Our Tails Get In the Way: The Problems and Principles of Energy Descent

Sharon May 12th, 2008

“How did you get there, Roo?” asked Piglet.

“On Tigger’s back!  And Tiggers can’t climb downwards, because their tails get in the way, only upwards, and Tigger forgot about that when we started, and he’s only just remembered.  So we’ve got to stay here for ever and ever – unless we go higher.  What did you say, Tigger?  Oh, Tigger says if we go higher we shan’t be able to see Piglet’s house so well, so we’re going to stop here.”

-AA Milne, “The House At Pooh Corner” 

My kids were out climbing trees yesterday, supervised by Eric and our visiting friend and my honorary brother, “Uncle” Jesse.  Isaiah really wanted to climb up to a particular spot, but couldn’t get there on little four year old legs.  Jesse helped him up part of the way, and then told him he had to do it himself, or be content with where he could get to.  Jesse observed, “I wanted to give him a boost, but only up to a place he could get back down from himself.”

I was struck by what a useful metaphor, and perhaps even principle was embodied in that casual statement.  I was also reminded, perhaps because I’ve now read _Winnie The Pooh_ to my children approximately 1000 times, of the classic representation of what happens when you climb up and can’t climb down.  If you can forgive the cuteness, it does seem apt.

Let us imagine ourselves climbing up a rather steep and precarious tree, boosted up by fossil energies into a place we simply could never get to without them.   The problems we are facing right now all originate in our fundamental inability to voluntarily set limits – that is, at no point did most of us even recognize the basic necessity of stopping at a point at which we could get down on our own, without our petrocarbon helpers.  So right now we look like Tiggers high in the trees – we can climb up but we can’t climb down.  Is the problem our fear or that our tails (our structural addictions to energy) get in the way?  It can be hard to tell.  But what is not terribly hard to tell is that one way or another, we have to come down – and probably quite rapidly.  The goal is to avoid a painful “thud” upon descent.

Why do we have to come down?  Well, there are two compelling reasons, which will be entirely familiar to my regular readers, but perhaps are worth rehashing.  The first is this.  We can’t keep burning fossil fuels – period.  And we have very, very little time to make our choices.  The evidence for this has been building up steadily over the last two years, but the paper that James Hansen presented a few weeks ago pretty much put the final nail in the coffin (and, for the record, confirmed the arguments that this writer has been making for a year or more) – the old targets for carbon reduction are far too high, and we are going to essentially have to reduce industrial emissions to near 0, and very, very soon.  As Bill McKibben argues in his essay “Civilization’s Last Chance” published in yesterday’s LA Times:

“Here’s the thing. Hansen didn’t just say that if we didn’t act, there was trouble coming. He didn’t just say that if we didn’t yet know what was best for us, we’d certainly be better off below 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.His phrase was: “if we wish to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed.” A planet with billions of people living near those oh-so-floodable coastlines. A planet with ever-more vulnerable forests. (A beetle, encouraged by warmer temperatures, has already managed to kill 10 times more trees than in any previous infestation across the northern reaches of Canada this year. This means far more carbon heading for the atmosphere and apparently dooms Canada’s efforts to comply with the Kyoto protocol, which was already in doubt because of its decision to start producing oil for the U.S. from Alberta’s tar sands.)We’re the ones who kicked the warming off; now the planet is starting to take over the job. Melt all that Arctic ice, for instance, and suddenly the nice white shield that reflected 80% of incoming solar radiation back into space has turned to blue water that absorbs 80% of the sun’s heat. Such feedbacks are beyond history, though not in the sense that Francis Fukuyama had in mind. And we have, at best, a few years to short-circuit them — to reverse course. Here’s the Indian scientist and economist Rajendra Pachauri, who accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year (and, by the way, got his job when the Bush administration, at the behest of Exxon Mobil, forced out his predecessor): “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

Even McKibben acknowledges that we may be too late – that we may have already condemned our children to a planet radically different than the one we live on now.  And probably not different in a good way.  He observes the simple truth – that we don’t have a choice but to struggle now for the best possible outcome.  Because a whole lot is at stake – all the things that make us ourselves are potentially at stake.  McKibben is working on precisely this objective with Project 350, and I have hopes that the members of my baby, the Riot for Austerity (www.riot4austerity.org) will eventually work with them, raising the profile of the “you don’t have to wait – you can live in now” contingent.

There’s another reason we have to get down from the tree.  And that’s the simple fact that we are increasingly being priced out of energy markets.  The combination of the dollar’s fall, the growing depression and a growing deflation means that energy is being rationed by price – and more and more of us are in danger of experiencing real shortages of energy for meeting basic needs.  Whether those shortages of food, energy or other resources arise from absolute shortages or simply because of inequity and our price rationing system doesn’t really matter.  The simple fact is that we must either find useful ways to climb down rapidly or simply pitch out of our tree as rising costs make the crisis acute. 

There is a great deal of talk about the potential of this renewable technology or another, about how if we just do this and this and this, we can get carbon emissions down, or help people adapt.  Generally speaking, these plans fail to take into account several factors.  They are:

1. The sheer scope of the problem.  This is partly denial and partly the fact that the science has changed so rapidly.  Eight months ago, the narrative was still 550 or 450 ppm.  Achieving those levels was extraordinarily difficult, but easy compared to achieving 350 ppm - and as Hansen notes, it may be necessary to drop the levels further. Most thinkers still haven’t caught up to the sheer depth of change needed – which would involve pretty much 0 industrial emissions, according to U Victoria researchers.  Zero – that is, none.  That’s the number that stabilized the climate in their research.

Then there’s peak oil – for years, we were told that the declines would be a slow and stately 2% or so.  Then came Jeffrey Brown’s useful Export Land Model which showed that no, the declines are far steeper.  And, of course, energy costs are playing out in arenas that people didn’t expect, and in ways no one quite predicted, spiking food prices, for example. 

2.  The scope of all the problems put together.  Nearly everyone doing this work is completely out of their fields on some level (certainly not excluding yours truly).  Climate scientists are usually not petroleum geologists, and vice versa.  Neither are usually economists (which is often to the good, but has its downside), and thus expert on how global economic crisis is likely to impact what we can expect to do.  Nor are economists, climate scientists or geologists usually ethicists, or experts in issues of justice, or political scientists. 

It would not be inaccurate to say that no one fully understands what I like to call the “Crisis Ourobouros” that is, the disaster that is always swallowing its own tail.  And because no one full understands it, and most people are experts only in one area, it is very hard to come to a clear analysis, say, of how a growing financial collapse and massive rises in energy prices will constrain a future build out.  The feedback loops don’t just exist within climate change and peak oil, but in the whole of our present situation.

