs that will put them at a competitive disadvantage. Environmental organizations worry France will again fall short. “There are good ideas,” says Carmen Etcheverry, formerly of France Nature Environnement in Paris. “But we don’t know how they will be implemented.”

There is also optimism. Despite Ecophyto’s failure, it showed farmers have powerful options, such as mixing crops, planting new varieties, and tapping data analysis systems that help identify the best times to spray. With the right incentives and support, those tools might make a bigger difference this time around. And the fact that France isn’t backing away from its ambitious goal inspires many observers. “You feel,” says Robert Finger, an agricultural economist at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, “that something vivid is going on.”

After WWII synthetic herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides greatly boosted French farmers’ harvests and profits. But the chemicals contaminated groundwater, lakes, and streams, and they harmed farm workers and wildlife. Consumers became wary, and by the 1970s public opposition to pesticides was growing.

During the 2000s, pesticide sales fell as farmers applied them with increasing efficiency and sometimes switched to more effective compounds that required smaller doses. But the ambition to do much better crystalized in 2007, when then–French President Nicolas Sarkozy convened a conference to set a 5-year environmental agenda. Ecophyto was the result, negotiated between environmentalists, farm unions, pesticide-makers, and others. It included a major political concession; the 50% cut would be reached “if possible,” which meant that much of the plan was voluntary.

Still, Ecophyto served as a catalyst. Research funds were targeted at evaluating smarter ways to use pesticides. Approaches were tested on some 3000 farms that joined a demonstration network. Officials recruited observers around the country to scout for pests and plant diseases and provide weekly reports; the surveillance helps farmers decide when spraying might be a waste of resources. On average, farms in the demonstration network decreased their pesticide use by 18%, and most did it without sacrificing profits.

But France’s overall use of chemical pest control went up. Many factors contributed. Taxes on chemicals, for example, weren’t high enough to influence buying decisions. It was difficult to persuade some farmers to adopt new practices or technologies that might add to their costs or decrease yields. Ecophyto’s funding—about €70 million a year since 2016—was too low and “out of all proportion to the challenge,” France’s inspector general concluded late last year. And market forces, such as high prices for cereals, may have created an incentive to spray more chemicals to protect unusually lucrative harvests.

Yet veterans of Ecophyto aren’t discouraged. On many farms, analysts say, it appears that existing technologies and practices alone could cut chemical use by at least 20%.

The 450 hectare vineyards at Ducourt Estate in Ladaux, France, produce about 3 million bottles of wine each year. In a long garage, massive four-wheeled tractor-sprayers stand 3 meters tall. Each carries a 2200-liter tank for fungicide. Their articulated arms, studded with nozzles, can spray chemicals on four rows of grapes in one pass, killing mildew and other plant pathogens.

Winemakers are France’s biggest users of fungicides, although most are based on sulfur and copper, rather than more toxic synthetic molecules. Still, the sight of Ducourt’s yellow beasts trundling through the vineyards can unnerve estate neighbors worried about farm chemicals, says Jeremy Ducourt, who helps manage the family owned business. The machines are actually “a big part of the solution,” he says. That’s because they helped the estate reduce its use of fungicides by about 30%, thanks to nozzles that put more fungicide on the plant and less on the ground. The most advanced sprayers even collect and reuse any lingering mist.

Similar high-efficiency sprayers are available for other crops, and just replacing older models with newer machines could make a dent in France’s chemical use. But upgrades don’t come cheap. The Ducourt Estate’s sprayers, which double as harvesters, cost about €320,000. Add the fact that only 3% of the nation’s 200,000 sprayers are replaced each year, and it could take decades to fully upgrade the fleet.

The Ducourt family has also cut fungicide by using decision support software. The program draws on timely weather, surveillance, and other information, such as the size of leaves, to advise when to spray. The tool can reduce fungicide use by about 20% in vineyards, and cereal growers have seen similar results. But such tools haven’t yet spread to all farms. Potato farmers, who also spray copious fungicides, now use the tools on about half of their fields, but aim to increase that share to 90% within 5 years.

When it comes to insects, it’s much more difficult for software to predict outbreaks in fields. So, farmers must diligently scout their fields so that they can apply insecticides before pests multiply out of control. Ecophyto 2+ aims to boost a non-insecticide approach called biocontrol. In this long-standing approach, farmers confuse pests with pheromones, for example, or seek to reduce populations by introducing the pest’s natural predators. Advocates highlight the strategy’s success in France’s ample fields of maize. There, a tiny introduced parasitic wasp called Trichogramma brassicae has become a key weapon against the corn rootworm, a major pest. The wasps lay their eggs inside the eggs of the rootworms, shrinking populations just as effectively as insecticides when conditions are optimal.

The wasps are not a panacea. Although the costs are roughly comparable to insecticides, more labor is required to hang the cardboard cartons holding the wasps on maize plants. And insecticides remain more popular in southern France, where maize farmers face multiple pests the wasps don’t attack. (In other nations, maize farmers control pests with less insecticide by planting genetically modified plants, but engineered crops are not allowed in France.) Despite such limitations, the wasps are now used on 23% of maize hectares where rootworms pose a threat.

The mixed crop technique used by Fremont in his fields of rapeseed demonstrates another use of biology, in this case to control weeds. It’s the kind of ancient technique that used to be commonplace. In August, one or more fast-growing legumes are planted between the rows of rapeseed. There’s enough space that the legumes don’t steal too much water or light, but they keep down weeds and, as a bonus, release nitrogen, a fertilizer. They also seem to minimize insect attacks, although this benefit hasn’t been conclusively demonstrated. By the time frost kills the legumes, the rapeseed has grown thick enough that few weeds can challenge it.

Such mixed cropping “is becoming very popular,” says Marie-Hélène Jeuffroy, an agronomist with the French National Agricultural Research Institute (INRA) in Versailles. Nationwide, 3% to 5% of France’s rapeseed hectares are now co-planted with legumes. That share could grow to 30% by 2030 under a pledge made in July by the French federation of oilseed producers.

One French seed company—Jouffray Drillaud, based in Cisse—sees enough potential in crop mixtures that 2 years ago it stopped selling herbicides, which generated 20% of its revenue. “When you have more diversity, you have more resilience,” says Vincent Béguier, R&D director of the firm, which now focuses its weed control on mixed cropping and other nonchemical approaches. “Simplicity is the worst thing for agriculture.”

So far, rapeseed growers appear to be reaping the biggest benefits in weed control from mixed cropping. But scientists are searching for other possibilities. Jeuffroy and other participants in ReMIX, a new €5 million research collaboration among 13 European countries, are studying how to optimize mixtures, measure benefits, and remove obstacles to mixed cropping.

France’s Ministry of Agriculture is moving to encourage greener approaches by requiring pesticide retailers to inform farmers about 36 alternatives to spraying. Instead of only touting insecticides to kill pests, for example, a dealer might recommend a crop mixture, or traps baited with sexual pheromones to confuse male insects, interfering with reproduction. The goal is to reduce the number of pesticide doses they sell by 20% by 2021. Dealers that miss the goal could face penalties.

To reach Ecophyto’s goal of a 50% cut, however, many farmers will need to make more use of another practice—crop rotation. Alternating what’s planted in a field, ideally over 5 or 6 years, is among the most effective ways to fight weeds, soil-borne pests and diseases. Switching between peas, wheat, and sugar beets, for example, can prevent pathogens from building up in the soil year after year, while swapping in a pasture grass hinders annual weeds.

Although simple in concept, it can be hard to increase the diversity of crops in rotation. That’s because the whole system is locked: Farmers in many regions have specialized in certain crops—such as wheat or potatoes—and rely on finely tuned methods to produce high yields. There is often no nearby market for additional crops, because storage and processing facilities also tend to specialize in dominant crops—as do researchers, advisers, and policymakers. “Everything has been organized around major crops with high use of inputs,” says Antoine Messéan, an agronomist with INRA. “It’s difficult to get out of this self-reinforcing mechanism.”

Crop diversification is not a top priority in the new version of the Ecophyto plan, but the Ministry of Agriculture has asked INRA for advice on how to encourage it. In a related effort, France hopes to double the amount of organic farming, which does not allow synthetic pesticides, to 15% of hectares by 2022. In May, the Ministry of Agriculture announced it will spend €1.1 billion to support organic expansion.

The government also faces growing pressure from environmentalists to ban more farm chemicals. The approach is controversial, and farmers complain that greener alternatives aren’t always available. After an insecticide called dimethoate was banned in France in 2016, for instance, cherry growers had no effective way to fight an invasive fruit fly. Meanwhile, the insecticide remains legal in Spain and Italy, he notes, putting French cherry growers at a disadvantage.

In other cases, banning one chemical can cause the use of others to spike, undermining reduction efforts. French wheat growers, for example, relied on neonicotinoids, which are coated on seeds, to protect the plants against aphids and leaf hoppers. Now that they are banned, some growers might increase applications of other insecticides. And there are other kinds of trade-offs. Some specialists fear banning the weed killer glyphosate could increase erosion or greenhouse gas emissions, if farmers start to till the soil to remove weeds. More research on such trade-offs is “urgently needed,” Finger says.

In the meantime, it will be crucial to enlist France’s farmer-owned cooperatives in making Ecophyto 2+ a success, observers say. French farming is dominated by a handful of these enormous agri-businesses. They buy and trade harvests, and most sell their members seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides. “You cannot reduce pesticides if you don’t convince cooperatives that they should change their business model,” Messéan says. A few have made strides in this direction, such as Terrena, the €5 billion cooperative headquartered near Ancenis that encouraged Fremont to adopt crop mixtures.

Although the majority of French farmers largely ignored or resisted Ecophyto, they are now showing signs of support. In July, more than 40 farmer organizations issued a “Contract for Solutions” that included pledges to reach specific reduction goals. The pledges represent a turning point, says Thirouin, as farm groups are no longer focused just on fighting pesticide bans. “The idea was to step aside from this defensive position and be proactive,” he says. Tridon also sees it as a positive step. “We are really seeing a shift in mindset.”

It’s not only farmers who will have to adjust if France is to meet its ambitious goals. Reducing the cost of food production to the environment and public health will likely increase the cost to consumers and taxpayers. “Everything is possible,” says Eugénia Pommaret, director of the Union of Plant Protection Industries, a pesticide trade group in Paris. “It’s just a question of costs.”

The key to change will be collaboration among all the players in the food system, adds Florence Leprince, an agronomist at Arvalis, a technical institute for arable crops in Montardon, France. “Solutions exist, but they are far from covering all the needs,” she says. “It’s more about increasing the commitment of everyone to change the way of producing.”

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Ice ages may be caused by mountains rising in the tropics

Preface.  In case you’d forgotten– given all the talk about climate change — we’re still in an ice age that’s been going on for 2.6 million years.  Lucky for us, we’ve been in one of the few warm periods for the past 12,000 years.

Scientists have been debating what triggers ice ages for many decades.  The most popular theory is that an ice age is caused by the Milankovitch cycles, in which predictable changes in the Earth’s tilt and orbit combine to affect which areas on Earth get more or less solar radiation.  Based on previous cycles, we are due for an ice age now, and perhaps were even heading that direction the past 6,000 years, since summers have been getting colder for that long.

But once we started burning fossil fuels, we emitted enough greenhouse gases to stave off the next ice age for a while.  But not forever, especially since fossil fuels are on the cusp of depleting (we’re at or near both peak oil and peak coal production globally).  And once they do start to decline, we’ll emit less CO2, and the oceans and land will eventually absorb most of it within centuries, setting the stage for the return of an ice age.

This is a new theory that may or may not be true, but since it was published in the world’s top scientific magazine, Science, it deserves attention.

“A hothouse Earth appears to be the planet’s default state, prevailing for three-fourths of the past 500 million years. An Indonesia-style collision (lifting mountain ranges up) may push the global climate into a glacial period, but only for a while. Mountains erode and continents drift. And the planet warms again.”

And if a hothouse earth ever returns, it won’t be from burning coal, oil, and natural gas, they’ll be long gone. Thank goodness we didn’t burn them during the usual hothouse default state, when even more damage might have been done.

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


Voosen, P. 2019. Tropical uplift may set Earth’s thermostat. Science 363: 13.

Hate the cold? Blame Indonesia. It may sound odd, given the contributions to global warming from the country’s 270 million people, rampant deforestation, and frequent carbon dioxide (CO2)-belching volcanic eruptions. But over much longer times, Indonesia is sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Many mountains in Indonesia and neighboring Papua New Guinea consist of ancient volcanic rocks from the ocean floor that were caught in a colossal tectonic collision between a chain of island volcanoes and a continent, and thrust high. Lashed by tropical rains, these rocks hungrily react with CO2 and sequester it in minerals. That is why, with only 2% of the world’s land area, Indonesia accounts for 10% of its long-term CO2 absorption. Its mountains could explain why ice sheets have persisted, waxing and waning, for several million years (although they are now threatened by global warming).

Now, researchers have extended that theory, finding that such tropical mountain-building collisions coincide with nearly all of the half-dozen or so significant glacial periods in the past 500 million years. “These types of environments, through time, are what sets the global climate,” said Francis Macdonald, a geologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, when he presented the work last month at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. If Earth’s climate has a master switch, he suggests, the rise of mountains like Indonesia’s could be it.

Most geologists agree that long-term changes in the planet’s temperature are governed by shifts in CO2, and that plate tectonics somehow drives those shifts as it remakes the planet’s surface. But for several decades, researchers have debated exactly what turns the CO2 knob. Many have focused on the volcanoes that rise where plates dive beneath one another. By spewing carbon from Earth’s interior, they could turn up the thermostat. Others have emphasized rock weathering, which depends on mountain building driven by plate tectonics. When the mountains contain seafloor rocks rich in calcium and magnesium, they react with CO2 dissolved in rainwater to form limestone, which is eventually buried on the ocean floor. Both processes matter; “the issue is which one is changing the most,” says Cin-Ty Lee, a volcanologist at Rice University in Houston, Texas.

Having the right rocks to drive the CO2-chewing reaction is not sufficient. Climate matters, too. The Siberian Traps, a region that saw devastating volcanic eruptions 252 million years ago, are rich in such rocks but absorb little, says Dennis Kent, a geologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “It’s too damn cold,” he says.

