Sunday, January 10, 2021

The Great Pause Week 43: Two Physicists Walk Into A Bar…

"The question is not how long or for what cost it would take to scale up Carbon Dioxide Removal, but the opposite — what is the potential to scale down to village and family scale."

On a hot summer night in 1992, or so we are told by a writer for MIT’s Technology Review, two particle physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory were staring out over the moonlit desert and sipping cold beers. Given the story that followed, I kind of wonder whether something more aromatic than beer was involved. 

“What if,” Klaus Lackner wondered out loud to his companion, Christopher Wendt, “machines could build machines? How big and fast could you manufacture things?” It was not a new idea. Science fiction writers had been drawing from that meme for half a century to populate whole galaxies. But Lackner and Wendt were real scientists, working at a real National Laboratory, the same one that invented the atom bomb.

They decided that the only way the scheme could work would be if you designed robots that dug up all their own raw materials from dirt, harnessed renewables to power the process, and taught succeeding generations of robots to copy themselves. Quoting from Technology Review, March 2019:

They eventually published a paper working out the math and exploring several applications, including self-replicating robots that could capture massive amounts of carbon dioxide and convert it into carbonate rock. “My argument has always been we need to be passive,” Lackner says. “We want to be a tree standing in the wind and have the CO2 carried to us.” The robot armada, solar arrays, carbon-­converting machines, and piles of rock would all grow exponentially, reaching “continental size in less than a decade,” the paper concluded. Converting 20% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would generate a layer of rock 50 centimeters (20 inches) thick covering a million square kilometers (390,000 square miles) — an area the size of Egypt.

In 1999, Lackner released a government study titled “Carbon Dioxide Extraction from Air: Is It an Option?” It was a bit starry-eyed, imagining that direct CO2 removal could be accomplished for $15 per ton. The machines that actually do that today require $1000 per ton but many working in the field hope to get that cost down to $600 or even $50 with further investment, at scale. Still, the idea had Lackner in its grip. He left Los Alamos in search of sponsors. Gary Comer, founder of the Lands’ End apparel catalog, gave him $8 million. Lackner founded Global Research Technologies and built a small prototype… and ran out of money. GRT was sold and its buyers went bust, too. The idea’s time had not yet come.

Still, Lackner had definitely started something. Other researchers he influenced became more successful by being less idealistic. They prototyped chemical removal processes by working on coal stack effluents. They sold CO2 to hothouse, dry ice, and beverage companies —a process I like to call “catch and release.” More importantly, they attracted enough venture capital from corporations like Stripe, European Space Commission, various airlines, and Bill Gates to form loss-leader companies — Carbon Engineering (Canada), Climeworks (Switzerland), Global Thermostat (USA), Antecy (Netherlands), Hydrocell (Finland), Infinitree (USA), Skytree (Netherlands) —to begin to commercialize designs and scale pilot plants. Articles in the scientific and popular media have proliferated. Now it would appear they even have the Biden transition team interested in moonshot level funding in the first 100 days of the new Administration.

For a generic DAC system in the long term, experts expect the costs for captured CO2 to go down to $37, 87 and 129 per ton CO2 for optimistic, realistic, and pessimistic assumptions, respectively. They estimate rates (in dollars per ton) of 0.12 for capital costs, 0.17 for energy costs and 0.17 for operational and maintenance costs. Under these assumptions, by 2029, DAC will drop capture costs to $55 per ton CO2, with possible further reduction to $28 by 2050 and $17 by 2100.

I have been for many years calling Direct Air Capture technology “artificial trees.” In a recent colloquy with Peter Eisenberger of Global Thermostat, he bristled, responding that each “tree” (a DAC capture unit the size of a shipping container that costs $500,000) can sequester the equivalent of 20,000 to 100,000 natural trees. I’ll have to check his math on that one.

First, the DAC unit is only part of the price, both in dollars and surface area. To go with DAC you need CS (carbon storage) and since DAC produces CO2 in a hot (>212°F) gaseous form that can be frozen and liquified, you’ll also need refrigerated pipelines, deep wells for geologic storage, pumps, etc. Also DACCS (DAC+CS) requires power to run, typically 200–300 kWh-e/tCO2. The cycling of chemicals requires significant heat, 1200–2100 kWh-t/tCO2. Add to the shipping container’s cost and land footprint, a solar array or wind farm, battery storage, road access, fencing, etc. and you are looking at considerably more capital cost (CAPEX) and operating cost (OPEX) than your average tree, or many hundred trees. What is the CAPEX of DACCS compared to the CAPEX of reforestation, on a per tree basis? What is the OPEX? Actually we already know that, because for millennia humans have profitably inhabited forested landscapes, drawing from them most necessities of life. Which of these necessities do artificial trees provide? Just one, it seems: carbon dioxide removal.

To withdraw the 1500 GtCO2 required to keep us under 2 degrees warming this century, builders, be they Lacknerian robots or mere human stainless steel or aluminum welders, would have to produce 51,368,863 artificial trees, each averaging CO2 withdrawals of one ton per day for the next 80 years, at the cost of $25 trillion in capital cost, excluding power plants and pipelines. 

Bruce Melton, an engineer who heads the Climate Change Now Initiative and is drafting a carbon neutrality plan for Austin, Texas, responded to Eisenberger that “In WWII we spent $19 trillion dollars globally (2019 dollars) in 7 years, 1939 through 1945, on industrial expansion and mostly heavy manufacturing or $2.71 trillion 2019 US dollars per year. Total global GDP 1939 through 1945 in 2019 US Dollars was $44.6 trillion in 7 years or an average of $6.37 trillion 2019 US dollars per year. Average annual global WWII spending then, was 43 percent of global GDP. If we were to mimic WWII industrialization infrastructure spending today at 43 percent of global GDP of $87 trillion annually in 2019, this would be $37 trillion per year, or $261 trillion in seven years.” 

“It’s all about motivation and risk, not money,” Melton concluded.

Of course there are many other problems with technofixes that do not involve money. The chemicals used in sorbent manufacture and the disposal of sorbents at the end of their useful lives must be handled in a responsible way. Sodium hydroxide is highly corrosive and the chlorine gas that is emitted during its production from brine is extremely poisonous. Concentrated CO2 is also potentially deadly. Deep geological storage of the captured carbon gas involves not negligible risk of leakage and upwelling because nowhere is the Earth completely stable. Deep ocean disposal raises issues of salinity, contamination, fragility and cost. The biological carbon pump operates everywhere, even in the deepest depths of the ocean.

Another consideration — which regular readers of this blog will recognize as a recurring theme — is not how long or for what cost it would take to scale artificial trees up to billions of tons carbon sequestration per year, but the opposite — what is the potential to scale down to village and family scale implementation, and to make that worth doing even during the decline phase of a civilization? With other negative emissions technologies — mineral fertilizers, biochar, tree-planting — there is palpable benefit to be harvested at an individual farm-to-kitchen scale. Who would spend $500,000 to have a DACCS container in their village and feed it the heat and electrical energy it requires, with no tangible benefit, assuming this is not a village of robots who have been programmed just to do that?

