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Jun 25, 16
The Next 10 Years: the Beginning of Chaos
By John House, MD

The essay below appeared as a four-part series in the Eureka Springs Independent, a weekly newspaper in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in May 2016. Minor changes have been made to improve flow as a single article.

The 60’s and 70’s were an exciting time to be young. So much was changing; everywhere a person looked there were new technologies, new discoveries – even other planets were no longer off limits.

Like most people raised in the industrialized world during the 20th century, I was taught – directly and indirectly – that humans would experience non-stop progress; each generation would build on the successes of the last taking the human race to ever higher levels. There had been setbacks along the way, but that wasn’t something we had to worry about any more. The internal combustion engine, plumbing, electricity, modern medicine, computers, all of these advancements and more would prevent us from ever having to worry about the collapse of civilization ever again. At least that was the overarching message I received from my education and from society at large. Indeed, there are many who are preaching that message even today.

As amazing as the 20th century was with all the wonders that it brought, the 21st century has been equally amazing in how little progress has been made. With the accelerating pace of advancements we saw in the 100 years from 1900 to 1999, it seems astonishing that so little has been accomplished in the last 16.

There are numerous reasons that humanity hasn't progressed at the same pace in recent years. In this article I’m going to examine three of the biggest challenges that will dominate events in the next decade and help us understand why progress has stalled.

They are: 1) decline in net energy, 2) explosion in debt as the primary engine for economic growth, and 3) climate change.

Decline in Net Energy
Net energy is a simple concept: it is the amount of energy left over after expending energy to produce that energy. For example, if I want to build a fire to cook my food, I have to spend my body’s energy to gather the wood and to create a spark to start the fire. The fire gives me more energy than I had to start with, so there is a net energy gain. If a rainstorm puts out my fire before I can cook my food, then there is a decline in net energy since I get very little energy from the fire but still had to spend energy to begin with.

Since the beginning of the human experience, humans have had to use manual labor to accomplish every task. From finding food, to making clothing, to building shelter, humans had only the energy gleaned from plants and animals to get the job done. There was very little excess energy left over for other activities.

With the discovery of petroleum – oil – and how to use it efficiently, humans had something that they had never had before: excess energy. With the incredible stored energy in oil, humans now could do all sorts of work without manual labor.

Fossil fuels are incredible batteries. They hold LOTS of stored solar energy per kilogram. For example, it would take a fit human adult laboring more than 10 years to equal the energy in one barrel of oil!

Looked at a different way, a barrel of oil has the energy equivalent of 1,700 kilowatt hours of electricity. To get that much energy from a typical 2'x4' solar panel in an hour you would need almost 19,000 panels! That's for just one barrel. The world uses 90,000,000 barrels a day! Fossil fuels led to a paradigm shift in human activity. This advancement, more than anything else, has been responsible for all the technological achievements, increases in food production, excess leisure time, labor saving devices, and all the other conveniences that we think of as “the modern world”.

So to define this in terms of net energy, before fossil fuels, humans used virtually all of the energy they took in via food, simply to gather more energy (grow or hunt food). For all practical purposes, there was almost no excess net energy available.

With fossil fuels, suddenly there was so much excess energy available that humans could achieve almost anything!

But. (There's always a "but".) Those incredible solar energy batteries of fossil fuels take millions of years to charge. Once we figured out how to use them, we started burning through them at astronomical rates.

We pumped the easy-to-reach oil first and, since fossil fuels are a finite resource and aren’t replenished, when the easy stuff was gone, we started working on the hard-to-get stuff. Every increase in the difficulty of extraction results in spending more energy to get the energy from the oil. The more energy we spend, the less excess net energy there is.

From about 1825 to 1979 the amount of net excess energy per capita was growing almost exponentially. From 1979 through 2003, however, net energy per capita stopped growing. Since 2003, net energy per capita has been declining.

At first glance, this might not seem to be a big deal. But, it’s actually an incredibly huge problem. Remember, all that excess net energy is what has made every aspect of our modern world possible. What happens when there is less of that very thing?

Actually, we are starting to get just a glimpse of the answer to that question since net energy per capita has been declining for the last 12 or 13 years.

If you think about what excess net energy allows us to do – travel, buy non-essential items, have leisure time, etc., etc., – then it follows that with a decline in net energy, we will have less travel, less leisure time, we’ll buy less non-essential stuff. In other words, we’ll have a recession, perhaps worse.

