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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

136. WILL DECLINING EROEI CAUSE COLLAPSE?

-- by JD

The peak oilers say the EROEI of oil is increasing. It is taking ever increasing amounts of work to produce a barrel of oil. In the early days of oil you could stick a straw in the ground and collect oil flowing out under its own pressure. But now we have to harvest low grade oil from sources like the tar sands -- mining it like coal and cooking it in huge vats. We're putting in more work per unit of energy returned.

In some ways, that is true, but it's not necessarily a danger signal. Look at the step from hunting/gathering to agriculture. Jared Diamond makes a good case that hunting/gathering had a higher EROEI than agriculture:
Are twentieth century hunter-gatherers really worse off than farmers? Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn't emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, "Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world"?

[...]

One straight forward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5'9" for men, 5' 5" for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5’ 3" for men, 5’ for women.Source
This is very strange, because the peak oiler theory is that decreasing EROEI leads to contraction or collapse. Diamond's evidence, on the other hand, suggests that a dramatic drop in the EROEI of humanity's first and most important energy source (food) led not to collapse, but to a massive explosion of growth.

It's intriguing to carry the analogy over to modern petroleum production. The original wildcatters were hunters, and big oil fields were their prey. But now the game is getting thin, and the hunters are turning into agriculturalists. The tar sands in Alberta are a petroleum farm. We're moving beyond the hunter/gatherer stage of oil; now it's about hunkering down and laboring in the fields.

21 Comments:

At Wednesday, October 19, 2005 at 6:54:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This seems like a pretty bad analogy because, IIRC, the reason agriculture produced growth (despite the bad consquences of low EROEI) was because of the need to form cities and hierarchies. Tar sands won't contribute to that in any way I can imagine.

JD, normally your work is good but this is just plain faulty analogy.

 
At Wednesday, October 19, 2005 at 7:00:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not only a faulty analogy, but the proper conclusion is exactly opposite the one that J.D. draws. Hunter gatherers obviously spent less energy to get the same amount of food than farmers. Ergo, agriculture has a higher EROEI. As noted in the post, the quality of life declines significantly for an agricultural society.

 
At Wednesday, October 19, 2005 at 7:27:00 AM PDT, Blogger JD said...

Hunter gatherers obviously spent less energy to get the same amount of food than farmers. Ergo, agriculture has a higher EROEI.

That's incorrect. If you spend less energy you have higher EROEI. Hunter gatherers spend less energy. Ergo, hunting/gathering has a higher EROEI.

 
At Wednesday, October 19, 2005 at 9:17:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

jd, you going to address the main point?

 
At Wednesday, October 19, 2005 at 10:07:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Adenosine said...

Quality of life declines after agriculture? I thought it just said that they tended to get shorter after agriculture. Tell you what, you can go back to foraging in the woods all day, and I'll keep the vast wealth that specialization allows.

 
At Wednesday, October 19, 2005 at 11:45:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If they got shorter, that means they were more poorly nourished. Ergo, agriculture, with a lower EROEI, indicates more spartan living.

JD,

Correct. I meant to say that agriculture has a lower EROEI. Which is exactly the point--the article you quoted showed that ina society with a lower overall EROEI, health declined.

 
At Wednesday, October 19, 2005 at 12:32:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OTOH, agriculture can support a higher population and technological level than hunting-gathering.

But that doesn't matter. It's all a baseless analogy.

 
At Wednesday, October 19, 2005 at 1:47:00 PM PDT, Blogger BlackSun said...

I think this analogy is right on the mark.

Hunter gatherers enjoyed an energy source they did nothing to create, and the EROEI was high but limited. Eventually, all the game would be hunted and the naturally occurring food would be eaten.

Current world energy usage is in the hunting (geopolitical battles for oil) gathering (drilling in ever more difficult locales) stage.

When we reach the stage of energy agriculture, it will mean that we have figured out how to store and produce the only two truly renewable energy sources: solar and geothermal(thermal mass/radioactive decay). Though it may take more work initially to figure out how to "farm" this energy, the EROEI is potentially enormous.