Although James Hansen and Richard Heinberg respectively have done compelling analyses of how climate change and peak oil are likely to impact one another, they have barely begun to look at the giant iceberg of what faces us.  Thus, we still have conversatios about hybrid cars and lightbulbs, when we need to eliminate almost all private transport and slash home energy use. 

3. How urgent things are.  The fact that the Arctic ice may disappear 75 years before IPCC projections, or that the long feared hypothetical methane burp is probably already occurring should give us a clue, but until recently it hasn’t.  Although Hansen and Carbon Equity have led the way on this, there has been a widespread perception that we have until 2050 as more conservative IPCC estimates suggest.  We don’t.

And we don’t in several ways. Not only do radical emission cuts have to be made now, we are running up against other constraints.  As capital tightens, the economy struggles and our infrastructure frays, we may well have a very limited period in which we can build renewable energy capacity, or reinsulate homes.  We may simply have to do some serious triaging, recognizing that each of our pet build-out strategies may never come to fruition.  The emphasis, then, has to be on strategies that return to us even if they are halted by fossil fuel supply constraints, loss of capital or other crisis.  That is, we have to do things that will help us even if we can’t do everything.

4. The costs of the solutions.  Most build out analyses don’t contain a full, fair analysis of their climate implications, a gaping hole in analysis that must be filled.  That is, a build out that gets our emissions way down but does so with an emissions cost that enables more loss of methane from the permafrost is an unacceptable choice.  The odds are very good that most build-out strategies will simply turn out to be far too carbon intensive to keep up anything like our present life.  I did one very broad version of this calculation here, but anything that gets *worldwide* emissions down radically is likley to raise up emissions rates – making it that much more likely that nature will take over the global warming situation, past our ability to help.

We may simply have waited too long for a renewable build out on a vast scale to be feasible.  In any case, we have almost certainly waited to long to make a smooth transition – that is, we have waited too long to have our new renewable supplies waiting for us to evenly switch from oil and coal to sun and wind.  That is, even if we can do a renewable build out, several decades of drastic conservation are likely upon us, as we cut back our emissions while we await the results of what the Hirsch report and other research suggests will be a very long term project.

The other cost that hasn’t been fully calculated is the economic one.  Overwhelmingly we are told that green solutions will be good for the economy.  This is the most errant nonsense of our times – and most analyses in that regard are based on far lower emissions cuts than are even remotely acceptable.  Stabilizing emissions will involve among other things, huge cuts in consumer spending, because there is no way to make a perfectly green VCR, flat screen, or foot massager.  They still use resources – lots of them.  The truth is that consumer spending alone would probably be enough to tip us into major recession, and since we’re already heading that way, the word “depression” is probably appropriate.  Whatever we are going to do, we are going to have to do fast, with little money, little credit and careful calculations of emissions costs.  This is not happy news, but it is no less correct for being unpleasant.

5. The sheer cowardice of most of us.  The blunt truth is that we are very close to being past the point at which anything will do us any good at all.  And my own sense is that because we’re so close to the verge, many people would rather we imagine ourselves to be well past it, so that they are not required to make the hefty sacrifices.  And most people cringe from the notion of telling an energy-addicted populace that the solutions we have to come up with rapidly probably involve a great deal of hardship, economic suffering and a host of other bad things.  How much easier to argue that we can refine a little on our present situation and essentially have what we have had?

There are some people with the courage to tell the truth, however almost none of them are elected to office (it is virtually impossible to elect someone who tells hard truths), and those who do tend to be tarred with the brush of apocalyptic fantasists. It is generally easier to talk about technical possibilities than to deal with the real possibility that even technically possible solutions may fail for lack of money, energy, political will or for their potential to crash carbon limits.  This cowardice may, in the end, be our final undoing.

And it will hurt us not only because of the enormous political difficulties (greater, even than the technical ones) of addressing peak energy or climate change, but also because our fear of mentioning self-sacrifice or deindustrialization makes the political opposition to this situation more acute.  The simple fact is that we are taking precisely the wrong course as we de-emphasize self sacrifice – and everything we do to reinforce the idea that people will have essentially the same lifestyle that they have reinforces their inevitable sense of betrayal.

What could work – with great difficulty – is for us to enlist our fellows in a great project of courage and self-sacrifice.  People climb mountains, run marathons, march off to be killed at war, and engage in all sorts of grand, painful and difficult challenges because doing so expresses their sense of honor, their courage, their patriotism, their love for others. As long as we fear to call upon one another to sacrifice, as long as we sell the narrative that an essentially similar life is possible, as long as we deny the costs, we will give up the greatest tool we have – the passionate energy of those who are doing what must be done for a better future.

So what tools have we left in this time of great exigency and crisis?  What are our options to get out of the tree?  How do we get the tails out of the way, and overcome the enormous fear we have when the boosting power is taken away.

To my mind, there are a few relevant principles that are needed to get us to go in the true direction we need to go.

 1. In the absence of a full and fair peer reviewed literature that clearly delineates a best course in a technological sense, the presumption must be towards more conservative estimates.  As Hansen notes, we may actually have to get to 300 ppm.  That means that the emphasis should be on not making emissions now, on quick reductions rather than slow ones, on widely accessible solutions rather than expensive ones.  The goal must be the dramatic reduction of industrial emissions quite quickly.  The precautionary principle must be put into play routinely in any large scale planning for the future.

2. Renewable energies will be built, but they must be built at a pace that doesn’t put the climate over the edge, and that allows for the fact that future generations may want to use a bit of fossil energy too.  That is, we cannot blow any limits doing this – our build out will almost certainly have to be gradual, and probably comparatively slow until the total density of renewables is great enough to power regeneratively – that is, until/if we have enough renewable energies to actually power the construction of more renewables – not in theory, but in reality. In the very short term, this means massive constriction of access to energy, while hopefully, the future of energy for our children is somewhat brighter.  

3. Human and animal powered technologies can and should fill in the gaps.  With 6.6 billion people and growing, human power is the most abundant and underused energy resource on the planet.  For systems, such as agriculture and local transport, that can be easily human powered, and in fact, improve in efficiency when human powered (small scale polyculture produces 2-10 times more agricultural output than an equivalent  amount of industrially farmed land; a bicycle is by all measures the most efficient means of travel), human power ought to be the default mechanism.

 This will, of course, require a massive restructuring of the economy – paying people well to grow food, and badly to make cheap plastic crap or defend the manufacturers of such crap in court, in complete opposition to everything we’ve set into place.  Thus, this will not be easy.  Tough.