There is a clear relationship between oil and the economy. In fact, there have been multiple recessions since WWII and all but one have been preceded by a spike in the price of oil. When the price of oil goes too high, it leads to an economic downturn.

Many believe we entered a global recession after the oil price spike of mid-2014, even if we aren’t technically in a recession here in the U.S., and now the world is awash in cheap oil. We won’t be awash in oil long, however, as most of the hard-to-reach petroleum costs more to produce than the current market price. Very soon, supply will dwindle. And that’s how this time is different. In the past, we’ve been able to grow our way out of recessions by pumping more oil thereby creating more excess energy. Now, we can’t. Now we have a decline in net energy.

Since developing an oil-based economy, we’ve never had to face a decline in net energy. This has enormous implications to our way of life.

The modern economy is dependent on growth. With a decline in net energy, substantive growth is no longer possible. I mentioned earlier that there has a been a decline in net energy since the early part of this century. So, how is it possible that we’ve had economic growth since then?

In a word, debt.

Debt, too, plays an integral part in powering economic growth. In fact, the modern economy can’t function without it. In recent years, debt has been substituted for excess net energy as the fuel for economic growth. The results have been less than stellar and are likely creating a situation that guarantees economic collapse.

In the loosest sense of the word, our economy IS debt. Today, there is more debt than there ever has been in the history of humankind. Without excess net energy, that debt couldn’t be repaid. Debt has been part of the human experience for many thousands of years. It has taken, and continues to take, many forms. At its most basic, debt is the promise to pay in the future for some good or service provided now.

Another way to look at debt is as an advance of future earnings. A person takes out a loan from a bank to buy a house or car, promising to repay that loan plus interest using income that will be earned in the future. Even in such a simple scenario, a healthy economy is required for a loan to be repaid; if the borrower loses his job because a factory closes due to economic decline, for example, he can’t repay the loan.

Since debt permeates every part of our economy, growth is required in order for debt to be repaid or, at the very least, serviced. Everything that is talked about with respect to the economy revolves around growth. If the economy isn’t growing, it’s bad. And debt is the reason.

The banking system that the average person interacts with is designed around a concept known as fractional reserve banking. What that means is that banks are only required to have on hand – on reserve – a fraction of the money that has been placed on deposit in their bank. The rest, they lend out, thereby creating money “out of thin air” while also creating enormous amounts of debt requiring a constant flow of new money being put into the system, i.e. economic growth. On its face, this is good for the economy as it spurs development, creates jobs, increases wealth, etc. If the amount of debt grows too large, however, or the economy slows, then a serious problem develops as the debt can no longer be serviced.

Today, the debt system has grown incredibly complex with debt instruments that are convoluted and almost impossible for the layperson to understand. Most of this debt has nothing to do with “main street”, but it too, requires that our economy grow indefinitely and without interruption or the whole scheme collapses.

Since everything in our economy is dependent on energy, a decline in net excess energy means that the economy can’t grow leading to debt default. If the amount of debt default is large, then it can be devastating to the system. Since even the slightest hint of widespread default would elicit panic in the stock and financial markets, wiping out trillions of dollars overnight, it’s no wonder that government and industry agencies are less than honest about the decline in net energy and about the impossibility of ever paying off the mountains of debt that have been created trying to stimulate the economy. The whole financial system is the very definition of a house of cards.

The financial crisis of 2008-9 brought the global financial system to the very brink of collapse. If it had not been for the Herculean efforts of central banks around the world at that time, collapse would have been inevitable. That crisis was one of too much debt that couldn’t be repaid. Ironically, the central banks saved the system by creating more debt. Enormous amounts of it, in fact.

The amount of conventional debt today is estimated to be $100 trillion globally. When the derivatives market is included, the amount of global debt surges to the absurdly high number of $1.3 quadrillion. Since declining net energy is preventing the economy from having the energy it needs to grow, it seems very likely that there will be massive debt defaults in the near future. When there is widespread debt default commerce shuts down.

When commerce shuts down, there is economic collapse and many, many people suffer. Very similar events are happening right now in Venezuela, Greece, Syria, Puerto Rico, and other countries. With the decline in net energy affecting every person on the planet, and with global debt already at unsustainable levels and climbing higher every day, there is widespread agreement among financial experts that central banks will be unable to save the system next time. When that happens, every country — including the U.S. — will experience economic disaster.

