The Flow of Energy in the United States

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 26, 2010 12:51 pm

Picture 1

Produced by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and featured at the National Academies terrific website What You Need to Know About Energy. Click on the photo to get interactive.

The data are from the Energy Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE/EIA-0384(2008), June 2009). Hydro, wind, and solar electricity inputs are expressed using fossil-fuel plants’ heat rate to more easily account for differences between the conversion efficiency of renewables and the fuel utilization for combustion- and nuclear-driven systems. This enables hydro, wind, and solar to be counted on a similar basis as coal, natural gas, and oil. For this reason, the sum of the inputs for electricity differs slightly from the displayed total electricity output. Distributed electricity represents only retail electricity sales and does not include self-generation. The efficiency of electricity production is calculated as the total retail electricity delivered divided by the primary energy input into electricity generation. End use efficiency is estimated as 80% for residential, commercial, and industrial sectors, and as 25% for the transportation sector. Totals may not equal the sum of components due to independent rounding.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, Energy

Comments (36)

  1. GM

    You had a post about this website some time ago, and you were told that it is completely useless because it omits the majority of the absolutely essential information needed for actual understanding of the fundamental energy issues, from the 2nd law to Hubbert peak-type phenomena, and many others. Yet you post it again.

    Why? How hard is it to spend a few weeks reading TheOilDrum and researching the topic and then start writing about it?

  2. Rich

    Sheril,
    how come this GM takes such personal offense at you writing about energy? Don’t pay any attention okay? I for one not only think it’s interesting, but sorely needed.

    Thanks,
    Rich

  3. GM

    2. Rich Says:
    July 26th, 2010 at 2:00 pm
    Sheril,
    how come this GM takes such personal offense at you writing about energy? Don’t pay any attention okay? I for one not only think it’s interesting, but sorely needed.

    Personal offense??? There shouldn’t be any writing about energy? How did you come up with that?

    There should be a lot more writing about energy than there is now. The problem is that incompetent writing about energy (Sheril’s) does more harm than good. The same is true for politically correct writing about energy (the National Academy’s).

    This is what I am protesting against.

  4. Rich

    So you don’t approve of Sheril and now the National Academies? What a ridiculous comment.

  5. GM

    4. Rich Says:
    July 26th, 2010 at 2:53 pm
    So you don’t approve of Sheril and now the National Academies? What a ridiculous comment.

    I don’t approve of what they’re doing in this particular case, not in general.

    The argument from authority doesn’t have a good track record. In this case the only authority is the National Academies, but there it is probably a case of being afraid to speak up, not a case of being incompetent.

    I have said this before, I will repeat it again so that you hopefully understand it.

    Anybody who talks about energy, and who doesn’t mention the following things:

    1. Peak Oil and other peaks (Natural Gas, Coal, Uranium, Phosphorus, etc.)
    2. EROEI (Energy Return Of Energy Investment)
    3. How those two make none of the available “alternatives” viable replacements of what we’re getting from fossil fuels
    4. The tight connections between the energy crisis and all the other crises we’re facing (climate change, topsoil loss, aquifer depletion, ocean acidificaiton, biodiversity loss and general ecosystem collapse, etc.)
    5. The existence of limits to growth which follow from the above
    6. Growth as the fundamental case of the problem

    Is basically BS-ing you, either due to incompetence, due to being afraid to say things that are considered too politically incorrect, or due to having some other agenda.

    The National Academies can not say that growth has to end, for obvious reasons, and they didn’t say it on that website. They can not even agree on that because of the large mass of people there who don’t understand the situation, but my suspicion is that even many of the people in them who do understand it, would prefer not to say it too loud.

  6. GM-

    I do read the Oil Drum and I still think what you are saying is utter bull crap. Notice that Sheril said nothing at all beyond, “this is a cool image, press on the picture to see the interactive version.” This is not negligence on Sheril’s part. This post is essentially a link to another site. It is not an exposition on the coming exergy crisis, the way in which EROI & 2nd Law dovetail with peak oil predictions, or the difference between peak and base load power production. And it doesn’t need to be. If this post happened to be an essay summarizing all of Sheril’s beliefs and conclusions regarding the US energy system, your criticisms would be valid. But this post is nothing of the sort!

    In short: cool out.

  7. GM

    I am cool, it is just that the website in question is spreading misinformation and false optimism, about the wonders of efficiency and “alternative sources” when there is no basis for such optimism, and because of that it should not be linked to or promoted in any way. This is the problem I have with this post.

