Thursday, April 22, 2010

When Does Surplus = Resilience?

Optimists about our current civilization tend to ignore the fact that history is full of past civilizations, all of which collapsed except the ones that happened to be around when modern civilization arose and managed to get themselves incorporated into it.  For example, in checking the index of Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, I find that he has a single one sentence mention (p346) of the issue.  Similarly, Julian Simon's Ultimate Resource II takes almost all its data series from the industrial era and simply ignores the collapse of past civilizations.  Clearly, these authors are not thinking very deeply about the data points that might tend to contradict their optimism.

On the other hand, more pessimistic thinkers often subscribe to some flavor of environmental determinism and assume that our current civilization is governed by very similar laws to past civilizations, and therefore is at risk of collapsing along similar lines.  For example, Tainter in his book Collapse of Complex Societies argues that all civilizational collapses share a common dynamic: as the society becomes more complex there is a declining marginal return to more complexity, and eventually the civilization becomes overstressed and must collapse.  He believes the same law applies to modern civilization and shows a variety of data series arguing that modern civilization is experiencing declining marginal returns along certain dimensions.  While he's careful not to claim specific timing, he clearly thinks the same thing could happen to us that happened to past civilizations.

In this post, I want to explore the idea that there is at least one important class of threats where we might expect modern civilization to be much more resilient than past civilizations.  Specifically, modern civilization operates at far higher levels of economic surplus than past civilizations, and this means that it is in a position to devote far higher levels of economic resources on solving certain kinds of problems.

It's hard to be terribly accurate about this, of course, since modern civilization and pre-industrial civilizations are very different, and past civilizations tend to be poorly documented.  Still, the overall pattern is clear.  For example, in a post last month, The Net Energy of Pre-Industrial Agriculture, I pointed out that the fact that 75-97% of the population of medieval European countries lived in the country must mean that the overall energetic return of their agricultural sector, taken as an entire system, must have been quite small.  By contrast, in modern western countries, only 2-3% of the population is involved in agriculture.

Of course, that comparison overstates the situation; in pre-industrial societies, agriculture was the source of most primary energy, whereas in modern civilization that is fossil fuels.  So I present the following graph with rough estimates showing the fraction of global GDP being expended on primary energy.  Here I have used methods similar to yesterdays post, in which I am taking global fossil fuel production figures, US price indices, and PPP global GDP estimates from the IMF to estimate the fraction of global world product being expended to obtain fossil fuels.  The use of US price indices introduces some inaccuracy, particularly for natural gas and coal which are less globally integrated markets than oil.  Further, I have used wellhead/mine-mouth prices - delivered to the customer, you would need to add a few percentage points.

Still, the overall point is clear - we expend less than 10% of our effort as a society in securing our primary energy source, whereas our distant ancestors needed to expend well more than half of theirs.

This means that modern societies can meet a clear existential challenge with very high levels of mobilization. One interesting illustration is response to war. For example, during the second world war, US GDP and the fraction expended on defense was as follows:

A high of 37% of GDP was diverted to defense purposes, taking about five years to increase to this level.  In the UK, which faced a more profound existential threat, 55% of GDP was being mobilized by 1943, four years into the war.  So these are indications that, faced with a sufficiently great threat, and given a few years to respond, modern societies can reorganize themselves to devote a large fraction of their economic/energy surplus to fending off the threat.

By contrast, consider again the example of medieval Europe - in the Hundred Years War, England and France were able to wield armies of 10,000-20,000 troops.  The population of England at the time was a few million, and that of France 15-20 million.  So these societies were only able to mobilize of order a few percent of their resources to fight a war with.  Presumably, for the elites of the time, this was an existential threat and they were motivated to mobilize whatever resources they could, so the small totals largely reflect lack of ability rather than lack of desire.

It seems clear that a pre-industrial society that can only mobilize a few percent of its resources to meet a challenge has to be a lot less resilient than one that can potentially mobilize of order half of its (much greater) resources.

For example, consider the challenges due to natural disasters.  A recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper by Buckley et al, discusses the demise of Angkor (in modern Cambodia) in the fourteenth century (Angkor is now believed to have been the largest pre-industrial city with a population approaching one million).  Buckley et al argue that drought was probably a serious stressor on the civilization towards the end, but also offer evidence that there were extreme flood years and that large canals, critical to the water distribution required for Khmer agriculture, filled with sand during a flood and were not cleared.