Saudi Arabia has the heat and the rocks but lacks another ingredient. “It’s hotter than Hades but it doesn’t rain.” Indonesia’s location in the rainy tropics is just right. “That is probably what’s keeping us centered in an ice age,” Kent adds.

Macdonald and his collaborators have found other times when tectonics and climate conspired to open an Indonesia-size CO2 drain. They found that glacial conditions 90 million and 50 million years ago lined up neatly with the collisions of a chain of island volcanoes in the now-vanished Neo-Tethys Ocean with the African and Asian continents. A similar collision some 460 million years ago formed the Appalachians, but it was thought to have taken place in the subtropics, where a drier climate does not favor weathering. By reanalyzing ancient magnetic fields in rocks formed in the collision, Macdonald’s team found the mountains actually rose deep in the tropics. And their uplift matched a 2-million-year-long glaciation. “They’re developing a pretty compelling story that this was a climate driver in Earth’s past,” says Lee Kump, a paleoclimatologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

But those cases could be exceptions. So the team compiled a database of every tectonic “suture”—the linear features left by tectonic collisions—known to contain ophiolites, those bits of volcanic sea floor, over the past half-billion years. Based on magnetism in each suture’s rocks and a model of continental drift, they mapped their ancient latitudes to see which formed in the topics, and when.  

The team compared the results to records of past glaciations and found a strong correlation. They also looked for declines in volcanism, which might have cooled the climate. But their influence was much weaker, Macdonald said.

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Quartermaster Meigs was essential to winning the Civil War

Preface. This is a book review of Robert O’Harrow’s 2016 book “The Quartermaster.Montgomery C. Meigs. Lincolns general, master builder of the Union army”.

I can’t believe I never heard of him, but he is as much responsible for the North winning the Civil war as any general or President Lincoln. As chief quartermaster he kept the military clothed, fed, and sheltered despite a million difficulties that had to be overcome, including corruption, lack of horses, wagons, and other equipment. 

My main motive in reading this was to find out what fighting wars in the future will be like without fossil fuels.  Also, I worked in transportation, so the logistics of trying to supply so many hundreds of thousands of soldiers and horses across many thousands of miles is interesting as well.

I became interested in the behind-the-scenes providers of fighting wars recently when I read that the list of goods Philip Paul, comte de Ségur (1780–1873) was expected to provide to Napoleon to invade Russia. Paul was one of Napoleon’s generals and perhaps the most famous chronicler of the disastrous Russian invasion.  Here was just the Prussian contribution: 22,046 tons of rye, 264 tons of rice, two million bottles of beer,  44,092 tons of wheat, 71,650 tons of straw, 38,581 tons of hay, six million bushels of oats, 44,000 oxen, 15,000 horses, 300,600 wagons with harness and drivers, each carrying a load of 1700 pounds; and finally, hospitals provided with everything necessary for 20,000 sick.

Makes you wonder how anyone can afford to fight a war!

By the time of the Civil war, far fewer wagons and horses were needed.  The North won by moving most of the goods on railroads and ships, which are far faster and can carry the equivalent weight of thousands of horses pulling wagons.  No matter how often the rebels blew up railroad tracks and bridges, a huge crew of men with spare rails, ties, and the lumber to build bridges put it all back together again. 

At this time, locomotives and ships burned wood in their steam engines, but only a few years later they switched to coal. They had to.  Most of the forests East of the Mississippi were gone, even though there were only 30 million people.  The forests were cut down not only to power steam engines, but for cooking, heating, and building homes and other wood products.    

One of the problems that had to be overcome were the corrupt contractors, who sold sand in place of sugar, lame horses as wagon ready, and rusty muskets that the army had previously rejected as worthless.  One product embodied the fraud and corruption accompanying the army’s mobilization: shoddy, a fabric made of cuttings and other waste retrieved from the floors of clothing makers. Combined with glue, pounded and rolled, it had the appearance of sturdy cloth. Its lack of integrity became apparent only in the field, under a hot sun and exposed to drenching showers. It literally fell off the backs of soldiers.

The Quartermasters duties included: supplying horses to haul artillery, cavalry, and wagon trains, as well as the forage to feed them. It built barracks and hospitals. It furnished uniforms, socks, shoes, needles, thread, pots, canteens, and other goods to the men. The department’s men also constructed and repaired roads, bridges, railroads, and military telegraph lines. They chartered ships and steamers, providing the coal to fuel them and the docks and wharves to unload them.

The army consumed 600,000 tons or more of supplies every day, nearly all of which had to be shipped in at great expenseEvery horse needed to eat 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of corn, barley, and oats, while each soldier required just 3 pounds of food.

After a battle quartermaster men were asked to collect huge amounts of materiel left behind by both armies, including muskets, ammunition, cartridge boxes, knapsacks, clothing, and more.  But collecting the gear was hard — people came in swarms to plunder the battlegrounds. Some took guns, bayonets, and other equipment by the wagonload.

Robert O’Harrow. 2016.The Quartermaster.  Montgomery C. Meigs. Lincolns general, master builder of the Union army. Simon & Schuster.

The army quickly faced shortages. The new force needed a logistical machine that could feed and clothe and arm and move an unprecedented number of men for an unknown amount of time. To create that system, Meigs had to engage in what one historian has called the “art of defining and extending the possible” to provide “three big M’s of warfare—materiel, movement, and maintenance.

Meigs was occupied by the most basic questions. What clothing did the army have? What about boots, blankets, and tents? How would he acquire the horses and wagons needed to carry the food, guns, and ammunition? How to reconcile the need for speedy decisions against the obligation to prevent fraud and contracting abuses?

Meigs had to find horses, mules, and oxen. He sent telegrams around the country to order what the army needed, only to discover that defectors had absconded with most of the army’s stock of animals.

Meigs discovered that he had been too optimistic about his ability to muster animals to support the offensive. He had ordered 6,000 horses and mules, but they could not get to Washington. Railcars filled with supplies jammed the depots in Washington. The quartermaster also discovered an acute shortage of wagons. Some 9,000 soldiers heading to the Shenandoah Valley could not go beyond Hagerstown, Maryland, because the army did not have enough wagons to move their supplies from a train depot into the mountains.

Soldiers carried three days’ worth of rations in their haversacks. Many of them demonstrated their lack of discipline, eating provisions with abandon and thus leaving themselves nothing for after the fighting.

Contractors came from everywhere in the spring and summer of 1861, angling to sell an unprepared army everything the soldiers needed. There were contractors for bread, contractors for clothing, contractors for shoes. They provided horses, mules, forage, rail transport, steamers, coal, and construction equipment. They supplied the bullets for killing, surgical equipment to cut off mangled limbs, and ambulance wagons to take the wounded and corpses away. The men of the fast-growing army needed it all, and they needed it now, making the government an easy mark for chiselers.

They sold sand in place of sugar, lame horses as wagon ready, and rusty muskets that the army had previously rejected as worthless.  One product embodied the fraud and corruption accompanying the army’s mobilization: shoddy, a fabric made of cuttings and other waste retrieved from the floors of clothing makers. Combined with glue, pounded and rolled, it had the appearance of sturdy cloth. Its lack of integrity became apparent only in the field, under a hot sun and exposed to drenching showers. It literally fell off the backs of soldiers.

Government employees enabled the profiteering. Horse inspectors in Washington endorsed the purchase of lame animals in exchange for cash bribes.

In St. Louis, a fountain of corruption sprang forth from the army’s new Western Department headquarters. In some ways, the department epitomized the blockheadedness, waste, and abuses of those early months in the war. The department was led by Major General John Frémont, the flamboyant former presidential candidate sometimes known as the Pathfinder. Frémont was blamed for failing to give adequate support to General Nathaniel Lyon who, on a mission to clear Missouri of secessionist soldiers, was defeated at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. More than twelve hundred Federals were killed,

Lincoln was among the angry. With his encouragement, Congress enacted the False Claims Act of 1863, a landmark law that gave whistle-blowers a reward for bringing forward evidence of contracting abuses. Sometimes called “Lincoln’s Law,” it remains one of the government’s key enforcement tools against fraud today.

Much has been written about the tactics and glory of battles. But as Napoleon said, an army marches on its stomach. Before a commander can even hope to attack, destroy, or simply wear down an enemy, he must first be able to deliver 3,000 calories a day to each soldier. He must keep them warm and healthy. Then he has to be able to move them from point A to point B in a reasonable amount of time.

 “The fighting, the direction, even the planning of the battles occupies in the whole seconds only to the hours of labor involved in the preparation & execution of marches.” Regulations mandated that the Quartermaster Department provide transportation for all men, food, weapons, and materiel, a list that grew as the war expanded. It supplied horses to haul artillery, cavalry, and wagon trains, as well as the forage to feed them. It built barracks and hospitals. It furnished uniforms, socks, shoes, needles, thread, pots, canteens, and other goods to the men. The department’s men also constructed and repaired roads, bridges, railroads, and military telegraph lines. They chartered ships and steamers, providing the coal to fuel them and the docks and wharves to unload them.

The supply system relied heavily on depots, and Meigs gave his depot officers room to run them and their field operations as they wanted, so long as they followed his rules and principles

In the first year of the war, spending shot up 18-fold to $174 million annually. It kept rising in each of the next four years. The outlays by the department now far exceeded any other category of spending in the entire federal government

Quartermaster employees needed to be entrepreneurial, dogged, and diplomatic. In every theater of war, at every supply depot and in the cramped offices they occupied in Washington, they engaged in a complex dance with clothing makers, weapons factories, railroads, providers of forage, and many others. They made up many of the steps as they went along.

New technology helped Meigs overcome certain challenges. Consider Isaac M. Singer’s sewing machine, which eventually helped the Union surmount the limitations of an industry in which seamstresses stitched most clothing by hand, or Gordon McKay’s machine for stitching soles onto boots and shoes.

Northern factories went on to produce nearly a half million pairs. The army found that they typically lasted eight times longer than handmade shoes.

Efforts to provide war necessities soon exceeded all other industrial enterprises in the nation, including as many as 130,000 civilian participants. In superintending this colossal endeavor, Meigs provided momentum to the nation’s economy for years to come.

For now, in the summer of 1861, Meigs still had to ensure that Union troops received guns to shoot and pants to wear and food to eat. And that was far from a sure thing. Though Meigs’s duties did not include buying weapons, he took it upon himself to dispatch an agent to Europe to acquire a hundred thousand muskets, twenty thousand sabers, and ten thousand revolvers and carbines.

Union troops died by friendly fire because of soldiers’ inability to identify friend or enemy. Meigs ordered the irregular clothing replaced as soon as possible with blue uniforms made under exact specifications. (His demand for uniformity and efficiency left the nation with a novel legacy that has come down to this day: small, medium, and large sizes.)

Waste compounded Meigs’s challenge. Infantry soldiers often abandoned heavy clothing on warm days. He wrote with frustration about a large, new regiment that cast aside eight hundred coats on a single march, only to find themselves freezing days later in a cold rain.

Textile mills, which simply could not keep up with the army’s extraordinary needs.

Finding enough blankets posed an even harder challenge than providing clothing. Army regulations called for each soldier to receive two blankets every five years. Gray, wool, and warm, they were substantial affairs that weighed about five pounds each. The problem was that no one manufactured enough of them.  In something of an experiment, he also turned to French contractors for entire sets of clothing and camp gear for ten thousand men—uniforms, belts, knapsacks, blankets, tents, cooking utensils, and more. He paid the same prices as the French army, about $800,000 in all.

The America-first crowd now blasted him for spending tax dollars abroad. The Board of Trade in Boston reached out to Cameron and predicted dire consequences, including widespread unemployment and nothing less than the ruin of the American economy. The complaints from the industry eventually had an effect. Congress prohibited most foreign purchases for the rest of the war.

Meigs standardized contracting practices and imposed rules for army buying that generally required advertisements in advance, sealed bids, and the award of work to the lowest bidders. The results showed. The Union army now fed, sheltered, and outfitted nearly 700,000 men. It had acquired tens of thousands of horses and mules, along with harnesses, wagons, and mountains of feed.

Unlike Cameron, Stanton prohibited visitors to his home and curbed the access of lobbyists and lawmakers in the department, who previously had wandered through the offices at will. He also limited Congress’s access to him to just one day a week. Contractors and other visitors also had a single day for lobbying and other business. Stanton reserved the rest of the week to run the war.

Meigs was asked to assess plans for gunboats that could pummel rebel forts, protect river traffic, and support infantry movements. The idea for the boats came from the recognition that the Union had to control the western rivers to prevail. The rivers ran deep into the South and offered promising alternatives to the rutted tracks that often passed for roads there. The Mississippi bisected the Confederacy and served as a highway of commerce. The Tennessee offered a direct route to the rear of the enemy.

Hundreds of vessels transported more than 100,000 men over several weeks’ time.

Department officers under Meigs eventually leased 753 steamers, almost 1,100 sailing vessels, and more than 800 barges. They bought or commissioned construction of about 300 additional vessels.

In addition to moving men, the Peninsula fleet transported more than 14,000 animals, 3,600 wagons, 700 ambulances, mountains of feed for the horses and rations for the men, pontoon bridges, telegraph gear, and vast amounts of other equipment.

While planning the offensive, McClellan told Stanton that the roads were passable in every season. As it happened, the flat, sandy pathways became quagmires in heavy rain that spring. Even lightly loaded wagons sunk down to their beds. Only mules could get them through. The department officers quickly adapted to the conditions,

The logistical demands were unprecedented. The army consumed 600,000 tons or more of supplies every day, nearly all of which had to be shipped in at great expense. McClellan made matters still more challenging by prohibiting troops from foraging in enemy fields unless they paid for whatever they took or issued receipts guaranteeing government payment later. He thought this benign approach would win over Southerners and shorten the war—a notion that Meigs condemned as silliness, or worse.  In his judgment, the Union had to use every means to support its soldiers and exhaust the rebels’ will to fight. This included using enemy land to feed the army’s great herds of horses and mules.