  8. Sean McCorkle

    This is a great diagram. I love it and I’m really glad Sheril posted it. Its a nice way to present the big picture to a general audience. While doesn’t show the temporal dimension or provide other analysis as discussed in preceding comments, it does provide a snapshot breakdown of energy sources and uses & losses for one year.

    Points that jump out of this diagram: well, we still get most of the energy from fossil hydrocarbons – no surprise there. The bulk of that goes for transportation – interesting. But the big shocker, for me at least, is the wasted energy fraction. More than half! Geez, over HALF our energy bills are going down the drain, up in smoke, or radiated out into space! Delving further, we see that the big culprits in this are transportation, followed closely by electricity production! I have yet to read in detail, but I wonder if the latter is due to thermodynamic conversion losses, or that power is generated and just not used at points/times.

  9. ThomasL

    There are numerous reasons for the losses Sean. Some can be reduced, but the “loss” will remain high. While I think GM’s point above is a bit overboard in regards to providing a quick view of things to those who haven’t much of an idea, much of what he is pointing out is that the absence of such information as he mentions makes the graphic somewhat misleading (as in “gee, if we could just get rid of that waste!”, except there is “waste” in every system, and in the energy system it has quite a bit to do with physics and how current works… and you can bet the companies are already working hard to limit such “loss” as it hits the profit line of the company).

    In other words it isn’t “loss” or “waste” the way we think about “loss” or “waste” in general conversation. Much of it is unavoidable given current technology. That would include replacing the whole grid with more modern tech – it is part of that EROEI equation that GM mentioned above, and if that concept is foreign to you, think basically the same concept as any return on investment calculation – real savings (or increase) has to account for the costs of implementation, not just the “savings”. In other words, does an x% reduction in energy loss due to transmission in the electric grid offset the energy used to create and implement the new grid? Thus it may be better to leave “old” technology alone even though you could reduce the “loss” given all input costs to replace it (though it may be highly beneficial to replace it during normal maintenance as such is performed…).

    Or, to echo GM, it’s substantially complicated and quite a lot is directly tied into it all, not to mention the amount used is almost impossible to really wrap your mind around (it really is that much).

  10. Sorbit

    I think Sheril needs to do better fact-checking about these things.

  11. Anthony McCarthy

    What does it look like if you include the cheapest and most underused potential source, conservation?

  12. GM

    11. Anthony McCarthy Says:
    July 27th, 2010 at 9:15 am
    What does it look like if you include the cheapest and most underused potential source, conservation?

    In a BAU scenario with conservation, collapse will still occur at approximately the same time time, or slightly later, due either to energy or to other limits in the environment.

    The problem with conservation is that it suffers from rapidly diminishing returns – there are hard thermodynamical limits to how efficiently you can do things, and once you have reached them, you can not reduce your energy consumption much more. So if you keep growing while conserving, growth will eat way all you conservation gain very fast. And even if you do not grow, depletion will still get you eventually.

    That’s true even if you include in our definition of conservation doing away with wasteful consumption, for example not driving cars at all as opposed to just driving more efficient cars. But I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they talk about conservation, and it is not even possible in many places in this country due to the way cities are built

  13. Perplexed in Peoria

    Sheril, ThomasL, and Sean,
    Since you guys seem to understand the chart, some questions:
    1. Why does the blue channel for transportation become much thicker than the sum of input
    thicknesses, but this apparently does not happen for residential and commercial?
    2. Similarly for Electricity being larger than its inputs. Why?
    3. What is “unused energy”? Does this include flared gas? Water allowed to pass over Niagara falls? Thermodynamic inefficiency in electric production? Losses in electric transmission? Energy used to get energy – for example, ethanol distillation, transporting coal to the power plant, and nuclear enrichment?
    4. It the chart was trying to tell me something, what was it?

  14. Sean McCorkle

    Perplexed,

    1. Why does the blue channel for transportation become much thicker than the sum of input
    thicknesses, but this apparently does not happen for residential and commercial?
    2. Similarly for Electricity being larger than its inputs. Why?

    Good of you to point that out. My guess is that its sloppy artistic license on the part of the NAS graphic designer(s). This pdf appears to be the original from Livermore. While the label boxes are enlarged, the band widths look like they track with the numeric proportions much better.

    3. What is “unused energy”? Does this include flared gas? Water allowed to pass over Niagara falls? Thermodynamic inefficiency in electric production? Losses in electric transmission?