We are once more confronted with the ideological conflict between wizards like Elon Musk and Bill Gates and prophets like Wendell Berry and Vandana Shiva. It would be sad to see the United States throw trillions at technological chimeras like DACCS when the same money could and should be regenerating the hardwood, evergreen, and chaparral forests we desperately need to stave off the coming climate chaos.

It would be worth recalling by the Biden transition team that on a day when the Capitol was shrouded in a black blizzard from the Dustbowl, the 74th Congress appropriated the money for Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to build a great wall of trees from Texas to the Dakotas. Between 1935 and 1939, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Forest Service (USFS) planted 217 million trees on 232,212 acres. The New Deal turned back the desert and saved the American breadbasket. Now, since 2000, owing to agricultural subsidies, fencerow-to-fencerow planting, suburban sprawl, and a waning conservation ethic among Plains farmers and their lenders, most of those trees have been cut, burned, and buried where they stood. In Nebraska alone, 57 percent of the original plantings are gone, even as climate change threatens a repeat of the 1930s, on steroids. Whether Roosevelt’s great green wall will be replaced with real trees or artificial ones remains to be seen.


Fasihi, Mahdi, Olga Efimova, and Christian Breyer. “Techno-economic assessment of CO2 direct air capture plants.” Journal of cleaner production 224 (2019): 957–980.

Gambhir, Ajay, and Massimo Tavoni. “Direct Air Carbon Capture and Sequestration: How It Works and How It Could Contribute to Climate-Change Mitigation.” One Earth 1, no. 4 (2019): 405–409.

Goodell, Jeff. How to cool the planet: Geoengineering and the audacious quest to fix earth’s climate. HMH, 2010.

Hailing, Tu, Sun Zongtan, Yao Yuan, and Xu Yuan. “Analysis and Insights from the MIT Technology Review “Top 10 Breakthrough Technologies” in the Past Six Years.” Strategic Study of Chinese Academy of Engineering 19, no. 5 (2017): 85–91.

Lackner, Klaus, Hans-Joachim Ziock, and Patrick Grimes. Carbon dioxide extraction from air: Is it an option?. No. LA-UR-99–583. Los Alamos National Lab., NM (US), 1999.

Temple, J. One man’s two-decade quest to suck greenhouse gas out of the sky, Technology Review (March 2019). 

Yao, Benzhen, Tiancun Xiao, Ofentse A. Makgae, Xiangyu Jie, Sergio Gonzalez-Cortes, Shaoliang Guan, Angus I. Kirkland et al. “Transforming carbon dioxide into jet fuel using an organic combustion-synthesized Fe-Mn-K catalyst.” Nature Communications 11, no. 1 (2020): 1–12.


Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Great Pause Week 42: Taintered Passages

"Haaland’s very existence is proof that the collapse of Chaco culture did not augur extinction of the Pueblo peoples."

Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, Murales de Tlaxcala

The popular science writer Jared Diamond defined “collapse” as “a drastic decrease in human population size and or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.” If we conceive the Covid Pandemic of 2020 in these terms, it was pretty mild. It caused, as it now seems in December 2020, a temporary drop in the rate of increase in human population accompanied by slight reduction in political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for a short time. As collapses go, it was a light rehearsal. A table read. 

Covid should make us aware, however, of the potential for a novel virus or some other lethal infectious agent to bring global civilization to abrupt collapse; full stop. Had vaccines not been discovered, and had natural disasters simultaneously combined to produce widespread famines, this pandemic might have resembled the Black Death or a similar historic collapse that can unfold more rapidly than herd immunity can develop. Because Covid is only lethal in a small number of cases compared to those that are mild and confer immunity, however, a full-on collapse comparable to the fall of Rome in the 6th century or the feudal system in the 14th was never likely. Nonetheless, the zoonotic potential remains for that destiny to be fulfilled in our lifetimes.

A full scale SolarWinds cyberattack could have met Diamond’s defined threshold for collapse. It might still.

Last month I looked at the writings of environmental sociologist William R. Catton. This week I’ll dive into a parallel stream developed by the other scientist I sat down next to in that row of fold-down auditorium seats in DC on a brisk May day in 2006: anthropologist Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988).

By studying the collapse of a number of monumental civilizations, Tainter teased out many causes of collapse and how they combine in synergistic ways. His analysis is illuminating when one tries to parse how nations like the US, UK and Sweden were laid low by Covid while others, like Iceland, Senegal, and New Zealand, sailed through nearly unscathed. 

Collapse is seldom entirely the result of external or natural forces. Most often it comes from latent social forces, or entropies, that are brought to crisis by some triggering event. Iceland, Senegal, and New Zealand are tight-knit cultures with deep reserves of social capital. When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called upon her “team of 5 million” to go into voluntary lockdown, they went, even if somewhat grudgingly, until they saw what following the advice of epidemiologists had got for them compared to other countries, and then the grudges wore off. In Senegal, graffiti artists painted Covid murals on city walls, warning the population to mask and supporting healthcare personnel. In the USA and a number of other countries, the inferiority of pay-to-play health care systems, deep-seated racial and social inequality, absence of rumor control and rational leadership, and many other, by now well-commentated flaws, ran up death tolls needlessly. Recklessly.

The end of the Covid pandemic, which at this writing is still a ways off into the future, will not be the end of the problems it exposed. Knowing about them does not equate to doing something about them. By largely ignoring them, as we are predisposed towards, we set ourselves up for still greater calamities to come. One of Tainter’s contributing factors is obstructed feedback.

When you fire the head of your Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and put in a lackey, you have no feedback to tell you that most of the Fortune 500 companies and half the government agencies have been breached by a hack attack of unknown origin, and so it can go on for months, quietly seeding malware.

I am writing this just as BREXIT is playing out upon the European stage even as the Covid pandemic rages across the UK and Northern Europe, graduating into its first Northern winter. Iceland, Senegal, and New Zealand may seem remote, economically, but they are hopelessly tethered to what happens elsewhere because all depend heavily on imports and exports. 

In 2019, Iceland’s trade deficit amounted to around a billion euros. In 2020, its exports decreased 5.6 % while imports increased 7.5 %, which must have been a strain, except that since the financial implosion of 2008 they have become accustomed to running annual trade deficits and their lenders have tolerated it. Senegal is a net exporter of oil, phosphate, gold and fish. However, the country is dependent on the import of fuels, foodstuffs and capital equipment. Its sales from mineral, oil, and ocean exploitation are not able to keep pace with the demands of its growing population, causing a persistent trade deficit of 500 million. New Zealand’s trade sheet is always predictably seasonal — surpluses of 300 to 500 million in summer and fall; deficits of 800 million to a billion in winter and spring. Although its exports were down 4.4% in 2020, its imports were down an even greater 12.6%, so it managed austerity well (kudos again to Jacinda Ardern). It would be difficult to find a correlation between trade balance and pandemic response among these examples, but it is not difficult to say that all of these countries are fully integrated into the global economy and will be equally affected by what comes next.