Assuming, just for the purposes of discussion, that Buckley et al are right about this, it seems to me that this is the kind of challenge where we might expect to see a material difference between modern and pre-industrial civilizations.  It's plausible that a society that can only mobilize a few percent of resources to meet a challenge, and has built a water distribution infrastructure over the course of centuries, might be unable to substantially rebuild it in the course of a few years in the face of extensive destruction.

By contrast, if, say, the California Aquaduct system were to somehow get filled with sand in a flood, there seems little doubt that the state, with Federal help if necessary, could wield enough bulldozers to get the thing working again in a short enough time to not destroy California as a society.

This is not to say the modern society has no vulnerabilities.  In some ways the high level of resources presents threats of its own.  For example, we could near-sterilize the planet with a nuclear war, which is not something our ancestors had to worry about.  And there are probably what one might class as Death Star Vulnerabilities.  The highly-optimized just-in-time, extremely-specialized nature of our society may create at least some possibilities in which the thing could unravel faster than its ability to repair itself could be mobilized. Many people feared this about Y2K; that particular challenge was either not that serious, or was adequately met in time, depending on point of view, but probably the underlying fear lurks beneath the surface: none of us understands our civilization terribly well, so it's hard for us to assess what vulnerabilities it might have.

But it does seem to me, on the reasoning above, that the kinds of risks that modern civilization faces are likely to be fundamentally different than the risks faced by pre-industrial civilizations.


ColdNorth said...


The challenge is significant but eventually we will marshal the resources to address it. This post is an effective response to the fairly monocular view of David Korowicz's Tipping Point paper.

As per your standard, the crisp historical data makes it clear that we are far from impotent to address the growing energy challenges.

Glenn said...

AFAIK our "surplus" resource base that differentiates us from previous civilizations is cheap fossil energy. Every source that I know of, from oil to uranium is in depletion world wide. The question is "when", not "if". At some point, probably well within my life time (I'm at the sunny end of my 5th decade), that will go away. At that point, a world wide economy that has systematically replaced labour with fossil energy and is also in population overshoot will no longer be functional.
I believe the point of this blog is trying to make a realistic estimate of "when".


Stuart Staniford said...


Interesting! I guess I'll take 'I believe the point of this blog is trying to make a realistic estimate of "when"' as a statement of your reason for reading, which is helpful feedback!

It's not exactly my reason for writing, however. I have learned - the hard way - from childhood on -that problems in the larger society can hurt me and my family, bad, and that I can't trust the newspaper to warn me about them ahead of time. I've also learnt - also the hard way - that you can get just as misled from uncritically accepting lefty-enviro groupthink as you can from uncritically accepting righty-corporate propaganda. There are just as many overreactive alarmists out there as there are optimistic apologists, and basing decisions on either of those poles is apt to get us in trouble.

So I think for myself, and I read copiously from as many points on the ideological spectrum as seem to at least be making an effort at honest analysis, and as many different academic disciplines as seem relevant, and I try to be as unbiassed and data-driven as I can.

And I put it up here because, in no particular order, it may be helpful to others, it gives me a convenient way to find my own past thoughts and researches, I get useful feedback and links and references from others, and finally, at the psychosocial level, I can definitely use the attention, and even the occasional friend, that comes out of it.

But in general, I'm not with you that you will probably see society not functional within your lifetime. Is there some risk? Sure. But, at the moment, the balance of the evidence does not suggest to me that energy declines are likely to be so soon or so sudden that there will be a catastrophic failure of the industrial system in your lifetime.

Stuart Staniford said...

I should add - on balance, I'm more worried that industrial civilization is very strong and will crush the natural environment under it without collapsing, than I am worried that it is weak and about to collapse under it's own weight. However, I acknowledge both as possibilities worthy of study and thought.

sofistek said...

But isn't the supposed prosperity of rich nations increasingly composed of debt? Is increasing that debt to cope with increasing resource pressures (or increasing natural disasters) a good strategy for maintaining a stable society?

In addition, diverting resources from the normal economy, to try to combat problems, is likely to impact that economy, isn't it?

I'm not sure that the risks that modern civilization faces are as different as you seem to think or, if they are, maybe that difference will present as "worse".