 
At Wednesday, October 19, 2005 at 2:51:00 PM PDT, Anonymous popmonkey said...

blacksun has it right regarding the analogy being a good one.

also, there's something else that EROEI calculations fail to address (and for good reason, as it is very hard to quantify mathematically): how much work are HUMANS willing to put into something. we're kept completely out of the equation which is crazy, if you think about it, because we're the end consumers of the energy!

so if, for example, solar has a certain low spreadsheet EROEI but billions of people can then use that energy to create a viable economy that can absorb the poor EROEI than is EROEI the thing that we should be measuring or should there be something else?

this is why the problem is so complex. you can't take just one part of the equation and base an analyses of the future on it's reality.

EROEI seems to me to be an incomplete calculation and EROIE based dismissal of alternative energies is defeatist and short-sighted.

 
At Wednesday, October 19, 2005 at 6:17:00 PM PDT, Blogger JD said...

When we reach the stage of energy agriculture, it will mean that we have figured out how to store and produce the only two truly renewable energy sources: solar and geothermal(thermal mass/radioactive decay). Though it may take more work initially to figure out how to "farm" this energy, the EROEI is potentially enormous.

Good observations, blacksun. I was thinking along similar lines. Hunters don't know where the energy is. They have to stalk and hunt it, but when they find it they get a high pay-off. Farmers, on the other hand, know exactly where the energy is. They spend zero time "finding" it, but it takes a lot more work to get a unit of energy. For farmers, the approach is to stay in one place, and focus on accumulation of capital and technological improvements.

The doomer argument is analogous to this conversation in ancient Mesopotamia:
A: If we switch to agriculture, we'll be moving to a lower EROEI source, and the economy will collapse.
B: No it won't. We'll build irrigation systems and accumulate other capital to increase the production of food.
A: Where's the food going to come from to build that capital? You won't be able to build that capital because you'll have less net energy to work with.

 
At Wednesday, October 19, 2005 at 6:27:00 PM PDT, Blogger JD said...

Correct. I meant to say that agriculture has a lower EROEI. Which is exactly the point--the article you quoted showed that ina society with a lower overall EROEI, health declined.

Yes, health and height declined due to harder work, and a less varied and plentiful diet. (It might be a good thing if girth of modern people declined.)

Nevertheless, the point remains: in the beginning, low EROEI agriculture made individual humans weaker, but ultimately it made the human species grow and flourish. How do you explain that? Why is it that stepping down in EROEI gave us a leg up?

My theory is that higher hanging fruit can be better than low hanging fruit if it is plentiful, stable and non-depleting. If you have I different theory, I would be curious to hear it.

 
At Thursday, October 20, 2005 at 7:16:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nevertheless, the point remains: in the beginning, low EROEI agriculture made individual humans weaker, but ultimately it made the human species grow and flourish. How do you explain that? Why is it that stepping down in EROEI gave us a leg up?

Because the analysis is not entirely correct. Here's why:

1) Initially, agriculture had a lower EROEI than hunting/ gathering. People did it to ensure a stable supply of food in times of environmental scarcity--much in the same way that people today are installing solar panels on their homes to provide some electricity when the grid goes down.

2) Eventually, people had hunted and gathered enough, and had improved agricultural technique enough, that agriculture had a higher EROEI than hunting and gathering, though it wasn't as high as hunting and gathering had been a few centuries prior. During this period, people starved, and life expectancies shortened. This is what I predict will happen post-peak.

3) Agriculture "caught on" because it became, essentially, the only way to survive. In the same way, solar and wind power will catch on among the survivors of peak oil, because it will be the best way to survive long term. However, it took millenia before techniques, breeding, and land had been developed enough to support a population of even a few million people. Similarly, it will take a long, long time before wind, solar, and nuclear will provide power on the level that coal and oil do now. It may eventually happen, but not before catastrophe strikes.

In short, the analogy you post is far too broad. The devil is in the details. Prior to agriculture, there wasn't really a society to collapse. There certainly is one now, and that may be the most critical difference between the two situations.

 
At Tuesday, February 21, 2006 at 2:54:00 PM PST, Blogger Paul said...

EROEI can decrease while total energy availability increases.

For the neolithic farmers, they did have to expend more calories for each food calorie returned than their gathering/hunting/scavenging neighbors, but the total calories available to them was many times more than the calories available to the g/h/s ers.

