It’s Groundhog Day in Peak Oil land

Mike Stasse is at it again. He is promoting Paul Mobbs, another Degrowth Doomer. Paul pushes message that there is no alternative but to go back to the land. A highly complex industrial information age is about to collapse back to a local agrarian society.

On this page:

  • People really are dying
  • Groundhog day
  • The energy crisis is complicated – but Paul dumbs it down for the sake of a narrative!
  • The global food crisis is also complicated
  • Beware of simplistic summaries – they’re selling you something!
  • Even a Degrowther saw one way ahead
  • NASA 1960’s deep space plans imagined the future of food we are seeing today!
  • It means less kids

People really are dying

But before I really start to rant, the article is not all bad. I want to thank Paul Mobbs for drawing attention to high food prices and how many people are going hungry. This is a vital humanitarian crisis that is happening right now. According to the WFP:-

As many as 828 million people are unsure of where their next meal is coming from...
…A record 349 million people across 79 countries are facing acute food insecurity – up from 287 million in 2021. This constitutes a staggering rise of 200 million people compared to pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels. More than 900,000 people worldwide are fighting to survive in famine-like conditions. This is ten times more than five years ago, an alarmingly rapid increase. An immediate response is needed. The global community must not fail on its promise to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030. 

This has been caused by a confluence of many horrible natural and political crisis that have combined into the perfect storm. These are the highest food prices in decades – and the last time we saw food prices this high they helped contribute to the start of the “Arab Spring” civil wars. But rather than analyse the many contributing factors – some of which are temporary – Paul just lumps it all in together as the proverbial Limits to Growth finally beginning to bite. It’s ground-hog day in peak oil land. Yesterday’s arguments just keep repeating themselves. Here we go again!

Groundhog day

According to Degrowth Doomers – the unlucky few years we’ve had with the pandemic and complicated, combined energy crisis are not the real reasons oil and gas prices are sky high. They just demonstrate that there’s no flexibility or wiggle room in the fossil fuel supplies. Straight away we move from not just a bad few years, but a bad few centuries of the naughty industrial revolution using up all those vital fossil fuels. And because fossil fuels make fertilisers – we are seeing high food prices. Paul shows various graphics correlating high food prices to high fuel prices (a real thing – but it’s complicated.) This means “The Party’s Over.” According to the Degrowthers we’ve all got to overthrow the current land ownership systems, divide up the land equitably, pick up our shovels, and head back to the land for permaculture farming as it’s the only way we are going to survive. And if the majority of the workforce is now on the land, sure we’ll lose many of the high-tech luxuries we take for granted. Oh well. Industrial society is over anyway! The fossil fuels are going – and when they run out all bets are off and society collapses if we have not already “Powered down”.

The energy crisis is complicated – but Paul dumbs it down for the sake of a narrative!

I’ve written about the cult-like power structures in Degrowth blogging circles. Here we see them at work again. Only Paul can diagnose the disease – so only Paul can give the prognosis and cure. But that’s just not true! Everyone knows there has been a very complicated energy crisis (that has also driven up fertiliser prices.) I’m not denying that oil prices are high because generally speaking we are close to peak oil. But that’s something you measure across decades. Slightly higher oil prices this decade, slightly higher next.

I’m denying that this crisis is mainly peak oil. Just a 5 minute browse of the 2021-23 energy crisis wiki will show how many other factors are playing into this. Did you know droughts in Brazil have driven up gas prices? Their pumped hydro stopped producing – and the fastest alternative to install is gas fired electricity. This drove up their demand for gas. What about the Chinese political ban on buying Australian coal? Now China has more demand for energy from other sources – driving up all prices. What about Australia’s freak La Nina rains flooding various coal mines, creating problems in our own energy infrastructure. What about our many coal plants that are just getting too old and unreliable? What about the pandemics effects on reducing international shipping, so that oil and gas shipping companies are still recovering? On and on it goes – detailing many short term political and even some temporary climate crises that are impacting things. EG:

In 2022, Europe’s driest summer in 500 years had serious consequences for hydropower generation and power plant cooling systems.[8][9][10] According to the New York Times, the drought “reduced hydropower in Norway, threatened nuclear reactors in France and crimped coal transport in Germany.”[11] Record droughts in China and California also threatened hydropower generation.[12][13][14]

OPEC also voluntarily cut oil production by 2 million barrels a day! But do you hear this from Paul? When you’ve got a narrative to run roughshod over the facts then don’t let any inconvenient data get in the way!