You're still far too optimistic for your own good.

Mike Aucott said...


In my view your analyses are balanced and perceptive and shed a lot of light. Keep up the good work!

Half Empty said...

As you say, the difference between our civilisation and previous ones is fossil fuels. No past civilisation had anything remotely like the scale of energy 'surplus' provided by oil, gas and coal.

But is it a 'surplus'? Where is the vast and growing reservoir of surplus fossil fuel that we don't need? It's not there. Instead, we have a vast and growing reservoir of energy consumers that grows in numbers (and wants to grow in per-capita energy consumption) each year.

Take away fossil fuels - they are finite resources, after all - and where does that leave us?

Yes, we are tremendously wasteful in the way we use energy. Assuming that fossil fuels do not decline catastrophically, there is plenty of scope to devote an increasing proportion of the dwindling supply to industrial agriculture each year, thus enabling the great city-dwelling majority to be fed.

That would, of course, mean a progressive reduction in the amount of fossil energy available for non-food-related activities in urban areas (i.e. most places). Unless replaced by energy from other sources, that would lead to, at the very least, some loss of complexity - in layman's terms, a lower standard of living (although perhaps more sustainable and more rewarding socially).

It all depends on how long the rate of fossil fuel extraction can be maintained. Here in the UK, the country is effectively broke; we're on the verge of losing a significant chunk of our coal-fired electricity capacity just as our financial ability to replace it with gas or wind hits the wall (nuclear will never make it in time).

The private vehicle parc just registered its first decline since WWII - everyone's surprised (but some of us are surprised it happened so soon).

In a sense, we're in classic Hirsch report territory: if the UK had done more to lessen its complexity (i.e. use less high quality energy) over the last 20 years, we'd be in a much happier place right now.

Gotta go. Sorry this is a bit of a non-sequitur but there's no time to go into energy decline and massive debt creation.

brett said...

"There are just as many overreactive alarmists out there as there are optimistic apologists"

Really? That seems like the kind of generality that you would pick apart if made by someone else.

How has basing decisions on lefty groupthink caused problems for you? I've found exposure to alternative "lefty" ideas quite beneficial in everything from child raising, transportation, diet and health care, personal relationships and mental health, financial health...

"I should add - on balance, I'm more worried that industrial civilization is very strong and will crush the natural environment under it without collapsing"

Yes, I share this worry. Of course, I feel we are headed this direction because of a failure to really give an honest try to a progressive agenda.

JoulesBurn said...


In war, it is easier to garner support for the steps needed to reallocate resources as there is a definable enemy and an agreed upon solution (win). In WWII, people accepted gasoline rationing, not being able to buy a car or tires for years, and many other inconveniences that would not be tolerated under other circumstances. Making planes, ships, and tanks instead of cars is not a big stretch. Sufficient fossil energy made this possible as well.

Today, there is not common acceptance that there is a problem -- or an agreed upon solution if one is admitted to (crash development of renewables or nuclear vs. drill everywhere drill now). If an oil shortage were to develop rapidly, much of that surplus goes away, and any reallocation/restructuring becomes much harder. Even if there is the feasibility of "marshalling the troops" for an energy transformation, do you think this is remotely possible politically at this point? Absent war, how do we achieve a unified effort?

sofistek said...

Good point, Joules, and dovetails nicely into my comment about the impacts on the rest of the economy from marshalling resources to combat the problems we're facing. We're resource richer than throughout history but we've built an intensive civilization on those abundant resources and don't stockpile much of them. Diverting significant quantities of those resources may not meet with universal approval and may require benign dictatorships to achieve.

Stuart Staniford said...


Good to hear from you! I agree society has only made very modest efforts in response to, say the oil shock of a couple of years back. There has been a shift in model of cars available that will be a useful precursor if we do get more in the way of price signals. Were I in charge, more would have been done. Still, the reason more has not been done is that the situation is not sufficiently clear that a consensus on the need for strong action has formed. I think if the situation did become collapse-like in it's implications, you would see WWII levels of mobilization.

So I guess my conclusion is that the greatest threats are likely to be ones that a) are large scale, and b) arise from little visibility to full effect in significantly less than societies emergency reorganization time (which I take to be a few years). Peak oil, at least at the moment, doesn't seem to have that character.

