Ilargi: Energy vs Waste

Yves here. You may not agree with Ilargi’s argument about the human propensity to use more energy as biologically driven, but it is awfully hard to explain why we as a species are continuing to drive even faster and harder towards a future that will at best have way fewer people in it and then if they are lucky at Home on the Prairie lifestyles.

By Raúl Ilargi Meijer, editor of Automatic Earth. Originally published at Automatic Earth


“In theory they were sound on Expectation
Had there been situations to be in;
Unluckily they were their situation”
– W.H. Auden



And drawn back again into energy… I did a little interview on the topic this week, and that was a little too little. Can’t cover it all in 5 or 10 minutes, even though that is mostly because people understand so precious little. We fool ourselves non-stop 24/7 on the topic, just the way industry and politics like it.

A wee step back: “The only clean energy is the one that isn’t used.” I’ve seen that attributed to Nicole, and that’s fine. But at the same time, I see terms like “clean energy”, “zero-emissions” and “zero-carbon” fly by all the time, used to depict things that are not clean at all. Perhaps less polluting, but that’s only perhaps; we’re experts at discounting externalities.

Still, we do still realize that without oil and gas there would be no wind turbines and solar panels, don’t we? How much carbon waste is generated in the production process of the two may be up for grabs, if only because that’s nobody’s favorite topic, but it’s a whole lot more than zero. More for solar, I would guess, because mining of rare earth metals is a pretty dirty process.


But in the end, the only aspect that I find really interesting, and that everybody appears to ignore, is why we produce so much waste. If you were hell-bent on designing a contraption aimed at wasting as much energy, and generating as much waste, as possible, you would have a hard time competing with the automobile.

Your run of the mill internal combustion engine uses maybe 10% of the energy you put in at the gas station, and you use it to transport yourself in a contraption that is 20x heavier than you are. That leaves you with just 0.5% of the energy embedded in the gasoline that is effectively used.

And that’s not all: before the gas reached the station, there was an entire process of extraction, refining, multiple transport steps. And before the car reached the store, it had already generated over a third of all the waste it will in its ‘lifetime’. If ever you need a way to demonstrate that people are not very smart, look no further.

Angela Merkel this week said she wants 1 million car charging points in Germany by 2030 (the country is way behind). And she may mean well, but for a physicist it’s still disappointing. If anyone could understand that replacing petrol powered cars with electric ones is a very poor deal, it should be her.

But sure, Germany has some very large carmakers, and she needs to appease them. Cars run the economy, after all. Or, rather, that’s not quite right, it’s in fact generating waste that runs the economy. Which is the only sensible conclusion we can draw after seeing that way less than 0.5% of energy is efficiently used in and by a car.

And for people like Merkel, practical politicians with ties to industry, that means you have to keep them running. And help the media and industry in convincing people that electric cars, produced by BMW, Merc and VW, is a great way to save the planet. Still, making those things requires enormous amounts of oil and gas.

If a car that runs on an internal combustion engine generates a third of the waste produced in its ‘lifetime’ before it hits the store, I bet you the ratio is worse for electric cars, because again of mining of rare earth metals and other components. And then they run on electricity generated by coal or gas or oil plants, or wind that we saw is not clean, or even nuclear, which produces the ultimate lethal form of waste, which we can still not safely store.

We need an entirely different approach, and I find it both very hard to understand and very disappointing that I don’t see this reflected as their no. 1 item by the climate rebellion and the various Green New Deals. That is, we must reduce our consumption of all forms of energy, not just oil and gas, and we must do it in a drastic fashion.

Luckily, we can start with the automobile, that contraption [seemingly] aimed at consuming as much energy, and generating as much waste, as possible. But even if we would achieve a 50% increase in efficiency there, we would still hover around that same 0.5%. Still crazy after all these years.

That won’t work. But there are other options. We presently live in cities and towns that are designed exclusively around those cars with their abysmal efficiency rates. In many if not most places, over half of what once was, and could be again, public space, has been turned into car space. There are no kids playing in the streets anywhere anymore.

If you talk about waste or pollution, that too could be labeled as such. In only 100 years, or even just 50, not only have most city populations exploded, both through birth rates and migration, all those extra people and the ‘original’ population now demand space for their vehicles that are 20x their weight and size.

And the car makers keep on advertizing ‘lifestyle’ ads with wide open roads and smily happy people. If I can repeat myself “If ever you need a way to demonstrate that people are not very smart, look no further.”


Now, mind you, if and when I say something that sounds like: we can do this, I am a lot more skeptical than most of you. This is because as I wrote three weeks ago in Energy vs DNA, we are driven by nature, by our DNA, it doesn’t matter how you define it, to maximize our energy consumption. Not on an individual level, but on a group level.

There’s still the trifle little matter of how all systems, all organisms, deal with energy (sources). Now, according to Alfred J. Lotka and Howard T. Odum, in what they and others have labeled the 4th law of Thermodynamics, all systems and organisms of necessity (DNA/RNA driven) seek to maximize their use of energy, for pure survival reasons: the one that’s most efficient in its ability to exploit and utilize -external- energy sources will survive. (another word for this is: Life)

In that article I also quoted Jay Hanson:

Why can’t we save ourselves? To answer that question we only need to integrate three of the key influences on our behavior: 1) biological evolution, 2) overshoot, and 3) a proposed fourth law of thermodynamics called the “Maximum Power Principle” (MPP). The MPP states that biological systems will organize to increase power generation, by degrading more energy, whenever systemic constraints allow it.

But then that takes me right to a quote I’ve used a few times before, from Herman Daly and Kenneth Townsend:

“Erwin Schrodinger (1945) has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment—that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatium as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is that an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.”

Note that the Maximum Power Principle is quite mute on efficiency. It talks about being efficient in grabbing the resource, not in using it. That only matters if you MUST be efficient. The oil extravaganza we discovered in Pennsylvania and Baku in the 1850s has left us without any reason to be efficient. And there is precious little reason to believe we will suddenly change that behavior BEFORE we hit a wall (or, rather, THE wall).