    I’m quite curious about all the details of this myself. I suspect it includes all of what you say, and other things too. For example, the internal combustion engines of cars produce huge amounts of waste heat while they provide locomotion. And imagine all the countless millions of engines idling while stopped in traffic or at red lights day in and day out.

    Energy used to get energy – for example, ethanol distillation, transporting coal to the power plant, and nuclear enrichment?

    I think this may fall under the category of EROEI which has been discussed above, and which seems to be missing from this chart (and as is argued above, is probably a shortcoming).

    4. It the chart was trying to tell me something, what was it?

    A lot of things, actually. A good graphic should easily communicate a lot of information, and when they’re good, they’re worth spending some time looking over. This one shows the relative proportions of difference sources of energy in the US in 2008, a breakdown of where these are used, and how much is lost. (Now that I found it, I think the LLNL version is better for this). For example, the biggest single source of energy is oil, and most of that goes into planes, trains and automobiles, and only a small proportion going into residential (heating I presume). Very little is converted into electricity.

    Another example, looking at the residential usage box (again on the LLNL pdf), homes appear to be supplied about half/half by electrical/natural gas, and much less from oil, which is not what I expected. Also, homes appear to be pretty efficient as well, again something that surprised me.

    When energy policy is discussed, I think its good for folks to have a overall view of the supply & demand picture, among other things, which is why I like this kind of presentation.

  15. Sean McCorkle

    GM and ThomasL,

    I’m not a student of energy policy at all but it strikes me that accurate EROEI numbers must be kind of difficult to pin down. Specifically, for something like a turbine, there’s all the fabrication costs (which can be tallied) and then annual maintenance costs. I’m guessing that fabrication, which is a one-time expense, is the big enchilada, but unlike maintenance, it must be amortized over the lifetime of the machine. But what is the lifetime of a machine like that – how well can it be estimated? Are there authoritative, “go to”, resources where reliable EROEI numbers are tallied for all the different sources?

    Another issue is improvements in technology. I think (someone can correct me if this is wrong) that in the early years of photovoltaics, they had an EROEI less than 1 (they didn’t produce the energy in their lifetime that it took to manufacture them), but they’ve since broke even and gone above 1 due to improved fabrication. The point being that tomorrow’s EROEIs may be better than those of today. And if you’re evaluating turbines today, some of which may have been made decades ago, is it fair to use the old manufactoring cost when combining them with new ones? (by cost, I mean energy, not $)

  16. GM

    A more sober look at the situation with alternative energy sources:

    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/6641

  17. GM

    15. Sean McCorkle Says:
    July 27th, 2010 at 9:16 pm
    GM and ThomasL,
    I’m not a student of energy policy at all but it strikes me that accurate EROEI numbers must be kind of difficult to pin down. Specifically, for something like a turbine, there’s all the fabrication costs (which can be tallied) and then annual maintenance costs. I’m guessing that fabrication, which is a one-time expense, is the big enchilada, but unlike maintenance, it must be amortized over the lifetime of the machine. But what is the lifetime of a machine like that – how well can it be estimated? Are there authoritative, “go to”, resources where reliable EROEI numbers are tallied for all the different sources?

    Yes, these things are hard to calculate exactly, but that doesn’t really matter. It is irrelevant whether your EROEI is 5 or 9.5 , (or even, say, 3 or 6, if you want larger margin of error) when the point one is trying to make is that it is not 40 and it is not going to be enough to support the kind of economy we are used to. Or the other, even more important point, that there isn’t enough of the resource to drive an economy of the present size to begin with.

    Another issue is improvements in technology. I think (someone can correct me if this is wrong) that in the early years of photovoltaics, they had an EROEI less than 1 (they didn’t produce the energy in their lifetime that it took to manufacture them), but they’ve since broke even and gone above 1 due to improved fabrication. The point being that tomorrow’s EROEIs may be better than those of today. And if you’re evaluating turbines today, some of which may have been made decades ago, is it fair to use the old manufactoring cost when combining them with new ones? (by cost, I mean energy, not $)

    Yes, technology improves, but this is again completely missing the fundamental problem. of exponential growth vs finite resources. There are hard thermodynamic limits on efficiency and there are hard practical and thermodynamic limits on how much solar and wind energy can be realistically harvested. There are also hard practical limitations on how fast and to what extent alternative energy sources can be scaled up. So we can not continue growing forever, not even that, we have to start shrinking because we are in deep overshoot in the moment, and energy is not the only limit to growth we have hit, we overshot the carrying capacity of the planet a long time ago by overwhelming its waste sinks and destroying its ecosystems.