So, what does come next? Tainter would likely say all of the nations in the world today, and their integrated network, can be described as “complex” societies. Complexity requires a substantial caloric subsidy to be maintained, which can be denominated in fossil energy, consumption of resources, or other forms of wealth. 

When a society confronts a “problem,” such as a devastating pandemic, it tends to create new layers of complexity to address the challenge, whether within existing agencies or by creating entirely new ones. Operation Warp Speed to develop a vaccine is an example of a new layer, and it was far more complex than, for instance, the Apollo moon landing program, in terms of numbers crunched, persons employed, or moneys spent. The physical resources required were “borrowed” in the sense that the US issued Treasury bonds (which the Fed purchased), and the European Central Bank or the Bank of China did the equivalent, and they lent the money to governments, companies, or consortia to produce results. While there was little immediate drawdown of real calories from food inventories, oceans, or oil refineries, these bonds were IOUs for future calories. The world went into caloric debt to fund Operation Warp Speed and all other parts of the pandemic response.

This entire exercise laid bare the hoax being perpetrated by politicians who claim there is no money to pay for a Green New Deal to address the climate emergency, because the trillions borrowed to respond to the Covid crisis were far more, cash wise, than anyone had dreamed of asking for to begin pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by safe natural means, or by sponsoring the experimental phase of new carbon drawdown economy. Still, borrowing from the future to spend now always carries consequences. Sooner than you expect, those debts come due.

Such debts are of little concern in a period of rapidly expanding resources, such as following discovery of two entire continents, each larger than Europe, populated only by inhabitants without gunpowder, Andulusian war horses, Toledo steel or any natural immunity to measles; or in 1595 in Balakhani, Azerbaijan, when Allah Yar Mammad Nuroghlu dug a 35m deep well to extract black oil, forever altering the balance of sunlight calories bouncing back to space or stored within our planet’s rock, by Watts per square meter as it turned out. It is only when such one-off expansions of carrying capacity begin to contract that debts to the future intrude and creditors come knocking.

In Collapse, Tainter identifies seventeen examples of rapid collapse and applies his model to three case studies: The Western Roman Empire, the Maya civilization, and the Chaco culture. 

As Roman agricultural output slowly declined and population increased, per-capita caloric availability dropped. The Romans “solved” their deficit not by borrowing but by investing in their military and expanding. They conquered their neighbors to gain more grain, metals, slaves, and armies. However, as they grew, the cost of maintaining supply lines, communications, garrisons, civil government, etc. grew faster. Eventually, as their currency devalued and their overstretched borders were overrun, the Romans learned lex minoratio redit — the law of diminishing returns. Hitler sent armies into Poland and Czechoslovakia for the same reason — too many people on too little land — and began strategic exterminations in conquered territories to make room for future Aryans. He followed Caesar’s dictum but neglected to read up on lex minoratio redit.

Complexity by itself produces diminishing returns. Conquest can be counterproductive, and as we saw last week, civilizations more often fall by their own hand — by neglect of the ecosystems that support them.

Terminal stages have many common elements. Shortages in things like land close to to urban centers drive up real estate prices, displacing service classes, which drives wage demand, illegal immigration, and poverty. Military conflict over depleting resources militarizes society at home. Intense, authoritarian efforts to maintain cohesion foster push-back by the oppressed populations. General strikes. Populist demagogues. Cabals. Elite escape refuges. There is seldom a catastrophic die-off; more often there is merely a fragmentation. In both the Mayan and Roman collapses, the welfare of the people improved by a devolution to rural simplicity. Tainter is not entirely a pessimist. While the cycle itself cannot be thwarted, he believes innovation can stave off the worst parts of contraction phase.

Debra Haaland by by Shane Balkowitsch, pure silver on glass for “Northern Plains Native Americans: A Modern Wet Plate Perspective” 23 June 2019

Joe Biden’s pick for Interior Secretary, Debra Haaland, is 35th generation Laguna Pueblo. Her very existence is proof that the collapse of Chaco culture did not augur extinction of the Pueblo peoples. If the Senate runoff election in Georgia goes well enough for her to be confirmed, Haaland will oversee about one-fifth of the land in the United States, 476 dams and 348 reservoirs, 410 national parks, monuments, seashore sites, 544 national wildlife refuges, much of Alaska, and the well being and demands of 574 federally recognized tribes, Hawaiians, Native Alaskans, Pacific Islanders, and the populations of other occupied territories that have been engaged in an unfulfilled civil rights, land and water struggle since at least the mid-1950s.

Harvard Lampoon cartoonist and Hasty Pudding cross-dresser Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana said, “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While the pandemic of 2020–21 did not bring with it the collapse of complex civilization, it was one more small nail in an already fashioned coffin. A harbinger, if we care to notice.

This holiday season let us rejoice that we were bowed but not broken by the calamities that beset us in 2020. We have been given a learning moment. Pray we will use it.


The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.


Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Great Pause Week 41: The Night After Christmas

"There is no more evidence Russians were behind the SolarWinds hack than that Donald Trump was reelected President."


Bil Baird, Detail from Christmas Card sent to Bates family c. 1955

Because those of my advanced age are under general quarantine orders now in the State of Quintana Roo, I did not venture out to any of the usual Christmas Eve festivities with children batting piñatas and candles set before the Virgin of Guadalupe, but made an early night of it and arose to my usual routine, watering my garden while the espresso steamed on the stove.

Coffee made and fragrant cup in hand, I sat at my desk and dialed up the daughter in Tennessee to wish a happy Christmas. No answer. I called the son and granddaughter, who live just up the road from my daughter. Also no answer. Hmmm. They could still be sleeping in, I thought, but usually my son leaves the phone on voice mail. It didn’t pick up.

I opened my laptop. The browser’s home page did not boot. I tried some other pages — Google, The New York Times, Medium. Nada. Then I tried my regional Mexican newspaper, Por Esto! and it appeared. The headline was a shocker.

¡Cortar! Todas las comunicaciones dentro y fuera de los Estados Unidos se han cerrado.
(“Cut Off! News into and out of the United States has silenced.”)

Whoa. What is that about? Now I launched The Guardian website and saw the same story, but with some more details. The writer said that well placed sources in UK government thought that since no seismic anomalies or other signs of disaster had been detected, the sudden blackout, which had come at midnight Pacific time, 4 AM Eastern, 9 AM London, might be connected to the SolarWinds hack.