Meigs was concerned about keeping up with the army’s insatiable demand for horses. Union forces relied on the animals to a degree that might be hard to imagine now. It needed horses and mules to maintain its very existence. The numbers in play were remarkable. Armies with about 426,000 men would soon have nearly 114,000 horses and 88,000 mules.  That’s not counting the creatures sidelined by illness, wounds, or fatigue. Until now, Meigs had been lucky in meeting the demand. At the beginning of the war, Northern states had almost 5 million horses on hand. Enough were available even to offset the corruption among dealers who sold the government old, lame, and even blind animals. For many months, the prices remained steady, with horses delivered to Washington at the cost of about $125 each. But lately the market price had crept up close to $185, putting stress on both the Treasury and Meigs.

Thousands had been sent back to Louisville. Meigs said the circumstances showed that Rosecrans simply asked for too many to be able to inspect them. Besides, Meigs said, the horses were overworked, underfed, and abused. Why did Rosecrans take his men and their horses on long marches with no clear purpose? “Such marches destroy the horses,” he wrote. “We have over 126 regiments of cavalry, and they have killed ten times as many horses for us as for the rebels.

The provision of forage presented one of the great challenges of the war to Meigs’s department. Every horse needed to eat 14 pounds of hay and 12 pounds of corn, barley, and oats, while each soldier required just 3 pounds of food. All together, the animals of the Army of the Potomac needed more than four hundred tons of forage each day. Without that fuel, the army could not move. Buying that feed and moving it to the right place, in a timely way, without bankrupting the government, was a stupendous logistical problem.

At the beginning of the war, Meigs had left it to quartermaster officers at each depot and with each army to buy feed as needed. Those officers soon began competing with one another for supplies, driving up prices and further depleting a nearly empty Treasury. To contain the costs, a senior quartermaster officer launched a plan to cut corners by feeding the animals a less expensive mix of corn and oats. Contractors soon grasped that they could jack up profits by secretly bulking up the feed mix with less costly and less nutritious grains. Meigs investigated those scams, studied the market, and imposed price controls.

Delays due to winter storms, railway disruptions, and simple chaos sometimes put the animals perilously close to starvation.  They constructed temporary piers. To fashion the piers, they pulled boats and barges onto shore at high tide, covered them with planks, and then linked them together. They herded cattle over land, maintaining them in corrals and butchering them as needed. To minimize chaos, Van Vliet ordered that supplies remain aboard ships until needed. His men constructed a steam-hoist to speed the movement of food, ammunition, and other supplies onto wagons. The systems worked, but available food often could not be moved quickly enough over narrow, crowded, and mucky roads. Inevitably, many soldiers could never get enough to eat.

Lee was intent on preventing a siege of Richmond. Federal soldiers suffered thousands of casualties before McClellan decided to retreat to Harrison’s Landing on the James River, about 24 miles southeast of Richmond. In the rush back, the trains of wagons supporting each brigade were permitted to make their own way. Instead of one well-organized line, there were as many as nine, all of them vying for position. Competition to get to the head was fierce because the roads were inevitably ruined for those lagging behind. Confusion often resulted. The Quartermaster Department bore responsibility. “A struggle for the lead would naturally set in, each division wanting it and fighting for it.

They hustled all night long, going some thirty miles to Manassas Junction. On their arrival, they saw evidence of what the fight against the North really entailed. Packed warehouses, overloaded railcars, and long lines of barrels held one of the great stores of supplies brought into the field during the war. Fifty thousand pounds of bacon, a thousand barrels of salt pork, hills of flour; jellies, coffee, and tea; piles of uniforms, new boots, and rifled muskets; toothbrushes and candles. “The hungry, threadbare rebels swooped down on the mountain of supplies at Manassas like a plague of grasshoppers,” one historian of the war wrote.

After stuffing themselves and putting on needed clothing, Jackson’s men gathered what they could carry, torched the remaining supplies, and fled. The next day, the army forded the Potomac and entered Maryland. Lee ordered all commanders to reduce their supplies to the minimum. This was in part to minimize the demands on the overtaxed animals the army needed to move cannons, ordnance, and food. “All cannoneers are positively prohibited from riding on the ammunition chests or guns.”

They still did not have enough food or animals. Many residents were unwilling to accept Confederate money. Lee grew more concerned, aware that a lack of supplies could hobble his remarkable and dedicated force every bit as much as fire from the enemy. “I shall endeavor to purchase horses, clothing, shoes, and medical stores for our present use,

The shortfalls the year before had been replaced by abundance. The main challenge was moving the materiel to the men in the field. The main fear was that field generals would not use what they had to crush the enemy.

Steamboats and railway offered remarkable advantages to the North, but supplies still had to get from wharves and depots to soldiers in the field. The wagon was the way.

Meigs admired the regulation army model known as the Conestoga. It had been refined over the years on the western plains. Stout and lumbering, it had interchangeable parts that could be repaired in camp with portable forges. Each wagon had a tool box in front, a feed trough in back, and an iron “slush bucket” for grease hanging from the rear axle. Freight was protected by a canvas cover. Drawn by four to six horses, a wagon could move 2,800 pounds of supplies over good roads in good weather. A team of six mules could carry more than 3,700 pounds, plus about 270 pounds of forage.

No one had established clear guidelines for their use. The wagon trains that followed the armies reached absurd proportions, causing chaos and slowing nearly every movement. They carried every kind of comfort: stoves, kettles, pans, chairs, desks, trunks, valises, knapsacks, tents, floorboards, and any other conveniences. Loaded in this way, the wagons could go about two and a half miles per hour over good roads. They could barely move on bad ones.

In a stern letter to McClellan, on September 9, Meigs insisted on reforms. He prescribed no more than three wagons for stationary regiments to carry daily rations. Remaining wagons should be set aside for supply trains. He said that officers had to curb their appetite for comfort, including their use of the voluminous Sibley tents. Meigs felt they should make do with smaller, more portable “shelter tents.” He was motivated in part by the cost of cotton, which was rising because of the war. Soldiers dubbed the small shelter a “dog tent,” because that’s what it seemed fit for; sometimes they stuck their heads out of the tents and barked like dogs.

The name for the small shelters eventually became “pup tent.” The quartermaster pegged the ideal use of wagons at about one for every 80 men, roughly the standard adopted by Napoleon. He noted that the Army of the Potomac used about one wagon for every 34 men, an untenable arrangement. “The extra wagons, now filled with officers’ baggage, should be emptied, and the officers compelled to move without this unnecessary load,

In a related push for mobility, earlier Meigs had circulated a French proposal for the organization of a light, highly mobile “flying column” of troops that would lighten the burden on the army’s logistical system and diminish the need for wagons and animals. The paper, prepared by a contractor to the French army, prescribed columns with 2,000 infantry, 400 cavalry, two pieces of artillery, and 50 horses. Soldiers would carry eight days of their own rations, including coffee, tea, sugar, rice, seven pounds of “sea biscuits,” and “desiccated and compressed vegetables.” The paper said the soldiers would be divided into squads, the members of which would share the burden of carrying equipment, including sections of shelter tents. In theory, the flying columns created a nimbler force, at least in the short run. Wagons loaded with additional supplies could follow in the rear. “Alarm the enemy, break up his camps, and keep always advancing,” the paper said.  Squads should take along hand mills for grinding corn, with the aim of lessening the burden on the Quartermaster Department to provide flour for bread.

After experimentation and refinements, the board found the flying column system workable. At Meigs’s urging, Rufus Ingalls, chief quartermaster of the Army of the Potomac, began adopting variations of the system in future campaigns.

Drawing on lessons learned from earlier campaigns, along with the experiments with flying columns, Ingalls and Meigs directed the long wagon trains well out of the way of the troops. Baggage and tents were not stored near the fighting. Soldiers carried only a small amount of food, and ammunition was delivered at night, mostly by wagon. Troops rarely saw the operations that sustained them. Ingalls established a temporary depot 25 miles behind Union forces, at the head of a small rail line and a road leading to Baltimore.

Several quartermaster men were asked to oversee collection of huge amounts of materiel left behind by both armies, including muskets, ammunition, cartridge boxes, knapsacks, clothing, and more.  But that collecting the gear was harder than he had expected. People came in “swarms to sweep & plunder the battlegrounds” of souvenirs. Some took guns, bayonets, and other equipment by the wagonload. One man made away with a six-pound cannon and lowered it into a well. Others took horses and mules, cutting out or burning away the US brand on the animals to obscure evidence of their thefts.  Eventually scores of looters were arrested and assigned the grim work of burying the bodies of men and horses. More than 24,000 muskets and rifles, 10,000 bayonets, 2,400 cartridge boxes, sabers, belts, and hundreds of other items were retrieved eventually and made available to the army.

By capturing half of Mississippi, Grant and Sherman blocked the supply of beef cattle to the rebels in the east and prevented Richmond from sending weapons, food, clothing, and reinforcements to the west.

The soldiers carried only what they needed for the trip and the following few days. That included forty rounds per man and two days’ cooked rations. Commissary and quartermaster men arranged to provide coffee and sugar during the journey. Planners made sure that the trains moved in the dark to conceal them from rebel spotters in distant hills.

The logistical challenges facing the quartermaster corps were nearly overwhelming. Thousands of mules died from starvation and the work of hauling in rations for 50,000 men and forage for the starving horses, many of which no longer had strength enough to pull artillery. Mule carcasses lined the rough road all the way to Bridgeport, Alabama, where the Union army had a boatyard and maintained supplies. Rebel cavalry made a devastating attack on the tenuous supply line. The attack, on October 2, destroyed more than 300dred loaded wagons. The rebels killed or captured 1,800 mules. The army, with enough ammunition for less than a day’s fighting, hung on “by the merest thread.” Meigs scrambled in his usual way. He urged Stanton to send more mules, in part to support Hooker’s arriving men. He guided pioneer troops who had put two abandoned sawmills into action, spitting out lumber for bridges, boats, and fortifications. He oversaw the inventory of equipment and metal from a large foundry and a destroyed bridge, stuff that was eventually transformed into rolling mills for rail lines.

A key to this was the construction of a steamboat that could ply the upper Tennessee River, which could not be reached easily from downstream because of thin water at Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

A quartermaster man, Captain Arthur Edward, had responsibility for building the boat. Meigs arranged for delivery of specialized supplies, including boilers and engines that were floated down the Ohio River and shipped by rail to the boatyard at Bridgeport, on the upstream side of Muscle Shoals. Mechanics and carpenters hustled down from the North to help out. The quartermaster team built the steamer from a flat-bottomed scow outfitted with pontoons, a new steam engine, a rough pilothouse, and a paddle wheel. The team fashioned a cabin from a rough frame and covered it with canvas. With the boat nearly complete, Grant launched a stealthy campaign to take key points on the river. At three in the morning on October 27, 1,400 men floated silently nine miles down the Tennessee on other pontoon boats, surprising the rebels at Brown’s Ferry. The Union force dismantled those boats and used the pontoons to build a bridge.

On May 4, 1864, the Army of the Potomac began its great Overland Campaign into the Confederacy. It would culminate nearly a year later with the fall of Richmond, but only after what Grant described “as desperate fighting as the world has ever witnessed.” The numbers associated with the offensive—the supplies, the men, the deaths—remain notable. The force included nearly one hundred thousand infantry, fifteen thousand cavalry, and six thousand artillery men.

They deployed 4,300 wagons to carry an immense supply of pork, crackers, coffee, salt, and sugar, along with mess kits, ammunition, and baggage. On hand to draw the wagons were 23,000 mules. More than 30,000 horses carried cavalry soldiers and pulled the artillery. Beef cattle followed on the hoof, to be butchered as needed. Grant later estimated that if put into single file and spaced properly, the train would have extended the 70 miles or so from the crossing on the Rapidan to the city of Richmond.

Ingalls adopted a strict method for using the wagons. As soon as they were emptied, they generally would be sent to the rear for resupply with identical provisions. Apart from creating a new level of efficiency, his system addressed one of the great logistical burdens of the war, the feeding of animals. Instead of having to carry tons of forage for themselves, the animals often ate when they returned to depots.

Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, whose rapid rise through the ranks was fueled by his aggression, echoed Grant’s relentlessness. With 10,000 cavalry soldiers, he carved a path toward Richmond, inviting an attack from the smaller rebel cavalry force under Jeb Stuart. They lived largely off what they found and destroyed railroads, trestle bridges, and telegraph lines along the way. At one rebel depot, Sheridan’s men dismantled or torched 100 railcars, 2 locomotives, and 1.5 million rations, including 200,000 pounds of bacon, according to Sheridan’s estimate.

Behind it all, legions of supply workers, sometimes operating in the line of fire, provided steadfast support. For the crossing of the James River, army engineers built what was one of the longest floating bridges in the history of warfare, a 2,200-foot-long structure composed of 101 wooden pontoons. It enabled the crossing of a line of 3,500 beef cattle and a wagon train 35 miles long. The quartermasters, meanwhile, had to hustle to keep pace with the destruction of horses. In the first six months of 1864, the Army of the Potomac received almost 40,000 cavalry horses, representing two complete remounts.

In less than a month, the city’s hospitals took in 18,000 new patients. Many of them died in short order, and then the corpses stacked up faster than they could be buried. A stench drifted over the city like smoke. Meigs had to provide the answer to a grim, practical question: Where would all the bodies go?

In July 1862 Congress authorized Lincoln to create national cemeteries for servicemen. As the war ground on, finding burial sites became a monumental challenge. By the spring of 1864, the pine and rosewood caskets passed through Washington in a seemingly unending flow. On May 13 a cemetery on the property of the Old Soldiers’ Home ran out of room. Nearly 6,000 soldiers had been interred there in less than three years. Another 2,000 had been buried at Harmony Cemetery and elsewhere in the vicinity of Washington. Added to that were burials of more than 4,100 deceased former slaves.

They succumbed to gunshots, cannon fire, and bayonet wounds; diseases that included dysentery, typhoid, and diphtheria; infections contracted during surgeries; and the blunt physical or emotional shock of losing a limb.

Meigs soon dug a mass grave nearby, a huge pit to hold the bones of unidentified soldiers.