The global food crisis is also complicated

The pandemic shut down trade. It wasn’t just food that stopped moving, but everything. It’s called the 2021-23 global supply chain crisis – and as the wiki says:

In 2021, as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, global supply chains and shipments slowed, causing worldwide shortages and affecting consumer patterns. Causes of the economic slowdown included workers becoming sick with COVID-19 as well as mandates and restrictions affecting the availability of staff. In cargo shipping, goods remained at port due to staffing shortages.

The related global chip shortage has contributed to the supply chain crisis, specifically in the automobile and electronics sectors. During the Christmas and holiday season of 2021, an increase in spending in North America, combined with the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, further exacerbated already tight supplies.

Long tail effects of the supply chain crises are contributing to ongoing food security issues related to the pandemic, including the 2022 food crises.

The pandemic brought on a ‘peak shipping container’ crisis – with the cost of shipping containers rising exponentially. This is how expensive it was to ship anything around the globe – let alone food.

Paul briefly mentions the Russian invasion of Ukraine – but is quick to minimise it’s effects lest his narrative suffer. But did Paul share this headline news? “How the war in Ukraine has stopped it feeding 400 million people around the world – Ukraine could feed 400 million people while Russia and Ukraine supply 12 percent of the world’s traded food calories.”

What do we hear from Paul? At 3:48 into his youtube, Paul just says “While the Ukrainian conflict has caused prices to spike, there is no evidence to show this is the ONLY reason for price rises.” The other villain in the room is of course high energy prices causing high fertiliser prices. But while no one ever said the Ukraine crisis is the ONLY reason – Paul trivialises the potentially 400 MILLION people not getting adequate food from just the Ukrainian war alone! That’s 5% of the global population not being fed adequately.

OK – so over to Paul’s suggestion that this is the Ukrainian crisis AND the energy crisis putting pressure on fertiliser prices. Well, yeah. This is an accepted fact of today’s food system. Everyone knows it! Even the mainstream media Paul rants against knows it. EG: In January CNN mentioned high energy causing high fertiliser prices. It’s actually a big talking point in the WFP and IMF and other groups I’ve looked at. But what is the actual, measurable contribution? The IMF estimates it is more like this: (emphasis mine)

  • A 1 percent drop in global harvests raises food commodity prices by 8.5 percent.
  • A 1 percentage point increase in the Federal Reserve’s main interest rate reduces food commodity prices by 13 percent after one quarter.
  • A 1 percent increase in fertilizer prices, which have climbed recently on the surge in natural gas prices, boosts food commodity prices by 0.45 percent.
  • A 1 percent increase in oil prices increases food commodity prices by 0.2 percent.

So the drop in harvests had 18 TIMES more inflationary power than Paul’s precious high energy prices causing high fertiliser prices. But what was behind the drop in harvests? Sure the war in Ukraine is part of it, but there’s also La Nina.

La Niña weather conditions are forecast to return for a third straight year, bringing below-average water temperatures to the east-central Pacific Ocean, according to the UN’s World Meteorological Organization. Similar three-year periods occurred during the first world food crisis between 1973-76 and again between 1998-2001.

When the IMF can admit short-term climate influences on food but a Doomer can’t – you know the Doomer has an agenda! So what does a La Nina do?