The suggestion was, although far from confirmed at that point, that a hack attack had shut off the North American Electric Reliability grid and severed most, if not all, connections to the internet, killing server farms and satellite uplinks. 

The effects cascading from that kind of abrupt interruption would include not only power outages across the entire United States and parts of Canada, but also the power sharing arrangements that allow nuclear power and research reactors to safely scram while maintaining coolant flow, petrochemical refineries to remain on line long enough to halt dangerous reactions in process, and thousands of other severed ties with varying degrees of catastrophic hazard. Traffic lights would have gone dark. Subway trains would be trapped in tunnels. 

The Guardian couldn’t or wouldn’t say whether anything had blown up yet, but it did report that reactors, smelters, and refineries all over the UK and Europe were shutting down as a precaution. Mexico Energy Regulatory Commission (CRE) had already cut its North American intergrid tie or I wouldn’t be reading this.

I pushed back my chair and exhaled a low whistle. Holy shyt.

This particular cyberattack of unknown origin had been underway against critical infrastructure for more than 9 months, with no apparent damage or loss. Early in the year, security researchers had alerted the SolarWinds company that anyone could access its update server by using the password “solarwinds123” — a gaping security hole, now a back door (called Solorigate by Microsoft and SUNBURST by FireEye).

SolarWinds provides antihacking software to major companies and governments. The software sets itself up and works from the root of computer operating systems to monitor all commands. It is much like an engineered virus — an mRNA — loosed to transcribe itself into the DNA of a designated computer system.

Once through the SolarWinds back door, hackers had leisurely used half of 2020 to issue malware disguised as a routine update to some 18,000 of the 33,000 client organizations around the world — including 425 of the Fortune 500 companies, the top 10 telecom operators in the US, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Department of Health’s National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Homeland Security, State Department, Treasury, Justice, Pentagon, and many government agencies and financial institutions in North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The hack began as early as March, when malicious code was sneaked into updates to popular software called Orion, made by the company SolarWinds, which monitors the computer networks of businesses and governments for outages.

The Guardian

Once installed, the malware gave a backdoor entry to the hackers to the systems and networks of SolarWinds’ customers. More importantly, the malware was also able to thwart tools such as anti-virus that could detect it.

— Indian Express

Finally, today, Wednesday, Dec. 16, Microsoft basically changed its phasers from “stun” to “kill” by changing Windows Defender’s default action for Solorigate from “Alert” to “Quarantine,” a drastic action that could cause systems to crash but will effectively kill the malware when it finds it.
In the end, this all reminds us how much power Microsoft has at its disposal. Between its control of the Windows operating system, its robust legal team, and its position in the industry, it has the power to change the world nearly overnight if it wants to. And when it chooses to train that power on an adversary, it really is the equivalent of the Death Star: able to completely destroy a planet in a single blast.

Geek Wire

Alerted by independent sleuths, FBI swung into action before news of the breach had reached the public. Although many prominent figures inside and outside government circles were quick to accuse Russian hackers, and the government of Vladimir Putin, there was no more evidence Russians were behind the SolarWinds attack than that Donald Trump was reelected President. Senator Mitt Romney was undeterred, comparing the attack to the equivalent of Russian bombers flying undetected all over the country. Prominent Democrats said they were “downright scared” and demanded new sanctions. The State Department closed consulates in Russia in reprisal. Despite enormous political pressure, the FBI would not say there was any Russian involvement.

On December 21, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued Emergency Directive 21–01, asking all “federal civilian agencies to review their networks” for indicators of compromise. It has asked them to “disconnect or power down SolarWinds Orion products immediately.”

The warnings apparently came too late. From where I am in Mexico, it looks very much like the US power grid is toast. With as many as 80 nuclear plants melting down and already overwhelmed hospitals now without enough power to run ICUs, this is a Christmas Day we will not forget. And ironically, it might have been just a group of teenage hackers who bought their ‘Sunburst’ malware on the Dark Web and discovered the solarwinds123 password through sheer dumb luck.

Okay, that wasn’t real. I made most of that up, although not the closed consulates and FBI part. The US hasn’t melted down. I just needed to make a point about the brittle nature of complex systems. I punted my rap on Joseph Tainter forward one week to send this holiday greeting out to all my readers. Happy holidays!



The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.


Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Great Pause Week 40: Catton-ary Collapse

"Social theorists today work within a crumbling social matrix…. The old order has the picks of a hundred rebellions thrust into its hide. 
— Alvin W. Gouldner"
That quotation, from The Coming Crisis of Western Society, was chosen by William R. Catton to open his 1980 book on population. In late April, 2006, I attended the Peak Oil NYC conference at Cooper Union with speakers besides myself including Catherine Austin Fitts, Derrick Jensen, James Howard Kunstler, Geoff Lawton, David Pimentel, Michael Ruppert, Matt Savinar, Albert Bartlett, Michael Brownlee, William Clark, John Howe, John Ikherd, David Jacke, and Dmitry Orlov.

Then many of us hopped the Amtrak and went to Washington DC to attend a second conference May 7–9 with speakers such as Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, Mona Sahlin (Minister for Sustainable Development, Sweden), Lester Brown, Herman Daly, James Hansen, Kenneth Deffeyes, Michael Klare, Bill McKibben, Robert Costanza and Charles Hall. All this was followed by yet a third conference that same week in DC, Petrocollapse with Jan Lundberg, Richard Heinberg, and Randall Wallace. Such a movable feast.

As I wandered down the aisle of a theater-like classroom at George Washington University, I took a seat next to a couple of other participants in the first DC conference. At a break we introduced ourselves and I learned the two gentlemen seated next to me were William R. Catton, Jr. and Joseph Tainter. Some who read this may instantly recognize those names, but for others allow me to make introductions.

William R. Catton (1926–2015) was a pioneering scientist at Washington State University in the field of environmental sociology. Perhaps his most influential work was Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, written in 1980 but still prescient today. Joseph Tainter (1949-) is an anthropologist and historian at Utah State perhaps best known for The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988). To quote Wikipedia

His paper, Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies (1996) focuses on the energy cost of problem solving, and the energy-complexity relation in man-made systems. The 2018 study, Toward a General Theory of Societal Collapse: A Biophysical Examination of Tainter’s Model of the Diminishing Returns of Complexity, by Ugo Bardi, Sara Falsini, and Ilaria Perissi, introduced a socioeconomic system model in support of Tainter’s diminishing returns mechanism.

I will return to discuss Tainter’s work next week but in this, my 40th week of Covid isolation, I’m going to delve into Bill Catton’s vast legacy. He penned a thorough analysis of the likely fate of humans in the 21st century late in his life in a self-published book, Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, but his earlier Overshoot, written in the 70s and only published by the University of Illinois Urbana in 1980, was “years ahead of its time because of the clarity of formulation of a fully ecological paradigm.” [Amazon review] Overshoot retraced human history through the lens of biophysical economics, arguing that the ubiquitous illusion of human control over nature was a reflection of exploitation of essential but finite resources. In modern prose of extraordinary clarity and readability, Catton recapitulated Malthus, adding two centuries of data and the modern context. 