4. All solutions should, as mentioned above, work even if the project cannot be finished or scaled as desired.  That is, we need to triage and emphasize projects that are feasible in the current situation within its timescale and other limits, that also get us part way there, even if we can’t go the whole distance.  Currently, we have few mechanisms to prioritize, but we need to think hard about what matters most to our quality of life.  For example, providing power for water pumping, education and health care should preceed providing renewable power to private homes.  Public resources must be prioritized over private ones.  This would, of course, massively overturn the trend towards privization, and howls of fury will go up in all sectors of the economy.  Tough.

5. All solutions must work on a world scale.  China and India will not accept a lower standard of living than we have.  Neither will Russia. No narrative that includes the underlying idea that we’re going to keep using more energy than most other people can possible address climate change – period.  If we’re going to have fridges, they will.  If we’re going to have private cars, they will. Now it is perfectly possible that China and India and Russia won’t follow our lead – or rather, that they will continue to follow our lead and won’t follow our final change of heart.  But there is no hope whatsoever that anyone, in any nation will ever accept the idea “Oh, we’ll just use more, and you can bear the consequence – you won’t mind, will you?”  They mind.  So any solution we have has to involve equitable use – period.  Otherwise, other nations will attempt to achieve what we have, or they will immigrate to our countries and use what we have had.  That way leads to a worldwide game of apocalyptic chicken.

So when we figure out our plans for the future, they need to look rather like ‘a fair share’ as little as most of us are accustomed to that thinking. 

6.  Finally, we are going to have to rethink how high in the tree we can and should be.  That is, in many cases the energy we’ve used hasn’t gotten us nearly as much as we think it has – not in happiness, not in our declining real wealth, not in security.  What it has done is get us treed, and give us tails that get in the way of getting out. It has placed us in an enormously vulnerable situation – one that may well cause enormously more misery than doing without the energies in the first place would have.  That vulnerability is economic, political, moral and physical – we now risk a devastating fall.  So any future analysis of how the world should look must also take into account the real question of where in the branches we want to stay.  It should be low enough that, have we waited too long and courted disaster too badly, any further falls will be merely inconvenient, and not disastrous.

As Milne puts it,

“I thought,” said Piglet earnestly, “that if Eeyore stood at the bottom of the tree, and if Pooh stood on Eeyore’s back, and if I stoood on Pooh’s shoulders – “

“And if Eeyore’s back snapped suddenly, then we could all laugh.  Ha ha!  Amusing in a quiet way,” said Eeyore, “but not really helpful.”

“Well,” said Piglet meekly, “I thought – “

“Would it break your back, Eeyore?” asked Pooh, very much surprised.

“That’s what would be so interesting, Pooh.  Not being quite sure till afterwards.”

Since the blunt and painful truth is that we are simply not sure whether we have placed the final straw on the camel’s back, whether we have waited too long with both climate change and peak oil to avert the worst consequences, we must work from a radically different set of principles, and with awareness that what we have done so far is not adequate to the task at hand.  We must simultaneously work to avert disaster and prepare for our own failure.  As Eeyore notes, that is what will be so very interesting.


44 Responses to “Our Tails Get In the Way: The Problems and Principles of Energy Descent”

  1. Richard in Albany-> Troy says:


    I have read this post and I’m mystically, multi-dimensionally scared. I had a dream the other day, where I was walking along a street in what I thought to be Troy, NY to where I’ll be moving, and I was just sort of going on auto pilot, when I fell in behind this guy who seemed to be in a similar mood to me. And I followed him up this short flight of stairs without thinking about it, and he stopped at a door and put his key into the lock. I slipped past him, and I was just going to hop on down the other side of the house. I reached the end, and the fellow called to me, horrified, “What are you doing?” I said, I’m just going to drop down to the street and continue my walking. “That’s quite a drop there, son.” I sort of blew him off and said I’ve done this before. And I sat down on the edge of the walkway, and looked down. It did look a bit farther down than what I had thought, but I didn’t think it’d break any bones or anything. So I saw the next building over had a couple of ledges, one of which was a curved “U” shape. So I hopped on to the next building, and dropped down to that U, but I was left hanging there, and I looked down again, and what I thought was a short drop had become like 4 stories. I started crying out for help right then.

    I woke up in a start from that dream, and my head proceeded to magnify the 4 to 40 stories. I thought about my student loan for some reason, then I thought about 9-11, and the famous picture of the man falling from the Twin Towers that Don DeLillo based his latest novel on. It took me awhile to sort of sort out what it was all about, and I came to the conclusion that things may look “familiar” right now, but truth be told, I can’t take anything I do for granted, and that going on auto pilot might just be a dangerous notion indeed. Still, I realized that at least that fellow had seen me and was duly horrified by my actions. Perhaps he would help me, as foolish as I was? Maybe he’d call the cops and they’d be able to arrange to catch me as I fall? If I could hold out that long? Or some other solution could be in the offing?

    And then I read your post here which sort of confirms this mystical precognition of … what I don’t know. I just hope nothing happens this week, we open a play at 440 Upstairs at Proctors on Friday night (Beyond Therapy by Christopher Durang), and I’m exhausted.

    One other thought though. I don’t know if this is helpful or not, but sometimes the question “Are you done yet?” can get through. I know I have this annoying pattern of being inside some set of actions I know is bad for me, and I can’t seem to shake them. I got that way with sugar big time, and I did get “the gift of desperation.” My life just got so intolerably bad, I was willing to try anything to stop it. And though I went through an intensely sullen and pouty period, I did manage to change my eating habits. I’m now 5 years plus sugar/flour-free and weighing and measuring my meals, and I’m so grateful and happy about that. I tell you, I want to be done with this mishugas, but they say “every bottom has a trap door,” and I am not sure I’m ready to do without my suffering yet. But I’m willing to be willing.

  2. Greenpa says:

    Hi, Sharon- I’m in a rush today, but, wanted to put in my vote- for some OTHER phrase besides “energy descent”. Rob Hopkins’ phrase, yes? I did say this to Rob, too- but didn’t get anywhere.

    I know, it’s accurate -ish – but so is “global warming; and what a total disaster that turned out to be, as a choice of words.

    It’s a public relations flop; instant turn-off, for so many people that we need to have on our side, not in opposition. Basic diplomacy – don’t make enemies if you don’t have to.

    I’m not sure what the alternative is; but the IDEA is, we’re moving perforce towards a world where we use energy minimally and wisely, not gluttonishly-chaotically. To some extent, to a world where we are FREE from the constraints of energy, not where all our decisions are made on what energy costs or how much we have- but on how much is truly needed.

    I’ve watched “global warming”, as a phrase, disembowel the actual conversation; giving fuel to the deniers for their campaigns of confusion. I’m just terrified “Energy Descent” – which has kind of gained currency more by default, I think, than anything else – will prove an equally bad choice of words.

    Energy Escape? Energy Liberation?

