What is "Surplus Energy"?

I've been meaning to write an article featuring Dr. Tim Morgan's blog for quite some time due to the fact that he has quite an awesome site. You can find his blog here, Surplus Energy Economics. Many people may find the word economics in the name somewhat off-putting, but these economics are more about energy rather than money and relate to the energy cost of energy rather than financial price of energy. This is a primary distinction that many people simply DO NOT UNDERSTAND, which amounts to precisely WHY there is so much misinformation constantly being spread around about all the predicaments my blog focuses on. Energy stocks are a resource that require energy in order to be extracted, shipped, refined, stored, and transported to end users all over the world. The energy stocks remaining (after the energy required to acquire said energy) are available to do actual work and this is the "surplus energy" in the title. Money is nothing more than a claim on future energy. The predicament of energy and resource decline is that due to these facts, money which has value today will continue to become increasingly worth less as time moves forward because the surplus energy it represents is in constant decline. 

This particular entry, A Moment of truth, is what promulgated this post. It goes into detail about the false narratives which have been attempted to "fix" the issues with energy decline (the constant borrowing from the future to pay for the issues of today) and the fact that degrowth is the only possibility from here on out. Of course, all the energy experts know this, and I have written posts which contain material by experts such as Tad Patzek, Art Berman, Vaclav Smil, William Rees, Tim Garrett, Tom Murphy, and many, many more. Still, many people who do not comprehend thermodynamics or physics also do not understand the old saying that, "there is no free lunch," which refers to the reality that energy or matter is not created out of thin air. Resources must come from somewhere, and the extraction of those resources causes environmental damage. For ALL non-renewable resources, this extraction causes decline of said resources, meaning that there is less available and the quality and density of what remains is also less because the easiest to obtain resources are always taken first (lowest-hanging fruit, so to speak). Less quality or less dense resources require more energy to extract, and this is the "energy cost" mentioned in the first paragraph above. For example, agriculture is the mining of minerals and nutrients from the soil, so this causes soil depletion. This is why nowadays, most agriculture requires fertilizers and other types of soil amendments is order to provide a healthy crop. The quality and quantity of minerals and nutrients that remain are both less, requiring more energy (in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and so on) to produce healthy crops in the same area. This process plays out in every mine and extraction field across the entire planet, and as time moves forward, the resources left require more energy because not only are they deeper inside the planet, but they also tend to be less dense where they are found, requiring more processing in order to reach purity. With regard to agriculture, soil depletion isn't the only issue; soil erosion is also problematic. 

The article is great for its ability to show how many current assumptions based on today's and/or yesteryear's conditions are often expected to continue moving forward and that this is not the case now (conditions are changing rapidly and these changes are exponential in nature, not linear). Prosperity has indeed reached its peak and we have been in post-prosperity now for quite some time. It explains how degrowth will pan out and how discretionary income will increasingly go toward the basics instead of luxuries we once enjoyed, making increasingly less discretionary income to be had. This has been true since the 1970s here in the United States, when we reached peak oil here. The middle class has been hollowed out by declining surplus energy as a result. 

A little music is always great, and these two songs fit the bill here and here. How cool is it that there are songs about energy and resource decline and thermodynamics! These are probably the best way to communicate these subjects; as most people probably are not going to be interested in these subjects, making any other way very difficult if not impossible to get any points across to them.

I attended a presentation via Zoom about collapse and ecological overshoot hosted by Kate Booth, Tristan Sykes, Megan Seibert, and William Rees the other day. The material presented didn't provide any new information to me, but it did offer some sobering assessments as to how things will proceed as time moves forward. Again, nothing really new, but the bargaining attempts here are quite different than the ones produced and/or hyped by the mainstream media. The MSM tends to constantly publish hypes about new technology which only makes the existing situation with regard to ecological overshoot WORSE rather than better. The ones I listened to last night actually make perfect sense, and in a perfect world this is the path we would take to live more sustainably on this planet. Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world, and most people do not want to live in a world similar to what lives were like before fossil fuels. Of course, there really is no choice in this matter. Lives WILL become similar to life before fossil fuels whether we like it or not. But most people are captured by the snake oil salespeople offering up tales of fantasy due to their aversion of wanting to live in a world they see as the "stone age" or "living in a cave" or similar versions of much less comfort. Even the presenters admitted that most of society is firmly set against the ideas brought forth in the program which encapsulates what the Real Green New Deal Project is all about; but as they pointed out, we really have little choice - we either reduce the carbon footprint of our activities or Nature will do it for us. 

So, one of the biggest mindset traps has been the constant search for more energy or new types of energy or "zero-carbon" energy (which doesn't actually exist), ignoring the facts of ecological overshoot in the process. Morgan came out with a new article which explains the scenario rather well despite being somewhat overly optimistic in its appraisal of the situation.  

One of my friends, Rudy Sovinee, pointed out two videos which help explain the situation; one from Chris Martenson and one from Jack Alpert. Gregg Senne added this video.

Comprehending what surplus energy is, taking into consideration the fact of energy and resource decline, and then adding in the reality of climate change and its effects on infrastructural platforms through extreme weather events and other disasters such as earthquakes and volcanoes makes it clear the inevitable collapse we are heading for. Just the predicament of flooding affecting housing alone is one source of such troubles, as this article points out. I wrote an article in February regarding the effect sea level rise (SLR) will have in many coastal areas of the US, and this same scenario is global in nature. Tidal flooding, also known as "sunny day flooding," is already affecting many different areas today; while today we have the energy necessary to make infrastructural changes, this will become part of history as time moves forward and moving inland will become the only option.

The great thing about all of this is that society will become far more sustainable as time moves forward, so there is this to look forward to (this is being said in a somewhat sarcastic tone, just to clarify)!


  1. It's incredibly difficult to predict how the unfolding collapse will pan out but myself and Erik are trying as best we can.

  2. i don't get the last sentence of the essay. The planet is being trashed in many ways day after day. "Far more sustainable" makes no sense. I know Bill Rees and Jack Alpert personally. They have no such thoughts.

    1. It is a tongue-in-cheek comment implying that the resulting dieoff will reduce overshoot conditions. We already know that this is inevitable but I probably should have added into the comment to reflect the sarcasm.

    2. Sorry, that second sentence should have [sarc] between the word ADDED and the word INTO.

  3. Erik, today Bill Rees published another very good article giving wording to what must happen and will happen that is put positively, rather than proceeding from the "collapse" perspective. It is a conversation that I can want to have with students and younger generations. And, of course Bill makes that conclusion, "controlled economic contraction," overwhelmingly obvious. And I just happen to be able to say "controlled economic contraction," and have it heard, rather than collapse and doom. Kudos for those who can work under the collapse or doom banners, but I am not certain those banners have legs longer than "Controlled economic contraction."

    1. Controlled economic contraction = degrowth = collapse. One can label it any way he or she likes, but the actual process isn't any different. I find attempting to put a positive spin on the scenario disingenuous considering how this will unfold. Ugo Bardi has one of the most complete blogs regarding this here: https://thesenecaeffect.blogspot.com/

    2. Erik, As much as I admire your writing and thinking, I must vigorously disagree.

      To wit: Please work to understand what those much younger than us, and particularly younger than me, are facing, and if aware, thinking. And the delusional culture within which we are living. My experience speaking to many thousands of people over the past 20 years, (and, of course people are changing, but slowly), has proven how incredibly difficult--even for those ostensibly on our side...... at least with some grasp of the severity of the predicament we face, and even climate scientists who say something different when you talk to them personally and not when they are quoted on the "news," or public presentations, how incredibly difficult it is to say or to see the end of everything we now have taken for granted for (what?) more than a century, i.e., progress, improvement, the American Dream............ etc., etc., and how much more difficult it has been for their children to bear..............

      few of them are Greta-like, most are like the students at the university I now am affiliated with--Washington State University, and they work and study believing that the current system is what they must adapt to...... in order to get a job and get enough.

      Moreover, the last 20+++ years, I have been rebuffed consistently and sharply by those in the "environmental world," and by Michael Mann (he was a friend) personally, those who believe that "you must not and cannot tell the truth, because then people will give up." And to deprive people of either "hope," or to deprive them of "something to believe in," is worse than asserting a truth that is irrevocable and cannot be wrestled down from a predicament to a problem.

      I am not trying to say that the Collapsologists are wrong or even that they exaggerate, and the Doomers are friends and colleagues. What I am trying to say is that the Overton Window, post COP 26 will open a little wider to the notion of "controlled economic collapse," and that is the vein that I believe will reach more, with more effect for any chance to leave anything behind our egregious and overdetermined Overshoot.

    3. Disagreement is allowed and even expected, Michael. Of course, whether you agree or not doesn't really change anything with regard to the facts I disclose here. I am well aware of what people younger than I am face. The future is indeed stark, but there will also be some high points (it won't be ALL bad).

      My thoughts on telling the truth are this; one who has integrity tells the whole truth and isn't concerned with how others will view it, as he or she has no agency in others' actions. I only have control over my actions, therefore I choose to tell the complete truth rather than concern myself with whether or not someone else has "hope" or "something to believe in." As far as I'm concerned, Max Rockatansky said it best: "Hope is a mistake. If you can't fix what's broken, you'll go insane."

      Controlled economic collapse sounds good, but I think the reality will be far different, because ultimately, nobody has any real control over it. We just like to think we do.


  4. I read this blog (and many other blogs), not with the intent of trying to "fix the problems" or "buffer the fall", but with an intense curiosity about the near-term future. Way back in the early days of my "situational awareness" (which started with the Oil Drum and the Archdruid Report), I thought that some mitigation was possible and even likely. I no longer think that. It's much more likely that we will keep shoveling coal into the boiler of the runaway train.

    I've come to believe that the reason that I enjoy reading "Problems, Predicaments and Technology" is that you seem to be cataloguing the multitude of issues that would need to be solved in order to keep this civilization going and the unlikeliness of this coming about.

    I enjoyed the (new to me) songs that you linked in the article so I thought I'd add another:
    Endgame - Rise Against

    A poet is wounded into speech, and he examines these wounds, meticulously, to discover how to heal them. The bad poet harangues at the pain and yowls at the weapons that lacerate him; the great poet explores the inflamed lips of ruined flesh with ice-caked fingers, glittering and precise; but ultimately his poem is the echoing, dual voice reporting the damages.
    —Samuel R. Delany, “The Fall of the Towers”

    1. Thanks, Erik. Yes, all of the predicaments I discuss are inter-related and tend to reinforce one another. Positive feedback loops are often self-reinforcing in this regard, making the changes occurring happen faster over time.

      I used to also think we would mitigate things, but have come to realize that most people don't really understand or comprehend these predicaments and it has become rather apparent that only a small portion of society is even interested in learning about them.

      Of course, as you well know, we CAN'T keep this civilization going because it is unsustainable, so the attempts to do so are becoming increasingly frantic and these bargaining tactics will only work so long. Eventually, collapse is the only realistic scenario, and it is indeed happening already as Kevin Hester pointed out above.


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