As a side-note, I found it interesting that Catton, as an author or co-author of books published by McGraw Hill, Harper & Row, and then University of Chicago Press, chose in 2009 to forego all that and self-publish Bottleneck. Bottleneck is not available in audiobook or Kindle, but there is an e-book version in Australia. Catton described his 30th-year reprise this way:

Ecological roots of our troubled time are deeper than its economic manifestations. Anguished posterity will look back on this 21st century as the bottleneck century. Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse was written to show how and why three converging trends have put humankind in much deeper peril than is generally acknowledged. First, there are many more of us inhabiting this planet than it can sustain. Second, technological advances of recent centuries have made gigantic and prodigal our per capita resource appetites and our per capita environmental impacts. Third, even though, as the symbol-using species, we humans conceivably could do better at anticipating future circumstances and planning ahead, our evolutionary heritage together with unanticipated dysfunctions of modern division of labor have kept us too preoccupied with short-term concerns. People today are dependent upon a fantastically intricate web of exchange relations (the market). Even when functioning normally and not in a collapsed condition, as currently this system of relations has a serious and pervasive dehumanizing effect not adequately discerned by economists nor sociologists. Recognition of and adequate adaptation to the deteriorating ecological context of human life has been impeded. Human societies (even our own) are almost certainly going to act in ways that will make an inevitably difficult future unnecessarily worse. Factors analyzed in this book have made people seriously averse to the kind and extent of cooperation our difficult future will require. Together with the basic trio of disturbing trends humans having become so numerous, so ravenous, and so short-sighted this has made the nature of today’s human prospect far more dire than most policymakers dare admit. It tempts even the wisest and most civic-minded to seek or promote remedial policies that will worsen the real predicament.

A hallmark of Catton’s work was his use of colorful terms to build a conceptual framework: ghost acreage for the additional farmland a country would require in order to meet its needs sustainably; phantom carrying capacity for that portion of a population load that cannot be permanently supported; drawdown for using non-renewable resources to temporarily exceed carrying capacity; and overshoot for going past carrying capacity. In a 1994 paper, “The Foundations of Human Ecology,” Catton wrote:

Until we … rejoin bioecology enough to get over thinking of succession as invader-driven, and recognize seral stages for what they are, sociologists will fail to comprehend the ineluctable difference [I would say similarity-ab] between industrialism and ecological climax.

He wanted his readers — and historians — to understand that industrial civilization causes ecosystem breakdowns more often than the reverse. Not every society ends in military conquest. What we call exceptionalism, Catton termed “human exemptionalism.” It’s an apt phrase. Failing to understand the stress any animal population places upon itself by unrestrained appetites, fecundity, heedless inefficiency, or fouling its nest, we set ourselves up for crash with scant preparation, only wealth attrition.

In an essay for Culture Change in August, 2009, Catton lamented how tone deaf elected representatives had become. Quoting Washington University professor Barry Commoner, he said the drastic mismatch between the ecosphere’s “cyclical, conservative, and self-consistent processes” and the technosphere’s “linear, innovative, but ecologically disharmonious processes” were:

… completely opaque to the person who happens to ‘represent’ my Congressional district. It is probably meaningless to most of her House colleagues, and to most members of the Senate. It would probably find little resonance with most of the voters who put them in Congress. 

Throughout his academic career, Catton labored 

to shed some light on the apparent refusal of ostensibly educated individuals to realize the urgent need, as Commoner puts it, for ending the ‘suicidal war’ between technosphere and ecosphere. Never have so many seemed so oblivious to so momentous a future-shaping condition.

Clairvoyantly forecasting the Facebook algorithmically manipulated global discourse we find ourselves in today, employing deception to trade eyeballs for money, Catton wrote:

Could mass media preoccupation with less crucially significant matters explain why there appear even now to be so many literate and educated people who remain unconcerned about these facts, or who deny their truth or at least their importance? 

He noted that “ravenous industrial dependence on exhaustible resources was explicitly depicted from 1973 onward” and “treatment of global warming by the greenhouse effect of C02 etc. in the atmosphere became fairly clear from the mid-1950s.” 

In the mid-nineteenth century, it was “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country” — i.e., go where there is new land to take over, and use such an increment of carrying capacity to prosper. At the start of America’s third century, however, it was “Try to speed up the economy” — i.e., try to draw down the finite reservoir of exhaustible resources a bit faster.
The time has come for scholars and everyone else to take a piercing look at the relationship between the earth’s changing capacity to support human inhabitants and the changing load imposed by our numbers and our requirements. The direction of recent change makes this relationship just about the most important topic there is for people to know about, and think about. We have come to the end of the time when it didn’t seem to matter….

So what explains the popularity of deliberate ignorance? Catton wrote Overshoot in 2009, five years after Facebook was launched in a Harvard dormitory room but had yet to grow to full-spectrum dominance. Disinformation, while rampant, had yet to be weaponized.

Catton at first thought the reason was that most people were not ecologically literate. Overshoot laid out the case fairly well, tracing the development of civilization from nomadic tribes in the Middle East to the economic caste tribes of the present, and flagging points of departure, unnoted each time, from the rules of biophysical economics. Since the Industrial Revolution, if not the Enlightenment, the myth of technology über alles had attracted a near-universal following; “a consummate faith that continuing technological innovations will enable Earth’s human carrying capacity to be expanded ‘to almost any required size.’ (Ehrlich and Holdren’s characterization of the mindset, Science 171, March 26, 1971). Catton quoted a 1980 article by Julian Simon:

Incredible as it may seem at first, the term ‘finite’ is not only inappropriate but is downright misleading in the context of natural resources….Even the total weight of the earth is not a theoretical limit to the amount of copper that might be available to earthlings in the future. Only the total weight of the universe — if that term has a useful meaning here — would be such a theoretical limit. In summary, because we find new lodes, invent better production methods, and discover new substitutes, the ultimate constraint upon our capacity to enjoy unlimited raw materials at acceptable prices is knowledge. And the source of knowledge is the human mind. Ultimately, then, the key constraint is human imagination and the exercise of human skills. Hence an increase of human beings constitutes an addition to the crucial stock of resources, along with causing additional consumption of resources. 

Unfortunately for Catton and his contemporaries, Varki and Brower’s 2005 analysis of denial as a genetic coping mechanism came a quarter century after their search for some way to explain Simon’s and others’ monumental ignorance of ecology. Lacking the MORT theory, Catton latched on to a pseudo-psychiatric diagnosis of anosognosia. 