The farmers accomplished this increase in total calories by wiping a habitat clear of all life so that they could plant only those plants that provided food for them. That is, they converted biomass into human mass. As the population of agriculturalists grew, they had to expand onto new land. Any gatherers who were on the newly invaded land did not stand a chance against the invaders. The invaders had strength in numbers in spite of the fact that their individual members were malnourished relative to the gatherer invadees. Twenty sickly farmers can usually take one well nourished gatherer. And so the cancer spread.

"Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated." the borg

How does this compare with the oil/energy supply situation? A decrease in EROEI can be tolerated as long as the total energy supply continues to increase. If the total energy supply begins to decrease, then our petro based expand or expire economy will crash.

 
At Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 1:04:00 PM PST, Blogger Nick said...

I have two questions about this analysis:

1) Are we sure that EROI fell under agriculture? An alternative theory is that agriculture enabled hierarchical civilization, which manifested itself in the beginning as slavery. The majority were slaves, who got the minimum of food. You'd expect average height to crash, under that scenario, but EROI could do anything, and the slaves wouldn't get the benefit.

2) The EROI of oil has fallen to about 10:1. Wind is higher than oil ever was, around 80:1, and improving. Solar PV is averaging around 15:1 (about 2 year payback for conventional silicon, much better for thin film and concentrating), and improving rapidly (at least 10% per year). Why assume EROI of renewables will be lower than oil?

 
At Wednesday, October 10, 2007 at 5:32:00 AM PDT, Blogger Benjamin said...

When you look at the eroi of solar panels, are you taking into account the century or more of research that has gone into making them?

Also, something like 90% of the infrastructure that supports everything that goes into making solar panels and wind power is based upon petroleum. Therefore, I don't see how they are a real alternative for a societal solution that doesn't include massive reduction in energy consumption and an end to non-biologially fueled transportation. That means we start using only bicycles, horses, elephants, camels, and llamas.

Also, the guys analogy sucks because he doesn't take into account that when you use fossil fuel technologies, it gives you a quick fix, but downgrades the quality of all natural resources because of pollution/environmental destruction. It is more like having a destructive cocaine habit.

And, it is nothing like the farming stage of fossil fuel usage. Theoretically, farming uses only solar energy, a non-depletable, perpetual energy source. Oil shales are a nonrenewable resource. Just because there are lots of them doesn't mean they'll last forever. That kind of thinking got us to peak oil in the first place. So rather then pass the buck to our grandkids so they'll have a "peak oil-shale" in 50 years, I vote to not develop unsustainable technologies for oil shale and work on finding out how to live sustainably now, while we can still take advantage of already developed gasoline burning resources!

 
At Friday, November 2, 2007 at 4:44:00 PM PDT, Blogger skintax era said...

Ha ha ha! That's a good one JD! Absolutely hilarious!Oh...what's that? You're serious? oh boy...The fundamental flaw in your reasoning, that no one else seems to have picked up either, is that hunter-gatherers didn't wake up one morning and say "hey, you know what, lets flag this cruisy lifestyle of getting a nice fat bison or mammoth now and then, and knuckle down to some good honest work in the field for much less return". Duh! Of course they didn't! They had got to what Ronald Wright refers to as a 'progress trap':they had become such good hunters, and increased in population to such a point, that there wasn't the available prey for their way of life any longer. They had over used their resources, hunted species to extinction or very low numbers, and it took more and more energy to find and kill prey. That is to say, their EROEI was dropping, probably quite precipitously. So they didn't exchange their easy life of high EROEI for for a hard one of low EROEI, disease, starvation, and early death, so that we could have the pyramids. They did it out of necessity when their EROEI fell. I can scarcely believe this needs to be pointed out.

 
At Monday, November 5, 2007 at 11:19:00 AM PST, Blogger skintax era said...