Now we finally come to the 2021-23 food crisis wiki. I’ll let you browse the wiki, but here are some of the other weather emergencies that Paul Mobbs didn’t decide worth mentioning lest his narrative change! Many of these are the specific effects of the La Nina discussed above. Drought in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), East African drought, Madagascar drought, North American heatwave and drought, European extreme weather, South Asian heat wave, Southern Cone heat wave, Australian floods, Supply chain failures, Ethanol for fuel.

Again, La Nina is a short-term natural climate cycle. What’s the anthropogenic impact? Hard to say given 3 year La Nina cycles are quite rare. They are separated by many decades of development and political and economic changes. I’m not sure how easy it is to separate out the anthropogenic impacts from the natural La Nina impacts. As a rough rule of thumb the IPCC estimates long germ anthropogenic global warming effects to be on the order of reducing global crop output by 2% to 6% per decade moving forward. My conclusion?

Beware of simplistic summaries – they’re selling you something!

The global energy and food crisis are incredibly complicated – and a proper reading of them would take days and make your eyes glaze over with all the details. It’s a vast story with many hundreds of interacting parts – and anyone that tries to simplify it too much is selling something!

Also, there are technical fixes to the link between fossil fuels and fertiliser. All it takes is enough electricity to run the Haber-Bosch process that sucks nitrogen out of the air and mixes it with hydrogen, making ammonia fertiliser. Even a Doomer I know of admitted we can get that from other sources.

Even a Degrowther saw one way ahead

Even Degrowth author Richard Heinberg admitted (in either Party’s Over or Powerdown – I can’t remember which as it was too long ago) that you can run the Haber-Bosch process from renewables. You just use wind or solar to split water and get the hydrogen, and then use renewables to run Haber-Bosch to put the nitrogen in. Renewables are on an exponential curve to take over energy supply in the next few decades. Exponentials are funny in that nothing appears to happen for a while, then suddenly everything happens all at once. People are going to be shocked how different our energy and transport systems are in just 10 years – let alone 20 or 30! So we’ll soon end up in a renewable energy world built from abundant renewable materials.

The Doomer will reply that green-hydrogen is too expensive. Currently that’s about $6 per kg, when fossil hydrogen is about $3 per kg. Fine, let’s imagine governments of the world must subsidise it to feed their people. The governments of the world currently subsidise oil and coal companies at about $600 BILLION a year. Not only that, but fossil fuels cause an enormous burden on our public health system – with Harvard estimating that coal costs American health about $300 BILLION a year. Want to know your nation’s coal health costs? What’s your nation’s electricity bill? You’re basically paying that again in health if you burn coal. WHO estimates the global health bill to be $5 TRILLION a year.

So what’s green hydrogen going to cost? Many recent papers say green hydrogen should soon be as cheap as fossil hydrogen. But let’s run with today’s costs. Fossil hydrogen from natural gas is about $2 per kg, while ‘green’ hydrogen from renewables is about $7 or $6. I’m going with $6 to allow for a little economies of scale to kick in. So we need a $4 government subsidy to feed people. OK, the world produces 150 million tons of ammonia a year which is 150 billion kg a year. Multiply by $4 and that’s only a $600 billion subsidy to feed the world. The crazy irony? We currently pay that to fossil fuel companies who then drive climate change and poison us which costs another $5 TRILLION! So yes – of course the governments of the world can subsidise a green Haber-Bosch fertiliser system if we have to. \

Yet STOP THE PRESS! We’re letting old king coal and big oil outsource $5 TRILLION dollars in public health costs? The IEA estimates that by 2030 we should be putting $4 TRILLION into clean energy every year to prevent climate change. In other words – as we scale up to prevent climate change we’ll eventually be $1 TRILLION better off just from savings on our global health bill!

NASA 1960’s deep space plans imagined the future of food we are seeing today!