After searching not very profitably through a number of papers in psychiatric and related journals,’ I happened to en counter in Discover magazine an unexpectedly suggestive article. It described research by a neuroscientist and physician at the University of California at San Diego. He studies a rather amazing form of denial. The researcher’s name is Vilayanur Ramachandran, and the form of denial he has been studying is called anosognosia. “One of the best- known victims of the condition was Supreme Court Justice William 0. Douglas, who suffered a right-hemisphere stroke in 1974 that paralyzed his left side and eventually forced his retirement. He initially dismissed the paralysis as a myth, and weeks later was still inviting reporters to go on hiking expeditions with him. When one visitor asked about his left leg, he claimed he had recently been kicking 40-yard field goals with it” (Shreeve, 1995). 
As Dr. Ramachandran describes it, anosognosia is a condition in which the patient does not just ignore his or her paralysis, but actively denies it “in spite of… complete inability to move.” To explain away the real condition, the patient often concocts “elaborate stories or chillingly unreal rationalizations.” (Confabulations is the term for these stories.) 

This is chillingly close to the denialism of the pathologically narcissistic current occupant of the White House, 25th Amendment be damned, but the condition is not unprecedented. Woodrow Wilson, 28th president of the United States, suffered a stroke on October 2,1919 while winding up a nationwide speaking tour to raise public support for the League of Nations. Despite paralysis of the left side of his body, he remained under the illusion, persistently fostered by those around him, that he was on the way to recovery. In the spring of 1920 Wilson drafted a document entitled ‘3rd Inaugural.’ Neither his wife nor his physician would tell him that it was an utter impossibility for him to run for a third presidential term. 

Nor is it unprecedented for a sitting US President to marry his own daughter, by the way. Frances Clara Folsom Cleveland became the youngest First Lady at age 21 when she married President Grover Cleveland in the White House. Catton’s point, and his life’s work, was that insanity runs not merely in individuals or families, but in whole societies.

In a footnote to a 1995 paper, Catton recalled that George Lundberg in 1956 had described social denial as “a curious form of sympathetic magic.” Lundberg defined “sympathetic magic” as any “reasoning that calls into question the wishful thinking which constitutes the principal basis of much contemporary social science.” 

Catton wrote

By thinking of denial as a defense against intolerable anomalous information, we come back to the classic assertion by Paul Sears (1964) that ecology ‘if taken seriously as an instrument for the long-run welfare of mankind, would … endanger the assumptions and practices accepted by modern societies….’ Ecology, he said, affords by its very nature a continuing critique of human operations within the ecosystem.
Some of the makers of these policies will be unwilling to accept its implications, especially if, as Garrett Hardin (1985) contended three decades later, ecology ‘demands that our current political, social, economic, and moral order be stood on its head.’ 
[This] challenged beliefs and attitudes that were central to their very identity as humans made in the Western industrial mold. In the same way, and just as fundamentally, it must challenge the beliefs and attitudes crucial to the identities of members of the 104th Congress of the United States. Is it possible that for them, ‘downsizing’ government (to ‘balance the budget’ by 2002 A.D.) has a ‘latent function’? — it has helped divert attention from humanity’s involvement in that ‘suicidal war’ on the ecosphere. If surviving that conflict requires downsizing industrial civilization, rather than just the federal government, how long can the world afford such diversion of those who purport to shape the course of history? When will evidence (or social pressure) suffice to emancipate them from habits of denial? 

The question remains pregnant. In an introspective moment towards the end of his life, Bill Catton urged young people… 

… to recognize that our lifestyles, mores, institutions, patterns of interaction, values, and expectations are shaped by a cultural heritage that was formed in a time when carrying capacity exceeded the human load. A cultural heritage can outlast the conditions that produced it. That carrying capacity surplus is gone now, eroded both by population increase and immense technological enlargement of per capita resource appetites and environmental impacts. Human life is now being lived in an era of deepening carrying capacity deficit. All of the familiar aspects of human societal life are under compelling pressure to change in this new era when the load increasingly exceeds the carrying capacities of many local regions — and of a finite planet. Social disorganization, friction, demoralization, and conflict will escalate.

Next week, we will take a look at Joseph Tainter’s prognosis, bearing gifts for our times, with the storied ends of diverse civilizations as his star in the Eastern sky.


 The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Great Pause Week 39: Amish Mash

" John Miller’s family was not unusually large. It is just that he lived long enough to find out what simple multiplication does"

Recently, on the eve of his 95th birthday, John Eli Miller died in a rambling farmhouse near Middlefield, Ohio, 40 miles southeast of Cleveland, leaving to mourn his passing perhaps the largest number of living descendants any American has ever had. 

He was survived by five of his seven children, 61 grandchildren, 338 great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren, a grand total of 410 descendants. 

Shortly before his death, which came unexpectedly from a stroke, I had the privilege of two long visits with John E. Miller, during which I learned the feeling of one man who had personally watched the population explosion of the 20th century. A national magazine had determined that the venerable Ohio farmer was head of what almost certainly was the largest family in the United States. 

A Swedish newspaper in 1958 ran a competition for the largest family in that country and when a family named Hellander turned up with 265 members, headed by a 92-year-old great- grandmother, it asserted a claim to the Swedish and to the world championship.
Soon reports of even larger families were streaming in to editors, with an elderly Mormon couple in Utah claiming 334 living descendants taking the lead. However, I was certain that among the Old Order Amish Mennonites, a sect in which families of more than 100 are commonplace, a family larger than this could be found. Through the medium of the Sugarcreek Ohio Budget, a unique weekly newspaper that is read by the Old Order Amish in all their communities throughout the nation, it was soon ascertained that John Eli Miller, with his clan of more than 400, had the largest family among them. So far as could be learned, this family was the largest in America and probably the world’s largest among monogamous peoples. 

When John Miller and his family refused to pose for photographs because of their religious opposition to “graven images,” the magazine gave up the idea of a story about this “largest family” but the interviews disclosed a number of facts about the impact of extremely rapid population growth on this family and the cultural group of which it is a part. These facts merit the serious attention of all students of population problems. 


John Miller actually had seen with his own eyes a population explosion in his own lifetime. His data were not statistics on a graph or chart, but the scores of children at every family gathering who ran up to kiss Grandpa, so many that it confused a poor old man. His confusion can be forgiven for there were among them no less than 15 John Millers, all named in his honor. And what young man, much less an old one, could remember the names of 61 grandchildren and 338 great-grandchildren and keep straight just who their parents were? 

The remarkable thing about this great clan of his was that it started with a family of just seven children. This was actually a little smaller than the typical family among the Amish, who have been found by one researcher to average 8.4 children per completed family. Two of his children died in early life: Samuel Miller, who left six children when he died at 40, and Lizzie (Mrs. Jacob Farnwald), who left four when she died at 28. 

During most of his long life, therefore, John Miller’s family was not unusually large. It is just that he lived long enough to find out what simple multiplication can do. 