In the war’s Western theater, the armies under Sherman moved steadily closer to Atlanta. Every movement depended on support from the railroad construction corps. The supply line began far back at Nashville. It extended 151 miles to Chattanooga. The railcars carried provisions, clothing, gear for the men, and forage for the animals.

The supply line later snaked its way toward Atlanta, 136 miles farther along the Western & Atlantic Railroad. The rebels attacked and destroyed sections of both lines repeatedly. They twisted the iron tracks and burned the timber cross ties.  Meigs ordered the completion of the rolling mill in Chattanooga that he and his men began working on during the siege the previous fall. The mill enabled them to straighten 50 tons of rails each day, far more quickly and at a far lower cost than manufacturing and shipping the rails from the North. The railroad workers rebuilt more than a dozen bridges that summer.

Chattahoochee River. It took the corps just four days to rebuild the 780-foot-long, 92-foot-high bridge over the river. All told, the logistical work during the campaign was among the most impressive of the war. Rail lines in the region under Union control rose to 956 miles from 123 miles a year before. The number of cars shot up to 1,500 from 350.

Sherman calculated that it would have taken almost 37,000 wagons to carry the same loads as the railroads, in the same stretch of time.

The force brought relatively few wagons. Sherman encouraged his men to forage liberally and to take or slaughter mules, horses, hogs, and other animals. The Union rules for war had changed. Gone was the sense of delicacy about civilian interests. The army cut a broad swath through the fertile state, some thirty miles on either side of its path to the sea, causing perhaps $100 million in damage, or roughly $1.5 billion now.

It fell to Meigs to ensure that the men received supplies at its terminus, even though no one in Washington knew for sure where that would be. Sherman planned to head to Savannah. Meigs reckoned it was possible Lee would pull out of Petersburg and confront Sherman’s army, forcing it toward Pensacola. To Meigs, it demonstrated like never before the viability of warfare untethered from supply lines. He was especially taken by the fact that Sherman’s men found forage for their animals rather than relying on costly deliveries from the North.

Nearly everything had to be delivered by sea, with Northern ships cycling in a constant stream along the East Coast. Grant’s siege force required a virtual armada to keep it supplied, including 190 steamers, 60 tugs, 40 sailboats, and 100 barges. Those vessels comprised a mere subset of the Quartermaster Department’s ocean fleet, which in the last year of the war included 719 vessels that cost more than $92,000 a day on average to operate. The department operated another 599 vessels for river transport.

The war ends. 600,000 men died

Next came the task of demobilization. The men of the army had to be discharged, paid, and transported home. Once again, the Quartermaster Department managed. In 40 days, some 233,000 men, 12,800 horses, and 4 million pounds of baggage traveled across the border between war and civilian life. By winter, a second wave brought the diaspora’s total to 800,000. The department’s transportation branch had never been busier. The logistics were akin to those needed for the massive offensives of the previous year—save for the absence of gunfire.

Much more still had to be done for the dead. The bones of tens of thousands of Northern men lay in forests, fields, and shallow graves on battlefields across the South. Men scoured the landscape for remains. For two weeks, they buried and reburied bodies and bones. They had no difficulty deciding where to build new cemeteries. They efficiently chose the places of the greatest carnage, and interred more than 50,000 bodies across Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland.

By late 1866, more than three dozen national military cemeteries anchored battlefields across the country. They held the remains of almost 105,000 Union soldiers—with many more to come. Meigs calculated the cost of removing and reburying the bodies at about $9.75 each.

The department held fire sales of 207,000 horses and mules, 4,400 barracks, hospitals, and other buildings and mountains of irregular or damaged clothing.

To help former slaves eke out a living and guarantee them a measure of economic freedom, he urged lawmakers to give each family five acres of land. “The emancipation of the negro slave is incomplete as long as, being without land, he is at the mercy of his former master.” His lobbying came to nothing. President Andrew Johnson showed no interest in the cause. In his frustration, Meigs predicted Southerners would resume their oppressive ways and return “like dogs to their vomit. They can not enslave but they will outrage & oppress. Their hearts are not changed.

Quartermasters were still needed after the war ended since settlers needed the protection of soldiers, and the soldiers needed supplies from the Quartermaster Department.


[my comment: I was only going to take notes on the supply chains and other aspects of supplying soldiers for battle, but Meigs was such an amazing man I found myself noting other aspects of his life as well.  Yet most of them are left out below, but this gives you some idea of how accomplished he was across many fields, plus his great skills as a leader and hard work to execute complex projects quickly and under budget with complete and utter honesty, unlike many of the scoundrels around him.]

On March 29, 1861, Army Captain Montgomery Meigs, just home from work, found a letter waiting for him. Secretary of State William Seward wanted him to go to a meeting at the White House as soon as possible. President Abraham Lincoln had a problem to solve and needed to talk to a soldier about certain military operations. It was unusual for a president to seek advice from a captain, but these were unusual times, and Meigs was an unusual man.

Meigs was an army engineer with no fighting experience, but few could match his mix of creativity and talent for organization. He had built the capital’s new aqueduct, including a bridge with the longest masonry arch in the world. He also was the man behind the US Capitol’s recent expansion and the ongoing installation of its great dome.

Philadelphia was a bustling business center quickly filling with schools, churches, and businesses. It retained the charm of a provincial city, giving way quickly to unspoiled countryside. About sixty-three thousand residents relied on wood to heat their homes. Farmers brought food to the city by wagons.

Meigs soon become a brevet second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers, an elite organization that played a primary role in building the young country’s roads, canals, bridges, and harbors. Its achievements included the country’s longest highway, the Cumberland Road, west of the Ohio River.

In the summer of 1837, one of his first assignments paired him with another West Point graduate, Robert E. Lee, class of 1829. Their task was to find ways of improving navigation on the Mississippi River.

Meigs admired Lee, “then in the vigor of youthful strength, with a noble and commanding presence, and an admirable, graceful, and athletic figure. He was one with whom nobody ever wished or ventured to take a liberty, though kind and generous to his subordinates, admired by all women, and respected by all men.

They would remain fond of each other until a national crisis turned them into mortal enemies.


Meigs helped rebuild Fort Delaware, a massive fortification on Pea Patch Island destroyed by fire. The project posed many challenges. The island had formed from silt over the centuries, and the mud went forty feet deep in places. Meigs and other engineers created an intricate wooden grillage as a foundation, pounding more than twelve thousand wooden piles into the mud, using steam-powered pile drivers. Builders had been using such structures since the days of the Roman Empire.


President Polk underscored his support of the annexation of Texas from Mexico. The new president was prepared to go to war. For the soldiers who would put his words into action, this meant a chance to earn glory, a rise in rank, and a boost in salary, which resulted in appalling casualties, including more than 13,280 American dead.  Many of his army colleagues became famous and received promotions. Among them were Ambrose Burnside, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas Jackson, later known as “Stonewall.


The location of the blaze could not have been worse, the reading rooms of the Library of Congress. Just the night before, a nearby hotel had burned down. Fire in the confines of the Capitol could spell disaster. The great pile of wood, brick, and sandstone was more than the center of the government. It also anchored the young country’s outsized aspirations to greatness. The building had been under construction or renovation for a half century. Though architects and builders had done their best with the budgets they had, the place had become a grand, handsome tinderbox on a hill.

After a daylong battle, two-thirds of the fifty-five thousand books were reduced to gray ash. Lost too were maps, charts, thousand-year-old bronze medals, and more.

Investigators quickly determined the cause. On the floors below, the drafty committee rooms had large fireplaces, which lawmakers had kept stoked in a struggle against the subzero frost that had enveloped the District in those first days of winter. Sparks had ignited a wooden joist jutting into the flue of a poorly constructed chimney.

Nothing could contribute more to the health, comfort, and safety of the city and the security of the public buildings and records than an abundant supply of pure water, I respectfully recommend that you make such provisions for obtaining the same

But lawmakers simply couldn’t divine the benefit of spending millions on work so far from their home districts. But the library fire stirred them to action. They agreed to allocate $5,000, more than ever before, to support the search for a solution. 

Meigs was to conduct a survey and find “an unfailing and abundant supply of good and wholesome water” for the nation’s capital and neighboring Georgetown.

In a 1,700-year-old book Meigs found a grand Roman water system that would work well. The Potomac water would course through seven-foot-wide conduits made of bricks, dropping on average about nine-and-a-half inches each mile. The minimum cost would be just over $1.9 million.  

Meigs would be allowed to succeed only if he directed some of the work to the right people and their friends. To prevail, he would have to master the dark arts of politics and bureaucratic wrangling—while also managing men, overseeing millions in spending, and seeking solutions to mind-boggling engineering problems. Meigs’s first lessons in Washington corruption came at the Capitol, a building that epitomized the striving and contradictory character of the republic it represented. From the fields down the hill, Congress’s home appeared stately and steadfast. Prints at the time showed it as a romantic vision, cloaked in a gauzy bank of moist air. In reality, it was drafty, damp, and cramped. And that was only the start of the problems. Design flaws made it nearly impossible for lawmakers to understand one another during debates.

Work on the aqueduct languished for lack of funding, and opponents on Capitol Hill held up proposals for new infusions of cash.

Designing the Capitol

Meigs’s plans, derived in part from an earlier proposal, placed the legislative chambers in the interior of the expanded building. His changes would give lawmakers private rooms and passageways beyond the reach of the public or reporters. To link the building to the outside world, he planned to install a telegraph. His plans included monumental staircases, glazed ceiling panels, and galleries capable of seating 1,200 people. He also called for stained glass set in iron frames in the ceiling and a lobby in the House wing that featured Corinthian columns. Much of what he proposed was modelled on Renaissance painting, architecture, and ambitions. Because he had never traveled abroad, nearly all his ideas came from books.  Meigs soon took aim at the building’s engineering problems, including the atrocious acoustics and a substandard heating system.

The physics of sound had long confounded scientists and builders. Certain churches, theaters, and concert halls over the centuries had just the right angles and proportions to enable speakers to hear one another at great distances, often with amazing clarity. In the best spaces, such as Milan’s La Scala opera house, singers and actors could easily cast their voices to the back seats. Obtaining such effects took ingenuity or plain luck. In the legislative chambers in Washington, the result was a fog of sounds. That was a significant defect in a building where talk and debate were the reasons for being. The three men visited concert halls, theaters, churches, and a prison. They spoke from different parts of every room, taking note of the duration, volume, and direction of the echoes. They made drawings showing the general form of the spaces.

In his plans for moving the chambers to the center of the building, he also eliminated windows. Behind this unorthodox idea was a double agenda. Solid walls would eliminate exterior sounds and drafts, which he assumed blocked voices from reaching distant points in the room. Without windows, he also would have to create an unprecedented, steam-powered fan system for pumping air through the legislative chambers.

Cast iron and new building methods might be the hallmarks of the industrial revolution, but the homely red baked brick provided its foundation. England had used billions of bricks in the first half of the century. Almost every project Meigs supervised relied on bricks, including the Capitol’s inner walls and the aqueduct’s culverts and tunnels.

Most Americans took pride in their bland tastes. To them, stark interiors and whitewashed walls reflected what Meigs called a “republican simplicity.” In contrast, Meigs wanted to emulate the complex designs, vibrant colors, and richness that characterized much Renaissance art.

Meigs’s desire to make the Capitol a palace of art. Meigs went on to commission oil paintings, elaborate ironwork, and columns adorned with carvings of native plants and vegetables. He secured permission from the Capitol gardener to gather sticks, leaves, and flowers as models for metal ornaments to decorate doors of the House chamber. In fulfilling the captain’s artistic vision, a foundry at the Capitol also produced decorative cherubs, grapevines, lizards, beetles, and flies. When he learned that two Ojibwa leaders were in town to settle a treaty with the federal government, he called on a decorative stonecutter to make likenesses of them. The busts remain among the finest nineteenth-century depictions of Native Americans.

The construction demands posed by the dome were unprecedented. Almost nine million pounds of iron components had to be lifted one by one and bolted into place by men who had never worked at such heights. There was little room for error.

How would the tower stay upright during the strain of lifting? For the answer, Meigs turned to the techniques of ship rigging. Stays like those used on the mast of a schooner would hold the derrick in place. But under the pressures exerted here, hemp ropes like those used on ships would shred.


Militaristic rhetoric grew more extreme by the week. On May 8 the District was jolted when a Southern-born representative shot dead an Irish waiter at the Willard Hotel, an anchor of political and social life in the city. The shooting had no direct connection to slavery, but Northerners saw it as a symbol of Southern aggression and intolerance.  Meigs was appalled, writing, “This is one example of the evil of carrying weapons.

On May 22 Brooks walked up to Sumner at his Senate desk, where he was preparing mail.

Brooks began pounding Sumner with a gold-headed cane made of gutta-percha, a hard, rubbery substance. Brooks chose the cane because he thought it would deliver maximum pain without actually killing. The first blow stunned and blinded Sumner. Others came quickly.

When others in the Senate moved to help Sumner, Keitt held them off. The attack stunned the nation. Northerners saw it as an effort to silence “an eloquent and erudite” spokesman for freedom. In the South, editorialists applauded the episode, with some deriding Sumner as “an inanimate lump of incarnate cowardice.” Brooks was lauded as a hero and given canes to replace the one he had broken during the attack. Radicals in the South would do almost anything now to protect slavery, the institution that anchored their society.

Democrats selected James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, a bland 65-year-old bachelor. He had served so long and often as a lawmaker and diplomat that he was nicknamed Old Public Functionary. The fledgling Republican Party went with John Frémont, the politically connected but inexperienced “Pathfinder,” who had earned renown for his exploration of the West. The American Party, which promoted nativism, chose former president Millard Fillmore of New York as a compromise candidate. The South generally lined up behind Buchanan. In the North, it was not clear who the electorate would support. Many Northern regular voters were energized, even radicalized, by events in Kansas. Voters pored over newspaper accounts of the campaign and turned out everywhere for raucous political rallies, concerts, and picnics. They were treated to a remarkable array of stump speakers, including Greeley, Seward, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Abraham Lincoln gave close to ninety speeches.

On March 4, 1857, one of the most hapless men in American history was inaugurated president of the United States, President James Buchanan.

