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The Thermodynamics of Degrowth | Tim Garrett

Collapse and Recovery

What’s the relationship between our energy consumption, our material footprint and our economies?

Tim Garrett and I come to refer to these as “the holy trinity”. Tim is a Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah, and over two years ago, he joined me to discuss the thermodynamics of collapse, where he explained his research into the behaviour of snowflakes and how you could extrapolate the behaviour of economies and civilization using the laws of thermodynamics. He’s back on the show to explain how we use our energy, the necessity of a surplus of energy and how all of this relates to a society’s growth and health.

In this conversation we discuss questions like: Will renewables facilitate an increased consumption of fossil fuels? Can we reduce inequality by reducing energy consumption? How can we organise a wave-like civilisation, which grows and decays within safe boundaries? Can we decline in order to recover before crashing completely?

The Thermodynamics of Collapse

The Thermodynamics of Collapse

Dr Sid Smith Rocks the Boat on Nature Bats Last

Dr Sid Smith Rocks the Boat on Nature Bats Last

The August 2020 episode of Nature Bats Last featured an excellent discussion with Dr Sid Smith, the episode is embedded here:

 Dr Smith is former co-chair and current secretary of the Green Party of Virginia. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics, and he is a writer and small-business owner in central Virginia. His website can be found at bsidneysmith.com .
Both of Dr Smith’s You Tube presentations are embedded below.

We discussed Dr Smith’s essay titled “ Socialism and the Green Party”, in it he wrote:
“ The value to the economy of a barrel of oil is an amount that is equivalent to 11 years of human labour. Supposing a minimum wage of $15 per hour that is more than $330,000 worth of work.” I think that observation exposes our addiction clearly.

Central to the discussion we talked about the melt down of 450 nuclear power stations and 1300 spent fuel pool fires and the possibility of our psychopathic owners using a nuclear winter to cool down the planet, I’ve covered that aspect of our predicament here. The Inevitability of Nuclear War and Subsequent Nuclear Winter


The comparison of our predicament to the game “Jenga” was made, I have written previously about that observation. Abrupt Climate Change and Extinction ‘Jenga’. The very last ‘game’ on Earth.

Jenga  Art credit Ken Avidor
I mentioned our interview with Arthur Keller and his contention that collapse is the only realistic conclusion, that discussion and Arthur’s incredible You Tube presentation are embedded below.
Collapse, the Only Realistic Scenario:
Further reference for Alice Friedmann who blogs at Peak Energy & Resources, Climate Change, and the Preservation of Knowledge

More on the thermodynamic black hole…

More on the thermodynamic black hole…

I recently wrote about the thermodynamic black hole; articles about ERoEI keep popping up in my in tray that truly baffle me…… As Alice Friedemann told Chris Martenson in the podcast I discussed in the aforementioned blog post, “everyone disagrees on what to leave in or out of their ERoEI analyses”….

I was pointed to another blog called Ramez Naam where the following was published…:

There’s a graph making rounds lately showing the comparative EROIs of different electricity production methods. (EROI is Energy Return On Investment – how much energy we get back if we spend 1 unit of energy. For solar this means – how much more energy does a solar panel generate in its lifetime than is used to create it?)

This EROI graph that is making the rounds is being used to claim that solar and wind can’t support an industrialized society like ours.

But its numbers are wildly different from the estimates produced by other peer-reviewed literature, and suffers from some rather extreme assumptions, as I’ll show.

Here’s the graph.


This graph is taken from Weißbach et al, Energy intensities, EROIs, and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants (pdf link). That paper finds an EROI of 4 for solar and 16 for wind, without storage, or 1.6 and 3.9, respectively, with storage. That is to say, it finds that for every unit of energy used to build solar panels, society ultimately gets back 4 units of energy. Solar panels, according to Weißbach, generate four times as much energy over their lifetimes as it takes to manufacture them.