Unknown said...

The skeptics make some good points. First, our "surplus" is dependent on easy, plentiful energy, which is already in decline. I would add that the growing population and growing consumer demand will burn our lamp much quicker. As long as the energy is being converted into short-term gratification, such as bozo electronics and five-year-lifespan cars, it's not so much a surplus as a dissipation.

Next, someone pointed out that people are more willing to give up their comforts (part with their surplus) in wartime. I would add that, having been fleeced by the government again and again, Americans and other first world peoples may not be willing to cheerfully pitch in their goodies to be melted down for ANY purpose the government might suggest. That is, the notion of successful, government-led application of whatever surplus we have carries bad odds.

And sofistek had perhaps the most crucial point, that we're living in an era of false prosperity, based on debt. If it were just paper debt, and we'd over-fantasized about future ability to pay it all back, we could just do a Jubilee, either by collective governmental fiat, or by sneakier means such as hyperinflation. But our debts are deeper. A modest "profit" was made from a copper mine for a few years, but the environmental damage requires long years of very expensive cleanup which may, in fact, not be sufficient. Water and soil are impacted, and those are our foundational wealth. Much wealth has been pulled out of the tortured soil by means of petroleum fertilizers, poisons spayed to eliminate weeds and bugs, and by industrial tools such as combines and massive pumps to suck up ancient aquifers. Our debt to the land base is extreme, and would take a considerable fraction of future human labor to pay back, if it can even be done.

In addition, the loss of wealth that we will experience from blighted forests and rivers, lost aquifers, damaged soil, massive pollution and loss of species diversity (not only in terms of lemurs, but also tomatoes), etc., etc., means that as the population grows, the surplus will shrink quite rapidly.

Worst of all, the "political will" is just not available to stronly mitigate our well-identified future calamities, not to mention future surprises. Our governments are all dependent for power on increasing the production of military gear, consumer goods and hypnotic control devices such as cell-phones, computer peripherals, 3D TV and social networking sites. Knowing, as The Powers by and large do, what we're all facing, elites will facilitate a business-as-usual mentality (even in the face of growing scarcity) while building their own lifeboats out of whatever they can lay their hands on.

You mention the horrid possibility that we might NOT crash, and instead continue to efface the biosphere until no interesting Life at all can inhabit the planet. This is certainly the worst outcome of all, because it takes down the indigenous peoples in remote jungles, the animal life, the oceans and everything else when civilization finally falls. But not to worry. Indications are, the elite plan is to crash US, and continue on in a bubble of well-fed, tech-savvy, futuristic civilization. The Singularity and The Crash are not mutually contradictory.

Brian said...


I find your argument very interesting, but my gut reaction is that it significantly understates the degree to which the system is stressed.

In using GDP as a) a measure of economic activity and b) an indicator of total energy utilization, I think you choose a highly questionable metric. Now, I'm willing to grant that it may be the most available metric, but that does not necessarily make it accurate.

When you talk about energy surplus in economic terms, how do you account for our debt-based system. Is a measurement for a system based on debt really a good proxy for the measurement of surplus anything (other than debt, given that debt is, more or less by definition, the opposite of surplus)?

Perhaps some adjustment for the impact of leverage (the availability of which assumes future growth in debt) might be valuable.

Another modification, even absent the debt adjustment, would be to remove the effects of what Greer refers to as the tertiary economy. These activities do not actually represent productive activity (i.e., the production of goods or services used for/by the primary or secondary economies). For rough purposes, you could probably remove from GDP all expenditures for the FIRE components of the economy. This is not, especially over the last decade, a small percentage of GDP and would, I think, substantially raise the percentages that you are seeing.

Keep up the great work.


philsharris said...

Thank you for the thoughtful post and all comments.
"Our civilization" constitutes still a minority. The global industrial project reaches only so many.The majority of people still use very little more fossil fuel than their ancestors, even with increasing numbers in cities, or on the margins. The very biggest countries are 'mixed civilizations' that must find ways of resourcing and feeding and employing their fast growing urban and industrial populace without pauperizing their still very large rural hinterlands. That is they must avoid reducing or destroying the livelihoods of the very large numbers who must still live on the land. It is hard to exaggerate this imperative.
How this plays, how much 'they' need 'us' or vice versa, could determine the nature of 'existential threats' of different kinds and seriousness.
We are interlinked for sure. How much have 'we' come to rely, perhaps more than we realize, for 'our' prosperity on the millions of Chinese coal-miners? How long will this continue? In my relatively comfortable childhood in London we still relied crucially on 700,000 British coal-miners, who themselves consumed probably little more industrial product than does a Chinese coal-miner just now.
How will 'our' economies cope, as seems likely we are going to need to, with 'our' slow or non-existent net growth, even if growth continues elsewhere?