And also note that Daly and Townsend talk about waste in general, waste as in what is left over once we have “consumed energy”, when we have used a low entropy “source” and turned it into a high entropy one, i.e. one that is useless to us (though trees live off of CO2, we have no use for it). In that regard, replacing one form of energy with another, as electric cars seek to do, is a very dubious undertaking.

The only approach that makes any sense, is to use and consume vastly less ‘energy’. From a rational point of view, that would seem an easy thing to do: it should be possible to transport yourself at a higher efficiency rate than 0.5%. But at the same time, that’s not at all what we are doing.

We, like all organisms, are obeying the Maximum Power Principle: we grab all the energy we can, and we use it in whatever way we can. Got to be a bit careful with the term “we” perhaps, if only because if by some miracle we might drastically reduce our energy consumption, which physics says should be no problem -though biology might disagree-, we would leave a lot of oil, or other energy forms, available to for instance the Chinese, who could use it against us.

Very much a part of the Maximum Power Principle: competition between species leads to maximum ‘power grabs’ (for survival), but also competition within species (same reason). What you have in your possession, they do not.


I very much welcome any and all thoughts and contributions and disagreements on this topic. But do note I’ve been on it for many years.


I will return to Jerusalem, my holy city, and live there. It will be known as the faithful city… Once again old men and women, so old that they use a stick when they walk, will be sitting in the city squares. And the streets will again be full of boys and girls playing.
– Zechariah 8:3-5



Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. The Rev Kev

    Using energy is problematic in itself. A commenter recently drew attention to a page where a physicist and an economist were discussing energy on the site Do the Maths and I was perturbed by one section in particular-

    Physicist: Alright, the Earth has only one mechanism for releasing heat to space, and that’s via (infrared) radiation. We understand the phenomenon perfectly well, and can predict the surface temperature of the planet as a function of how much energy the human race produces. The upshot is that at a 2.3% growth rate (conveniently chosen to represent a 10× increase every century), we would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years. And this statement is independent of technology. Even if we don’t have a name for the energy source yet, as long as it obeys thermodynamics, we cook ourselves with perpetual energy increase.

    But as long as this problem does not arise in this election cycle, it is not a problem right?

    1. Alex

      That’s a straw-man argument though. I don’t think you’ll find anyone claiming there will be exponential energy consumption growth in the next 400 years.

      Also economic growth != energy growth.

      1. Alex

        I see that they actually discuss the distinction between economic growth and energy growth further in the dialogue.

      2. xkeyscored

        On the contrary, I find exponential energy consumption growth an implicit claim of many mainstream economists and politicians. Growth, most often meaning GDP growth, is held out as the ultimate purpose in life, and more or less promised as a fundamental human right. And that GDP growth is generally (maybe not necessarily) dependent on increased energy consumption.
        Whether we’ll boil in 400 years or 4000, or do our stuff in space instead, is another matter.

    2. Zamfir

      I find that article more weird than useful.
      A first problem are his time scales (and the associated growth rates). 400 years sounds rather close, when it comes to literally boiling the oceans! But he is cooking the books there. His basis is a graph of energy consumption in the United States, showing an exponential curve going back 4 centuries, at about 3%. This makes extrapolation for another 4 centuries believable. And it makes 2.3% look moderate.

      Here’s the catch: that graph shows an increase in energy consumption in the US by a factor 40,000. Which is indeed a lot. But that figure represents a growth in US population by 7000(!!!), multiplied by a roughly 6-fold increase in per capita enrgy consumption. You can’t use that graph to say anything about the future world, unless you count on a human population in the many trillions.

      More realistically, his own graph shows a per-capita increase in energy use of about 0.5%/year for the US over the last centuries. For comparison, I calculated some worldwide, per-capita growth numbers: 0.6%/year since 1800, 0.75%/year over the last 100 years, 0.3%/year over the last 50 years, 0.2% over the last 25 year. Effectively, there was one burst of extreme growth in the middle decades of the 20th century, and rates below 0.5% before that or ever since.

      Suppose we use that figure of 0.6% per capita, and suppose (just to get a number at all) that the world population quadruples in the next 400 years. That would gives an increase in energy usage by a factor 40 – rather different than the 10,000 used by Tom Muprhy for his “boil the oceans” scenario.

      In particular, after that factor 40 we would still be below 1% of the solar influx on earth. Such an amount of energy could conceivably be taken from that input (solar panels, wind, etc), in which case it would have no net effect on IR radiation levels. The earth is already emitting that waste heat, it’s not fundamentally different if it is emitted by a machine instead of a piece of soil.
      So, if we take the “physicists view”, then it is possible to have industrial-revolution levels of energy growth per capita for many centuries to come, on top of a several-fold increase in population, without any worries about waste heat driving global temperature. In fact, it could leave us better off (temperature wise) than the current greenhouse-gas situation.
      Of course, if we hypothesize yet more centuries of exponential growth , then the waste heat issue eventually becomes a real thing.

      Here again, he’s playing a dodgy trick. In a single paragraph, he dismisses space-based activities as “star trek, space cadets”. And the economist agrees, because the economist is conveniently written by himself.

      But what happened to that cold-eyed physicist, only calculating the theoretical limits? By hypothesis, we’re now talking about a future that has seen something like the industrial revolution of the last few centuries, but then several times over again. If that future is possible, than moving energy-intensive activities to space does not sound very far-fetched to me. Surely within the limits of physics!

      Note: I am not saying that such future can happen, let alone that it is desirable. I am just saying that his particular line of argument doesn’t add up. The hard physical energy limits are very far away – they don’t matter for anything we do today or the foreseeable future.

      1. Douglas

        How to pass a Green New Deal with a Republican controlled Senate.
        by Douglas Godfrey

        The Problem:

        Global Warming is an Existential Threat to the U.S. and the entire rest of the world. Converting the entire world to a 100% No-Carbon economy by 2035 is a matter of Life-or-Death Importance. If we fail, we WILL have mass death and extinctions. Failure is Not an Option!