Climate Change
Climate change is, by far, the most worrisome of the major challenges we face as a species. We can live without debt and a modern economy, and maybe a few of us can survive on the energy levels utilized by our ancestors, but not a single one of us can survive without a livable climate.

Over the last 20 years there has been lots of debate about global warming with respect to its causes, how fast it will happen, how severe it will be, etc. The one salient fact that in recent years has become indisputable, however, is that the climate is changing now and happening much more rapidly than almost anyone has predicted.

On a steady basis, new studies are published that demonstrate this rapid change. Sea levels are rising faster, storms are becoming increasingly intense and more common, droughts are more severe and widespread, forest fires are raging more fiercely and over greater areas, and the oceans are dying. All because CO2 and other greenhouse gases are rising faster than ever before.

It’s important to understand that there is a time lag of about 30 years in the effects of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. So the warming temperatures and climate chaos we see today are from the CO2 emitted in the 1980s.

The amount of carbon that we are pumping into the atmosphere today is far greater than that of 30 years ago. This means that even if we were to stop absolutely all CO2 emissions right now, temperatures will keep climbing for another 30 years! Since it takes at least 1,000 years for CO2 to work itself out of the atmosphere, that likely unlivable temperature would be the new normal for a very long time.

Is it even possible to stop ALL CO2 emissions? Think about what that means: no cars, no electricity, no stores, no air conditioning, no burning fires for heat or cooking, no food except what you grow yourself by hand, no refrigeration, no medicines, no hospitals or clinics, no internet, no phone, no TV . . . in other words, literally everything in our world would have to stop.

There are now more than 7.4 billion people on the planet. Almost every one of us depends entirely on food grown using fossil fuels. If we stop all CO2 emissions, almost every one of us starves to death in just a few months.

What are the odds of stopping all CO2 emissions anytime soon? It should be obvious that the chance of that happening willingly is zero.

A few years ago, politicians decided arbitrarily that the earth can adjust to a 2°C rise in average temperature without too much problem. That seems to be highly suspect, however, as we haven’t yet crossed the 1°C mark (on an annualized basis) and are already having huge problems related to climate change. What’s more, almost every model developed that keeps temperatures to 2°C warmer requires a dramatic reduction in CO2 emissions. Immediately. The longer we delay, the higher the temperature goes in those same projections.

With “business as usual” emissions, the global average temperature is projected to climb to 10° or 20°C above the historical level. Human beings cannot survive those kinds of temperatures. Even if we could, livestock, grains, fruits, and vegetables on which we all rely, can’t survive. We’d have no food. Already there are places on the planet that are experiencing enormous amounts of suffering related to climate change. Every day one billion people go hungry due to crop failures related to drought and flood. What will it be like at 2°C?

Since it seems clear that we can’t stop CO2 emissions entirely, is it possible that we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Think back to the previous part of this series. Debt requires growth in order to be repaid. All economic growth comes – ultimately – from utilizing energy. The only way to reduce CO2 in any way that is meaningful requires a significant reduction in economic activity. That leads to debt default and likely economic depression. What politician is going to vote to do anything that’s going to cause a severe economic downturn? What’s more, this is a global problem. One country deciding to reduce carbon emissions isn’t enough – it has to be all of us. As the recent climate accord in Paris demonstrates, no one is willing to take any meaningful action.

Sadly, switching to solar energy isn’t the solution many hope for. Solar panels, while very nice to have when the power goes out, can’t begin to replace the energy density of fossil fuels and are simply unable to provide adequate power to run our economy at anywhere near its current level.

With respect to climate change, it turns out that solar panels, due to the enormous amounts of energy used in the mining and manufacturing processes, actually produce more CO2 per kilowatt of electricity generated than a coal-burning power plant.

Our climate is changing now. There seems to be no viable solution to stop it that doesn’t result in the loss of billions of human lives. And yet, the more the earth warms, the more likely that humans will be unable to survive.

When rapidly changing climate is combined with net energy decline and an economic system dependent on unsustainable debt, it’s clear that humanity is facing the biggest challenge of its existence.

Getting Ready for Change
Decline in net energy, unsustainable mountains of debt, and climate change are just a few of the enormous problems that humanity faces. I believe, that over the next ten years, each of us will feel tangible disruptions in our daily lives related to these challenges.