    I don’t think either one needs more explanation than “descent”, to a neophyte- and they sure leave a better taste in the mouth.

    What do you think? I don’t like descent.

  3. Vegan says:


    Your analysis of our current situation, in all its multiplicity of factors, is certainly more thorough and realistic than that of Bill McKibben or James Hansen.

    Thank you, Sharon.


  4. Ailsa Ek says:

    You post these things, and then you tell us not to panic. *wry grin*

  5. jace says:

    Oh my God. You want to know what the problem is?

    1) Outmoded energy infrastructure.
    2) Too many people.
    3) Stupid, wasteful expenditures.

    The solutions?

    1) Nuclear power.
    2) Population control.
    3) Focus on essentials – no American Idol, no to much of the service industry, YES to research, development, and technological advancement.

    Well, at least you got one out of three.

  6. Sharon says:

    Jace, your assessment ends up being “it is hopeless.” Because the chances of completely replacing our fossil energy with nuclear power in a comparatively short time – probably less than a decade are 0 by every assessment I’ve seen, including the most optimistic scenarios of the nuclear industry. And the build out costs would be tremendous – both economically and environmentally, since nuclear power plants are enormously energy intensive to build.

    Nor is the population of large consumers likely to be radically reduced in that period – even if we misallocate resources and starve the world’s poor out, they weren’t the ones producing most of the carbon.

    So I may only have gotten one, but I don’t think your analysis gets us any further.


  7. Sharon says:

    Ailsa, I don’t think you should panic ;-) . Or at least, I don’t think any of us should panic about the possibility of doing these things – I think it is doable, just radically different than what we have now. Where I start getting a little nervous is if we *don’t* do them. That is scary.


  8. karen says:

    Unfortunately, I am going to be a total doomer and say that we aren’t going to do them. No one I know is even reading this stuff and thinking about it. The world is totally misinformed just going on with their lives as if everything is normal. It will take a really catastrophic event to make people get it. *Talk* does not work (albeit logical, reasoned talk). I have tried. WE get that we are on the edge of a cliff but almost no one else does. I have accepted that PO is the only thing that is going to lower our consumption. WISE, we humans, are not.

  9. annette says:

    I’m afraid I’m with Karen. What scared me today even more than your piece and McKibben’s was a poll on weather.com which asked “how concerned are you about global warming?” 37.9% of the people responding picked “I’m not convinced its real”!! THAT’S the kind of total obliviousness that makes me feel we’re truly doomed.

  10. Windy Hill says:

    The climbing up and down the tree image is a nice analogy for energy rise and ‘decent’.

    However, to capture the sense of urgency that will be involved in the real decline down Old Father Hubbard’s bell curve, I imagine the top of the tree has been hit by lightening and is on fire.

    This provides more of an atmosphere that favors quick action over thoughtful reflection.

  11. Sylvia says:

    I planted cabbage (for kimchee) and horehound (for cough syrup) and fenugreek (to increase milk production in breastfeeding mothers) and mustard (for, um, eating) and broccoli (ditto) and valerian (for calming me the f*** down) today. Totally random choice of seeds, I know, but I was feeling all proud of myself. This is only my second year gardening at all, I’m learning as I go… Please don’t tell me the earth is going to be a boiling orb of scorched earth and lava flows soon. I need my little community garden to be there for me.

  12. Shane says:

    I think a better analogy is that our society is like a bicycle. It is only stable while it is moving forward, and if you try and stop it to reverse it it will fall over. Likewise it has a limited turning circle, and if you try to turn it too fast you will also fall. Perhaps we are heading for a collision and it really is too late to respond. But if it is not too late then over reacting can be just as dangerous.

    As humans one of our greatest assets is our capacity to fear. It is the most constructive motivator. If a common fear settles upon the world all our excess productive capacity (currently much maligned as greed and waste) can be redirected toward constructive change. If we had gotten to this point as an egalitarian and efficient society that many dream of we wouldnt have that manouverability. If hate settles upon the world instead of fear then we will simply prune the human experiment to fit the pot it finds itself in.

    Turning the Earth into a new Venus and wiping out complex life is not within realistic possibility. The fossil fuels and methane hydrates needed for this are simply not there as estimated reserves continue to be revised downward by orders of magnitude. Ancient methane releases and mass extinctions at the end of the Permian were triggered by a 5 degree C rise, and here we are half way through the fossil fuel age with a 0.5 degree rise. Since then much of the earth’s carbon has been stored up in more stable segments of the crust. More manageable and gradual climate change is far more likely, but not as terrifying. Ongoing extinctions of specialist species and sea level rise, loss of fossil fuel powered infrastructure all seem likely. If the suburbs and cities werent going to be functional anyway then where is the loss? Agriculture will move wherever it can function. Foraging with thinly fill the voids. Even odds remain at this point that robust renewable energy (like concentrating solar thermal) and genetic engineering (still barely know what we are doing) will lead to an entirely different outcome for civilisation. Only one society has to get the approach right and we will all adopt the approach.

  13. Windy Hill says:


    Can the bicycle be on fire?

    This helps my visualization.

  14. Pratimoksha says:

    Nuclear scares the hell out of me – especially when combined with the idea of social/governmental disintegration and scarcity of energy and water. Not only do we not have a clue how we’re going to store the thousands and thousands of tons of radioactive waste, but we cannot take for granted the current (mostly) organized apparatus monitoring and maintaining these ticking time bombs.

    Furthermore, for this stuff to actually ramp up and cover significant portions of our global energy needs we’d need to keep building more and more plants. One estimate I heard was one new plant a week for the next 37 years in order to replace the current global electricity need, but as they have a lifespan of 40 years, we’d need to keep building new ones at the same pace to maintain the number of plants, and in any case we’d run out of uranium before that time.

    (Of course, current global energy usage is also much higher than it needs to be…)

    Sharon, this sobering post was – as always – excellent.

  15. Anna Haynes says:

    “The current situation of the world in relation to the climate problem is that we’re in a car with bad brakes driving toward a cliff in the fog, and the fog is the scientific uncertainty about the details that prevents us from knowing exactly where the cliff is. … There’s a chance we’ll go over the cliff anyway but prudence requires that we try to stop the car.”

    John Holdren
    past President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard, and Director of the Woods Hole Research Center.