If you're wondering where the evidence is for this drop in EROEI forcing the change to agriculture, you need look no further than my own country, New Zealand. It provides great evidence of the movement from hunter/gatherer to agriculture because it was settled so recently. When the Maori arrived in NZ they found it seething with game, in particular very large flightless birds. All the available evidence is that while this food source was available, the Maori had very little use for settled living and agriculture. New Zealand is a small place and flightless birds are very vulnerable to human hunting, so the process of extinctions and/or enormously reduced numbers of prey animals happened in microcosm, and very quickly. Within a few generations, the Maori's population had increased hugely and their EROEI was crashing-they could no longer rely on hunting alone to support them. At this point, the previously unattractive EROEI of farming became superior to the now feeble EROEI of hunting/gathering, and they made the change to settled living and crop growing. Obviously this process would have taken much longer in Greece or Turkey but the principle is the same.

 
At Wednesday, April 2, 2008 at 6:53:00 AM PDT, Anonymous brendan thomas said...

Just to back up these last two posts...
The neolithic is only just reaching the ocean. So vast is their productivity that fishermen are still basically hunter-gatherers. However, now that our population is vast our fish stocks are dwindling or have collapsed, fish farming is on the increase. This of course provides us with low quality fish at a low eroi, but is the only rational response to loss of wild fish stocks.

I also want to comment on a point made earlier about eroi not including human energy. If an energy source requires a human energy input which cannot be mechanised, then the amount of energy inputted could be tiny, but the cost prohibitive, because human energy is expensive. This is maybe a job for Energy Return on Money Invested.

And just a pedantic point: Height of humans is not an indicator of calories in their diet. Farmers are short because they have a comparatively high carb/low protien diet when very young, and not because they lack calories generally.

 
At Friday, July 31, 2009 at 12:34:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with JD about us being in a hunter gatherer stage of civilization: we're currently foraging for our energy sources.
I disagree, however, that the Alberta Tar Sands are an energy farm because it will deplete just like other sources that are found and devoured.

In fact the farms already exist and they're even called farms:
"Wind Farms"

DB

 
At Tuesday, April 27, 2010 at 4:14:00 AM PDT, Blogger Alexandre Costa said...

This is a very interesting topic.
Why did farmers reproduced better than hunter-gatherers with a lower EROEI?

Does the answer lies in cultural habits? Sexual behaviours and phisiological reasons? no one knows for sure... but this is intriguing. Child mortality certainly plays a role.

Still I think Botswana Bushman have a pretty nice lifestyle! An high EROEI ALLWAYS gives you a lot of "leasure" time! Provided that the energy is well distributed... BTW how do they control their population?

Think about the following: during our hunter-gatherer period a lot of animal species were extinct... coincidence?! I think we depleted our plentiful food sources and were forced to move to agriculture.

Population control is (sooner or later) always a must in a finite world. As is resource managment.

Question now remains... how do we aim for a high EROEI and a happy lifestyle without plentifull fossil fuels?

Even if we had plenty of oil would we want THIS lifestyle? I see a lot of people unhappy outhere, with their lifes, with their jobs...

Bushmans are happy because they keep it simple and divide their EROEI fairly.

Solutions? Let us become a large comunity. Declare war on bureaucracy. Aiming for general welfare, work sharing with able people, generousity instead of greed, cooperation instead of competition. Share wealth. Population and resource managment. Local economies. Same rules between people. Agriculture integrated with nature (Forest garden concept).

Greed and wealth acumulation is killing us... not peak oil.

"if one worker is unemployed and can't find a job, then work hours are too long" Samuel Gompers

 
At Friday, July 23, 2010 at 7:20:00 PM PDT, Anonymous Proteus said...

/QUOTE ON/
Alexandre Costa said...

This is a very interesting topic.
Why did farmers reproduced better than hunter-gatherers with a lower EROEI?

Does the answer lies in cultural habits? Sexual behaviours and phisiological reasons? no one knows for sure... but this is intriguing.
/QUOTE OFF/

Hunter-gatherers families can only have a child each four years approx.
That's because their nomadic lifestyle: one woman can carry one children (and food, tools, furs, etc.)

On the other hand, farmers families can have a child every year.

As you can see, in a few generations famers would vastly outnumber their neighbours hunter-gatherers, who would be pushed to less productive areas, until they are forced to live on the areas that cannot be used by farmers, that is, deserts, jungles, mountains and so on.

An example are the San (Bushmen) being cornered in the Kalahari desert, or the Mbuti (Pigmies) in the jungles of Central Africa, by their neighbour Bantu farmers.

 

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