    But we can not start shrinking because our whole socio-economical system is based on perpetual growth and will collapse if growth stops. We have no choice, but few realize that and the God of growth is so zealously worshiped that the very mention of degrowth gets you booed out the room as some sort of lunatic if you dare to say the obvious.

  18. Sean McCorkle

    GM,

    There are hard thermodynamic limits on efficiency and there are hard practical and thermodynamic limits on how much solar and wind energy can be realistically harvested. There are also hard practical limitations on how fast and to what extent alternative energy sources can be scaled up

    Yes these are the kinds of numbers I tend to like because they are more reliable upper limits, if maybe overly optimistic.

    Okay, I think what you are saying, in this and other threads, is that the big gorilla in the room is exponential growth – either population or economic or both, which, if it continues unchecked, will quickly exhaust any finite resource, which includes sunlight-derived energy, because thats also limited to what falls on the Earth, and the materials resources needed to harvest that energy is finite. If even fusion became possible, the materials need to build reactors would be finite. etc. No obvious alternative gets around this. The precise limits (EROEI) aren’t so important because the exponential is the dominant term and increasing those limits by several factors won’t result in several factors worth increase in remaining time, because of the nature of exp(x). The exponential has to be addressed, but society at large refuses to. And by doing nothing, we still face an oncoming disaster. Have I got that right? If so, I fully agree with you.

    I should add that I don’t think the NAS/LLNL energy flow diagram is optimistic at all. I like it because its informative (or partially informative) for a general audience. What can we do but try to educate ourselves and the public to try to steer the herd into a better direction?

  19. GM

    18. Sean McCorkle Says:
    Okay, I think what you are saying, in this and other threads, is that the big gorilla in the room is exponential growth – either population or economic or both, which, if it continues unchecked, will quickly exhaust any finite resource, which includes sunlight-derived energy, because thats also limited to what falls on the Earth, and the materials resources needed to harvest that energy is finite. If even fusion became possible, the materials need to build reactors would be finite. etc. No obvious alternative gets around this. The precise limits (EROEI) aren’t so important because the exponential is the dominant term and increasing those limits by several factors won’t result in several factors worth increase in remaining time, because of the nature of exp(x). The exponential has to be addressed, but society at large refuses to. And by doing nothing, we still face an oncoming disaster. Have I got that right? If so, I fully agree with you.

    In general yes, this is the very simple and intuitive argument for the impossibility of infinite growth in a finite system. Another very important and also very intuitive principle, which you didn’t mention, is that if a system needs a variety of inputs to sustain itself, if even one of those inputs is in insufficient supply, the system collapses (Liebig’s law of the minimum). Which is why I keep stressing the importance of seeing all the sustainability crises and all the peaks as related and in their entirety, as different aspect of the same problem.

    The above is pretty much axiomatic, where there can be disagreement is over whether we have already hit the limits or not. However, the data unequivocally says this is precisely the case and we are in deep overshoot at this point.

    I should add that I don’t think the NAS/LLNL energy flow diagram is optimistic at all. I like it because its informative (or partially informative) for a general audience. What can we do but try to educate ourselves and the public to try to steer the herd into a better direction?

    It is not optimistic for people who are already informed. The average person who doesn’t have any idea what the issues are needs to be told the truth directly, something that website does not do

  20. Eric the Leaf

    Despite the big debates here about believers and non-believers, evolution and creationism, accommodation and new atheism–these issues are insignificant shadows in the bright light of our one true god.

  21. @GM:

    It is not optimistic for people who are already informed. The average person who doesn’t have any idea what the issues are needs to be told the truth directly, something that website does not do.

    Sure, they need to be told directly. Then what? Wait till the collapse then run around saying I told you so? Stop Growth? Ok, how? Using what economic incentives? Through What political process?

    You pillary Sheril for bringing out a nifty diagram that could be used to open the door to the conversation you seem to be leading to, and them slam that door in her face because she didn’t start the conversation. Fine – that’s your right – but if you don’t have something else for us to act on, you’re not exactly elevating the conversation.

  22. GM

    21. Philip H Says:
    July 29th, 2010 at 1:14 pm
    Sure, they need to be told directly. Then what? Wait till the collapse then run around saying I told you so? Stop Growth? Ok, how? Using what economic incentives? Through What political process?