One of his daughters, Mary (Mrs. Jacob Mast), had only five children. But all four of his sons had quite large families. His son, John, Jr., with whom he lived at the family homestead, had six children by his first wife, who died in an accident, and nine more by his present wife, a total of 15. Andrew Miller had 12, Eli Miller, 11, of whom ten are living, and Joseph Miller, ten, of whom nine are living. 

Of the 63 grandchildren born to John Miller’s family, 61 lived to survive him, all but six now grown and married. And of 341 great-grandchildren born to the families of his 55 married grandchildren, only three had died, two in infancy, and one in an accident. All six of his great-great-grandchildren were born during the last year of his life and were healthy infants. 


Thus, a major factor in the world-wide population crisis was vividly evident in John Miller’s family: the fact that nearly all children born in the 20th century, who enjoy the benefits of modern medicine, are growing up to become adults and to have families of their own. A century ago, the ravages of smallpox, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria and the many fatalities that occurred at childbirth would have left a far different picture in a large rural family. Even though the Amish live in rural areas, they avail themselves of the benefits of medical care. Now most Amish children are born in hospital delivery rooms. 

While the sharp reduction in infant mortality and childhood disease is a happy development of science, it inevitably means that population grows with extraordinary rapidity. The Miller family offers a cogent example. John Miller had seven children; his children averaged nine offspring; and his married grandchildren had averaged six each when he passed away. Six married great-grandchildren had one apiece. These were not unusually large families among the Amish nor among the rural families of other Americans in the past century. Yet this clan numbered 410 when John Miller died. 

Moreover, at the end of his life, the postman was bringing John Miller word of the birth of a new descendant on the average of once every ten days. This rate, we calculated, would have accelerated to one every other day as his more than 300 great-grand- children reached marriageable age. Only eight were married when he died and six had had children by their first wedding anniversaries. 

So great is the rate of progression of population growth that had John Miller lived one more decade he would have seen more descendants born to him than in all his 95 years of life and would in ten more years have counted at least 1,000 living descendants!
The rate at which population increases is almost unbelievable- even when a man is watching it happen within his own family. John Miller found it difficult to comprehend what was happening. When I told him that all available evidence indicated that he had the largest family in the United States, the kindly old man passed a gnarled hand before his failing eyes and shook his head in amazement. . . . 

What did John Miller think about his family? Did it worry him to see it growing so large? Indeed it did. Significantly, his concerns were the very ones that the demographers, the economists, the sociologists, and other serious students of world population problems have been voicing. He was not an educated man, for the Amish still believe eight grades of education in a one-room country school is sufficient, but John Miller summarized it in one simple question he constantly repeated, “Where will they all find good farms?” . . . 

Some day, at some point, John Miller’s plaintive question, “Where will they all find farms?” will have to be answered in the bleak negative. They can continue now only by buying farms others will sell them. Some day no more farms anywhere will be for sale. A finite world is of limited size. So, ultimately, at some point, is the population it can hold.


The foregoing essay originally appeared in 1961 in Population Bulletin, a monthly publication of the Population Reference Bureau of Washington DC. The author was the late Glenn D. Everett and the essay was later reprinted in Garrett Hardin’s annotated collection, Population, Evolution, Birth Control (1964).

Last week I described the Green Revolution, for which Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. While the technological industrialization of agriculture has to many seemed a major advance for our species, we ignore the disturbance it has wrought upon nature at our peril. It has become a familiar canard that the greening of agriculture as we march into the future, with organic, biodynamic, regenerative, permaculturally designed, vertical, and “sustainable” alternatives making greater market inroads every year, cannot possibly keep pace with population growth and so industrial agriculture must remain much as it is, gradually becoming more efficient and productive, into the uncertain and perilous future.

What seems to be neglected in that pronouncement is that industrial agriculture can no more feed 8 billion people than can organic farming. That was Malthus’s point.

If the subsistence for man that the earth affords was to be increased every twenty-five years by a quantity equal to what the whole world at present produces, this would allow the power of production in the earth to be absolutely unlimited, and its ratio of increase much greater than we can conceive that any possible exertions of mankind could make; yet still the power of population being a power of a superior order, the increase of the human species can only be kept commensurate….

 — Malthus, T.R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population

Humanity, despite many noble but half-hearted attempts over the past century, has been unwilling to hold its increase in line with the power of production in the earth. That unwillingness appears to be hard wired. So too are the boundaries of what Earth can supply or insults that it can absorb. A reckoning beckons. Push-back from the microbial world is only one of many auguries.


The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Great Pause Week 38: Corn Science Objectors

"There are no simple answers, only simple questions."

During the 2020 US election cycle, which now seems so long ago, a televised virtual debate took place in the State of Iowa. The incumbent Senator, Joni Ernst, first gained national attention in 2014 for a televised campaign ad comparing the castration of hogs to cutting spending in Washington. “Let’s make ’em squeal,” she proclaimed. 

Her reputation was then cemented when she delivered the opposition party response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address in 2015, introducing herself to the nation ”as a young girl [who] plowed the fields of our family farm.” 

Iowa‘s deep grassland soils churned out an abundant supply of corn and wheat for two centuries until the advent of chemical fertilizer, which destroyed soil fertility at an historically unprecedented rate — far faster than in the wasting of the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia or the Nile Valley in the time of the Pharaohs. About 90 percent of Iowa’s surface area is dedicated to farming, but its real wealth lay below that, in the meters of black earths built by eons of grazing and manuring buffalo, lightning strikes, and glacier ebbs and flows. 

Today the state’s top 5 agricultural products, in order of cash receipts, are corn, hogs, soybeans, cattle and dairy. So, it came as no surprise that a candidate for statewide office would be asked about the casuistry of commodity prices. Ernst’s challenger, Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield, who also grew up on a farm, was asked to estimate the “break-even” price of corn.

“It’s going for about $3.68, 3.69” Greenfield said, reciting from memory the latest per bushel price on the Chicago commodities exchange. She added that “break-even” would depend on how much debt a farmer was carrying. 

Turning to Ernst, the moderator asked the same question about soybeans. The Senator answered $5.50, well below the actual price of $10.05. Soybeans had not sold for $5.50 per bushel since 2006. They had not sold below $8.50 since mid-2007. Although Ernst won the election a few weeks later, the misstep was a political setback for her at the time and probably cost her some votes.

The underlying story, a tale of lost fertility and lock-in consumer addiction, with Earth’s climate and human extinction hanging in the balance, is far more interesting.