        The developed nations of the world are generating CO2 at a rate up to 50 times greater than the rate that caused the extinction of 50% of all life on earth during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) when the global temperature increased by up to 12°C or 22°F.

        The IPCC has just revised their estimates for the “Do Nothing” scenario from 3°C to 7°C. The original estimate of 3°C was already going to cause mass extinctions, while 7°C will cause more death and destruction, and sooner.

        The problem is that denial of Global Warming has become part of the personal identity of Conservatives and Republicans such that they will probably continue to deny the existence of Global Warming until their own life, property or prosperity is directly threatened, perhaps until they are staring at their own immanent death or bankruptcy.

        The solution:

        We need to drive down the cost of renewable energy to a level that is so low that no other energy source can even be considered. The cost of renewable energy [LCOE] must be reduced by at least 90% from current costs. The U.S. has been making progress, but not enough progress and not fast enough. The cost of wind power in the mid-west farm belt is already lower than Coal. Recent large-scale solar power projects in India and the Middle East have published bids lower than the lowest cost per Megawatt for Coal, Oil or Natural Gas. The United States needs to do better than that.

        We need to drive the complete installed price of brand new Solar plus Storage systems down below the lowest operating cost for existing, already paid for, Natural Gas Combined Cycle power plants. Retrofitting a house to use Solar Power plus Storage should cost less than a [Used] car; adding Solar plus Storage and a Solar Powered Heat Pump to a new house should cost less than a [New] car. Basically, renewable energy must be so cheap that you would loose money using any kind of fossil fueled energy even if you already own and have paid for it.

        We need to take advantage of things that are already happening in Red States. Many farms in Red States already have Wind Farms in place. Some farms or ranches in Desert States have switched from growing cattle or crops to Solar Farms. The farmers and ranchers that switched did it for money. Even if they still deny the existence of Global Warming; they are contributing to the solution and Democrats should be prepared to praise them for that.

        Change the Federal Crop Insurance program so that instead of providing farmers payments when their crops fail, to lease their farmland for Government owned solar and wind farms. Let the Federal Government take a 99-year lease on any farm with more than 1 square mile of land and convert it into a renewable energy farm. When the 99 year lease expires, let the farmer’s children keep the renewable energy farm.

        Elon Musk said that he could power the entire U.S. with a 100-mile square solar farm [10,000 square miles]. But, such a farm could be entirely shaded by a single large cloud. Instead we should power the U.S. with 10,000 solar and wind farms spread out across the entire U.S. where each occupies 1 or 2 square mile(s). No single storm or other weather event will cover the entire U.S. 10,000 renewable energy farms, each generating 25-55 Megawatts, can replace every Coal or Oil fired power plant in the U.S. An additional 10,000 renewable energy farms could replace every Natural Gas and Nuclear power plant in the U.S.

        Slightly more than a year ago a study was published on how distributed solar and wind power could power the entire U.S. Their conclusion was that building distributed solar and wind farms could provide reliable power for the entire U.S. if 12 hours of energy storage was available and the solar and wind farms were built to provide 150% of the current U.S. power needs allocated as 90% solar and 60% wind. To fully decarbonize the U.S. we need to include ALL uses of fossil fuel energy. That includes Electricity, Transportation [cars, trucks, buses and trains], Residential and Commercial Heating and Cooling and Industrial Process Heat. The total is more than 3 times the current Electricity consumption.

        [Geophysical constraints on the reliability of solar and wind power in the United States. Energy & Environmental Science, 11(4), 914-925. DOI: 10.1039/c7ee03029k]

        A separate study mapped the locations where Pumped Hydropower energy storage was feasible. Pumped Hydropower storage is much safer and less expensive and easier to scale up than large-scale Lithium Ion batteries. Numerous locations are available in the mountainous areas on the east and west of the U.S.

        [Geographic information system algorithms to locate prospective sites for pumped hydro energy storage, Applied Energy, 222, 300-312. DOI: 10.1016/j.apenergy.2018.03.177]

        An array of 500×500 solar panels each generating 220 watts would provide about 55 megawatts peak power for about 6 hours a day or 1/40 of a conventional fossil fueled power plant. For every 45 combined Solar and Wind power farms you complete, retire 1 fossil fueled power plant. When there are no fossil fueled power plants left, retire the remaining Nuclear power plants and then the Hydroelectric dams where the dam is causing harm to the local fish or wildlife. Keep doing this until there is nothing but renewable power and pumped hydro storage left.

        Create a Federal Jobs Corps that will build 20,000 combined Solar and Wind Farms and 20,000 Pumped Hydro Electric Storage dams. When they have finished with those tasks they can go on to install Solar plus Storage for every Government building in the U.S. and then for every other residential building that has enough sun exposure. Finally after all of that, they can repair or rebuild every dam, bridge and highway in the U.S. The Federal Jobs Corps will provide good paying jobs [paying at least $15.00/hour plus Medical and Education]. Doing all of this would take at least 4,000,000 people from 2020 to at least 2050 to complete. Another group of several millions of people would have factory jobs, making the solar panels and the wind generators and the windmill blades and all of the other pieces that go together for this massive project. Basically the Green New Deal would be the best JOBs program ever!

        Power Storage, Frequency Regulation and Power Smoothing are still required to stabilize the power grid. Large scale Batteries will still be needed. There are several new types of batteries that are needed.

        For home solar energy storage, a battery with 10-25Kwh capacity that can charge or discharge at 2-5Kw with a safe, non-flammable, non-toxic battery chemistry. Size and weight is not an issue. The battery would be located in the basement near the homes power distribution panel or circuit breaker box. Every solar home should have 8-16 hours of solar power storage to power a house during the night or when there is a power blackout.

        For homes, the largest storage requirement is heat in the winter and cold in the summer. Instead of storing electricity to power a heat pump during the night or a blackout, store heat or cold in a water tank. A simple rubber lined tank 8’x8′ around and 6′ deep can store 1,600,000 BTU of heat in the winter or 1,000,000 BTU of cold in the summer. A water tank can provide up to 48 hours of storage for a few hundred dollars, much, much cheaper than any battery system. You still need a battery to power your lights and other electrical appliances, but a much smaller, less expensive battery.