    Is it going to happen if we just keep on pretending there is no problem? And economic incentives are not the way to do anything in this case, what is needed is discarding economics as a way of thinking completely

    You pillary Sheril for bringing out a nifty diagram that could be used to open the door to the conversation you seem to be leading to, and them slam that door in her face because she didn’t start the conversation. Fine – that’s your right – but if you don’t have something else for us to act on, you’re not exactly elevating the conversation.

    My reaction is not in response to this post in particular, it is in response to this post AND the previous posts on energy issues, and the pattern if uninformed and naive thinking about the subject I see in them

  23. ThomasL

    I don’t know GM,

    Maybe getting rid of all the energy incentives would help – in fact I think it would make fossil fuels a lot less attractive to people.

    The Universe runs on the rules of Energy, as does life – but societies run on economics (at least all the ones we have any history of have and still do – even the most primitive engage in trade, which is economics…), so you can’t just discard such as a way of thinking – it is, at the most fundamental level, how we do think.

    That is what makes any solution other then letting it play out almost impossable.

  24. Is it going to happen if we just keep on pretending there is no problem? And economic incentives are not the way to do anything in this case, what is needed is discarding economics as a way of thinking completely

    GM,
    Again, AND REPLACE IT WITH WHAT? As ThomasL rightly points out, economics is in fact how societies run, and it is societies and thus economies that have to address this issue. People will not stop having more children (which is what I presume you mean by eliminating growth) unless there is a strong incentive to do so (espcially since reproduction is still a fundamental biological imperative of our species). Even China’s attempts to slow its population growth failed because there was not a strong enough incentive to overcome the ECONOMIC, CULTURAL and BIOLOGICAL drives that feed reproduction.

    Are economic incentives the only way to achieve this end? No, but they may be the shortest route to the end point. If we’re headed for even one of the simultaneous system crashes you posit (and I agree the evidence is mounting undeniably for them all) then we as a society need to take action now, and that requires incetives of some sort.

  25. GM

    23. ThomasL Says:
    July 30th, 2010 at 4:36 am
    I don’t know GM,
    Maybe getting rid of all the energy incentives would help – in fact I think it would make fossil fuels a lot less attractive to people.

    Not remotely close to being sufficient

    The Universe runs on the rules of Energy, as does life – but societies run on economics (at least all the ones we have any history of have and still do – even the most primitive engage in trade, which is economics…), so you can’t just discard such as a way of thinking – it is, at the most fundamental level, how we do think.

    1. That’s defeatist thinking (ironic statement, coming from someone who doesn’t see absolutely any hope for humanity, I know)

    2. The giant panda only eats bamboo. You can’t change that. But if bamboo was to disappear, the panda would go extinct very soon after that. I hope you see the point. Societies may run on economics but this doesn’t mean that economics is responding adequately to the physical environment we live in.

  26. GM

    24. Philip H Says:
    July 30th, 2010 at 7:19 am
    GM,
    Again, AND REPLACE IT WITH WHAT? As ThomasL rightly points out, economics is in fact how societies run, and it is societies and thus economies that have to address this issue. People will not stop having more children (which is what I presume you mean by eliminating growth) unless there is a strong incentive to do so (espcially since reproduction is still a fundamental biological imperative of our species). Even China’s attempts to slow its population growth failed because there was not a strong enough incentive to overcome the ECONOMIC, CULTURAL and BIOLOGICAL drives that feed reproduction.

    First, if you think that I claim that not having children is what I mean by eliminating growth, then you have completely failed to understand the situation. The growth I am talking about is the I in the I=PAT equation. At this point it can only be brought in line with the carrying capacity of the planet by drastic reduction of both population and per capita consumption (there is absolutely no way to sustainably feed 7 billion people without fossil fuels). Of course, if you want to keep living standards high, you need to reduce population even further.

    Yes, people will not stop having children, unless there is a sufficiently strong force present to prevent them from doing so. It doesn’t mean that people can continue having children without full-scale civilizational and ecosystems collapse being inevitable. Why is it so hard to understand? It is not sufficient to simply state “That’s how we do things, we can change that” if the physical reality mandates that we change our ways. The physical reality will always win.

    Are economic incentives the only way to achieve this end? No, but they may be the shortest route to the end point. If we’re headed for even one of the simultaneous system crashes you posit (and I agree the evidence is mounting undeniably for them all) then we as a society need to take action now, and that requires incetives of some sort.