Meigs’s new boss, Secretary of War John B. Floyd, was a former governor of Virginia. He came into office with the apparent conviction that it was his right to provide patronage to his friends. He also thought that slave ownership was the natural right of Southerners. The Buchanan administration was filled with Southerners, who jammed the parties and seemed at times to be celebrating their standing in the capital. Floyd took advantage of the power that flowed from the South’s dominance. Soon after taking control of the War Department, he began turning his authority on Meigs. In one move, he urged the captain to begin applying a political litmus test to his workforce. He wanted to purge followers of the Know-Nothing movement, who objected to Irish, Germans, and Catholic immigrants. More to the point, they also opposed slavery, which offended Floyd.

Meigs and other sensible folk—including Abraham Lincoln, then a lawyer in private practice in Springfield, Illinois—thought the group’s members were nearly unhinged.

More pressing now was another of Floyd’s demands. He wanted Meigs to award every contract automatically to the lowest bidder. At first blush, this seemed reasonable. Competition helped keep prices low for taxpayers. But Meigs knew that something else was afoot. Experience taught him that certain companies engaged in a type of legal extortion. They lowballed their original bids and then, when the work was too far along to stop, demanded more money. Floyd’s games and machinations rarely ceased.

Administration leaks suggested that Meigs was about to be fired soon wafted through the capital. Floyd then added to the pressure, ordering Meigs to provide advance notice of any impending purchases worth $2,000 or more. In late August Floyd redoubled his effort to purge the workforce of political undesirables.

Opinions about the new chamber varied. Some praised the circulation system. Others grumbled that the temperature was too high or low. An article in the Boston Post said that the acoustics could not have been worse. One unsigned piece published in the Philadelphia Inquirer predicted that the hall “is, I fear, to prove an entire failure. I have not met the first man yet who speaks of it favorably.

Meigs had a hard time accepting that his younger brother tolerated slavery and considered secession a legitimate possibility. He decided that Henry had sold out, trading his family’s veneration for the country for “the almighty dollars which he has invested in Columbus Mills.”  


The federal Pension Bureau needed a new building, and Congress took the unusual step of naming Meigs to build it.  Meigs once calculated that the space holds 4 million cubic feet of air. The volume of air inside was key to his goal of air-conditioning the place.  He came up with an innovative scheme involving vents in the walls that allowed fresh air in, and hot air to rise up and escape. His theory about the space turned out to be true, as the courtyard served as a natural chimney.  By 1985, the great brick pile was so admired that it was transformed into the home of the National Building Museum.

Miscellaneous politics in the war

McClellan blames his endless retreats on the Quartermaster (not true of course) but an example of the nasty politics Meigs had to deal with (dozens more examples left out)

Luck seemed to be on the Union’s side. On September 13 a Union corporal near Frederick, Maryland, saw an envelope on the ground that contained Lee’s plans for the campaign, Special Order 191, wrapped around three cigars. It was the greatest intelligence coup of the war, a single document spelling out the positions of Lee’s divided forces. But McClellan hesitated under the impression that enemy forces outweighed his own. The delay gave Lee time to gather his troops near Antietam Creek, not far from the town of Sharpsburg. McClellan massed his men there as well. On September 16 he took still more time to examine Lee’s lines and put his units into what he considered proper positions.

He ordered a retreat back across the Potomac. No one on the Union side moved to stop him. McClellan claimed later that he had planned on resuming the fight but felt compelled to bury the dead. He also said his men needed rest and that he saw “long columns of dust” to the south that he said proved rebels were arriving to reinforce Lee. “This army is not now in condition to undertake another campaign nor to bring on another battle”.  He directed Halleck to order McClellan to cross the Potomac, fight the enemy, or drive him south before the roads became impassable in fall rains. And now McClellan turned to an old excuse, contending the Quartermaster Department had let him down. The army could not move because it had not received enough horses, clothing, or other supplies. McClellan said he had done what he could with what he had been given.

Posted in Railroads, Ships and Barges, War | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Let’s harness the muscle power of 54 million fitness center members to generate electricity

This is a short summary of this 10-page research paper:

Carbajales-Dale, M., et al. 2018. Human powered electricity generation as a renewable resource.  BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality.

Before fossil fuels arrived, we depended on the energy from burning wood to make metals, bricks, ceramics, structures, and other objects, and the muscle power of men and animals to do work. 

We discovered fire at least 250,000 years ago for cooking and warmth.  Hunters and gatherers relied on muscle power when hunting, fishing, trapping, and gathering until approximately 12,000–10,000 B.C..   when agriculture began and transformed societies into sedentary villages.  Work animals were domesticated to do the arduous work of plowing. Civilizations with excess muscle power were able to put it to other uses, such as constructing the 13,170 mile Great Wall of China, which probably required 2,000 years and millions of laborers.  In Egypt the great pyramid in Khufu had 2.3 million blocks weighing from 2.5 to 80 tons, which probably took 25,000 laborers at least 20 years to build.

Ways to use energy more efficiently with mechanical devices such as pulley systems, windlasses, tread wheels, and gear wheels were invented that made muscle power go even further.

Now we’re almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels for our unprecedented high quality of life, yet we know fossils are finite and likely to decline. 

So it is time to look again at what we can gain from muscle power, which will have to increasingly replace fossil fuels as they decline.

This has the added bonus of helping to cope with the obesity crisis.  The authors estimate that an average American has 5 pounds of excess fat, which translates to 133,000 GJ of stored energy.  Using human muscle as an energy source has the added benefit of reducing heart disease, strokes, and diabetes.

Gym members comprise a large potential muscle power workforce.  Over 54 million people are members of a fitness center in the U.S. where their potential electricity generating exercise is wasted.  Instead, members do the opposite and consume electricity, since equipment such as treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes, and rowers are electric.  And air conditioning to keep members cool uses additional electricity.

This study looked at how much electric power could be generated by 40 members at a gym in South Carolina.

At best, 3-5% of the gym’s average daily electricity demand could be provided at a large cost. To convert the rowing machines to generate electricity would take 33 years to pay back, perhaps longer than a rowing machine will last.

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

Posted in Far Out, Muscle Power | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Why solar power can’t save us from the coming energy crisis

Preface. Embedded within the posts below are many reasons why solar electricity can’t replace fossil fuels.  All solar and wind do is add to the giant fire of burning fossil fuels with just a tiny bit more power, about 4% of all the power we use. But that will end at some point when the maximum grid integration level for a given area is reached, which is already happening in California (California hits the solar wall).

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

* * *

Solar power contraptions require oil for every single step of their life cycle.

If solar power and concentrated solar power plants can’t produce enough power to replicate themselves entirely over their life cycle, plus produce the energy needed by society, then they are not sustainable. Most of their life cycle depends on fossil fuels, with no electric alternatives. Oil is used by mining trucks, ships to take the ore to facilities that use fossil fuels to crush the rock, blast furnaces burning fossils to force the metal out that can run for 20 years around the clock and aren’t electric because even a short outage would destroy the brick lining. Every single part is made with fossil energy and these thousands of parts are shipped on diesel vehicles to the assembly factory.  In all of these steps, workers drove to work in fossil fueled vehicles over roads built by fossils and paved with petroleum asphalt.

Wind and Solar Power Require MORE Fossil Fuels

Solar is seasonal

Energy return negative

Integration into the electric grid

Energy density

Wind and solar can’t substitute for all fossil fuels

If solar is so great and cheap, why is it mainly built in states with subsidies?

Not enough materials for solar

Breakthroughs in the news usually don’t pan out

Climate change and extreme weather destroy solar panels

Concentrated Solar Power

Orbiting Solar

Orbiting Solar: launch costs way too high, too many technical issues

Not enough fossils left to build renewable solar and other contraptions

Richard Heinberg: “Oil has become far more expensive in the past decade; production costs are rising at over 10 percent per year. The major petroleum companies are investing much more in exploration today, but their production rates are declining. For oil, the low-hanging fruit is gone. Does Krugman believe there is still excess production capacity for oil to use in building out renewable infrastructure, while still meeting the needs of the rest of the economy? If not, how will society maintain economic growth during the energy transition? If so, what part of the economy would need to contract in order to shift oil consumption to the renewables build-out, so as not to lead to increased overall use of climate-altering fossil fuels during the transition?”

Trucks are the basis of civilization, so at some point of diesel fuel decline, collapse will follow

When Trucks Stop Running, So Does Civilization. Energy and the Future of Transportation

Trucks can’t be electrified

Posted in Alternative Energy, CSP with thermal energy storage, Solar, Solar EROI | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Humans destroyed 10% of wilderness in just 25 years

Preface. Humans are destroying the wilderness so quickly there it could mostly disappear in less than a century. Since 1993 the world lost an area twice the size of Alaska.

So kiss biodiversity, carbon sequestration, ecology, and a stable climate goodbye. To the extent this land was mined or otherwise developed, it won’t be available for the coming extra 3 billion people to grow food on either.

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


Watson, J.E.M., et al. 2016. Catastrophic declines in wilderness areas undermine global environment targets. Current biology 26: 2929-2934.

The Amazon accounted for nearly a third of the “catastrophic” loss, showing huge tracts of pristine rainforest are still being disrupted despite the Brazilian government slowing deforestation rates in recent years. A further 14% disappeared in central Africa, home to thousands of species including forest elephants and chimpanzees.

The loss of the world’s last untouched refuges would not just be disastrous for endangered species but for climate change efforts, the authors said, because some of the forests store enormous amounts of carbon.

“Without any policies to protect these areas, they are falling victim to widespread development.

The team counted areas as no longer wilderness if they scored on eight measures of humanity’s footprint, including roads, lights at night and agriculture.

Watson said unique ecosystems were being lost, and there was no turning back. “What is critical about this paper is when you erode these wildernesses, they don’t come back, you can’t restore them. They will come back as something else, but you can’t restore them,” he said.

Posted in Biodiversity Loss, Deforestation | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Decommissioning a nuclear reactor

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Preface. Below are excerpts of articles about the costs and challenges of dismantling nuclear power plants in Europe.

Other decommissioning news:

2018: Clearing the Radioactive Rubble Heap That Was Fukushima Daiichi, 7 Years On. The water is tainted, the wreckage is dangerous, and disposing of it will be a prolonged, complex and costly process.  The Japan Center for Economic Research, a private think tank, said the cleanup costs could mount to some $470 billion to $660 billion and take far longer than the initial 30-40 year estimate.

2017-5-17 Lithuania RBMK plant clean-up cost forecast at $1.3 billion euros per reactor

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


Jim Green. 2019. Nuclear decommissioning era approaches. Ecologist.

A new era is approaching ‒ the era of nuclear decommissioning, which will entail:

  • A decline in the number of operating reactors.
  • An increasingly unreliable and accident-prone reactor fleet as ageing sets in.
  • Countless battles over lifespan extensions for ageing reactors.
  • An internationalization of anti-nuclear opposition as neighboring countries object to the continued operation of ageing reactors (international opposition to Belgium’s ageing reactors is a case in point ‒ and there are numerous other examples).
  • Battles over and problems with decommissioning projects (e.g. the UK government’s £100+ million settlement over a botched decommissioning tendering process).
  • Battles over taxpayer bailout proposals for companies and utilities that haven’t set aside adequate funds for decommissioning and nuclear waste management and disposal. (According to Nuclear Energy Insider, European nuclear utilities face “significant and urgent challenges” with over a third of the continent’s nuclear plants to be shut down by 2025, and utilities facing a €118 billion shortfall in decommissioning and waste management funds.)
  • Battles over proposals to impose nuclear waste repositories and stores on unwilling or divided communities.

There will likely be an average of 8‒11 permanent reactor shutdowns annually over the next few decades. This will add up to about 200 reactor shutdowns between 2014 and 2040.

The International Energy Agency expects a “wave of retirements of ageing nuclear reactors” and an “unprecedented rate of decommissioning”.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) anticipates 320 gigawatts (GW) of retirements from 2017 to 2050, which is about 80% of the current worldwide reactor fleet.

Other estimates are 140 to 200 reactors closing by 2035.

That won’t be made up for by the 41 reactors expected to begin operating by 2022.  Worldwide 49 reactors are under construction.  What growth exists is mainly due to China, but their enthusiasm seems to have ended in 2016 since now new commercial construction sites have existed since then, nor is India or other Asian states likely to build reactors.

Generation IV fantasies are as fantastical as ever. David Elliot ‒ author of the 2017 book Nuclear Power: Past, Present and Futurenotes that many Generation IV concepts “are in fact old ideas that were looked at in the early days and mostly abandoned. There were certainly problems with some of these early experimental reactors, some of them quite dramatic.”  One example of the gap between Generation IV rhetoric and reality was Transatomic Power’s decision to give up on its molten salt reactor R&D project in the US in September 2018.

Nor do these smaller reactors appear to be economically viable. Carnegie Mellon University’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in July 2018, argues that no US advanced reactor design will be commercialized before mid-century.  They also investigated how a domestic market could develop to support a small modular reactor industry in the US over the next few decades ‒ including using them to back up wind and solar, desalinate water, produce heat for industrial processes, or serve military bases ‒ and were unable to make a convincing case.

The era of nuclear decommissioning will be characterized by escalating battles (and escalating sticker shock) over reactor lifespan extensions, decommissioning and nuclear waste management.  In those circumstances, it will become even more difficult than it currently is for the industry to pursue new reactor projects. A feedback loop could take hold and then the nuclear industry will be well and truly in crisis, if it isn’t already.

Arthur Neslen. 2016. Europe faces €253bn nuclear waste bill. The Guardian.

Europe faces a €253bn bill for nuclear waste management and plant decommissioning: €123bn of that to decommission old reactors and €130bn for the management of spent fuel, radioactive waste and deep geological disposal processes.  Some 90% of the continent’s nuclear plants are set to shut by 2050 – almost half within the next decade.

At present, nuclear reactors make up 27% of Europe’s energy capacity and produce less carbon over their lifetime than fossil fuels such as gas, coal or oil. But no solution has yet been found for the long-term storage of radioactive waste.