        For wind and solar farms, a battery with 500Kwh-5Mwh capacity that can charge and discharge at 500Kw-5Mw with a very cheap, very long lasting, battery chemistry. Every wind or solar farm should have 5 minutes to 1 hour of storage to smooth out any rapid power fluctuations.

        For replacing natural gas peaking power plants, a battery with 1-5Gwh can charge and discharge at 550Mw with a 30-50 year operating lifetime and a battery chemistry that uses abundant and cheap materials that are all produced from minerals mined in the U.S.

        Lithium Ion batteries are the wrong solution for all of these cases. The fire hazard means they cannot be used inside a home. The price and the scarcity of materials means they cannot be used at an industrial scale [up to multiple Gigawatt Hours].

        Every new car, truck, bus or train should be converted from fossil fuels to electricity.

        For trains and buses, the technology for overhead wires has been in use for more than 100 years. Bring back the trolley cars from the 1930’s. Electrify all operating passenger and freight rail lines. Replace all Diesel Locomotives with Electric Locomotives with enough energy storage so you only need to have overhead wires for short intervals, one mile for every 50-100 miles of track.

        For cars and trucks, instead of using large expensive and hazardous Lithium Ion batteries, all vehicles should use a super-capacitor for regenerative braking, a much smaller rechargeable Lithium Iron Phosphate battery for local driving, and an Aluminum-Air battery. The combination gives you 100% regenerative breaking, 20-50 mile range on a charge and 300-600 mile range on the Aluminum-Air battery. All existing Gas Stations would swap out your car’s Aluminum-Air battery in less time than it currently takes to fill your tank with gasoline. Cars would have the same 300+ mile range as current gasoline or diesel cars. Trucks could have a much larger 1,000+ mile range by using more and/or larger Aluminum-Air batteries.

        To drive the price down to the absolute minimum we need to have a set of standardized power modules with power levels from 250 Watts to 1 Megawatt. Any manufacturer of an electric vehicle [bike, golf cart, fork lift, car, truck, bus or train locomotive] need only pick a module with the required size, weight, power and capacity. Multiple manufacturers would make the battery packs, power electronics and electric motors. All patents for the power modules would be held by a patent pool and would be licensed to any manufacturer under FRAND terms [Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory].

        Every factory that uses fossil fuels for process heat should be converted to electric heat. If the needed temperature is less than 250°F then the factory should use heat pumps to take heat from the air or a local water source. If the temperature is more than 250°F then direct electric resistance heating is the best choice.

        Every local power sub-station should have a variable load that stabilizes the power load of a town or small city. The best solution for a variable load is a small-scale plant for re-manufacturing Aluminum-Air batteries. The process of re-manufacturing Aluminum-Air batteries consumes large amounts of electricity but it can be turned off or vary its power load up or down on millisecond time-frames.

        We will need to significantly upgrade the U.S. power grid to handle about 3 times the maximum power of the current grid. Everything that currently uses fossil fuels will be powered by electricity. Some cities are already over 100% capacity so their grid connections will need to be increased 4-5 times.

        The budget for ARPA-E should be drastically increased and every promising technology should be funded with as much as is needed to reach full commercialization but with a caveat, if the technology is not commercialized in 10 years, ownership defaults to the U.S. Federal Government. Basically, the Government becomes the equivalent to a “Startup Investor”.

        U.S. workers must do all of the work needed to combat Global Warming by the U.S. in the U.S. This would be the best possible “Jobs Program” that any politician or political party could propose.

        How to talk to Republicans about Global Warming:

        Talking to Republicans about Global Warming using non-threatening terms will never work. They became republicans because their personalities are fear/threat oriented. You need to present the threat for them to pay attention. If they are not personally threatened, they won’t care. If they don’t care, they won’t act.

        Part of the problem is that Scientists and Democrats are both using the wrong terminology to discuss Global Warming. Instead of talking about a relatively mild 2-7°C increase in the Global Average temperature, we should talk about a 15-20°C increase in the Summer Heat wave Maximum temperatures. We should talk about this extreme warming using terms like “Global Warming Death Dates”, when the temperature during a heat-wave exceeds the limits of human or animal survival.

        There are several “Death Dates” that will arrive over the next 10 to 30 years. The “Death Dates” are all caused by a combination of temperature and humidity that exceeds the limits of human, animal or plant survival.

        1) 90°F and 65-70% humidity days or 80°F and 75-80% humidity nights: The End of Meat “Death Date” when heat stress makes it impossible to raise Beef, Pork or Chicken except in air-conditioned barns. This “Death Date” has ALREADY happened in southern India and Asia.

        2) 100°F and 75-80% humidity days or 80°F and 85-90% humidity nights: The Agriculture and Heavy Labor “Death Date” when a worker will die of heat prostration in less than 4 hours of working outside. ALL farming and all construction and any other outdoor heavy labor will have to be mechanized or done at night. Food prices will more than triple. Much of the India subcontinent is already at this “Death Date” as of this year. This “Death Date” WILL happen in less than 15 years in the southern states Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Coastal Texas.

        3) 105-115°F and 80-90+% humidity: The Nighttime Minimum “Death Date” when you cannot survive a night without Air Conditioning. This “Death Date” WILL happen by 2040 years in the southern states Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Coastal Texas.

        4) 110-115+°F all day: The Food Crop “Death Date” when the daytime temperature remains over 110-115°F and all plant growth stops due to heat stress. Plants close their “Stoma” and stop breathing in CO2 and breathing out O2. All farms and farmers will need to relocate to northern Canada, Alaska or Siberia. Farming will be impossible in the U.S. lower 48 states. This “Death Date” is already happening in the southern states Arizona, New Mexico and , Central Texas.