    Economic incentives simply can not bring us to the end point, because the end point includes no economics of any kind similar to what we have now. This is also a point that should be straightforward to understand, I don’t see why you fail to do that

  27. ThomasL

    GM,

    I’d agree that economic incentives cannot get us to the end point of sustainability, but they can sure warp the hell out of everything in the meantime (did you catch that Iran wants to start paying its citizens for having more babies again?). Part of what led to our energy usage going out of control is all the incentives we’ve built up (why I get really annoyed when economically simple people try to say “this is what the free markets resulted in” – no, this is what a highly centralized, artificially juiced by many means & warped market has gotten us too, it’s been 97 years sense we moved to end the free market and the harshness its limits bring…).

    Part of the population problem is why worry about how many children one has and how they are going to support them when the gov. will cut me a check to help out? It is very easy to be irresponsible when someone else is picking up the tab…

    By removing all the harsh realities of life through efforts to make everything “fair” (and not fair in the sense of equal opportunity, but rather fair in the sense of we’ll even out the results of everyone’s efforts, or lack there of…) and “nice”, we have removed ourselves from realities that in the end can not be escaped…

  28. GM

    ThomasL @ 27:

    I do not foresee a sustainable society as being exposed to the harsh realities of life, I foresee it as trying to minimize their effect as much as possible. But this can only happen and be stable in the long term if those harsh realities are fully acknowledged and understood by everyone and the restraint on our own behavior that they mandate is imposed.

    The free market and libertarian ideologies have one fatal flaw that I am amazed nobody dares to bring up, and it is that we know very well what a society, where individuals have full freedom to do anything they want and there is no regulation of markets, looks like. It looks like Eastern Congo in the last 15 years, Siera Leone in the 90s (the two most stunning examples), and many other places we usually declare “failed states”. That’s what basic human instincts left unchecked do. And that’s what the West will look like in a few decades too, which is why I like to say that everyone who participates in these discussions and is under 40 will most likely die of some combination of starvation, some long forgotten and totally curable disease, chaotic violence, or cannibalism.

    Obviously we don’t want that, but to prevent it from happening, we need to impose limits in what we do, which is not going to happen

  29. Interesting arguments. One point I don’t see made is that, although there are theoretical limits to efficiency of a system, the waste from one system can be used as input to another system.

    eg: thermal power plant wastes, say, 30% of the energy in the coal and dumps it as hot water. This hot water could be used to run evaporative chillers to create ice or whatever. The lower-temperature water leaving this could go on to heat greenhouses or homes. Instead of a theoretical maximum energy conversion of 70% into useful energy you are now using 90% or so. Please don’t call me on the numbers here as they are only illustrations, not actual.

    There are lots of other systems in which waste from one system is input for another. It just takes cleverness.

    But is there any way it will be enough? I doubt it. We are using the capital the earth has provided and are squandering it on a blowout party rather than investing it in steps to sustainability.

  30. ThomasL

    GM,

    I didn’t say a lawless system. There are actually things the government is required for. A “Free Market” does not equate to no regulation and everyone doing anything, there are still laws. It worked rather well here for 140 years or so, but then people started thinking they could do better (though almost everything they have done sense we would have traditionally called “moral hazard”). Think of S.S. – it was designed as a safety net for the poor in old age. Now everyone treats it like a retirement account (except its beyond broke as it was never funded for that). What did it let everyone do? Why spend lots more “consuming” as they stopped worrying about paying for anything in their later years. Our houses got bigger, as did our junk piles… It juiced the hell out of our consumption, and is crashing hard within but a generation (and due to demographics isn’t really fixable, but that’s another long conversation).

    We haven’t had a free market anywhere sense Bretton-woods (though it was fatally damaged prior to that as well) – we have managed economies with a reserve currency system (which gives us even more ways to game the system and “consume” outside our means). To explain that is way outside the scope of this blog (which is neither economic nor political). I will agree that an awful lot of those who profess “a return to the gold standard” fail to realize we were on a silver standard, but none the less, there are actually advantages to such a system even though governments go out of their way to get around the limitations (things like trade deficits could never exist at today’s levels, and “growth” can only occur due to real economic development…).

    There is an even bigger flaw in your idea – that just because a group of people has a clue their children will as well. Look how well that’s worked out in this country, it took but a couple generations to forget everything we stood for. That’s why depending on anything but naturally enforced limitations will always fail. Man will always try to find a way to “cheat” the system in the hopes that they may somehow arrive at nirvana, but we’d be better off accepting every system is flawed, some less so then others.