The commission’s experts considered closed fuel recycling of plutonium and uranium in ‘fast breeder reactors’ so long-term and uncertain a prospect that they did not forecast possible scenarios for its becoming available this century.

7 March 2012. How to dismantle a nuclear reactor. New Scientist.

decommisioning nuclear reactor

By the start of 2012, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, 138 commercial power reactors had been permanently shut down with at least 80 expected to join the queue for decommissioning in the coming decade – more if other governments join Germany in deciding to phase out nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year.

And yet, so far, only 17 of these have been dismantled and made permanently safe. That’s because decommissioning is difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

A standard American or French-designed pressurised water reactor (PWR) – the most common reactor design now in operation – will produce more than 100,000 tonnes of waste, about a tenth of it significantly radioactive, including the steel reactor vessel, control rods, piping and pumps. Decommissioning just a single one generally costs up to half a billion dollars.

Decommissioning Germany’s Soviet-designed power plant at Greifswald produced more than half a million tonnes of radioactive waste. The UK’s 26 gas-cooled Magnox reactors produce similar amounts and will eventually cost up to a billion dollars each to decommission. That’s because they weren’t designed with decommissioning in mind.

The many variations also mean that there is no agreed-upon standard for how to go about the process. If you want to decommission a nuclear power plant, you have three options. The first is the fastest: remove the fuel, then take the reactor apart as swiftly as possible, storing the radioactive material somewhere safe to await a final burial place.  The second approach is to remove the fuel but lock up the reactor, letting its troublesome radioactive isotopes decay, which makes dismantling easier – much later.  The third option is to simply entomb the reactor where it is.

Even when the reactor can be dismantled, where do you put the radioactive waste? Even the least contaminated material – old overalls, steel heat exchangers and toilets – must be carefully separated and sent to specially licensed landfill sites. Not every country has such designated facilities. Intermediate-level waste, contrary to its name, is even more of a problem because it may require deep ground burial alongside the high-level spent fuel.

In 1976, a British Royal Commission said no more nuclear power plants should be built until the waste disposal problems were resolved. Thirty-five years on, nothing much has changed.

Posted in Nuclear, Nuclear Waste | Tagged , | 1 Comment

We evolved to exercise and need high levels of physical activity to be healthy

Preface. This is a summary of Herman Pontzer’s 2019 “Humans evolved to exercise. Unlike our ape cousins, humans require high levels of physical activity to be healthy” in Scientific American. As fossils decline, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll use more muscle power, so get in shape now…

Also, your personality as measured by the Big Five Personality traits will be better if you exercise. Couch potatoes are less conscientious, open, agreeable, and extroverted. The link with exercise was relatively strong. Physical activity predicted personality better than disease burden did (Stephan 2018).

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


Pontzer, H. 2019. Humans Evolved to Exercise. Unlike our ape cousins, humans require high levels of physical activity to be healthy. Scientific American.

Apes are a lot like us, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos share over 97% of our DNA. But the differences are interesting. Our bodies changed dramatically over the past two million years with a larger brain, invented tools, language, hunted and gathered, and our survival depended on lots of physical activity.

We couldn’t just sit around like chimpanzees and eat fruit all morning, nap, groom, then gorge on figs, hang out with friends, group, another nap, and more fruit and some leaves. Likewise, oranguatans and gorillas are also idle and sedentary, spending 8 to 10 hours resting and then 9 or 10 sleeping, walk about 1.8 miles a day and climb about 330 feet, equal to another mile of walking.

Humans who try to slack off this much risk serious health problems. Without at least 10,000 steps a day, the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and metabolic disease increases. Sitting at a desk or in front of a TV for long times ias also associated with an increased risk of illness and a shorter life span. Basically, physical inactivity is on par with smoking as a health risk.

Yet our ape cousins can get away with lolling around. their blood pressure doesn’t go up, diabetes is rare, and their arteries don’t harden and clog with cholesterol.

Diet is destiny. About 1.8 million years ago our ancestors began to evolve to hunting and gathering, which required a great deal more walking to find animals and edible plants. Today hunter-gatherers get roughly have of their calories from plants, and cover 5.6 miles (12,000 steps) to 8.7 (18,000 steps) in search of food, traveling 3 to 5 times farther every day than any of the great apes. Before we invented the bow and arrow, humans may have had to be even more active.

On top of that, we evolved to run prey to exhaustion (Bramble 2004).

Although we’ve long known exercise is good for us, it appears that it’s good for every organ system even down to the cellular level. Our brains hae evolved to reward prolonged physical activity with endocannabinoids which is where the so-called runner’s high comes from. Many have argued that exercise helped enable the massive expansion of the human brain to the point where we require physical activity for normal brain development. Exercise releases molecules that promote neurogenesis and brain growth, as well as improve memory and stave off cognitive decline in old age.

Our maximum sustained power output (VO2max) is at least four times higher than the great apes due mainly to our leg muscles which afe 50% larger with a much greater proportion of slow-twitch fatigue resistant fibers than the legs of other apes. We have more red blood cells to carr oxygen to working muscles. Exercise accelerates the rate at which our cells function and calories are burned.

Exercise has been sold as a way to lose weight. But it isn’t optional, and weight loss is probably the one health benefit it often fails to deliver. Unfortunately, exercise doesn’t increase energy expenditure, it just makes our bodies work better. This is why those hunter gatherers walking almost 9 miles a day don’t expend much more energy than sedentary Westerners.

Here are some of the ways we do know exercise benefits us. It reduces chronic inflammation which can lead to heart disease. It lowers levels of reproductive hormones (i.e. testosterone, extrogen) which reduces the rate of reproductive cancers. It probably blunts the morning rise in the stress hormone cortisol. It reduces insulin insensitivity, the immediate cause behind type 2 diabetes, and shuttles glucose into muscles instead of fat. Exercise also improves the immune system, and produces enzymes that help clear fat from circulating blood.


Bramble D. M., Lieberman D. E.. 2004. Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature 432.

Pontzer, H. 2017. The crown joules: energetics, ecology, and evolution in humans and other primates. Evolutionary anthropology 26:12-24.

Pontzer, H. 2017. Economy and endurance in human evolution. current biology 27.

Stephan, Y., et al. 2018. Physical activity and personality development over 20 Years: evidence from three longitudinal samples. Journal of research in personality 73: 173-179

Posted in Health, Muscle Power | Tagged | 2 Comments

Groundwater rise. Yet another climate change threat.

A graphic showing how sea level rise lifts freshwater, causing groundwater inundation in low-lying areas. Credit: UHM Coastal Geology Group

Preface. In coastal areas flooding is likely to be caused from groundwater rise because as sea levels rise, they won’t only move inland, flooding low-lying land near the shore; but also push water up from the saltwater water table, on top of which is a layer of lighter fresh water. As the salt water rises with rising seas, it will push this fresh water upward. In low-lying areas, that water may emerge from the ground.

The consequences are that water will leach inside homes through basement cracks. Toilets may become chronically backed up. Raw sewage may seep through manholes. Brackish water will corrode sewer and water pipes and inundate building foundations. And most hazardous of all, water percolating upward may flow through contaminants buried in the soil, spreading them underground and eventually releasing them into people’s homes. The coup de grace will be the earthquakes, which, when they strike, may liquefy the entire toxic mess, pushing it toward the surface.

The result will be that in places like Oakland, flooding will occur not just at the shoreline, but inland in areas once considered safe from sea level rise. The threat it poses can’t be neutralized with the usual strategy: physical structures that keep the sea at bay. No matter how many seawalls we build, many experts say, groundwater can still gurgle up from below, potentially turning large swaths of the densely populated shoreline around the Bay into unwanted, unplanned, possibly toxic wetlands.

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


Grace Mitchell Tada. March 25, 2019. The Sea Beneath Us Sea level rise has a gotcha-from- behind twin: rising groundwater. It’s already here. And some experts maintain, we’re not ready for it. Bay Nature

In East Oakland, on a residential street in front of a small park, Kristina Hill stopped and got out of her vehicle. She walked to the center of the street as a gaggle of graduate students emerged from their cars and gathered around her. It was midday, early September, the bright, hot sun directly overhead. Hill, a professor of urban and environmental design at UC Berkeley, had chosen the spot because when it rains heavily, water gushes up from storm drains here, forming filthy brown ponds. “That will happen more and more,” Hill said. Then she proceeded to describe a peculiar, almost apocalyptic future.

Water will leach inside homes, she said, through basement cracks. Toilets may become chronically backed up. Raw sewage may seep through manholes. Brackish water will corrode sewer and water pipes and inundate building foundations. And most hazardous of all, water percolating upward may flow through contaminants buried in the soil, spreading them underground and eventually releasing them into people’s homes. The coup de grace will be the earthquakes, which, when they strike, may liquefy the entire toxic mess, pushing it toward the surface.

The future Hill described is caused by a phenomenon called groundwater rise. In a nutshell, as a warming climate raises sea levels, the sea won’t only move inland, flooding low-lying land near the shore; it may also push water up from beneath our feet. That’s because for those of us living near the shore, a sea lurks in the ground—a saltwater water table. On top of that salt water floats a layer of lighter fresh water. As the salt water rises with rising seas, Hill and others think, it will push the fresh water upward. In low-lying areas, that water may emerge from the ground.

The result, Hill explained, will be that in places like Oakland, flooding will occur not just at the shoreline, but inland in areas once considered safe from sea level rise, including the Oakland Coliseum and Jones Avenue, where Hill and her students now stood, more than a mile from San Leandro Bay. In fact, she added, rising groundwater menaces nearly the entire band of low-lying land around San Francisco Bay, as well as many other coastal parts of the U.S.

The threat it poses can’t be neutralized with the usual strategy: physical structures that keep the sea at bay. No matter how many seawalls we build, many experts say, groundwater can still gurgle up from below, potentially turning large swaths of the densely populated shoreline around the Bay into unwanted, unplanned, possibly toxic wetlands. The issue is barely on the radar of Bay Area planners and decision-makers; it’s been mostly overlooked until recently. The public has hardly heard of it. Hill is trying to change all that. She’s on a mission to increase awareness of sea level rise’s gotcha-from-behind twin—groundwater rise.

When we think of the water table, we probably imagine a hard line that runs parallel to the earth’s surface some distance below us and, beneath that line, a big blob-like lake that we call groundwater. But it’s not really lake-like. Groundwater exists within permeable layers of rock, called aquifers, classified as either confined or unconfined. Water fills the space between rock particles. Confined aquifers are usually tucked deep in the earth, pressurized between less permeable layers of rock. Unconfined aquifers, like the one Hill described beneath Oakland, commonly exist in coastal areas and at river mouths. These aquifers often sit close to the surface, and they swell when, for instance, it rains. Only recently have scientists come to understand how sea level rise can affect coastal groundwater.

Around the Bay, most development has occurred on wetlands filled with sand, mud, and building rubble from 19th-century construction efforts, as well as alluvium, the material that washes down from surrounding watersheds.

This will be a disaster in earthquakes, which can exacerbate the problems posed by rising groundwater as it did Christchurch, New Zealand where 80% of the city’s underground infrastructure was obliterated, and thousands of buildings were leveled. Why? The city was built on a sand-and-gravel plain with a high water table. When the earthquake struck, the soil acted like a liquid, partly swallowing vehicles and cracking and tilting buildings. It is a problem shared by and well-known in the Bay Area.

The USGS has liquefaction susceptibility maps for the Bay Area, but these don’t account for sea level rise. Municipalities needed to incorporate the risk posed by rising water tables into their climate adaptation plans. As sea levels gradually rise in the decades to come, water might push up through storm drains or directly through the ground, damaging infrastructure and building foundations. Freeways and airports near the sea (and there are many, SFO and Oakland International Airport included) would likely become soggy messes. Inundation at wastewater treatment facilities, often sited on low-lying land, could trigger leaks of untreated water. Rising salt water might corrode urban drainage systems, which would stop functioning properly as their pipes filled permanently with groundwater. Brackish pools of water could become regular features of the urban environment. 

More worrisome, rising groundwater might carry toward the surface hazardous material trapped in the soil. Around the rim of the Bay, once a center of heavy industry, we could see arsenic, lead, benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, PCBs, even possibly radioactive waste. 

Another effect of climate change is that rainfall is predicted to become more intense. Flooding would likely become more frequent, bringing to the surface various buried toxic substances, such as the vinyl chloride and TCA of concern in the groundwater beneath the nearby tool and die machine shop, or the gasoline in the groundwater around the neighborhood’s former and existing gas stations.

Even if the water table recedes after the rainy season and the summer dry season sets in, some contaminants could become airborne in buildings. People may inhale them. “Even an event where it’s a seasonal thing for a few days could have really important long-term effects,” Hill told me.

East Oakland is already among the top five percent of polluted California zip codes. The mostly low-income, primarily nonwhite residents who live there have relatively high rates of chronic disease. Life expectancy for African Americans in the Oakland “flats” can be up to 14 years less than in the hills. And now these already beleaguered communities face the prospect of contaminants welling up from beneath their feet. 

Rising groundwater is “a whole new game-changer, particularly when you’re talking about sites that are contaminated with industrial solvents,” says Grant Cope, the deputy secretary for environmental policy at the California Environmental Protection Agency. What can be done? Contaminated groundwater could be pumped out of the ground, treated, cleaned, and reinjected into the aquifer, Cope says. Otherwise, it remains unclear whether caps meant to keep pollutants buried—a strategy used at remediated sites in recent decades—would continue to work if groundwater rises. The caps were not designed for this purpose, Cope says. 

Judging by what the federal EPA has learned from its experience with hurricanes in other parts of the country, the most acute risk posed by groundwater rise are infections from pathogens in wastewater, according to John Blue, Cal EPA’s manager of climate programs. (Hill disagrees, saying, “I would take a bath in wastewater before I would have any skin contact with benzene”—one of the pollutants she worries about in Oakland. “There’s no safe exposure” level.) And how would affected wastewater be dealt with? Blue pauses. “These are very difficult questions,” he says. “That’s the eight-hundred-million-dollar question. That remains to be seen.”