        5) 120°F and 75-80% humidity: The Air Conditioning “Death Date” when you will die in less than 1 hour if your Air Conditioner fails and you cannot get to a heat shelter. If your car breaks down on a lonely road and your phone battery is dead, you will shortly be dead too.

  2. divadab

    Collapse is baked in. Unavoidable. What a waste oh well humans will survive, the living planet will survive. I mean humans the most adaptable species, will survive, just a lot fewer. But what a degraded planet to survive on. So sad too bad. Yes big stupid apes in love with our own cleverness and creations.

    1. JTMcPhee

      See the wonderful movie, “WALL-E.”

      “WALL-E has minimal dialogue in its early sequences; many of the characters do not have voices, but instead communicate with body language and robotic sounds designed by Burtt. The film criticizes consumerism, corporatism, nostalgia, waste management, human environmental impact and concerns, obesity, and global catastrophic risk.[4] It is also Pixar’s first animated film with segments featuring live-action characters. ”

      The film was a blockbuster, grossing half a billion for Pixar from showings around the world. Turned crisis into entertainment, resulting far as I can tell zero change in the trends…

  3. Nameful

    Or, rather, that’s not quite right, it’s in fact generating waste that runs the economy.

    Nice soundbite – neither entitrly wrong, nor entirely right, but especially not too helpful in understanding what’s going on. It’s much less interesting-sounding if one says

    Generating waste is intrinsically tied to running the economy.

    Besides, this one is rather more depressing – try as we might, waste production cannot be reduced below certain thresholds. At best, with selecting materials, energy sources and recycling processes, we can somewhat alter the types of waste that we produce.

    I find it useful to think about it in term of the laws of Thermodynamics, specifically the second law. The total entropy of a closed system undergoing a thermodynamic process will always increase. In particular, decreasing the entropy of part of the system (raw materials assembled into the far more ordered structure of a phone, for instance) will increase the entropy of other parts, in the form of generated heat and waste. The more ordered the final product, the more waste entropy its construction will generate.

    Incidentally, this reasoning predicts that a long-running controlled economy is unsustainable – eventually one runs out of entropy sinks.

  4. cnchal

    Oil is converted to food. One half of the food produced is thrown in the garbage, feeds no one, and that is before we get to what is euphamistically called food that is in reality, poison.

    Go to Starbucks for breakfast? Schultz sell sugar disguised as coffee and the ‘baked goods’ on display that end up in your belly, carbs. Eat that crap on a daily basis and you will get sick, but help is on the way in the form of Pirate Equity gouging you for medical services you can’t live without. Wall Street’s wet dream, a captive customer that can’t say no.

    Think of all the waste happening every day, producing bags of chips, Coca Cola, Pepsi, trucking that garbage around, to be displayed in “grocery” stores or sold at fast food joints and restaurants, the waste generated by the marketers and advertisers, laying on the Bernays sause thick and heavy that life isn’t complete without eating that stuff. It’s called junk food for a damned good reason.

    Then there is tech wasteland, the latest and greatest exponentially growing power user. What precisely, is the purpose of collecting, storing, poring over, retreiving and displaying all this trivia generated by society and stored in energy hogs known as data centers? All these zeros and ones kept alive with electricity so that millions of daily price changes can be custom applied to the individual viewing a product on big tech’s website to determine the maximum price that a particular cutomer or advertiser will pay, for an item that spent weeks in a container crossing the ocean to be thrown in the dump a few months after being bought when it fails. Or big corp can give you a personal social score after surveilling you. Or so you can store images of your nonsense in a cloud.

    Then you get to the latest reveal. The military is using data centers to collect biometric information on people all over the world, to be targeted, if necessary, for death by drone or bomb, guided by AI algorithms, an automated targeting and killing system that operates without the human touch. With a few tweaks to the algorithm, all can be killed then the waste problem is solved.

    1. anon y'mouse

      i often observe that there is probably more nutrition in the packaging than in the contents of much of this so-called food, at least from a purely caloric (burning) standpoint. too bad i can’t eat melamine!

      1. Danny

        You can mount a Fritos corn chip on a chopstick and use it as a small emergency illuminating torch.
        It will burn with a nasty black smoke for at least a minute.
        Just think what it does to your insides.

    2. CheezEatinSurrenderMonkey

      Yes, if we stopped producing/eating high fructose corn syrup, that’d be a big plus from many angles. Heck, how about we don’t try to turn GMO corn into lousy gasoline. That’s a big, fat waste as far as resources too.
      Overall, there are a ton of perverse incentives, mixed messages, etc. Referencing John Perkins’s “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” and Engdahl’s “Seeds of Destruction”.
      I doubt the elites will want to lose any hint of technology or comforts, though they may want the rest of the world to look vaguely like the middle ages in terms of population, standard of living…how possible is that? I’d like to think not likely, but to a degree we have that today since we can walk around with iPhones and satellites yet we still have some nomadic bushmen or subsistence farming groups on earth.
      As an anecdote, I saw the Yacht A, some $500 mil worth, as a prime example of a massive waste of money. 1 guy (Melnichenko) is flexing against other oligarchs. Per Wikipedia, his co. has donated $500m as well, but I still this as a ridiculous waste.
      I’ll crawl out on the branch of speculation that there’s evidence of breakthru energy technologies that have been suppressed since existing paradigms can’t monetize them sufficiently. Imagine if we each had the power to generate tons of power (as simple as a gasoline-free car, plane) that alone becomes a game-changer. Security considerations about the ability to generate comic hero levels of performance may also be a reason to not let new tech out.

  5. notabanktoadie

    But in the end, the only aspect that I find really interesting, and that everybody appears to ignore, is why we produce so much waste. Raúl Ilargi Meijer

    Even honest* usury REQUIRES continual economic growth (or evil approaches such as oppressing the poor) – in order to pay the interest. Add government privileges for usurers (aka “the banks”) and what else is to be expected but a maddening rat race and eventual disaster?

    if only because if by some miracle we might drastically reduce our energy consumption, which physics says should be no problem -though biology might disagree-, we would leave a lot of oil, or other energy forms, available to for instance the Chinese, who could use it against us. ibid

    Except there’s the example of low energy consuming Afghanistan thwarting the will of the high energy consuming US military. Not that low energy use per se is a solution but rather a just economic system that would produce a resilient society and individuals that would make any would-be foreign invader think twice AND be acceptable in the sight of a just God.