Throughout the next decade there is likely to be enormous political upheaval, intermittent shortages of energy – both gasoline and electricity – and disruptions in government services – particularly social security and Medicare payments. There is a good chance that we could see serious food shortages secondary to climate chaos and collapse of the financial system, as well as reduced availability of medications and healthcare services. I also expect to see a dramatic increase in domestic (U.S.) climate refugees as drought, fire, and flooding continue to take their toll.

I make no claim of being a fortune teller. So I can’t say with certainty when an event will occur or even that it will happen at all. But I do know that if I hold a lit match to a piece of paper, there’s a real good chance the paper will start burning. The same can be said about the issues I’ve raised. A series of events is underway and they have a logical, expected outcome. I began to develop an awareness of these problems more than five years ago and I’ve been educating myself and watching developments closely since then. So far, events have deteriorated at a pace consistent with my concerns.

I know that I’ve laid out a pretty depressing, “doom and gloom” picture. My intention isn’t to depress you, but rather to inform you. Knowing what’s coming is the best way to make provision for the future.

The core challenges that humanity faces aren’t really that much different than the challenges we’ve always faced: ensuring adequate food, water, and shelter. What’s different now is that there are many, many more people on the planet, we have extracted most of the easy-to-reach non-renewable resources, and we have a climate that isn’t going to be working in our favor.

It’s too late to do anything to stop the processes that have been put into motion; the match has already lit the paper on fire. But there are some things we can do to ensure that we – and those we love – are as prepared as possible for what’s headed our way.

As you consider the short list I’ve compiled, keep in mind that no matter what happens, making these changes won’t be a waste of time as they will benefit your health and your state of mind.

I encourage you to look at every aspect of your life and find a way to meet your needs locally. Think about how the founders of Eureka Springs lived in the late 19th century and it will give you a good model to follow for your own preparations.

Start growing as much of your food as possible, or partner with some of our local growers. Most of them usually need extra help and, I suspect, would welcome the opportunity to share some of what they know and grow in exchange for a little labor. I also recommend learning how to can foods, putting away as much as possible to ensure you have enough for you and your family to eat through the winter months.

If you have a yard, get a few chickens. They are a lot of fun to care for and can provide both meat and eggs. If you have a few acres, then you might want to try your hand at raising goats. Goat’s milk is delicious and nutritious and there’s nothing quite so fun as a goat kid.

In the event that water supply is disrupted, don’t expect to get your water from bottles at the store. If you have a well powered by electricity, you may want to invest in a solar powered system. If you rely on city water, having a large storage tank is a good idea.

An adequate heat supply can be vital during an ice storm or other electricity outage. If you don’t have a wood-burning fireplace, you may want to consider having a wood stove installed.

If you’re dependent on daily medications, discuss the issue with your doctor to see if there are any you can live without. For the rest, you may want to start stockpiling those medicines to help you weather any short term disruptions. Having a good first aid kit is always a good idea as well.

There are several good books available that provide step-by-step instructions on living a simple, self-sufficient life, describing how to garden, store your harvest, raise livestock, work with bees, make simple repairs, and more. The purchase of one or two of these books (a printed version, not electronic) can be an excellent investment.

Whether we are facing hardship or joy, the most important thing any of us can do is to live every day as if it is our last, making preparations just in case it’s not. I encourage you to be kind to those around you – human and non-human alike. As the stress of our daily existence increases over the coming years, kindness and forgiveness will make everyone’s life a little more bearable.

posted by Dr. House | 9:41:53 PM |
Posted by Jackson Davis | 9:18:03 AM | Jul 17, 16

Excellent article, Dr. House. A few minor points:

1. The change in net energy began with the mining of COAL a few centuries before oil was discovered.

For a history of the conflicting theological, philosophical, scientific, economic and political ideologies regarding Earth and its Climate, including the role of COAL, see: "A Political Theology of Climate Change, by Michael S. Northcott. (Eerdmans, 2015).<http://www.eerdmans.com/Products/7098/a-political-theology-of-climate-change.aspx>

Northcott concludes that it is a moral imperative that ALL NATIONS MUST REQUIRE THAT ALL FOSSIL FUELS BE KEPT IN THE GROUND TO AVOID DISASTER, but in view of the preceding ideological conflicts he doesn't have much hope of that happening.