Personally, I think these figures are a bit on the optimistic side, yet the author has a problem with them for being too low…

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…


Past world economic production constrains current energy demands: Persistent scaling with implications for economic growth and climate change mitigation


Climate change has become intertwined with the global economy. Here, we describe the contribution of inertia to future trends. Drawing from thermodynamic principles, and using 38 years of available statistics between 1980 to 2017, we find a constant scaling between current rates of world primary energy consumption  and the historical time integral W of past world inflation-adjusted economic production Y, or . In each year, over a period during which both  and W more than doubled, the ratio of the two remained nearly unchanged, that is  Gigawatts per trillion 2010 US dollars. What this near constant implies is that current growth trends in energy consumption, population, and standard of living, perhaps counterintuitively, are determined by past innovations that have improved the economic production efficiency, or enabled use of less energy to transform raw materials into the makeup of civilization. Current observed growth rates agree well with predictions derived from available historical data. Future efforts to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions are likely also to be constrained by the contributions of past innovation to growth. Assuming no further efficiency gains, options look limited to rapid decarbonization of energy consumption through sustained implementation of at least one Gigawatt of renewable or nuclear power capacity per day. Alternatively, with continued reliance on fossil fuels, civilization could shift to a steady-state economy, one that devotes economic production exclusively to maintining ongoing metabolic needs rather than to material expansion. Even if such actions could be achieved immediately, energy consumption would continue at its current level, and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations would only begin to balance natural sinks at concentrations exceeding 500 ppmv.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…


Energy and Institution Size

Energy and Institution Size

This week was a first for me. I participated in an academic conference that was entirely online. The conference — called Thermodynamics 2.0 — was designed to connect the natural and social sciences. It was a fitting place to discuss my research, and there were many interesting (virtual) talks.

I’ve posted here a recording of my presentation, called Energy and Institution Size. In it, I discuss how firms and governments tend to get larger as energy use increases. And I tell you why I think this happens. (Spoilers … I think it has to do with hierarchy.)

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll have seen much of this material before (hereherehere, and here). But perhaps you’ll enjoy an audiovisual presentation of it. If you’re a new reader, this talk is a good introduction to my work.

You can download the slides here. If you want to dive into the methods, you can read about them over at PLOS ONE. For a more recent article about the same evidence, check out Economic Development and the Death of the Free Market.

Renewables Are Dead

Renewables Are Dead

Gustave Courbet The man made mad by fear 1844

If I’ve said once that those among us who tout renewable energy should pay more attention to the 2nd law of Thermodynamics, I must have said it a hundred times. But I hardly ever get the impression that people understand why. And it seems so obvious. A quote I often use from Herman Daly and Ken Townsend, when I talk about energy, really says it all:

“Erwin Schrodinger (1945) has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment – that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatium as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is that an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.”

Using energy produces waste. Using more energy produces more waste. It doesn’t matter -much- what kind of energy is used, or what kind of waste is produced. The energy WE use produces waste, in a medium of which WE cannot survive. The only way to escape this is to use less energy. And because we have used such an enormous amount of energy the past 100 years, we must use a whole lot less in the next 100.

We use about 100 times more energy per person, and a whole lot more in the west, than our own labor can produce. We use the equivalent of what 500 billion people can produce without the aid of fossil fuel-powered machines. We won’t solve this problem with wind turbines or solar panels. There really is one way only: cut down on energy use.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Green New Physics

Green New Physics

Johannes Vermeer The lacemaker 1669-71

You could probably say I’m sympathetic to the schoolchildren protesting against climate change, and I’m sympathetic to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her call for a Green New Deal. Young people are the future, and they deserve a voice about that future. At the same time, I’m also deeply skeptical about their understanding of the issues they talk about. 

In fact, I don’t see much understanding at all. I think that’s because they base their comprehension of the world they’ve been born into on information provided by the very people they’re now protesting against. Look kids, your education system sucks, it was designed by those destroying your planet, you need to shake it off and get something better.

But I know what you will do instead: you’re going to get the ‘proper’ education to get a nice-paying job, with a nice car (green, of course) and a nice house etc etc. In other words, you will, at least most of you, be the problem, not solve it. And no shift towards wind or solar will make one iota of difference in that. Want to improve the world? Improve the education system first.