Manolo said...

Depending by which side of the prism you are looking at, there is indeed mounting evidence of a possible (voluntary?) crash by default. So far, it's only circumstantial evidence, but this should be no big surprise. Due to the monstrosity of the decisions that this implies, no one would step forward and speak out.

Anyway, it’s so unbelievable to the perception managed, social engineered masses, no one would even take notice of the message. It's just another guy who goes nuts..

And for all the armchair sceptics, no, one does not need a "global conspiracy theory" for this to happen. We are way beyond that. Ultimate power is in the hand of the very few.

@ Stuart,
I do appreciate your line of work and the controversy it provokes.
This is the essence of a good blog.

Here is what's bugging me because it's almost never addressed properly:
IMHO, the "All liquids" quantity statements are a completely misleading concept. It's the famous lie comparing apples to bananas to whatever you wish for. In terms of net BTU’s nothing stacks up. Basically, net energy per capita has been declining for some time. Ample discussions on TOD and elsewhere on the Net.

My point here is that after the latest in transport fiasco (Icelandic Volcano), it should be evident to most people following the peak oil scene that the civilisation we take for granted relays nearly 100% on its world web of transportation, mostly fuelled by some components of oil. Crude oil. We are heavily dependent on the distributed world economy and just in time manufacturing and delivery. We have reached the point where minor events in far off places can have a major impact around the world because of the complexity of the interactions.

If, or better when there is going to be a fast break down in transportation fuel (say less than 3 years...depends on the model chosen) the resulting Chaos will be unimaginable.
It should be crystal clear to anyone looking at oil production only and taking into account such concepts as EROI and ELM, then looking at the 1 or 2 billion people who are trying to enter "middle class", that we are already in a rapidly declining, "net available" transport energy environment.
I do not see any resilience here. Of course, time will tell. Soon.

sofistek said...


"I think if the situation did become collapse-like in it's implications, you would see WWII levels of mobilization."

I think that is still an optimistic viewpoint. Collapse is unlikely to be a discrete event or even a discrete set of measurements that now indicate collapse.

For some, collapse has already started. But what is the response of governments, including dictatorships? To try and secure resources for themselves and to mobilize, not to alter society to a more resilient model but, to try and keep BAU going (and to bankrupt the future in the process). There is almost absolute faith that BAU is sustainable and you can pretty much guarantee that all efforts will go into maintaining that illusion. The mobilization will be partly to promote wars for resources and partly to incentivize private enterprises to figure out "solutions".

Why do you think mobilization will be to do the right thing? That may well happen much further down the line but what will be the state of societies before that happens? Probably fairly dire. I don't think there is any cause for complacency or optimism about the future, unless you're already preparing in some way.

Going Green said...

Others here have a point that the use of a monetary metric has issues, but Stuart your point is taken--most of my time and energy is not spent acquiring life sustaining resources, and if need be, my small parcel of land here in suburbia could be used for somewhere between 30-60% of the calories necessary to sustain my family's existence for some time until the soil was exhausted which would be decades at a minimum. There is plenty of excess capacity at least in this zip code.

Of interest, I think, would be to explore the couplings. In your pre-industrial examples, a 10% yield reduction has a highly significant impact on population--almost 1:1 if there is no storage. In our era, a 10% energy reduction wouldn't do that, but it would have some effect. So my question to you is what are you after? Avoiding the "Death Star Vulnerabilities", Tainter collapse or global war or something less dramatic like a "Great Recession" or such? Resilience to what exactly?

If I am forced to transform my suburban plot to agriculture (as opposed to the small garden we have), I think there would have to have been a fairly serious shock to get me to that point and the bigger worry would probably be men with guns in that case. The social upheaval, bankruptcies, etc., would almost certainly be pretty large.

So, to answer your question, "When does surplus equal resilience", I think you need to also model the time scales associated with the ramp-up of susbstitutions, and you also need to have a sense of the stocks and flows. Then you need to think about the scaling issues. In other words, an excess capacity of 4 MBls/day, with current stockpiles, probably gives resilience near the 4 MBls/day shock level provided the surplus capacity can be ramped up faster than the buffer stocks can be depleted. If Al Qaeda is ultimately successful in their repeated attempts to bring down Abqaiq, then perhaps we have issues unless or until another 2 MBls/day of substitution can be secured--either through other oil fields or by other fuels or conservation or such. That is a high-frequency example, and if that is the only shock, we will muddle through, but if another shock comes in shortly after, the situation becomes more tenuous. Alternatively, if things happen slowly enough, then presumably the price mechanism will be sufficient to force the transition to sustainable energy sources. My current thinking about the biological imperative makes that slow transition scenario less likely if we are entering an era of fossil fuel resource flow constriction.

One way I think about it is by the analogy of the continuous sand pile and the cascades representing mini-collapses. The collapses have a power law frequency spectrum as a function of the magnitude of the cascade. Small cascades are frequent, large ones are rare. Resilience in this example is an ability of maintaining something, say a complexity level or an economic lifestyle level or the current angle the sand pile is at in the sand pile analogy, in the event of a shock. If the sand pile is small, we can sustain a large flow of sand onto the pile. If the pile is near the critical angle, extra sand causes a cascade. I don't know if that analogy is relevant or not. Probably not.

I don't know if this helped the conversation or not. If you want to be resilient to system shocks, you need a system which is not tightly coupled, has adequate short-term stocks to capacitatively smooth the flow, and can substitute resources quickly enough when certain supply flows are constricted. There are probably other criteria necessary.

sofistek said...

I think many still have the feeling that, provided problems manifest themselves slowly enough, the market will provide by reacting to the signals and facilitating substitution of alternatives. This is like what Heinberg might call a magic elixir. It assumes that it is possible to simply switch to other resources, at the same scale and utility, whilst maintaining the predominant paradigm of our society (growth) or at least maintaining the same lifestyle (more or less). Of course, the rate at which our problems manifest themselves is an important factor but, on a finite planet, there will always be collapse if we don't live within the earth's limits.

If you have a garden that could provide up to 60% of your food requirements, get to it now. It's going to be a hell of a lot easier to make that transition now than when collapse is fully apparent. But don't forget to grow for the soil too - don't plan to simply deplete the soils. I'm sure that there are many techniques that would be helpful here (e.g. bio-intensive, permaculture, whole systems agriculture, forest gardening, perennial vegetables, vertical gardening).

Ugo Bardi said...

Stuart, hi. Very interesting post, thanks a lot. It inspired a post of mine in Italian. You can see it at

(maybe if you google-translate it, you might understand what it is about)


Stuart Staniford said...

Thanks Ugo - yeah, I think I got the gist, and I like the spirit :-)

Nick G said...

It really wouldn't require a WWII-style effort.

The US could build enough wind capacity to replace coal for $400 billion - over a period of years, that's a small % of GDP. So, coal supplies half our electricity - can we really do that?

Sure. Here's how I came up with that number:

We generate about 50% of our electricity from coal, which amounts to an average of 220 gigawatts. Wind, on average, produces power at 30% of it nameplate rating, so we'd need about 733GW of wind. Wind costs about $2/W, so that would cost about $1,466 billion. Transmission might raise that about 10%, to about $1,613 billion.

Now, roughly 50% of coal plants need to be replaced in the next 20 years, so about 50% of the $1.6T coal replacement investment is needed anyway; new coal plants are just as expensive per KWH as wind, so that half, or $800B of the investment can be eliminated from our considerations.

Coal plants cost about $.035/KWH to fuel and operate, which is about 50% of the cost of wind. That's an expense that we'll have either way, so we can eliminate 50% of the remainder, which is about $400B: all told, we can discount the wind investment by 75%!

Wind's intermittency is often raised as another source of cost. I don't think that's a major cost, as I discuss here.


So, that gives us a cost of roughly $400B, or $40B per year for 10 years. That's a small % of US manufacturing, and a very small % of GDP.

A bargain.