  16. Jane says:

    Wow, what an assesment of it all! Looks like women growing veg for their family on a smallholding can see what the big guys and planet profiteers can’t. (Nothing new there then;) )
    On the Winnie the Pooh front, a few of us women on the project team at Transition Bristol (part of the transition towns movement in the UK) were talking recently about who we would be if we were in the Hundred Acre Wood.
    I’ve decided this. We need to understand all the crap while at the same time trying to be bouncy like Tigger. Joanna Macy says she doesn’t know if we are sitting at the Earth’s deathbed, or acting like midwives at the birth of a new world. None of us know that.
    What we need to do is speak the news of Eeyore, while simultaneously bouncing the hope and optimism of Tigger. We may fall from the tree and it will be the end. We may arrive safe and bruised at the bottom with snapped branches overhead and lots of work to do. One thing I know and that’s that if it is the end, I would rather go out having done at least a little bit of the bouncing.

  17. jace says:

    “Not only do we not have a clue how we’re going to store the thousands and thousands of tons of radioactive waste”

    Yes, we do. We also have the technology to reduce this waste by as much as 95% via reprocessing to produce additional energy, but it isn’t deployed because of irrational ZOHMYGOD stuff like this.

    “but we cannot take for granted the current (mostly) organized apparatus monitoring and maintaining these ticking time bombs.”

    Modern reactors are passive safe. There are inherent design limitations to prevent catastrophic failure. For instance, a pebble-bed reactor can be totally ignored and it will not have any major problems. In one PBNR, all of the control rods were removed and the coolant flow was halted. Nothing was damaged, nothing went wrong.

    “and in any case we’d run out of uranium before that time.”

    Absolutely untrue. Not only are the current reserves adequate for decades of consumption without any new discoveries, a doubling of the cost of economically recoverable uranium would result only in a 10% increase in the cost of the resulting power. Add to that the massive amounts of uranium present in the oceans, and the fact that nuclear reactors can also burn other radioactive elements such as thorium and plutonium, and there are more than enough raw materials for nuclear power for any sane planning horizon.

  18. David J. McCartney says:

    Jace -

    The lament over the nuclear “ZOHMYGOD stuff” and NIMBY and any other objection or obstacle to the implantation of an alternative energy is a blame game, by both the pro and con parties.

    “If only” wishing is a component of the problem at hand, that what will ultimately ‘do us in’ is a combination of what we have already done and what we can or will not do, reasons or excuses aside.

    That social or political fears, mandates, fumbles, or restrictions might impair or preclude our energy rescue do not matter in the greater scheme of things. The outcome we will be stuck with will be driven both by the possible and the impossible in combination. That’s how we humans think and act. There never has been universal consensus no matter how dire the need.

    Here is one of the little know restrictions to building out with nuclear:


  19. [...] Sharon writes on Casaubon’s Book about “Our Tails Get In the Way: The Problems and Principles of Energy Descent” [...]

  20. None of the alternatives are going to allow us to continue “business as usaul”. Nukes are to slow to build and as the previous post linked to there are a number of industrial bottlenecks to nuclear explotation.

    containment casings- 4/year

    nuclear fuel- there will be a shortage in years because of low prices not allowing new mines to open for 20 years, it will catch up but it’s years away

    Even if Ur is mined, the processing plants for it don’t have the capacity to make the fuel pellets to accomodate the number of new reactors planned.

    Thorium reactors are not commercial yet.

    Too few construction firms have the expertise to build a reactor, the learning curve, cost over runs and delays will be massive.

    Add to all of this the liquid fuel problem that will force more people to look for electric heat, transport, etc. This makes the estimates for electrical power too low.


    In the end there is no way we will be able to retain this lifestyle, fighting to maintain rather than fighting to adapt will just waste effort and resources. We need to set immediate priorities and car culture must die as the biggest waste, so that we can continue to eat and keep the heat on.

  21. lydia says:

    Instead of energy descent, how about energy freedom, or energy self-sufficiency? I am one of those who do not believe that humans are causing our climate change. The change is real, but not caused by us. The reasons to argue for energy self sufficiency are many and have nothing to do with “global warming”.

    The elite (banks and corporations, etc)and the governments that serve them have perpetrated a big scam on the world so that they can charge us taxes on driving cars and taxes on everything we do that involves a “carbon footprint”. Some of these are already in the legislature. Wall street will make another killing betting and trading carbon credits, etc. It will be next after they get done raping everyone on commodities and futures.

    Having said that, climate change is real whatever the cause, and we need to deal with any and all ramifications of that regardless of the reason why.

  22. jace says:

    “Nukes are to slow to build”

    You forgot to add, “because of irrational opposition by short-sighted and statistically ignorant Luddites.”

    “containment casings- 4/year”

    Which are a) available in much larger quantities when welded from halves, are b) going to be more available as the plant increases capacity, and c) are not even required for all types of plants.

    “nuclear fuel- there will be a shortage in years because of low prices not allowing new mines to open for 20 years, it will catch up but it’s years away”

    A looming shortage would drive prices up. Yes, there haven’t been new mines opened (see previous point about the Luddites’ culpability) but when future demand looms they will be opened. Gosh, things aren’t perfect on a hundred-year time scale right now! Guess they’ll never be! – Wrong.

    “Even if Ur is mined, the processing plants for it don’t have the capacity to make the fuel pellets to accomodate the number of new reactors planned.”

    Because, gosh, new processing plants wouldn’t be planned alongside those new reactors, now would they?

    “Thorium reactors are not commercial yet.”

    Actually, there are some modern reactor designs that can use thorium with only minor modifications. It’s as commercial as biodiesel, only ever so much more so.

    “Too few construction firms have the expertise to build a reactor, the learning curve, cost over runs and delays will be massive.”

    Well, no, they don’t. Firms have been building reactors for some time continuously, even if people like you are foolishly opposing them nearby. And it isn’t that much of a stretch to increase their capacity. And the cost overruns and delays? Again, due mostly to short-sighted Luddites and primitivists like you.

    “Add to all of this the liquid fuel problem that will force more people to look for electric heat, transport, etc. This makes the estimates for electrical power too low.”

    So… nuclear power plants shouldn’t and won’t be built because we NEED THEM TOO MUCH? That doesn’t follow at all.


    Yes, exactly. Thank you for acknowledging your own irrationality and ignorant fear.

  23. Jace,

    Growing demand, natural gas depletion and the possibility that Canada will pull out of NAFTA to regain some control on their energy is going to bring the energy crunch way before new nukes get built.

    The fact is that the U.S. could be in shortage of home heating fuel by this winter (matt simons I believe), and only the possibility of the poor freezing in the dark might delay a “declared shortage”

    I don’t consider myself a primitivist rather a pessimist/stark realist.
    I’ve seen enough project managment go FUBAR to realize the complexity of a project and the possible screw ups are never properly accounted for in the plan. If you could erase the EPA, NIMBYism and U.S. industrial rot immediately you might be right but as a realist these things won’t change until people are hurting much worse than they are now.