Climate change is just one of an entire array of problems the world faces, and in the same way the use of fossil fuels is just one of many causes of these problems. And focusing on only one aspect of a much broader challenge simply doesn’t appear to be a wise approach, if only because you risk exacerbating some problems while trying to fix others. 

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

How the light gets in

How the light gets in

The science behind growth scepticism

The Entropy Law still matters. CUSP director Tim Jackson responds to Michael Liebreich’s essay on the ‘The secret of eternal growth’.

How the light gets in—The science behind growth scepticism | Blog by Tim Jackson
CC.0 :: ipicgr / pixabay.com

It’s probably fitting that Michael Liebreich’s The Secret of Eternal Growth was published so close to Halloween. It’s so full of outlandish bogeymen, it sits perfectly alongside the ghouls and the ghosts of the trick-or-treat season.

The thrust of his article is very simple. Anyone who questions the wisdom of eternal growth on a finite planet is a mindless, anti-capitalistic, left-leaning fraud who has abandoned ‘hard measurement’ and practises ‘fake science’. (I think I captured all the accusations but it’s hard to be sure.) Trash them, one and all, these unruly critics of late capitalism.

It’s a surprising ad personam rant, based on a flagrant disrespect for anyone taking a contrary view. And it’s peppered with an unhealthy dose of outright hubris, typified by a glowing endorsement of Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood B-list mantra: ‘there are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits on the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder’. The music swells, our hero lifts his gaze, the camera pans away, across the wide savannah.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Should we Prepare for a New World War? Answers from the Patterns of Past

Should we Prepare for a New World War? Answers from the Patterns of Past

 I know that I have crammed together too many ideas here: Tolstoy, St. Francis, critical phenomena, thermodynamics, and more,  – it is contrary to the rules of blog posts. But the centennial of the end of the Great War gave me the occasion to write about the nature of war. in 1914, the European states sleepwalked into the Great War just like we may be doing nowadays, blundering toward a new gigantic conflagration — a true “big one,” in terms of wars. If the Great War couldn’t end all wars as it was said to be able to do, the greater one that may be coming could actually do that, but in a very different way. The new war could lead to the extinction of humankind. So, what hope do we have? I don’t know, but the first step to solve a problem is to understand it. So far, humans so far haven”t learned anything much from the mistakes of the past but, who knows? Maybe one day they will.

The centennial of the end of the Great War is a good occasion to rethink a little about wars: why, how, and when wars occur and if there is any hope to stop blindly walking along a path taking us to the possibility of the complete annihilation of humankind.

It is a question that has been posed many times and never satisfactorily answered. Perhaps the first to try to answer it was Leon Tolstoy in his “War and Peace” novel, (1867), where he wondered how it could be possible that a single man named Napoleon could cause millions of men to move all together eastward with the purpose of killing other men whom they had never met and they had no reason to hate.
…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Split personalities: We like some science, but not all of it

Split personalities: We like some science, but not all of it

We modern folk are in a bind. We embrace what the sciences and the technology that flows from them have to offer, but we refuse to believe that we live in the world described by those very sciences.

Here I’m not merely talking about climate change deniers who, of course, fit this description. They merrily dial number after number on their cellphones, but they do so without realizing that in their climate change denial they are rejecting the very same science that underpins the phone they are using: physics.

But so many others live in this dual world as well. We humans imagine ourselves set apart from the natural world. And yet, our very bodies are the subject of scientific investigations. So we turn to our minds which we imagine set us apart from the natural world. But what is the mind? Do we not place the mind in the body? Are its manifestations not speech, writing, music, dance, and graphic arts which require the body for their expression.

The science of physics tells us that we live in a thermodynamic system. The universe is a thermodynamic system and so by definition must our Earth be one. Thermodynamic systems produce entropy, lots of it. Some two-thirds of all the energy we use in the United States is wasted. That’s right, wasted. That entropy shows up as climate-changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which is also acidifying the oceans. It shows up as barren landscapes left behind by coal and other mining. It shows up as waste heat and waste products flowing from our factories, our homes and our vehicles.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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