Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXVI

Steve Bull (
6 min readSep 2, 2022
Tulum, Mexico (1986). Photo by author.

Surplus Energy From Hydrocarbons: Another Predicament Catalyst

Today’s contemplation is in response to an article posted on the site Zerohedge, the orientation of many of the comments in response to that article (and increasingly by Zerohedge readers/commenters[1]), and a conversation I had with friends recently on the apparent trajectory of our world and its foundational roots.

As seems typical of our mainstream narratives, events in our human world are typically (always?) the result of human sociopolitical and/or socioeconomic behaviour. Things tend to go well or fall apart because of human political and/or economic decisions/policies. Physical and/or biological aspects/constraints are rarely considered.

If you happen to support the government of the day (or believe their propaganda/marketing), positive events are the result of their actions while negative ones are not; alternatively, if you don’t support them, your interpretation of the world is the opposite. One’s interpretive paradigm/worldview greatly influences our beliefs and understandings of the world, as do the psychological mechanisms that ‘steer’ our beliefs such as confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance reduction, deference to authority, groupthink, etc.[1].

While it is clear that some events are the direct result of human action, believing we have significant agency causes us to tend to view almost everything that occurs to us as a result of our actions. ‘Acts of God’, such as weather events, are often viewed as happenstance — although that too is changing for some (many?).

Human ‘progress’, however, is most certainly the direct result of actions/responses such as our adaptive abilities, technological inventiveness, and efforts towards economic freedom, political transparency, and accountability. Globalisation, democracy, rising equality, human health and longevity have been the outcome of centuries of exploration, struggle against overwhelming odds, experimentation, and tenacity.

We are a ‘wise’ species and our ingenuity has brought us to achieve as near to utopia as we’ve ever been. Just look around you at all the poverty reduction we’ve achieved, healthcare miracles, and technological wonders. There are a large number of humans experiencing living standards and freedoms that few before them ever achieved, including past royalty.

Rarely, if ever, are our interpretations of goings on based upon or include biological, ecological, and/or biogeochemical perspectives.

I am increasingly coming to see that we tend to give ourselves ‘credit’ where none should be given; or, at least, where our behaviour is secondary or tertiary to the physical aspects of our world that have provided ‘temporary’ conditions for such ‘progress’ to arise. As William Catton, Jr. argues at the start of his text on ecological overshoot: “All the evidence suggests that we have consistently exaggerated the contributions of technological genius and underestimated the contribution of natural resources.”[2]

As I have repeatedly argued, energy is everything. Without it, humanity could not exist as it does. And it’s not just the energy of the sun, wind, and water that has allowed our complex societies to reach their current zenith. It is the leveraging of a one-time cache of ancient carbon-based energy stored in a relatively easy-to-access and easily-transportable form.

The energy, and most importantly surplus energy[3], we have been able to extract and leverage to our advantage has ‘fuelled’ our current world to unbelievable heights of ‘prosperity’ — let’s be honest, though, this is only true for some on this planet; the vast majority of humans do not enjoy the levels of ‘wealth’ and ‘energy slaves’ that a minority do. Some have recognised the importance of fossil fuel energy to humanity but then used that observation to rationalise/justify their continued, in fact infinite, extraction/use[4].

I found a statement in article quite telling as to the general trend in such narratives: “Fossil fuels power innovation. Fossil fuels power economic growth. Fossil fuels power our education system, our transportation system, our health care system, and our military. Fossil fuels are key to generating all the wealth that pays for every government program we have. Before we try to eliminate fossil fuels, we need to make sure that we do not also eliminate all the benefits that have come from their use.”[5]

While the connection between our ‘growth’ and fossil fuels is hard (impossible?) to dispute, it seems somewhat amusing, if not naïve, to forward the idea that we will actually have some control or say in ‘eliminating’ fossil fuels, as if the biophysical reality of them being a finite resource is moot should we desire to keep using them — they will become increasingly uneconomic to extract as diminishing returns intensify, regardless of our wants and desires.

I think there should be little argument regarding the observation that fossil fuels have led to the shift away from the human and domesticated animal labour inputs necessary for many (most?) human activities and processes but also, more importantly, human food production (that has been accompanied by an explosion in population). This has not only freed up vast numbers of our population to pursue employment in other areas but allowed for significant increase in the number of people developing and expanding the pursuits that ‘improve’ the social conditions for a larger portion of humanity than might have been possible in the past — this is especially so for so-called ‘advanced’ economies that have leveraged the lion’s share of energy and mineral resources.

And we have enjoyed the benefits of this leveraging for several generations resulting in a zeitgeist that, for the most part, is blind to the finite energy and resource inputs that underpin it all[6]. Just as fish are unaware of the water they exist within and cannot live without[7], most humans are blind to the finite resources we depend upon for our many complexities. It’s notable that many of the stories we’ve created during this epoch of human expansion serve to either keep us in ignorance or, perhaps more alarmingly, to deny/dismiss the physical realities that exist and clearly place the benefits we have achieved directly upon our shoulders.

The result, I would argue, is that humanity has constructed a complex global and industrialised society but believes, for the most part, that the primary underpinning of its development is human-based, as opposed to resource-based. Many have come to believe our ingenuity and technological prowess have been the foundational root of our sociopolitical and socioeconomic complexities. They have rationalised away the finite energy/resources we have leveraged to our advantage and propelled our growth and technology.

We’ve confused a correlation of socio-political/-economic and technological shifts with ‘progress’ and ‘growth’, identifying us as the cause when it has been the leveraging of surplus energy derived from a one-time cache of carbon-based energy that has provided the underpinning of it (and put us well into ecological overshoot).

Now that our energy and material resources have encountered the hard biogeochemical limits of existence on a finite planet, and are experiencing significant diminishing returns on our investments in them — to say little of the negative environmental and ecological consequences of this — we are flailing about blaming our political and economic systems rather than recognising the actual physical limits that exist. Yes, our social systems have exacerbated our predicament but it seems as a result of our reality blindness we are likely to continue misdiagnosing our predicament and chase maladaptive ‘solutions’ (the narratives around ‘green/clean’ energy are a perfect example).

It’s increasingly appearing that we are not the ‘wise’ apes we believe ourselves to be. We are something very different, but not so different to other species that we can forgo the physical and biological limits of existing on a finite planet.

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[1] Refer to my short series of contemplations on some of these:

[2] Catton, Jr., William R., Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. University of Illinois Press, 1980. (ISBN 0–252–00818–9). p. XV. Catton’s book provides a wonderfully detailed synopsis of this idea that we have discounted our physical world in creating narratives to explain our perceived ‘progress’.–

[3] See Tim Morgan’s Surplus Energy Economics for a great overview and ongoing discussion about this very important issue:



[6] See Nate Hagens’s Reality Blind:

[7] See:



Steve Bull (

A guy trying to make sense of a complex and seemingly insane world. Spend my days pondering our various predicaments while practising local food production...