    *Deuteronomy 23:19-20 allows usury (that is, contrary to misinformation, ANY positive interest rate) but ONLY from foreigners (as a means to SUBJUGATE them).

  6. Carl

    I’m surprised he didn’t mention Greer’s theory of collapse, because it specifically incorporates the increasing effects of human generated waste. Otherwise, it’s nice to see names like Hanson and concepts like overshoot mentioned.

    Re: automobiles I think there was something mentioned in discussion at The Oil Drum that bicycling is the form of transport that is the most energy efficient.

  7. Baba Yaga

    As a child of the 60s, we’ve come a long way. Hybrid all-wheel drive cars, saving the acidic lakes in the North East North America, recycling, cleaning the oceans (Boyan Slat), lower cost Pv panels, huge advances in battery storage, composting – any other changes?

    1. JCC

      I can think of one more change.

      In the 60’s the average ppm of CO2 was around 315, today it’s about 407, a 25% increase.

    2. John Wright

      Per recent events, USA recycling is rather stalled right now as less developed countries are rejecting USA recycled materials.

      Your list did not have some negative trends as it has been asserted that topsoil for food crops is being degraded:

      A week ago I was walking downtown in my small Northern California burg.

      A single protester was at a busy 4-way stop intersection with a sign decrying Climate Change.

      I talked with him and mentioned that I did not believe anything of note would be done about climate change BECAUSE it would directly effect people’s lifestyles as they would be forced to consume far less.

      He commented that “I have more faith in humanity than you do”.

      During the discussion, many large pickups and large SUV’s went though the intersection, burning hydrocarbons that had been dormant for millions of years.

    3. Jeremy Grimm

      It is interesting how the concerns of the populace have taken up so many different ‘hot rocks’ dropping one and picking up another after year of two and we just keep on burning petroleum. It is almost as if some mysterious force were guiding what ‘hot rocks’ were OK and which were not open for consideration.

      To answer your question — don’t forget banning DDT, tweaking engines to reduce air pollution, the ozone hole and banning certain coolants, and we need to feed the starving children in India. It’s all right to discuss and study Mass Transit as long as none gets built — except at great cost and profit. We must do something about CO2 levels — and it should be up to the Chinese and Indians. Ban the bomb and cut back on nuclear weapons and nuclear missiles, but we definitely need to keep several thousands around just in case.

  8. Kyle

    The problem is spiritual not material, predetermined by the DNA of human thought and culture more than biologically predetermined. Spirit (the arts) is infinite, the planet is finite. We as a culture understand “more” but not “beautiful.” It’s all wrong and to the extent that the West has abandoned Classical Christian culture, we are on a self destructive materialist path. (And I’m not talking about literal interpretations of the Bible–the early church fathers understood the symbolic power of their myths).

    1. Plenue

      Ah yes, the ‘enlightened’ ‘church fathers’, far too sophisticated to literally believe in silly things like six days of creation or the Garden of Eden. Instead they spent their time arguing about the exact metaphysical nature of a zombie who was his own father, and why he needed to sacrifice himself to himself to appease himself. Such learning, much wow.

  9. TG

    Again we see the elephant in the room ignored.

    Canada has a higher energy consumption per person than even the United States, but with a low population and abundant resources, so what. If the entire world were like Canada, we wouldn’t have any environmental problems (or at least, they would be modest and relatively easy to handle with slow sustained effort).

    But the rich can’t stand that, so they have a specific plan to at least quadruple Canada’s population to 100 million and beyond. Even as Canada’s per-capita living standard declines, the environmental impact of Canada is set to radically increase. (And no, immigration does not just shift people around: it maximizes global population growth. Every Bangladeshi etc. who escapes to Canada simply free up more resources for another person to be born and live to adulthood back home).

    Here’s the thing: what’s happening in Canada is not some inevitable consequence of humans doomed to consume ever more. It’s not a fourth law of thermodynamics. It is specifically the result of the rich wanting both cheap labor, and economic growth for the sake of economic growth. Until we address this issue we are skew to reality.

    There isn’t much private car ownership in India. The per-capita standard of living is basically crushed to subsistence: they physically can’t live any worse. And yet, with all those people jammed in there, the land is stripped bare, the skies are choked with filth – if the entire world were like India we’d all be dead in a year or two. And to my knowledge the Indian government has not actively promoted a pro-natalist strategy (unlike Mexico and Syria and Iraq and Iran etc.) but there has been a total neglect of the issue. If the Indian people were told up front that if they ever want a better life, they need to stop having more children than they can REASONABLY (not just barely and chronically malnourished) support. There is no free choice without knowledge of the consequences. But if that happened, wages might go up, and profits from all that lovely cheap labor evaporate, so the rich are adamant that nothing be allowed to interfere with the crushing poverty of India…

    Japan could be the hope of the world. If left to themselves, their population might decline over the next few centuries to a more manageable – but still high! – number, maybe 30 or 40 million. They will not run out of people. There will be issues and obstacles to overcome, sure, but also many advantages – no need to invest massive capital for construction, steadily lessened pressure on the environment, steadily more natural resources per capita, lower rents and better job opportunities for the young, and every small improvement in efficiency is not immediately wiped out. Japan at least could be a test case for whether this could really work out. But the rich are united that this not be allowed… The Japanese must have more babies, or be replaced by the surplus population of the third world, there can be no dissent from this. Why do we not react with outrage, that humans are treated as if cattle, and our breeding left not to our own devices but to the desires of the rich for ever greater profit? Why can’t we just let the Japanese make their own decision and see how it works out?

    Humans consuming ever more is not inevitable, it is planned and done for a specific purpose. We need to acknowledge this.