There are important caveats to the wet, bleak future scenario Hill and Plane’s report describes. Their maps, which have been submitted for publication but haven’t appeared in a peer-reviewed journal yet, are approximate and don’t account for subtleties in the landscape—for instance, streams and valley-like topography that might allow rising groundwater to flow downhill and away, preventing water from pooling. Hill and Plane’s conclusions assume that water tables will rise linearly with sea level rise, which, judging from patterns in local geography, may or may not be true. The report’s data is based on the highest water table levels recorded in the past 20-odd years, which may present an exaggerated picture of what’s likely to happen, says Kevin Befus, assistant professor at the University of Wyoming’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. Tina Low of SFRWQCB maintains that, in conjunction with monitoring, current remediation standards for buried pollutants are sufficient to prevent leaching, even if groundwater rises. (Older sites that don’t adhere to these standards may need to be studied to assess the risk they pose, she adds.)

Still, many planners I queried around the Bay found the study both credible and worrisome. “It’s a really nice data-driven approach that leverages this incredible data set [from] wells to look at where the water table actually is,” says Patrick Barnard of the USGS. Abby Mohan, a marine geographer at Silvestrum Climate Associates, who is working with Hill and Plane to further refine their research, emphasizes that this is pioneering, groundbreaking work. “Ellen and Kristina did something really interesting and great,” she says.

Steve Goldbeck, chief deputy director of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, says the commission had been aware of the groundwater issue in a general sense before, but with Plane and Hill’s work, “now we know it’s going to be a problem” in the Bay Area.

Thus far in recent history, the three general responses to sea level rise have been to armor, to retreat, or to adapt in place. Around the Bay, many municipalities are considering the least radical strategy: armor. San Francisco aims to rebuild its seawall, a more than $2 billion project that won’t address groundwater issues (though it does, importantly, address seismic hazards). Moreover, as the sea rises, seawall construction could actually increase water levels in the Bay, says Mark Stacey, an environmental engineer at UC Berkeley who has modeled such scenarios. If, for example, Foster City, San Mateo, Redwood City, and Menlo Park all erect seawalls, those barriers together could alter tidal amplification enough to raise water levels in the Bay, potentially worsening flooding in other areas.

Planners elsewhere are taking bold actions to address groundwater rise. Miami envisions using urban green space as a sponge to draw out and absorb groundwater. Boston recently unveiled a plan for its harbor that uses barrier walls to keep the sea out as well as tidal marshes and parks to absorb emergent groundwater. (The Bay Area has restored tens of thousands of acres of wetlands, but unlike in Boston or Miami’s plans, they’re not tightly integrated into the urban landscape. So it’s not clear that they can serve the same “release valve” function, drawing groundwater away from infrastructure.) And in New Zealand, after the devastation of the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, the government purchased and then razed more than 7,000 homes on land at risk of further liquefaction, essentially an admission that some areas of the city’s plain were too dangerous to inhabit in the short term without greater fortification. 

Things have moved more slowly in the Bay Area. That’s partly because the Bay’s geology is more complex than along the Eastern Seaboard and scientists don’t yet have all the data, and partly because Bay Area decision-makers want greater certainty on what to plan for. “We’re ready to apply [the information] as soon as we really understand the risk,” says San Mateo County climate adaptation manager Hilary Papendick. Phil Bobel, Palo Alto’s manager of public works engineering, echoes that view, saying the city leadership now assumes it will have to deal with groundwater rise eventually but wants more research first. 

Bay Area planners eagerly await USGS models in development that will allow them to predict, with greater accuracy than Hill and Plane’s maps, how the coastal water table will respond to sea level rise. The models, which use Hill and Plane’s data set for validation, are slated for public release later this year. With them in hand, “we’ll incorporate that understanding into our broader adaptation planning,” Alex Westhoff, a planner at the Marin County Community Development Agency, says.

 But even with these models available, next steps aren’t necessarily clear because the problem is so new. Replacing and shoring up infrastructure and implementing other adaptation strategies will be expensive, so the biggest hurdle may be funding. “It’s a multibillion-dollar area, and we struggle in the millions to try to do shoreline restoration,” Paul Detjens of Contra Costa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District says. “We’re talking a whole ’nother order of magnitude.” In 2016, Bay Area voters passed Measure AA to fund wetland restoration, so there is reason to think that as they become aware of the issue, voters might support adaptation initiatives that address groundwater rise.

Hill has her own bold ideas for how the Bay Area can prepare. She, Kevin Befus at the University of Wyoming, and Chip Fletcher at the University of Hawaii think that learning to live with water, rather than trying to keep it out, is the best way forward. “If you wage war with water you will lose,” Fletcher says, paraphrasing a Dutch expression. Hill imagines floating cities in ponds, or neighborhoods linked by canals—a Californian Amsterdam. The idea is to manage emergent groundwater by opening space for it in the cityscape. Canal systems installed in flood-prone areas of East Oakland, for example, would help existing structures remain in place a bit longer; elevating and retrofitting for seismic risks is too expensive, she says. Over time, as groundwater rises, neighborhoods could become what she and her colleagues call “tidal cities.” Homes, apartment buildings, and businesses could rest atop floating pontoons connected to land. 

Those ideas may sound far-fetched, but planners welcome them. “We’ll need creative solutions for design and planning,” Westhoff says. 

Rohin Saleh, a civil engineer at Alameda County Flood Control who has watched the water table rise over the past 15 years, says Hill’s vision may not be feasible everywhere, but “is a really great component of the type of solution that we need to have in our backpack.” 

Many questions remain unanswered. Who will pay for urban adaptation, cleaning and remediation? How will the many municipalities around the Bay come together to manage what is, by definition, a regional problem that no one area can solve alone? And what, for that matter, does a floating apartment building look like? Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing is certain. As Lindy Lowe, the Port of San Francisco’s resilience program director, says, at least people are thinking and talking about groundwater rise now—which they weren’t doing eight to ten years ago. That, she notes, is already a triumph.

Posted in Floods, Groundwater, Hazardous Waste, Sea Level Rise, Water | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Nafeez Ahmed: Venezuela’s collapse is a window into how the Oil Age will unravel

Preface. Ahmed is one of the best writers on the energy crisis and other biophysical calamities. He’s written about why many states are failing now in part due to peak oil, but also drought and other biophysical factors in his book “Failing States, Collapsing Systems BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence“. Below is his take on Venezula, where peak oil production occurred in 1997.

What happened there may be how events unfold in the United States as well, so it is worth reading how collapsing states like Venezuela fail if you’re curious about your own future.

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


Nafeez Ahmed. 2019. Venezuela’s collapse is a window into how the Oil Age will unravel.

For some, the crisis in Venezuela is all about the endemic corruption of Nicolás Maduro, continuing the broken legacy of Chavez’s ideological experiment in socialism under the mounting insidious influence of Putin. For others, it’s all about the ongoing counter-democratic meddling of the United States, which has for years wanted to bring Venezuela — with its huge oil reserves — back into the orbit of American power, and is now interfering again to undermine a democratically elected leader in Latin America.

Neither side truly understands the real driving force behind the collapse of Venezuela: we have moved into the twilight of the Age of Oil.

So how does a country like Venezuela with the largest reserves of crude oil in the world end up incapable of developing them? While various elements of socialism, corruption and neoliberal capitalism are all implicated in various ways, what no one’s talking about — especially the global oil industry — is that over the last decade, we’ve shifted into a new era. The world has moved from largely extracting cheap, easy crude, to becoming increasingly dependent on unconventional forms of oil and gas that are much more difficult and expensive to produce.

Oil isn’t running out, in fact, it’s everywhere — we’ve more than enough to fry the planet. But as the easy, cheap stuff has plateaued, production costs have soared. And as a consequence the most expensive oil to produce has become increasingly unprofitable.

In a country like Venezuela, emerging from a history of US interference, plagued by internal economic mismanagement, combined with external intensifying pressure from US sanctions, this decline in profitability has became fatal.

Since Hugo Chavez’s election in 1999, the US has continued to explore numerous ways to interfere in and undermine his socialist government. This is consistent with the track record of US overt and covert interventionism across Latin America, which has sought to overthrow democratically elected governments which undermine US interests in the region, supported right-wing autocratic regimes, and funded, trained and armed far-right death squads complicit in wantonly massacring hundreds of thousands of people.

For all the triumphant moralizing in parts of the Western media about the failures of Venezuela’s socialist experiment, there has been little reflection on the role of this horrific counter-democratic US foreign policy in paving the way for a populist hunger for nationalist and independent alternatives to US-backed cronyism.

Before Chavez

Venezuela used to be a dream US ally, model free-market economy, and a major oil producer. With the largest reserves of crude oil in the world, the conventional narrative is that its current implosion can only be due to colossal mismanagement of its domestic resources.

Described back in 1990 by the New York Times as “one of Latin America’s oldest and most stable democracies”, the newspaper of record predicted that, thanks to the geopolitical volatility of the Middle East, Venezuela “is poised to play a newly prominent role in the United States energy scene well into the 1990’s”. At the time, Venezuelan oil production was helping to “offset the shortage caused by the embargo of oil from Iraq and Kuwait” amidst higher oil prices triggered by the simmering conflict.

But the NYT had camouflaged a deepening economic crisis. As noted by leading expert on Latin America, Javier Corrales, in ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America, Venezuela had never recovered from currency and debt crises it had experienced in the 1980s. Economic chaos continued well into the 1990s, just as the Times had celebrated the market economy’s friendship with the US, explained Corrales: “Inflation remained indomitable and among the highest in the region, economic growth continued to be volatile and oil-dependent, growth per capita stagnated, unemployment rates surged, and public sector deficits endured despite continuous spending cutbacks.”

Prior to the ascension of Chavez, the entrenched party-political system so applauded by the US, and courted by international institutions like the IMF, was essentially crumbling. “According to a recent report by Data Information Resources to the Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce, in the last 25 years the share of household income spent on food has shot up to 72%, from 28%,” lamented the New York Times in 1996. “The middle class has shrunk by a third. An estimated 53 percent of jobs are now classified as ‘informal’ — in the underground economy — as compared with 33% in the late 1970’s”.

The NYT piece cynically put all the blame for the deepening crisis on “government largesse” and interventionism in the economy. But even here, within the subtext the paper acknowledged a historical backdrop of consistent IMF-backed austerity measures. According to the NYT, even the ostensibly anti-austerity president Rafael Caldera — who had promised more “state-financed populism” as an antidote to years of IMF-wrought austerity — ended up “negotiating for a $3 billion loan from the IMF” along with “a second loan of undisclosed size to ease the social impact of any hardships imposed by an IMF agreement.”

So it is convenient that today’s loud and self-righteous moral denunciations of Maduro ignore the instrumental role played by US efforts to impose market fundamentalism in wreaking economic and social havoc across Venezuelan society. Of course, outside the fanatical echo chambers of the Trump White House and the likes of the New York Times, the devastating impact of US-backed World Bank and IMF austerity measures is well-documented among serious economists.

In a paper for the London School of Economics, development economist Professor Jonathan DiJohn of the UN Research Institute for Social Development found that US-backed economic “liberalization not only failed to revive private investment and economic growth, but also contributed to a worsening of the factorial distribution of income, which contributed to growing polarisation of politics.”

Neoliberal reforms further compounded already existing centralized nepotistic political structures vulnerable to corruption. Far from strengthening the state, they led to a collapse in the state’s regulative power. Analysts who hark back to a Venezuelan free market golden age ignore the fact that far from reducing corruption, “financial deregulation, large-scale privatizations, and private monopolies create[d] large rents, and thus rent-seeking/corruption opportunities.”

Instead of leading to meaningful economic reforms, neoliberalisation stymied genuine reform and entrenched elite power. And this is precisely how the West helped create the Chavez it loves to hate. In the words of Corrales in the Harvard Review: “economic collapse and party system collapse—are intimately related. Venezuela’s repeated failure to reform its economy made existing politicians increasingly unpopular, who in turn responded by privileging populist policies over real reforms. The result was a vicious cycle of economic and political party decay, ultimately paving the way for the rise of Chavez.”

Dead oil

While it is now fashionable to blame the collapse of the Venezuelan oil industry solely on Chavez’s socialism, Caldera’s privatization of the oil sector was unable to forestall the decline in oil production, which peaked in 1997 at around 3.5 million barrels a day. By 1999, Chavez’s first actual year in office, production had already dropped dramatically by around 30 percent.

A deeper look reveals that the causes of Venezuela’s oil problems are slightly more complicated than the ‘Chávez killed it’ meme. Since peaking around 1997, Venezuelan oil production has declined over the last two decades, but in recent years has experienced a precipitous fall. There can be little doubt that serious mismanagement in the oil industry has played a role in this decline. However, there is a fundamental driver other than mismanagement which the press has consistently ignored in reporting on Venezuala’s current crisis: the increasingly fraught economics of oil.

The vast bulk of Venezuela’s oil is not conventional crude, but unconventional “heavy oil”, a highly viscous liquid that requires unconventional techniques to extract and flow, often with heat from steam, and/or mixing it with lighter forms of crude in the refining process. Heavy oil thus has a higher cost of extraction than normal crude, and a lower market price due to the refining difficulties. In theory, heavy oil can be produced at below break-even prices to a profit, but greater investment is still needed to get to that point.

The higher costs of extraction and refining have played a key role in making Venezuela’s oil production efforts increasingly unprofitable and unsustainable. When oil prices were at their height between 2005 and 2008, Venezuela was able to weather the inefficiencies and mismanagement in its oil industry due to much higher profits thanks to prices between $100 and $150 a barrel. Global oil prices were spiking as global conventional crude oil production began to plateau, causing an increasing shift to unconventional sources.

That global shift did not mean that oil was running out, but that we were moving deeper into dependence on more difficult and expensive forms of unconventional oil and gas. The shift can be best understood through the concept of Energy Return on Investment (EROI), pioneered principally by the State University of New York environmental scientist Professor Charles Hall, a ratio which measures how much energy is used to extract a particular quantity of energy from any resource. Hall has shown that as we are consuming ever larger quantities of energy, we are using more and more energy to do so, leaving less ‘surplus energy’ at the end to underpin social and economic activity.