Let’s begin with the price of a bushel of corn. The reference bushel — not whole corn, cob and all, but shucked kernels — weighs 55 pounds or 25 kg. A homesteader farm family in 19th century Iowa would perhaps spend 100 man-hours, on average, to till, sow, cultivate, harvest, transport, shuck, store seed, and cover crop to obtain each bushel. There might be variations in output depending on the quality of land, rainfall, whether the family had a horse or mule, whether they owned a mechanical shucker, and so forth, but chances are the fertilizer was applied by a family cow browsing the stalks in the field in the winter and there were no bank loans involved in operating the farm. Certainly the same would be true for the indigenous peoples — Ho-Chunk/Winnebago, Missouria, Otoes, Kaw, Omaha, Osage, Ponca, Hidatsa, Ioway/Baxoje, Mandan, Dakota, Arikara, Pawnee, Shawnee, Illinois, Kickapoo, Paoute, Mascouten, Meskwaki, Sauk, Wyandot,Potawatomi, Ojibwe/Chippewa, Odawa, and Comanche — for whom bank loans, machines, and chemicals would have been alien concepts when it came to planting corn.

Of course, 100 hours labor for $3.68 would have been a real bargain for the corn’s consumers, but money did not always change hands. Part of the harvest, or even all of it, never left the family farm. Even in years when it was not profitable to sell, the corn could be fed to livestock and/or made into cornbread and porridge. The price of Iowa corn in 1898 was $0.29/bu, or $8.99 adjusted to today’s dollar. Today the bushel price is half that, thanks to industrialization of agriculture.

In 1898, no one used corn to make floor wax, plastic toys, diapers, or drywall. It was too valuable. It was food. It took the Green Revolution of the 20th Century to turn it into the ubiquitous material feedstock we know today.

Before the 20th Century it was not a normal routine to transport and sell the part of a crop needed to be saved for seed for the following year to a grain storage elevator, and to use a portion of those receipts to pay off a bank loan so you could take another loan to buy the seed back from the elevator when it was time to plant again. Of course, all of that was made possible by cheap fossil fuels that allowed large grain trucks to travel to and from every farm and for silos to dehydrate the grain with hot air blowers. No one paid for the damage to the atmosphere.

By far the best book I have read on the Green Revolution is The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles Mann. It tells the story through the careers of two individuals. Norman Borlaug worked relentlessly to start the revolution, for which he won a Nobel Prize in 2005. William Vogt was one of the original thinkers behind the environmental movement, at one point the director of Planned Parenthood, and a strong proponent of population control and rewilding. They lived at the same time, looked at the same problems, even met once, but came to opposite conclusions about what was needed. Vogt was a ‘prophet’, averring that technological solutions are ultimately hubris, that humanity should try to live in harmony with nature, scale back, and strive for sustainability and regeneration. Mann means ‘prophet’ in an almost derisive sense — the old man in the sackcloth and sandwich boards railing against the sins of the world. History may well prove Vogt a prophet in the other sense — a man well ahead of his time, accurately forecasting what would later come to be. 

Borlaug was a technophile. He found ready support from the Rockefeller Foundation and many governments for his cornucopian vision of a limitless human prospect. He almost never wanted for funds to carry out large scale projects and was in part responsible for spreading to factories around the world the Haber-Bosch process of making nitrogen, rapidly hybridizing seed into genetic monocultures, and modernizing agriculture to resemble an automotive assembly line.

Once you understand the concept of carrying capacity, it becomes clear that there are two ways of addressing the problem of finite natural resources. One is to limit population growth and improve the efficiency (reduce waste) of resource utilization. The other is to artificially increase the availability of resources, for example by using science to increase crop yield. But physics is a zero-sum game, and so, therefore, is biology. A sudden benefit to one species is an assault on another. Chemical production of nitrogen unemploys nitrogen-transforming microbiota, effectively sterilizing soil. As farms lose those bacteria they also lose an entire food chain, an unseen ecosystem, and also the myriad unrecognized benefits other elements of that system provide and receive. In place of the natural world, the product of co-evolutionary processes of billions of years, you get a mechanical laboratory experiment, made possible only by the one-off abundance of cheap fossil energy and the reliability of a benign climate. 

Borlaug assumed that once oil ran out, and it was by no means certain in the 50s and 60s when his revolution was unfolding that oil would ever run out, it would be replaced by some other technological leap — fusion perhaps, or genetically engineered biofuels. The balance that held back these alterations was derided as limits to growth, which were inconceivable. His vision was blinkered by the seeming success of the industrial revolution.

Social costs went unnoticed. Chemical fertilizers, GM seed, herbicides, and pesticides work miracles in the first few years they are applied, multiplying crop yields and cutting labor costs for those who can leverage large bank loans and hope the weather cooperates. These chemicals come with a suite of mechanical devices that favor more massive farms. When banks foreclose, small farmers are dispossessed, fenceposts are knocked down and fields are graded for the larger players with larger machines. 

Government policies encouraged farms to make the switch, as Borlaug intended, but once the fiscal casino owners were in the system, the newly-minted large farm owners found themselves on a financial treadmill. Each year newer machines, more chemicals and patented seed were needed just to keep production stable. Sterilization of soil, favorable conditions for weeds and predatory insects, and mounting debt to lenders compelled even large farmers to default and banks to foreclose and sell to corporate operators. Generational patriarchs committed suicide and lands became no longer productive enough for further investment. Even a fair amount of good lands were abandoned to residential and commercial sprawl to pay inheritance taxes. That was the epidemic Borlaug unwittingly unleashed. Vogt had predicted it.

If you believe consumer affluence is the goal and science and technology have the answers, you’re with Norman Borlaug and the wizards. But there are no simple answers, only simple questions. While science and technology can speed energy throughput to increase food production, there are always costs. Speeding energy throughput speeds entropy. The Green Revolution has done more than destroy farmland and dissolve family farms. It is concentrating financial wealth, driving species to extinction, warming the planet, depleting non-renewable resources, acidifying the oceans, damaging the ozone, and wrecking vast ecosystems beyond easy recovery. 

Likewise, while conservation and environmental protection programs have been valuable, by themselves they have never been able to compete with planet-destroying human impulses for a very simple reason: they don’t produce the food or energy needed to supply the ever-expanding global population of humans. Which introduces us to the central player in this tragedy.

Next week we will take a closer look at an Amish farmer in Ohio named John Eli Miller. The Amish take their name from the protestant reformer Jakob Ammann (1644–1712) who broke away from the Swiss Brethren movement and required his followers to “forsake the world” by practicing separation not only from mainstream society, but from more lenient divisions of the Anabaptist Christians, such as Mennonites and Hutterite Brethren. Ammann stood opposed to long hair on men, shaved beards, and clothing that manifested pride. He demanded social avoidance — shunning — of those who had committed offenses such as lying or prideful behavior. He insisted on conscientious objection to military service. Today we associate the Amish with their limited use of power-line electricity, telephones, and automobiles, as well as their distinctive “plain” clothing. Ammann did not, however, insist on moderation in family planning and for that reason, the 350,665 present-day members of Old Order Amish churches in North America — up from 166,500 in 2000 — are experiencing a farming crisis in 2020.

While they would have differed mightily on issues of technology and finance, on the question of human population, Borlaug had much in common with Miller.


The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

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