    Had these plans started 10 years ago maybe there would be some breathing room but as always people wait for the fire to buy insurance. Eventually a few of the dozens of proposed plants in the U.S. may get built but I’m quite sure most will not be built, and certainly not be in time for either for the reasons originaly stated or the simple fact the U.S. is next to bankrupt.

    The Idea you can go from no new plants on the continent to dozens in 1 decade is ridiculus. Those containment vessles that GE has put down payments on are for foreign orders and any new builds will be way down the priority list, GE likes to be paid in foreign currency because it holds it’s value. The Gov can’t even seize the parts for domestic use because they are not made at home.

    Federal Reserve created inflation which is manifesting in a commodity boom will ensure these plants will cost 2, or 3 times more than planned which will put wind, wave, solar themal, and Geothermal in a competative price range that can be added to the grid incrementaly with a 2-3 year window rather than 10+ down the road.

    Of course even for these projects you must bid against the Chinese which make a good deal of America’s steel, concrete and are taking equity possitions in many small miners in the 3rd workd so they can buy out the resources when identified. They are also refusing to export certain minerals western industry might need to build these things. Rare earths, Cobalt, magnesium,

    The U.S. delcared economic war when they allowed bad paper to be sold to the world and continued the war as they aggressively devalue the dollar and therefore the U.S. debt(via t-bills) that China, Japan and the Gulf states hold. The above hoarding and refusal to export certain minerals is just one part of this war.

    The economic war will end with China refusing to buy any more U.S. debt and suddenly you have the choice of insolvency or hyper inflation by monetizing the debt, either way the U.S. will be incapable of buiding anything they can’t build with only U.S. factories, manpower, mines (all which are in decay) and worthless script.

    Pie in the sky is great but you are dealing with shit in streets.

    NIMBY, EPA, U.S. financial ruin , Vastly reduced U.S. industrial capacity, time and an education system that pumps out coffee serving dropouts and theatre majors instead of scientist and engineers are all road blocks to your glorious nuclear revival.

    This is not my prefered scenerio just the only one that seems real.

  24. Joe says:


    Thank you for the well-written article. But I have some questions, which I hope you will indulge me in asking.

    First, I’d like to explore the collapse scenario itself. I believe it is fair to say that if industry shut down completely (to reach the 0% carbon emissions presumably required to stabilize climate at current conditions), global civilization would collapse. Much of our population is now living in non-self-sufficient cities, dependent on cheap transportation of food raised on land enhanced with synthetic (ammonia-based) fertilizer and irrigation. If the infrastructure collapses, the cities starve. If the cities starve, the global economic system falls into a hole with no bottom, and one thing leading to another, we have a catastrophic reduction in population in a short time-frame. I have no idea what the numbers would be: let’s say the current 7 billion drops to a million or so within a generation. That’s a pretty thorough catastrophe, I’d say.

    Then what?

    A million people can have as big a carbon footprint as they like. There’s still plenty of genetic diversity for viability. Without national governments and artificial boundaries herding them into inhospitable areas, people would naturally migrate away from the inundated coasts and out of the newly-formed deserts and floodplains to wherever the game was plentiful and good things grew. They’d fight with each other, but probably under the survival-positive “erratic aggressor” strategy of tribal organization, rather than the survival-negative “total annihiliation” strategy of civilization. Within 100 years, the asphalt is gone, paper has become brittle, concrete has started to crumble. Within 1000 years, steel has rusted away, cities (if not deep underwater) have collapsed and been covered with sand and topsoil. Within 10,000 years, there is no remaining trace of our civilization’s existence above ground, anywhere. People, however, will have re-formed civilization (or not), and gone on without us. Maybe they will have learned from our mistakes, more likely not.

    Now let’s look at the “austerity” scenario. I think the “collapse” scenario points out that the real problem facing us is population. A million people simply don’t have to worry about carbon footprint. Seven billion people do. Let’s say that an austerity program manages (somehow) to cut our carbon emissions in half. When our population reaches 14 billion, we’re right back where we started. We tighten our belts by half again, then mindlessly shoot for 28 billion. In the meantime, we are – according to the above statistics – living in a heavily polluted world in which almost all our effort goes into producing enough food, clean water, and energy to keep those 28 billion people marginally alive. There is no mention of changing the insanity of our civilized religious and political structures, so we will doubtless be held in this hungry, under-resourced world by the current psychopathic systems of mass murder and obscene differentials of wealth and power. Eventually, the system must collapse, whether at 28 billion, or 56 billion, or 100 billion people.

    So austerity appears to me to be a delaying tactic, not a solution. I see no difference in final outcome. But the austerity scenario takes a lot longer, and involves a whole lot more long-term suffering than the collapse, and makes recovery of the rest of the ecosphere a longer process. It’s good in the short run for whoever claws their way into the elites and manages to stay there. Everyone else… well.

    My question, then, is what does austerity have to recommend it? What, exactly, are we preserving? The Office of the Homeland Security and televised football games? Is it merely an attempt to save 6 billion, 999 million lives at any cost?

    I’m not unsympathetic to the idea of saving lives, especially at the level of billions, but if we are going to do that, it needs to be a sensible strategy, not some fuzzy wish that people would just behave differently. We need more food, more water, and more energy – not making do with less. And the way human beings do that is called technology: that’s just the name we use for how humans solve physical problems.

    No guarantees that we’ll be clever enough to get ourselves out of our current ecological difficulty with a technological fix, but as I see it, we don’t really have any alternatives. We need to keep climbing. Otherwise, we will fall. Which, ultimately, isn’t the end of the world, just the end of our current global civilization.

    We still face the ongoing population problem, however. If we keep increasing our population geometrically without limit, even if we eventually get to Star Trek technology levels of synthesizing food with “replicators” out of pure, unlimited energy, we’ll eventually run out of room to stand.

    It is my hope that, at some level of population, technology, and communication, we will fundamentally shift our model of social organization. I expect it to be a discontinuous phase transition, so it’s hard for me to envision exactly what it would look like, much less what it would feel like to be in it. But at its root, we would stop playing the current game of competitive empire, which promotes psychopaths and mass murderers to positions of leadership, and would instead start playing a global game of cooperation. My metaphor, here, is the phase transition from free amino acids to the cell, or from the cell to the multi-celled organism. The people we currently consider to be “leaders” need to be diverted to a completely different role in society – or perhaps simply excreted from the body politic as toxins – and what takes their place must be a system that is intuitively obvious, self-correcting and inherently cooperative. Part of that cooperation would (hopefully) involve self-limitation to population growth.

    Barring that, I think collapse is inevitable, and I’m not seeing any advantage to dragging it out with stop-gap “austerity” measures.

    Interested in your comments.