    1. John Wright

      To re-inforce your point, here is a recent Bloomberg article pushing for ever more people world wide.


      If one looks at other large mammal animal species, there has been a noted “fertility crash” (extinction) ongoing as a result of human activity, but that is not mentioned in the article.

      Searching the Bloomberg piece for “climate” or “environment” brings up nothing.

      It almost seems that Bloomberg purposely has blinders on in order to ignore that continually increasing one variable (human population) will have consequences to the earth’s environment.

    2. millicent

      “It’s not a fourth law of thermodynamics. It is specifically the result of the rich wanting both cheap labor, and economic growth for the sake of economic growth.” This is the 4th law which says that any system is hegemonic and will recruit any and all resources to maintain the energy flow needed to sustain itself, i.e., the rich get richer…. But it is also the 4th law that once resources are no longer available or if the system cannot adapt to change, it will collapse (once the parasites (rent takers) consume the host (labor)).

      Importantly, the origin of the 4th law is not Odem. It’s Rod Swenson and can be found more coherently in references from 1989 through 2019.

  10. Ernie

    The human species has long demonstrated its ability to survive. It has, and had, no need, as a species, to increase its population beyond a fraction of what it is today to be able to survive, and even thrive. Although the physics based argument of the article is sound and likely correct, even if nonetheless debatable, and that waste is inevitable for any given organism, one thing that the article did not clearly (to my mind) incorporate is the notion of recycling which does occur naturally, albeit slowly, and sustainability, which involves both exploitation of resources, creation of waste, and recycling of waste (“the life cycle” (my coinage)). Nor did it discuss the fact that recycling, at least in nature, is powered by energy sources that, for practical purposes, will exist long after life of any sort no longer exists on the planet, those sources being solar and the earth’s core, thereby ensuring that recycling can continue to successfully support life cycle, assuming that the exploitation and waste creation phases of the life cycle do not overwhelm or disrupt the recycling phase.

    The extreme numbers of humanity are causing the phases of the life cycle to become unbalanced, making life on this planet as we know it unsustainable. I do not know at what level the human population should be to be sustainable while relying on natural recycling of the population’s waste, but it is clearly less than the 7.5 Billion inhabitants of this small planet.

  11. The Historian

    I will admit up front that I am not as learned as Mr. Meijer, but I do have a couple of thoughts that Mr. Meijer might want to consider.

    First, consider Adam Smith’s example of the pins. Pins were hand made by one person before factory production and were therefore expensive. If a pin bent, you didn’t throw it away, you straightened it. With factory production, pins were no longer scarce. Did the world need all those pins? If not, then a market had to be created for them and what better way to create a market than to convince everyone that since pins were cheap and readily available, you didn’t have to bother taking care of the pin, you just threw away the bent one and bought another. Hence the creation of waste. Did the world need all the plastics that were created in the last century? Plastics were marketed to us as a cheap, throwaway solution to our problems. Is it no wonder that plastic pollution is such an issue now?

    Secondly, consider the issue of consumption. I’m a great fan of history, but not the history of the 10%, rather I’ve always been interested in how the average person lived throughout history, and thanks to new archeological finds and new theories in anthropology, we know more about average persons throughout history than we ever did before. If you look at indigenous populations, before they find technology, you see that they aren’t particularly wasteful. It would be hard to consider the San or the Yakuts or the Aleut as wasteful people. They have a use for everything in their environment and they tend to take care of and reuse what they have.

    Looking at people in the Neolithic, or the Roman era or the Greek eras show that average people lived very simply – they didn’t own bronze or iron implements – those were for the elite and their militaries, not for the average person, however the top 10% lived very a extravagant lifestyle, as is shown by their grave goods. Extravagance was a show of power then just like it is today. The person who owns a yacht and a private airplane today is really no different than the Roman who put on a gladiatorial contest or built a great temple to his favorite god. He consumes to show that he has the power to do so. I don’t think the consumption gene is built into all human DNA, although I will agree that it is definitely present in some people. It seems to me that those same people who crave wealth and power are the same people who flaunt their consumption and who attempt to moralize it by pretending that it is what all people want. It might not be so.

    I do agree that we all have to stop consuming as much as we do. I look around my own house and wonder why I bought some of the things I did. I certainly don’t use them and they will end up in the trash sooner or later. Perhaps the solution is to include the cradle to grave costs in every product we buy or use? So that if we buy a car, the price of that car has already built in its disposal cost. Products will become more expensive, but don’t we take better care of our expensive items? Perhaps it is time to stop making disposal of any items free.

    1. PKMKII

      The person who owns a yacht and a private airplane today is really no different than the Roman who put on a gladiatorial contest or built a great temple to his favorite god. He consumes to show that he has the power to do so.

      That goes a long way to explain the psyche behind the ultra-waste lifestyle; it’s all about creating the sensation of being a mini-Roman Patrician. The SUV is your chariot (there was a TV ad a few years back that literally made this analogy), the house that’s much too big, sitting on a property with a lawn that’s much too big, is, as the saying goes, the man’s castle. Even this freak-out over the Green New Deal curbing beef production, Sebastian Gorka declaring it what Stalin dreamed of. Everyone would still have their chicken and pork and lamb, why make such a specific stink about beef? Because beef was the meat of the nobility, the food reserved for the elites and only dreamed of by the peasants.Take that away, they can’t play feudal lord dress-up.

    1. Jack Parsons

      Heh! The coalitions are breaking up and reforming as we speak.

      Antipathy to abortion will evaporate from identity politics. After all, it’s OK in the Bible before fetal heartbeat, and abortifacient spices are mentioned as trade goods.

  12. steven

    There isn’t time for a massive public education campaign covering the laws of thermodynamics and planetary science. But undertaking one while simultaneously implementing public policies with time horizons further out than the next election cycle might help grease the skids for implementing the drastic policy changes made necessary by the pursuit of political expediency and perpetual profitability that has characterized Western governments for at least the last century.