We’ll get to NASA in a moment – but first let me quickly remind everyone that we might not need any fertiliser if we get our food from combined Seaweed and Shellfish farms. They could feed the world many times over, and do not require fertiliser, fresh water, or arable land! Indeed – seaweed can supply our fertiliser needs. There are now electric boats that can tend to these mostly coastal operations. (And revolutions coming in battery tech that will make these boats even better.)

But even this might not be needed if NASA guessed the future correctly. It all start in the 1960’s as they wondered how they were going to feed astronauts on deep space missions lasting years. How do you get vast amounts of food from tiny quarters? The answer can be found in yoghurt, cheese, bread, wine and beer. Yeasts. More on the history of NASA’s brainstorming here.

The great news is Precision Fermentation of these special yeasts are on the way! NASA guessed correct. They are on a cost trend down from $100,000 per kg a few decades ago to cheaper than meat any year now. Brave Robot has sold millions of tubs of ice cream and cream cheese and packets of cake mix. Perfect Day and Israel’s Remilk are fermenting up dairy proteins to make lactose and cholesterol free milk, yoghurt, and cheese. And now C16 Biosciences are brewing up a replacement for Palm Oil! As you know – Palm Oil is in everything.

There’s an awful lot I could say about it, but I’d be repeating everything on my favourite page on this blog – Precision Fermentation! Within 10 to 15 years we should be getting the majority of our proteins and fats and carbs from it. It’s vat grown food and only needs electricity, water, and a tiny amount of minerals. It bypasses inefficient photosynthesis for the much more productive solar panel. It’s hundreds of times more efficient than crops. George Monbiot says it is 20,000 times more land efficient than protein from livestock. Basically we’ll brew up replacements for all our livestock and even fish high in Omega 3’s. We might also get a lot of our carbs from PF instead of wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, etc. Indeed – I imagine packets of chips (or ‘crisps’ to Americans) being made from PF soon. When rolled out globally – it could end livestock farming, crop farming, and fishing. Here’s Monbiot on it.

We can then reseed and restore ecosystems. We could regrow 3 trillion trees, fixing carbon in mega forests that would return CO2 to under 350ppm. We can stop fishing and let the oceans recover. And the benefits for us? It makes food weather-proof, climate-proof, and climate-safe! We can grow all the food we want from a mix of PF and all our vegetables and fruits grown organically, locally, in climate controlled super-efficient glasshouses if we need to. Both renewables and PF are going to overtake fast. It will start slowly, and then the cost curves will accelerate. In 30 years we will not recognise the world.

It means less kids

Then as 2050 rolls along, our population growth stops. The 2050’s Global Demographic Transition will kick in as most of the world develops and having children becomes more expensive. In crass economic terms – the modern world makes children seem to be a ‘luxury good’. It’s just too expensive to have lots of kids! But we’ve only seen this at the national level. What does it mean when it kicks in globally? Some worry there might actually be a long term decline of the population because of these first world economic pressures. Will the population fall back to 5 billion? 3 billion? How low will it go?

The irony is Degrowth Doomers like Mike Stasse and his echo-chamber mate Paul Mobbs recommend a back to the land movement that resembles subsistence farming. This reverses the Demographic Transition. In crass economic terms – subsistence farming makes you see having lots of children and grandchildren as superannuation. Someone’s got to run the farm in your old age! There’s nothing wrong with getting into a permaculture farm and lifestyle. But a large scale societal rejection of the modern world and modern technology to head back to the land, shovel in hand, is just not going to happen. And indeed – as we have seen above – may not even be the best and most efficient way forward!

But the global Demographic Transition should prevent us ever needing to ask if the world can support a trillion people! The world will run on renewable energy, made from renewable materials, with a stable human population – maybe declining somewhat – and nature thriving. That’s something to strive for!

So don’t be a Doomer that denies this data. Become a Regenerator. Watch this trailer and join up at the website at the end. You’ll find something you can do in your area. Tell them a bit about your interests and talents, and they’ll suggest some activities. You’ll have a new hobby, with some new friends. To help change the world.

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