2. When talking about net energy PER CAPITA, one must factor in the exponential growth of POPULATION.

3. Not mentioned in your article, is the fact that if all use of fossil fuels were to cease today, in addition to the continued rise in temperature due to the lag in the effects of all the CO2 generated in the last 30 years, the reduction in particulates which are now being produced by burning "dirty" coal, for example, would cause an even faster rise in global temperature due to a decrease in the solar energy that is reflected out into space by these particulates, that is, A REDUCTION IN GLOBAL DIMMING. See: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_dimming>

Posted by Jackson Davis | 9:36:18 AM | Jul 17, 16

I have prepared a list of books on climate change that range from a general introduction to all the issues involved including its psychological and historical aspects, to the stages of the collapse of civilization, to how to cope with such collapse and the probability of near term human extinction:

Prepared by Jackson Davis

"UNPRECEDENTED: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis?," by David Ray Griffin (Clarity Press, 2015).
Covers all the main issues involved in climate change including, unprecedented threats, unprecedented challenges and failures, and what is to be done.

"The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live," by Brian Stone, Jr. (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
An introduction to climate change at the urban scale, emphasizing the importance of urban heat management and other land-based adaptive mitigation measures, in addition to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

"What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action," by Per Espen Stoknes (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015).
Identifies the five main psychological barriers to climate action and offers new strategies for how to talk about global warming in a way that creates positive solutions, meaningful action, and support for policy.

"A Political Theology of Climate Change," by Michael S. Northcott (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2015).
Traces the conflicting theological, philosophical, scientific, economic and political ideas about Earth and its climate, and concludes that nations must require that fossil fuels be kept in the ground to avoid disaster.

"The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors' Toolkit," by Dmitry Orlov (New Society Books, 2013).
A do-it-yourself guide to financial, commercial, political, social and cultural collapse, with examples of how human beings have been able to survive at each stage.

"Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths for Turbulent Times," by Carolyn Baker (North Atlantic Publishing, 2013).
How to prepare emotionally and spiritually for the impending collapse of industrial civilization.

"Extinction Dialogs: How to Live with Death in Mind," by Guy McPherson and Carolyn Baker (Tayen Lane Publishing, 2014).
Presents the scientific research regarding abrupt climate change as well as how humans can prepare or the demise of many of the species of living beings on Earth, including our our own.

"Love in the Age of Ecological Collapse: Cultivating the Relationships We Need to Thrive," by Carolyn Baker (North Atlantic Books, 2015).
Inspiration and guidance for inhabiting our remaining days with passion, vitality, empathy, kindness , gratitude, open-hearted receptivity, and exquisite creations of beauty, and even to invoke joy in our world.

"Ms. Ladybug and Mr. Honeybee: A Love Story at the End of Time," by Pauline Panagiotou-Schneider and Guy R. McPherson (America Star Publishing, 2015).
A children's story about a ladybug and a honeybee facing extinction. Intended for ages 11 and up.


Dmitry Orlov's blog is Club Orlov: http://cluborlov.blogspot.com

Guy McPherson's website is Nature Bats Last: http://guymcpherson.com/

Carolyn Baker's website is Speaking Truth to Power: http://www.carolynbaker.net

Posted by Dr. House | 9:42:07 AM | Jul 17, 16

Jackson, thanks for your comments. And thanks for the great reading list!

Your point about decline in net energy beginning with coal is well taken. I was basing my writing on the plot of net energy since the beginning of widespread oil production. I suspect that there are multiple ways to graph that which gives different results. But, ultimately, it's an academic discussion at this point because every different way I've looked at it shows that we are now in net energy decline and are beginning to suffer the consequences of it.

Quite a few people have asked why I didn't include overpopulation and global dimming in these essays. There were two reasons. Primarily, the audience I was addressing had, in most cases, no exposure to any of the concepts I was discussing and, secondarily, I was limited by space since these were printed in the newspaper. I couldn't mention everything, so I left those two out.

Overpopulation is the elephant in the room that most don't want to talk about. There is only one solution to that problem and it will be resolved quite completely despite anything we do. Global dimming is also a huge part of the equation but since the scope of my article was the next 10 years, I didn't think it was particularly germane. I doubt there will be significant reduction in emissions over the next 10 years to impact climate too much. We may have collapse in that time frame, but even then emissions will still continue as people burn everything they find in attempts to survive, forest fires and communities burn out of control, etc.

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