  25. mczilla says:

    Buckle up, folks.
    Barring an emergency intervention by the Space Brothers (& Sisters), we’re going over the edge. With six-plus billion of us, someone is almost sure to survive the purge, but it won’t be pretty. Planetary calamity, a new dark age, and maybe somewhere down the road another chance. Do what you can, or do what you want. Our descendants will regroup according to what they have managed to learn from our mistakes.

  26. Albert Bates says:

    I often find myself with Karen and Annette thinking this juggernaut is moving just too fast for too long; it is not stopping until it is over the cliff. But even if I knew the world were ending tomorrow I would still plant a tree today.

    Hope is part of what makes life worth living, even when it is totally unrealistic, given our situation. And the amazing thing is, as often as not, it is hope that pulls the whole thing up out of the ruin. Our brains are hard wired to be more creative and ingenious when we are optimistic, even if the optimism is unjustified.

    For the past year I have been getting up and starting each day with the knowledge that our part in the Cosmic Drama may be in its final stages now, whether that is days, years, or centuries. I look into my Granddaughter’s eyes and I do not envy her choices when she reaches my age.

    Perhaps our role was to release the hundred-million-year bank account of carbon that Gaia had been building up for just this moment, and to trigger the shift of atmospheric chemistry that favors life-forms entirely unlike our own. Some day they may see us as a black smear in the sediment and ponder our fate.

    Perhaps we fulfilled our destiny when we landed unmanned rovers on Mars, their skins crawling with microbes capable of (re?)endowing that planet with life, even, eventually, an oxygen atmosphere similar to ours. Maybe something like us will evolve there.

    But since I am fond of this blue and green paradise as I have come to know it, once I put my trousers on I go out and try to fix the problem, whether that is standing with my friends on the brakes, or shining a light through the fog. And who knows, maybe history will continue, long after this season’s people are gone to their reward.

  27. Sharon says:

    Like almost everyone here, I find it fairly unlikely we’ll do any of this stuff. That said, however, there’s an old Jewish saying “It isn’t required of you to complete the work, but it is not permitted not to try.” My theory is that as long as there’s any hope at all, we work to prevent in ways that also allow us to adapt when/if we fail. I don’t know if it is the right idea, but it the best way I personally have to go on.

    Joe, I think your scenarios are wrong for a couple of reasons. First, the population isn’t headed towads 14 billion or 28 billion. It is headed, thankfully, for stabilization around 9 billion, and probably gradual voluntary decline. And there’s no question that that decline must be hastened (and just so we’ve got it out of the way, let us all officially note that I am not the poster child for that reality) – and could be hastened in a host of ways under an austerity regimine. Despite popular perception that populations are declining only in the rich world, that’s simply untrue – the developing world’s overall TFR has dropped like a stone from above 5 to 2.8 over the last decades, with Sri Lanka, Thailand, Kerala, Cuba and Albania dropping almost as fast as Italy, Spain and Japan. The fertility gains have overwhelmingly dovetailed with fairly simple, low input changes including political power and education access for women, and certain basic food security measures. Bringing it down further is possible – economic disincentives work very, very well, particularly in the rich world where children.

    Neither am I recommending an instantaneous reduction to 0 industrial emissions. If this were politically possible (and certainly isn’t an present), I still wouldn’t recommend it instantly, but fairly fast reductions that would include incentive to move. Remember, 0 industrial emissions doesn’t mean absolutely no energy – we still have the 7% of US electric provided by hydro, the going on 2% of renewables and the remaining nuclear (which isn’t 0 carbon but many of its emissions are already done). It isn’t much energy, and it will end up intermittent, but that’s not the same as none. That is, there is some energy for high priority resources, including a very gradual increase in renewables.

    So I find it unlikely that all the cities will immediately come crashing down and everyone will rapidly and conveniently starve to death. And starving people are to be avoided for other reasons – the starving eat grass and tree bark, they kill any animal in their path – you think we’ve devastated the planet now, imagine the death throes of 7 billion.

    Actually I find it very unlikely that we’d be conveniently reduced to even a billion – instead, we’d probably see a very long miserable time in which we’d do some even more horrible things to get what we could.

    So yes, I think there are compelling arguments for this – unlikely as it is.


  28. Maeve says:

    The key element in a Winnie The Pooh analogy is that the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood don’t sit in their own corners isolated and somehow trying to exist in solitary. They go to each other in times of need, as well as fun and socializing. They form a network and community, and that’s important to keep in mind when freaking out about the economy and the nebulous future.

    [As an aside to the topic, I have to say I'm completely amused that people communicating via the Internet are being labeled "Luddites".]

  29. Apparently the new definition of luddite is: anyone who fails to believe that there is no problem created by technology that cannot be fixed by even more technology

  30. dewey says:

    I agree with Sharon – no calamity short of a Chicxulub-size impact could reduce the human population to under a million, and perhaps not even that. But Joe makes a good point about the “austerity belt” getting tighter and tighter as the population increases. I am not willing to sign on to a “fair share” deal in which my share keeps shrinking in response to other people’s bad decisions (like the decision to treat women as livestock). If you want sustainability, you have to empower women to control their own fertility, and by any means necessary. Otherwise, as a ‘winger wrote smugly in Foreign Affairs a couple of years ago, the patriarchalists will outbreed and overrun the egalitarians.

  31. jace says:

    “Apparently the new definition of luddite is: anyone who fails to believe that there is no problem created by technology that cannot be fixed by even more technology”

    “b. transf. One who opposes the introduction of new technology, esp. into a place of work.”


    “b. Also luddism. More generally, intense dislike of or opposition to technological innovation.”

    Apparently, you’re wrong.

  32. Joe says:


    So, to summarize very briefly, we have the following options:

    1) Continue the head-in-the-sand option we’ve been (in this country) pursuing for the last seven years, let everything crash, and suffer horribly for a short period (a few generations, perhaps?). Allow civilization to start over, probably to make the same mistakes again, but that isn’t our problem.

    2) Reduce the world’s population suddenly: release a deadly global virus, host WWIII, or have a Jim Jones style kool-aid party for the world. Same as #1, but with a slightly shorter and more intense starving/suffering part, and possibly an even less viable environment for the survivors to recover within.

    3) Pursue an increasingly radical austerity program (as we learn more about what we need to do to try to offset whatever is causing global warming, and as the third-world gets its day in the sun), suffer pretty badly for a potentially very long time (you think less than #1, perhaps you are right), and possibly still face option #1 down the road, since no one yet knows if we’ve already tipped the scale, or if the forces behind global warming are external and uncorrectable, or if we have any natural population cap.

    4) Look for long-term technological solutions that allow us to find whatever is our “natural” population density and live there sustainably in a variant of a high-tech lifestyle, despite changes in climate. Considered science-fiction now, but our current world was unimagineable in 1900. If successful, we’re out of the woods, assuming we actually have a “natural” population density cap – otherwise, back to option #1.