This creates a counter-intuitive dynamic — even as production soars, the quality of the energy we are producing declines, its costs are higher, industry profits are squeezed, and the surplus available to sustain continued economic growth dwindles. As the surplus energy available to sustain economic growth is squeezed, in real terms the biophysical capacity of the economy to continue buying the very oil being produced reduces. Economic recession (partly induced by the previous era of oil price spikes) interacts with the lack of affordability of oil, leading the market price to collapse.

That in turn renders the most expensive unconventional oil and gas projects potentially unprofitable, unless they can find ways to cover their losses through external subsidies of some kind, such as government grants or extended lines of credit. And this is the key difference between Venezuela and countries like the US and Canada, where extremely low EROI levels for production have been sustained largely through massive multi-billion dollar loans — fueling an energy boom that is likely to come to a catastrophic endwhen the debt-turkey comes home to roost.

“It’s all a bit reminiscent of the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, when internet companies were valued on the number of eyeballs they attracted, not on the profits they were likely to make,” wrote Bethany McLean recently (once again in the New York Times), a US journalist well-known for her work on the Enron collapse. “As long as investors were willing to believe that profits were coming, it all worked — until it didn’t.”

A number of scientists have previously estimated the EROI of heavy oil production to amount to around 9:1 (with room for variation up or down depending on how inputs are accounted for and calculated; the unfashionable but probably more accurate approach would be downwards, closer to 6:1 when both direct and indirect energy costs are considered). Compare this to the EROI of about 20:1 for conventional crude prior to 2000, which gives an indication of the challenge Venezuela faced — which unlike the US and Canada, had emerged into the Chavez era from a history of neoliberal devastation and debt-expansion that already made further investments or subsidies to Venezuela’s oil industry a difficult ask.

Venezuela, in that sense, was ill-prepared to adapt to the post-2014 oil price collapse, compared to its wealthier, Western competitors in other forms of unconventional oil and gas. To be sure, then, the collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry cannot be reduced to geological factors, though there can be little doubt that those factors and their economic ramifications tend to be underplayed in conventional explanations. Above-ground factors were clearly a major problem in terms of chronic inadequacy of investment and the resulting degradation of production infrastructure. A balanced picture thus has to acknowledge both that Venezuela’s vast reserves are far more expensive and difficult to bring to market than standard conventional oil; and that Venezuala’s very specific economic circumstances in the wake of decades of failed IMF-austerity put the country in an extremely weak position to keep its oil show on the road.

Since 2008, oil production has declined by more than 350,000 barrels per day, and more than 800,000 per day since its peak level in 1997. This has driven the collapse of net exports by over 1.1 million barrels per day since 1998. Meanwhile, to sustain refining of heavy oil, Venezuela has increasingly imported light oil to blend with heavy oil as well as for domestic consumption. Currently, only extra-heavy oil production in the Orinoco Oil Belt has been able to increase, while conventional oil production continues to rapidly decline. Despite significant proved conventional reserves, these still require more expensive enhanced recovery techniques and infrastructure investments — which are unavailable. But profit margins from exports of extra-heavy crude are much smaller due to the higher costs of blending, upgrading and transportation, and the heavy discounts in international refining markets. In summary, oil industry expert Professor Francisco Monaldi at the Center for Energy and the Environment at IESA in Venezuela concludes: “oil production in Venezuela is comprised of increasingly heavier oil and thus less profitable, PDVSA’s operated production is falling more rapidly, and the production that generates cash-flow is almost half of the total production. These trends were problematic enough at peak oil prices, but with prices falling they become much more acute.”

The folly of endless growth

Unfortunately, much like his predecessors, Chavez didn’t appreciate the complexities, let alone the biophysical economics, of the oil industry. Rather, he saw it simplistically through the short-term lens of his own ideological socialist experiment.

From 1998 until his death in 2013, Chavez’s application of what he called ‘socialism’ to the oil industry succeeded in reducing poverty from 55 to 34 percent, helped 1.5 million adults become literate, and delivered healthcare to 70% of the population with Cuban doctors. All this apparent progress was enabled by oil revenues. But it was an unsustainable pipe-dream.

Instead of investing oil revenues back into production, Chavez spent them away on his social programs during the heyday of the oil price spikes, with no thought to the industry he was drawing from — and in the mistaken belief that prices would stay high. By the time prices collapsed due to the global shift to difficult oil described earlier — reducing Venezuala’s state revenues (96 percent of which come from oil) — Chavez had no currency reserves to fall back on.

Chavez had thus dramatically compounded the legacy of problems he had been left with. He had mimicked the same mistake made by the West before 2008, pursuing a path of ‘progress’ based on an unsustainable consumption of resources, fueled by debt, and bound to come crashing down.

So when he ran out of oil money, he did what governments effectively did worldwide after the 2008 financial crash through quantitative easing: he simply printed money.

The immediate impact was to drive up inflation. He simultaneously fixed the exchange rate to dollars, hiked up the minimum wage, while forcing prices of staple goods like bread to stay low. This of course turned businesses selling such staple goods or involved at every chain in their production into unprofitable enterprises, which could no longer afford to pay their own employees due to hemorrhaging income levels. Meanwhile, he slashed subsidies to farmers and other industries, while imposing quotas on them to maintain production. Instead of producing the desired result, many businesses ended up selling their goods on the black market in an attempt to make a profit.

As the economic crisis escalated, and as oil production declined, Chavez pinned his hopes on the potential transformation that could be ushered in by massive state investment in a new type of economy based on nationalized, self or cooperatively managed industries. Those investments, too, had little results. Dr Asa Cusack, an expert on Venezuela at the London School of Economics, points out that “even though the number of cooperatives exploded, in practice they were often as inefficient, corrupt, nepotistic, and exploitative as the private sector that they were supposed to displace.”

Meanwhile, with its currency reserves depleted, the government has had to slash imports by over 65 percent since 2012, while simultaneously reducing social spending to even lower than it was under IMF austerity reforms in the 1990s. Chavistan crisis-driven ‘socialism’ began with unsustainable social spending and has now switched to catastrophic levels of austerity that make neoliberalism look timid.

In this context, the rise of the black market and organized crime, exploited by both the government and the opposition, became a way of life while the economy, food production, health-care and basic infrastructure collapsed with frightening speed and ferocity.

Climate wild cards

Amidst this perfect storm, the wild card of climate impacts pushed Venezuela over the edge, accelerating an already dizzying spiral of crises. In March 2018, on the back of hyperinflation and recession, the government enforced electricity rationing across six western states. In one state, San Cristobal, residents reported 14-hour stretches without power after water levels in reservoirs used for hydroelectric plants were reduced due to drought. A similar crisis had erupted two years earlier when water levels behind the Guri Dam, which provides well over half the country’s electricity, hit record lows.

Venezuela generates around 65% of its electricity from hydropower, with a view to leave as much oil available as possible for export. But this has made electricity supplies increasingly vulnerable to droughts induced by climate change impacts.

It is well known that the El-Nino Southern Oscillation, the biggest fluctuation in the earth’s climate system comprising a cycle of warm and cold sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, is increasing in frequency and intensity due to climate change. A new study on the impact of climate change in Venezuela finds that between 1950 and 2004, 12 out of 15 El-Nino events coincided with years in which “mean annual flow” of water in the Caroni River basin, affecting the Guri reservoir and hydroelectric power, was “smaller than the historical mean.”

From 2013 to 2016, an intensified El-Nino cycle meant that there was little rain in Venezuela, culminating in a crippling deficit in 2015. It was the worst drought in almost half a century in the country, severely straining the country’s aging and poorly managed energy grid, resulting in rolling blackouts.

According to Professor Juan Carlos Sanchez, a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), these trends will dramatically deteriorate under a business as usual scenario. Large areas of Venezuelan states which are already water scarce, such as Falcon, Sucre, Lara and Zulia, including the north of the Guajira peninsula, will undergo desertification. Land degradation and decreased rainfall would devastate production of corn, black beans and plantains across much of the country. Sanchez predicts that some regions of the country will receive 25 percent less water than today. And that means even less electricity. By mid-century, climate models indicate an overall 18 percent decrease in rainfall in the Caroni River basin that leads to the Guri Dam.

Unfortunately, no Venezuelan government has ever taken seriously its climate pledges, preferring to escalate as much as possible its oil production, and even intensifying the CO2 intensive practice of gas flaring. Meanwhile, escalating climate change is set to exacerbate Venezuela’s electricity blackouts, infrastructure collapse and agricultural crisis.

Economic war

The crisis convergence unfolding in Venezuela gives us a window into what can happen when a post-oil future is foisted upon you. As domestic energy supplies dwindle, the state’s capacity to function recedes in unprecedented ways, opening the way for state-failure. As the state collapses, new smaller centers of power emerge, competing for control of diminishing resources.

In this context, reports of food-trafficking as a mechanism of ‘economic war’ are real, but they are not exclusive to either political side. All sides have become incentivized to horde products and sell them on the black market as a direct result of the collapsing economy, retrograde government price controls and wildly speculative prices.

Venezuelan state-owned media have pinpointed cases where private companies engaged in hoarding have close ties to the opposition. In response, the government has appropriated vast assets, farmland, bakeries, other businesses — but has failed to lift production.

On the other hand, Katiuska Rodriguez, a journalist investigating shortages at El Nacional, a pro-opposition newspaper, said that there is little clear evidence of hoarding being a result of an ‘economic war’ by capitalist business elites against the government. Although real, she explained, hoarding is driven largely by commercial interests in survival.

And yet, there is mounting evidence that the Maduro government is complicit in not just hoarding, but mass embezzlement of public funds. Sociologist Chris Carlson of the City University of New York Graduate Center points outthat a number of former senior Chavista government officials have come on record to confirm how powerful elites within the government have exploited the crisis to extract huge profits for themselves. “A gang was created that was only interested in getting their hands on the oil revenue,” said Hector Navarro, former Chavista minister and socialist party leader. Similarly, Chavez’s former finance minister, Jorge Giordani, estimated that some $300 billion was embezzled in this way.

And yet, the real economic war is not really going on inside Venezuela. It has been conducted by the US against Venezuela, through a draconian sanctions regime which has exacerbated the arc of collapse. Francisco Rodriguez, Chief Economist at Torino Economics in New York, points out that a major drop in Venezuela’s production numbers occurred precisely “at the time at which the United States decided to impose financial sanctions on Venezuela.”

He argues that: “Advocates of sanctions on Venezuela claim that these target the Maduro regime but do not affect the Venezuelan people. If the sanctions regime can be linked to the deterioration of the country’s export capacity and to its consequent import and growth collapse, then this claim is clearly wrong.” Rodriguez marshals a range of evidence suggesting this might well be the case.

Others with direct expertise have gone further. Former UN special rapporteur to Venezuela, Alfred de Zayas, who finished his term at the UN in March 2018, criticised the US for engaging in “economic warfare” against Venezuela. On his fact-finding mission to the country in late 2017, he confirmed the role of overdependence on oil, poor governance and corruption, but blamed the US, EU and Canadian sanctions for worsening the economic crisis and “killing” Venezuelans.

US goals are fairly transparent. In an interview with FOX News that has been completely ignored by the press, Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton explained the focus of US attention: “We’re looking at the oil assets. That’s the single most important income stream to the government of Venezuela. We’re looking at what to do to that.” He continued: “… we’re in conversation with major American companies now… I think we’re trying to get to the same end result here… It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.”

The coming oil crisis

It is not entirely surprising that Bolton is particularly eager at this time to extend US energy companies into Venezuela.

North American exploration and production companies have seen their net debt balloon from $50 billion in 2005 to nearly $200 billion by 2015. “[The fracking] industry doesn’t make money…. It’s on much shakier financial footing than most people realize,” said McLean, who has just authored the book, Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World. Indeed, there is serious gulf between oil industry claims about opportunities for profit, and what is actually happening in those companies: “When you look at oil companies’ presentations, there’s something that doesn’t make sense because they show their investors these beautiful investor decks with gorgeous slides indicating that they will produce an 80% or 60% internal rate of return. And then you go to the corporate level and you see that the company isn’t making money, and you wonder what happened between point A and point B.”

In short, cheap debt-money has permitted the industry to grow — but how long that can continue is an open question. “Part of the point in writing my book was just to make people aware that as we trump at American energy independence, let’s think about some of the foundation of this [industry] and how insecure it actually is, so that we’re also planning for the future in different ways”, adds McLean.

Indeed, US shale oil and gas production is forecast to peak in around a decade — or in as little as four years. It’s not just the US. Europe as a continent is already well into the post-peak phase, and Russian oil ministry officials privately anticipate an imminent peak within the next few years. As China, India and other Asian powers experience further demand growth, everyone will be looking increasingly for a viable energy supply, whether from the Middle East or Latin America. But it won’t come cheap, or easy. And it won’t be healthy for the planet.

Whatever their ultimate causes, the horrifying collapse of Venezuela heralds insights into a possible future for today’s major oil producers — including the United States. The US is enjoying a revival in its oil industry but how long it will last and how sustainable it is are awkward questions that few pundits dare to ask — except a brave few, such as McLean.

This does not necessarily mean oil production will simply slowly grind to a halt. As production limits are reached using current techniques, new techniques might be brought into play to try to mine vast reserves of more difficult resources. However, whatever technological innovations emerge they are unlikely to be able to avert the trajectory of increasing costs of extraction, refining and processing before getting fossil fuels to market. And this means that the surplus energy available to devote to the delivery of public goods familiar to modern industrial consumerist societies will become smaller and smaller.

As we shift into a post-carbon era, we will have to adapt new economic thinking, and restructure our ways of life from the ground up.

Right now the Venezuelan people find themselves locked into a vicious cycle of ill-conceived human systems collapsing into violent in-fighting, in the face of the earth system crisis erupting beneath them. It is not yet too late for the rest of the world to learn a lesson. We can either be dragged into a world after oil kicking and screaming, or we can roll up our sleeves and walk there in a manner of our own choosing. It really is up to us. Venezuela should function as a warning sign as to what can happen when we bury our heads in the (oil) sands.

Posted in Central & South America, Oil (Tar) Sands, Peak Oil | Tagged , | 2 Comments