    As the saying goes everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. It is those facts, like the laws of thermodynamics, upon which public policy must be based – not religious beliefs or a blind faith in the efficacy of ‘free markets’. Freed from mysticism and a belief in magic, the ramifications for public policy of those facts should be fairly easy to determine, given a few basic assumptions like the right to a decent life not just for our own species but for all the others with which we share this planet.

    Hence to the proposal – a politically independent scientific Board of Governors, a la the US Federal Reserve, freed from the meddling influence of scientifically illiterate politicians and lawyers. An independent Environmental Protection Agency might even be able to ‘save capitalism’ at least in some much more benign form. Since the ‘externalities’ of the Industrial Revolution are a global problem the solution will also have to be global. The world’s scientists and engineers, freed from the constraints of short term profitability can stop being “the handmaidens of business” and set about solving the planet’s very serious problems (if they can be solved?)

  13. Carolinian

    Re energy and the biological quest for power–don’t forget that lack of access to petroleum is often cited as one of the factors in the demise of the Third Reich and one of the reasons for the invasion of Russia. Meanwhile America with its–at the time–almost limitless access to oil prevailed despite the greater German competence at war fighting. The Pacific war was also in many ways about access to oil.

    To be sure the DNA theory of history may be a bit glib but isn’t there reason to believe there is such a thing as an inherent human nature and the GND is up against it?

      1. JTMcPhee

        I’d say the death wish, our common telomere, is probably the winner. Looking at our culture, pleasure and killing, sex and death, seem to be the major themes.

        Anyone for a round of Grand Theft Auto, or maybe Fortnite? Call of Duty’s latest mission, to propagandize Russia and revive the Great Game war, complete with all the civilization-ending thousands of nukes still on hair trigger, ready to blow? How about a walk through the news of the day, and all the entertainment that’s on offer, in all media?

      2. Carolinian

        Or to put it another way: which is stronger, reason or instinct? Is it merely a coincidence that we share so many instinctive behaviors with the “lower” animals? Darwin didn’t think so.

  14. PKMKII

    The 20:1 vehicle weight to passenger ratio is actually a bit of a lowball, if we’re talking a single driver/passenger. A big luxury car or SUV would be much higher; A Cadillac Escalade with a 150 pound driver would have a 37:1 ratio.

    For comparison, a new R160 NYC subway car packed for rush hour with 150 pound humans has a ratio in the 2.7:1 to 5.5:1 range, depending on how packed. And while it still would have the same energy source issue as an electric vehicle, it doesn’t have the rare earth extraction issue like an electric vehicle battery does.

    1. Carolinian

      Subcompacts can weigh as little as 2500 lbs and carry 4 people so it depends on the vehicle and number of passengers. A small car with 4 200 pounders could compare very favorably to your subway car.

      Of course high occupancy freeway lanes are being turned into toll Lexus lanes where payment rather than carpooling matters. In terms of government policy as well as consumer vehicle preference we are going backwards AGW wise.

  15. Steve H.

    > Note that the Maximum Power Principle is quite mute on efficiency.

    This is not the case. Nor is “the one that’s most efficient” the survivor. Fustest ain’t the fastest, nor the most efficient. Around a brachistochrone curve, the most efficient is the straight line solution, while the greatest thrust goes the longest distance.

    So the ‘use less energy’ straight line arrives after the buffet table’s been picked clean.

  16. deplorado

    Reminding everyone that designing our cities, transport and economy around the use of a personal automobile is idiotic is a very useful public service that is done not nearly enough, so I commend the author for raising that.

    On the other end of the spectrum, you have geniuses like Bono, who produced this perl of wisdom at the beginning of this decade: “” which this talk of cars reminded me of (might be fun to ask him again for a follow-up (on the other hand, don’t waste your time with that))

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Don’t forget our car lifestyle was designed in the middle 1930s when the amount of petroleum seemed nearly infinite, a technique for measuring atmospheric CO2 had not been invented, the world populations were less than half what they are today, and jobs were what most people worried about. The automobile put America back to work and what’s good for General Motors is good for America.

  17. Dick Burkhart

    Instead of talking about harnessing energy (or low entropy, or power), we should be talking about “cheap energy”. In other words, when we get a high “Energy Returned On Energy Invested” (EROEI). That’s what powers both strong economic growth and the growth of life forms.

    Already the EROEI for fossil fuels has been slowing. We can expect this trrend to speed up, so that within a generation or two, long term global recession will become the norm. That’s when we’ll be wasting far less energy out of necessity, not choice. But if we don’t act now (the Green New Deal), we’ll be hit hard by the “energy trap” (we won’t be able to afford the more energy efficient infrastructure we’ll need), resulting in a vast increase in poverty and conflict.

  18. Jeremy Grimm

    The idea that Humankind has doomed itself because it is the Nature of Humankind to be wasteful sounds like the kind of wisdom my grandma might find to explain our mad dash toward the edge. “Why take two when one will do?” [repeating an old Johnny Carson quip — “For gracious living.”] The word “waste” is too loaded. Travel the world and it is easy to discover that what is “waste” can be very subjective. I think a better formula might be to note that capitalism, especially Neoliberal Capitalism, very deliberately works to consume and use a resource up as fast as possible. Waste is just one part of using up a resource, and it’s only waste if it fails to yield a profit otherwise. I do not believe Humankind is naturally inclined toward capitalism. I do suspect there are flaws in our nature but a proclivity toward waste seems like an effort toward humor.

  19. Jack Parsons

    Home on the Prairie lifestyles.

    I think of it as a Cuban lifestyle: no new gizmos, just fix up old junk. Which is why “Right to Repair” is so important.

  20. FKorning

    I highly recommend the following gem.

    It starts with thermodynamics and ends up in nigh-spiritual epiphany. It talks of energy density and energy order; that energy use begets more energy, and waste is the entropy byproduct of transforming raw energy from a less dense and lower order to a state of higher order and more density. Truly a visionary masterpiece. This should be mandatory reading on par with Diamond, Harari, etc.

    “The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy”
    (by Huber, Mills, et all),


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *