Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXVI

Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)
7 min readNov 12, 2022
Chitchen Itza, Mexico. (1986) Photo by author.

Roadblocks To Our ‘Renewable’ Energy Transition: Debt, Resource Constraints, and Diminishing Returns

Today’s contemplation is a quick rundown of three of the roadblocks I see preventing us from achieving the utopian dream of a seamless ‘clean’ energy transition from dirty fossil fuels, or at least one as marketed by the ruling caste and leveraged by many (most?) businesses to sell their products/services (and virtue-signal their ‘progressive’ nature).

These few items have been percolating in my mind this past week or so with a number of articles I’ve perused during my morning coffee. If readers can add to these in the comments (with appropriate supportive links), I will begin to create a more comprehensive list to share periodically down the road…

Here, in no particular order, are three of the issues I’ve been pondering:

2.5 quadrillion in debt/credit[1]

For all intents and purposes, and by most observable accounts, our financial/monetary/economic systems are Ponzi-type systems requiring constant expansion/growth to keep from collapsing[2]. Many lay the beginnings of this treacherous trend upon Richard Nixon’s abrogation of the Bretton Woods Agreement that hammered the final nail in the coffin of a precious metals-based monetary system[3]. Others point to the introduction of fiat money/currencies as the initiation point, when the ‘constraint’ of physical commodities was removed from money and government/ruling elite solidified their monopoly of its creation/distribution. If one looks back even before modern fiat currencies, however, there is much written about how the Roman ruling elite were engaged in such manipulation of their money[4].

The Ponzi nature of these systems requires that perpetual growth be pursued. That such a pursuit is impossible on a finite planet should be self-evident but as I have highlighted previously we walking, talking apes are story tellers whose imaginations are creative at weaving tales to reduce anxiety-provoking thoughts — such as our ingenuity and technological prowess allows us to ignore/deny/rationalise away physical laws and biological principles and pursue infinite growth despite any bio- and geo-physical limitations.

That we have created and depend significantly upon such increasingly complex and fragile systems should give us pause, but this is rare and typically frowned upon. There seems only three basic means of dealing with such a situation: 1) inflate away the problem[5]; 2) debt jubilees[6]; 3) growth[7]. All of these approaches seem to have been used individually or in combination in history, and yet the endgame tends to be the same every time certain tipping points are reached: rejection of the monetary system of the time.

There’s been a boatload of analyses on what such a repudiation of a society’s currency system means to a people and their society[8]. While a currency ‘collapse’ does not necessarily lead to societal ‘collapse’, it does appear to throw economic systems into chaos for some time and destroy much in the way of societal ‘wealth’ and thus investment capital; and contributes to the eventual fall of a society — especially if there’s no lender-of-last-resort to ride to the rescue.

Such a situation would seem to negate the possibility of achieving the dream of transitioning to some ‘clean/green’ energy-based society given the magnitude of the debt that is currently present, the ‘wealth’ this represents, and the huge investments that would be necessary for a shift from our primary source of energy (fossil fuels).

Perhaps the most significant impediment going forward from a currency collapse would be the general lack of trust in government and financial institutions. And it is ‘trust/confidence’ that keeps these fragile systems from being totally abandoned; when it is lost, there’s no telling how quickly more widespread ‘collapse’ may occur. As archaeologist Joseph Tainter argues, it is when the economic benefits of participating in a complex society fall below the costs incurred that a populace begins to abandon its support of the various systems and ‘collapse’ can soon follow[9].

Mineral/resource constraints

That we exist upon a finite planet should also give pause to those cheerleading a ‘renewable’ energy transition in that geophysical realities limit what we can physically accomplish in terms of resource extraction and use.

Simon Michaux, Associate Professor Mineral Processing and Geometallurgy at the Geological Survey of Finland, has for some time been highlighting the impossibility of replacing our fossil fuel-based systems with non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies (NRREHT)[10].

The main hyped-up narrative surrounding the utopian future we are constantly promised by our societal leadership (both political and corporate) is that of a clean-energy future that not only sustains our present-day energetic conveniences, but allows continual expansion, technological progress, and prosperity. Dr. Michaux asserts that this is a pipe-dream because there do not exist the needed minerals to carry out such a transition from fossil fuels. Not even enough to replace and thus sustain the current level of energetic needs, let alone continuing to pursue growth.

Advocates dismiss this inconvenient reality — to say little about the environmental/ecological system damage that would result from the mining and processing of all the minerals and products required — by suggesting this can be overcome by reducing our energetic consumption/needs to a far lower level such that the finite materials can meet our needs, or developing many as-yet-to-be-hatched energy-production chickens. They also raise the arguments that recycling will guarantee perpetual resource requirements failing to understand that this is a very energy-intensive process and not as effective in reducing energy-use and pollutants as marketed[11] and are even being abandoned in many regions due to increasing costs[12].

Diminishing Returns

The human tendency in addressing resource requirements (in fact, to solve most problems) is to utilise the easiest-to-access and cheapest-to-extract ones first, leaving the more expensive and difficult ones to a later time. This, of course, means we must invest greater and greater amounts of labour/energy into extraction and processing as time passes, even to simply maintain current levels. In economic parlance, this reality has become referred to as the law of diminishing returns/productivity.

In energy circles, this tendency has been used to develop the concept of energy-return-on-energy-invested (EROEI)[13]. Basically, this is the ‘net’ energy that one derives from energy production. The greater the EROEI, the greater the amount of energy that can be used for purposes other than accessing/extracting/producing the energy in the first place. But as EROEI falls, there is less and less energy available for non-energy extraction/production systems.

We have witnessed a significant and precipitous drop in EROEI for fossil fuels[14], and the EROEI for NRREHTs is quite a bit lower than the legacy oil/gas fields that our globalised industrial world has used to grow to its present complexity; in fact, some argue that the EROEI of NRREHT is so low as to be incapable of supporting today’s globalised civilisation at anywhere near the current level of complexities[15].

A Few Other Hurdles to Our ‘Renewable-Energy’ Utopia

Here are a few additional issues that would seem to make the dream of a ‘clean’ energy future anything but doable, especially to the degree some (many? most?) imagine.

1. Current advanced-economy lifestyles require more energy than can be provided by ‘renewables’[16].
2. ‘Renewables’ require significant fossil fuel inputs[17].
3. Significant industrial processes cannot be carried out via ‘renewable’ energies[18].
4. And, perhaps most importantly, both the upstream and downstream industrial processes necessary to create, maintain, and reclaim/dispose of ‘renewables’ wreak havoc on our environment and ecological systems[19].

I could write much more on each of these roadblocks to the idea of our complex global society transitioning to NNREHT. Whether one accepts these as insurmountable or not depends very much on one’s interpretation of the data/evidence — and probably to a greater extent on one’s hopes/wishes (i.e., personal biases).

Keeping at the forefront of one’s thinking the fact that the future is unknowable, unpredictable, and full of unknown unknowns, anything is possible. But I would argue we do ourselves no favours in participating in and believing without full skepticism our various narratives about endless growth and technological ingenuity as the saviours that will make our utopian dreams/wishes of a ‘clean/green’ future come true.

Such magical thinking keeps us on a trajectory that increasingly is looking to be suicidal in nature, or, at the most promising, deeply ‘disappointing’ and broadly chaotic/catastrophic.

Time, of course, will tell…

And please note, as I have had to emphasise with others whom I’ve disagreed with regarding this ‘clean’ energy transition and NRREHTs: “… it is not that I ‘hate’ renewables or am a shill for the fossil fuel industry (the two typical accusations lobbed at me); I simply recognise their limitations, negative impacts, and that they are no panacea.”

Please visit my website to connect with other relevant websites, current events/articles, and get a glimpse about my ‘fictional’ novel trilogy: Olduvai.

[1] See this, this, and/or this.

[2] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[3] See this and/or this.

[4] See this, this, this, this, and/or this.

[5] See this, this, and/or this.

[6] See this, this, and/or this.

[7] See this and/or this.

[8] See this, this, this, and/or this.

[9] See this.

[10] See this, this, and/or this.

[11] See this, this, this, and/or this.

[12] See this, this, and/or this.

[13] See this and/or this.

[14] See this and/or this.

[15] See this, this, and/or this.

[16] See this.

[17] See this and/or this.

[18] See this. It’s imperative to note here that all rationalisations of ‘clean’ industrial processes rely upon as-yet-to-be-hatched chickens such as Carbon Capture and Storage or untenable energy production such as that based upon the use of hydrogen.

[19] See this.

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Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)

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...