    5) Look for a quick fix – technological or pillage-based – that will provide more energy, food, and water in the short-term and put the problem out of sight until tomorrow. We party down, and let our children and grandchildren worry about the suffering and death part.

    Does that about cover it?

    Option #4 is the only one that makes any sense to me, in reason and in conscience.

    Unfortunately, only option #5 seems the least bit likely, at the panicked tail-end of a long period of option #1 head-in-the-sand. Which might lead to #2, but at that point, who really cares?

    Option #3 has the double-whammy of being unattractive, AND requiring human behavior that simply doesn’t occur. People in mass do not create “Victory Gardens” when the supermarket is open. They turn to Victory Gardens when the supermarkets close. I’m very thankful for the minority (e.g. the transition towns movement mentioned above by Jane) that is preparing the way for the masses to follow if and when the supermarkets close, but until the shelves are empty, the masses simply won’t do the work. And governments are playing a completely different game: it is a fundamental mistake to assume their objectives have, or have ever had (in 5000 years), anything whatsoever to do with the common good.

    Anyone have a sixth option?

  33. Joe says:


    I should not have used the expression “high-tech”, since this carries the implication of a deadly-polluting industrial technology, which is the exact opposite of what I’m thinking about.

    I should have said “technology-intensive.” Being able to farm a plot of land intensively for generations, and still have enough time left to visit with friends, make art and music, or dream of the future, is what I mean by “technology-intensive.” It requires knowledge that is passed on from person to person, and generation to generation. Put an average city-dweller on that same plot of land without that “intensive technology,” and they’ll starve, work themselves to death, or exhaust the land within a few years.

    That could well be a part of option #4. Or perhaps it will be portable fusion reactors and nanotech fabricators. Either way, the emphasis is on sustainable.

  34. hapa says:

    brava! brava!

    ok. anything missing, maybe is only that we need to cut what middle-and-down people are paying now for overhead on medical, housing, education, pension, child and elder care, and taxes, if that has anything to do with our future finances. while we share those risks unevenly, other changes will be difficult, because of the pressure to keep the cash flowing. so talk about prosperous-austerity-with-a-future.

    and maybe the austerity thing should be stated more clearly. we don’t need new junk, we have lots of existing junk, so those industries making junk at high resource cost can retool for green while they’re retooling to build the things we actually need. and during that time we all don’t replace our toasters or anything. which is actually good, because it will take a little while to get really resource-thrifty equipment in the sales pipeline, right?

  35. hapa says:

    for instance we are about to have a huge amount of SUVs no one wants. these could and should be recycled into wind turbines, as much as possible, and as fast, i think. and we should say that. your SUV can do penance!

  36. Stephen Bach says:

    As a Des Moines Register columnist (his name escapes me at the moment) remarked several decades ago, “There is no solution; seek it lovingly.”

  37. edde says:

    Hi Sharon,

    I really like “energy freedom.” I’m gonna use that.

    To Jace & pro-nukies: You should ignore us luddites. You need to talk w/the nuke industry like Fla Power & Light (FPL). Maybe you can help ‘em to get THEIR act together.

    FPL, with the help of local, state & federal officials and agencies, Federal subsidies & llimitations of liability and a streamlined (non)regulatory atmosphere, are gonna add two units to Turkey Point down in Miami (probably first new nukes in the nation).

    FPL is charging utility customers, NOW, for the conservatively estimated $16 Billion these new units will cost, driving up already high utility bills…

    FPL’s gonna build up 300 coastal acres to 20 feet above sea level so they needn’t fear seal level rise or storm surge. (A Category 2 Hurricane here in the panhandle caused a 22 foot storm surge a couple of years ago.)

    And then FPL and the local/state officials don’t have a clue where the water is gonna come from to operate the reactors – millions of gallons per day in a locality with already dreadful water shortages and a several year drought. Maybe spend billions on water reclamation infrastructure, not estimated in the cost of these plants?

    Oh yeah, and FPL has had numerous security issues, like sleeping guards. And technical issues, like a recent blackout, and on…

    You really want to spend $ multi-quadrillions on a nationwide nuke strategy?


  38. [...] Our Tails Get In the Way: The Problems and Principles of Energy Descent [...]

  39. Finnjor says:

    I agree. We even must take CO2 out of the atmosphere large amounts. And be totally carbon free. How do we manage in this?

    With the Greenland and Antarctic ice masses. Potential energy 100 million TWh there, for a thousand years globally.

    We have a thousand years time to detect other energy making forms, and that is enough time.

  40. Danny Bloom says:

    Great post, Sharon. I came here via Sami Grover at treeugger and Rob Hopkins in the UK at transition towns.

    Said a top scientist at Yale to me today:

    “Wow. I have thought about worst case contingency plans in terms of policy
    (mitigation) action, but not this polar cities adaptation measure.”

    He was referring to polar cities, our fire exits for the future, our lifeboats for the future. Sharon, have you ever considered the idea of polar cities and what they might mean for humankind? See info here. Maybe one day blog pro or con on them, too?


    Sharon, I feel it is already too late. We passed the tipping point about 40 years ago, and we are now living on borrowed time. Forget 2012 or 2015. We are done for as a civilized humanity. O the humanity! Meanwhile, as we jabber, the highways of Norther America, South America, Asia and Europe are clogged with “CO2 beasts” and nobody is lifting a finger to stop this sad end of humankind.

    Now is the time to prepare for transition towns, and later for polar cities. We will need transition towns by 2050, and we will need polar cities by 2500. For the breeding pairs in the north to continue to human species. This is serious. We need to face the reality of it all. We are not in kindergarten anymore. Time has run out.

    We cannot get down from the tree because we climbed to high, yes. Perfect metaphor. We are done for. Our goose is cooked. But we still have 30 more generations to prepare for the worst. The worst won’t happen for another 500 years. So let’s roll up our sleeves, our mental sleeves, our spiritual sleeves, and get to work. Forget life in the Lower 48 and Europe and South America and China and India. All those “places” will be unlivable by 2500.

    Sharon, what do YOU think of these ideas?

  41. Julie Kazabi says:

    I learned a lot from this entry and will definitely save it in my bookmarks. Thanks for the effort you took to write about this issue so throroughly. I look forward to future posts.

  42. Very interesting blog post thanks for sharing I have added your blog to my bookmarks and will be back.

  43. Lien Rotando says:

    I enjoy going over all the various styles of 12-21-12 mayan prophecy, I imagine one good thing that has come of all of this, even if nothing materializes is that it has opened our psyches to the possibility that we may not be here forever and that we need to treasure the life we have.

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