    One cannot have reality based limits when they refuse to accept reality (what you always try to get across). Every attempt to pretend that such limits don’t apply leads to where we are today; it’s just a matter of how long it takes to get here (and the only way any population will ever deal with limits is if they are hard set by nature – governments can and have been overthrown, especially when the populations think they are being restrained unjustly). You will never have limits as long as our system is based on perma-growth (and all the Keynesians reading this ought to take note of that as it is an attempt to ensure that growth is all that ever happens…).

  31. Nullius in Verba

    #28,

    But free market and libertarian ideologies don’t give individuals full freedom to do anything they want or offer no regulation of markets. Nobody ‘brings them up’ because they’re not actually true.

    The libertarian credo is based in large part on J S Mill’s Harm Principle.

    “The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

    Free markets, similarly, regulate the enforcement of contracts, make rules on fraud, deception, coercion, ownership, legality of action, and the handling of disputes. There are rules to protect the participants in trade.

    They won’t necessarily do what you want them to do, but the Eastern Congo is not an example of either.

    And you’re forgetting, we’ve already been through the inevitable collapse of civilisation.

    “Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.” “By 1985 enough millions will have died to reduce the earth’s population to some acceptable level, like 1.5 billion people.” “By 1980 the United States would see its life expectancy drop to 42 because of pesticides, and by 1999 its population would drop to 22.6 million.”

    Anybody over the age of 40 will no doubt remember it.

    I expect you have heard of Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried wolf. You will no doubt want to point out to me that on the final occasion, the boy was right. Maybe so. But the story perhaps highlights why you now find it difficult to get people to pay attention. It’s not the free market and libertarianism that are the problem, it is the history of your own movement. Change can only happen if those harsh realities are fully acknowledged and understood by everyone.

  32. ThomasL

    Interesting ideas Hydrophilia (#29),

    I agree that it would only be a dent, and would hazard a guess that some of why you do not see much of the waste becoming input in another system has to do with things like “not in my back yard”, which has lead to much of the production of energy occurring out in the middle of nowhere, making it hard to repurpose waste heat, and there isn’t any guarantee of production (plants are turned on and off and ramped up and down as needed). It is still an interesting thing to look at (and one I haven’t looked at much).

    Nullius in Verba (#31),

    Well put – but I doubt most people have actually read anything about either line of thought, and rather mostly just go from what someone else said they mean (likely one who opposes such thinking for ideological reasons). Or at least they seem to use the same arguments in trying to go “oh no, that would be bad” as for some reason they always seem to equate letting markets work as equating to there being no rules (and there are always rules, even in criminal enterprises there are rules…). I know most fail to grasp that economics and ethics walk hand in hand and are but reflections of each other on many, many levels.

    The under 40 will have horrible deaths thing is rather amusing. I’m not sure, if taken as a whole, the population of the world has ever experienced anything else – which is a commentary on human nature, not on ecological limits.

    I find the most interesting part of these debates the contradictory ideas that “nature always wins” yet somehow our only salvation will be in governmental mandates dictating behavior that are ever present but never quite expressed…

  33. GM

    30. ThomasL Says:
    August 1st, 2010 at 2:08 am
    GM,
    I didn’t say a lawless system. There are actually things the government is required for.

    They do have laws. And they have a government. But they are weak, and it is up to the individuals to decide whether to follow them or not. The point is that if left to the people, you invariably end up with complete chaos unless those people have reached a certain level of development that pretty much nobody in the world these days has.

    We haven’t had a free market anywhere sense Bretton-woods

    …And the point is that you end up with complete chaos if you leave the free markets rule too. The best example I can think of is Yemen and water – the government is unable to impose its will on the farmers there so what happens is entirely determined by the market – it’s basically the free market proponents paradise, no government regulation or anything to interfere with market forces. So what the market did is that they are growing qat (a mild narcotic the leaves of which are chewed) and other water thirsty crops and they are pumping water out of aquifers many times the recharge rate with the end result being that Yemen will be the first country to run out of the water in just a few years.

    The idea of free markets has to go, because what is never taken into account by them are all the complexities of the real world if everything is reduced to exchange of money. If what was traded instead were entropy units, it would have been better, but this is impossible right now, and even then, the problem of market forces vs. long term planning remains.

    There is an even bigger flaw in your idea – that just because a group of people has a clue their children will as well.

    Are they going to have a clue if their parents didn’t? Of course you have to put the effort of preserving knowledge and understanding in the next generation, there is no way around this.

    Look how well that’s worked out in this country, it took but a couple generations to forget everything we stood for.

    Excuse me, but what exactly did you “stand for”? How is it different from what the current generation stands for, and most importantly, is it adequate with respect to the demands of the real world?

    That’s why depending on anything but naturally enforced limitations will always fail. Man will always try to find a way to “cheat” the system in the hopes that they may somehow arrive at nirvana, but we’d be better off accepting every system is flawed, some less so then others.

    After you typed this, are you going to go out and try to cheat the system? Have you been doing it since the time you came to this realization?

  34. GM

    32. ThomasL Says:
    August 1st, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    I find the most interesting part of these debates the contradictory ideas that “nature always wins” yet somehow our only salvation will be in governmental mandates dictating behavior that are ever present but never quite expressed…

    You are confusing nature as in “the laws of nature” with nature as in “human nature”

  35. ThomasL

    Not at all GM,

    I am acknowledging that man has a nature though. You seem to prefer to pretend he doesn’t, and nothing about it can be gleamed from our development matters as it can all be changed by government decree, which I think is rather simple minded. Perhaps that is because I worked in a field that dealt with changing bad behavior and it really is hard to convey what lengths people will go to in order to avoid having to change (and reading about it in a book doesn’t do it justice anyway). I really don’t understand why so many are so snowed that because it is the government it doesn’t suffer from the same ailment as all other organizations (though they do have the legal ability to use force, there are still, as in everything else, limits even there).

    As for what we stood for, I suggest you read the periodsource texts of the founders (and period papers help as well), rather than the reinterpretation texts (they didn’t really mean what they said, and we understand them better than they understood themselves crap – modern lenses don’t help). Might want to start with renaissance political theory, paying special attention to Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau…

    No generation has ever fully followed their elders GM, that is why we have change. You obviously have forgotten your teenage years, when you knew that your parents were stupid and you knew better, and all the answers seemed obvious and easy.

  36. GM

    35. ThomasL Says:
    August 1st, 2010 at 6:55 pm
    Not at all GM,
    I am acknowledging that man has a nature though. You seem to prefer to pretend he doesn’t, and nothing about it can be gleamed from our development matters as it can all be changed by government decree, which I think is rather simple minded. Perhaps that is because I worked in a field that dealt with changing bad behavior and it really is hard to convey what lengths people will go to in order to avoid having to change (and reading about it in a book doesn’t do it justice anyway).

    I am not talking about changing people, I am talking about raising kids with the proper understanding of the world they live in. For which to happen, of course, at some point you have to change the existing people enough so that you set that whole raising-the-next-generation-right business in motion, and I see no hope for this happening any time soon. So we actually agree on more things than it may seem, the difference is that you advocate doing nothing, while I am for at least trying.

    I really don’t understand why so many are so snowed that because it is the government it doesn’t suffer from the same ailment as all other organizations (though they do have the legal ability to use force, there are still, as in everything else, limits even there).

    I never said that, what I am talking about is exercising restraint, I am not arguing for government, in fact I have often pointed out that the government does not exist as some sort of abstraction separate from the rest of society, it is the society because the people who work in a government come from the same society that so much likes to blame it all on the government.

    As for what we stood for, I suggest you read the periodsource texts of the founders (and period papers help as well), rather than the reinterpretation texts (they didn’t really mean what they said, and we understand them better than they understood themselves crap – modern lenses don’t help). Might want to start with renaissance political theory, paying special attention to Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau…

    I admit that I haven’t had any incentive to read the “founding fathers”, first because they aren’t my “founding fathers”, and second, based on what I have read about them, I have no reason to think that they were anywhere close to “getting it”. But that was not the point of my objection, you said that all was lost in two generations, yet two generations ago is close enough to the present for me to have an idea what it looked like back, and the same sort of consumerism and capitalist ideology were just as dominant then as they are now. People have gotten on average dumber, but that’s pretty much it as far as change goes

    No generation has ever fully followed their elders GM, that is why we have change. You obviously have forgotten your teenage years, when you knew that your parents were stupid and you knew better, and all the answers seemed obvious and easy.

    So? I am not arguing for every generation being the same as the previous one, I am arguing for every generation being firmly rooted in physical reality. There is plenty of room for change and development within the constraints of that requirement

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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.

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