All of humanity’s feats, whether a record-setting deadlift by the world’s strongest man or the construction of a gleaming city by a technologically advanced economy, originate from a single hidden source: positive net energy. Having surplus energy in the form of thirteen pounds of food per day enables a very big man, Hafthor Bjornsson, to lift very big objects. Similarly, having surplus energy in the form of fossil fuel enables very big societies to build and trade very big piles of stuff. Maybe Hafthor has a rock-solid plan for keeping his dinner plate well stocked, but no society seems ready to have a mature conversation about how our sprawling cities and nations will manage as net energy declines. Calling our conversation “mature” might be a stretch, but at least we’re willing to address climate change, sustainability, and the rest of the net energy conundrum head on. Alice Friedemann, author of Life after Fossil Fuels, joins the conversation. For episode notes and more information, please visit our website.

Transcript

Jason Bradford

Hi, I’m Jason Bradford.

Rob Dietz

I’m Rob Dietz,

Asher Miller

and I’m Asher Miller. Welcome to Crazy Town, where residents are feeling nostalgic about 1950s era fallout shelters.

Rob Dietz

The topic of today’s episode is net energy. And please stay tuned for an insightful interview with Alice Friedemann.

Rob Dietz

Hey, Asher, Jason, welcome to another fine episode of Crazy Town. I would like one of you to volunteer to answer a question. Who’s it going to be?

Jason Bradford

Wanna roshambo for that?

Asher Miller

Sure.

Jason Bradford

You beat me.

Rob Dietz

Okay, Asher, you’re on the hotspot here — or hot seat here. I don’t know what being on a hot spot is. Anyway, here it is. What do you eat in a day? What’s it like? Just give me a typical day. All the food that you put in your body?

Asher Miller

Okay, first thing is coffee.

Jason Bradford

Me too.

Asher Miller

With coconut milk. That’s where I start. Then I will have mushrooms and spinach.

Jason Bradford

What? For breakfast?

Asher Miller

Yeah. And a little bit of sausage meat with it.

Rob Dietz

That sounds pretty tasty.

Asher Miller

It’s good. Okay, and then for lunch, I might have a soup, like a vegetable soup. Something like that. And then for dinner… it depends on what my amazing wife makes.

Rob Dietz

How lucky!

Asher Miller

Yeah usually vegetables, a salad . . .

Rob Dietz

I’ve eaten at your house. It’s quite good, the dinner. You’ll have a really nice salad.

Jason Bradford

But it’s a normal size plate, you know. With like, I don’t know, a pound of food on it or something like that total.

Asher Miller

Yeah. And then, you know, after all that, I take like a huge shot of meth.

Jason Bradford

Do we consider that food?

Rob Dietz

That is not food, I don’t think. The reason I asked you is I wanted to compare what a normal sized person

Asher Miller

I’m so glad to hear I’m normal.

Rob Dietz

. . . doing normal activities like podcasting. What you take in versus what Hafthor Bjornsen takes in. You guys know who Hafthor is?

Asher Miller

His name really is Hafthor?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, he’s the mountain from Iceland. He literally played the mountain in the TV show Game of Thrones.

Asher Miller

Oh, I remember that guy.

Rob Dietz

Huge guy. 6’9”.

Asher Miller

Only Hafthor, though.

Rob Dietz

Imagine if he was a full-Thor. Right? He’d be 12′ 18”. He’s six foot nine, 425 pounds.

Asher Miller

Holy shit.

Rob Dietz

Okay. So this guy, he’s a strong man. Right? At least he was. He was doing this for a living. He was lifting heavy objects.

Asher Miller

I love those shows. Like, why don’t you pull this airplane?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, I mean, the crazy thing is, he’s actually been training — In September later this year, September of 2021, he’s going to be in a fight with another strong man, Eddie Hall. They’ve signed a contract to be in a fight of a boxing match.

Jason Bradford

Nice.

Asher Miller

Oh my god.

Rob Dietz

So they’re like actually slimming down. He probably only weighs 400 pounds, now. Yeah, so let me run through, when he’s doing strongman training. . . I’m gonna read you what Hafthor eats in one day.

Jason Bradford

Okay, okay.

Rob Dietz

And I’m sorry. . . I’m gonna have to do this like one of those drug commercials where they list the side effects super fast or we’ll be here all day.

Asher Miller

Well Melody, can you just speed this up for us?

Rob Dietz

Not a bad idea. **Rob quickly reads the list, which can be found here: https://www.mensjournal.com/food-drink/thor-bjornsson-diet-what-mountain-eats-his-strongman-training/

Jason Bradford

Whenever you said 400 grams or 500 grams, that’s about a pound.

Rob Dietz

It’s unbelievable.

Jason Bradford

And he has a lot of things where it’s like 400 grams of fish, 500 grams of chicken . . .

Asher Miller

How does he afford this?

Rob Dietz

Well, I mean, I think –

Jason Bradford

He’s a strongman.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, he’s world renowned. I mean, he makes a lot of money I think. But that is a crazy amount of food. I mean it enables him to do some amazing stuff. Like he broke (I think last year) the world record for the deadlift. The man lifted 1,104 pounds off of the ground.

Jason Bradford

That’s pretty good. That’s good.

Rob Dietz

The three of us, we make like one Hafthor and we still couldn’t lift that much.

Asher Miller

We make a quarter-Thor. This actually reminds me, I’m actually not that impressed. Okay. Here’s why. Because Rob, you and I both read recently, actually, we read  this book about the Lewis and Clark expedition, right? Those guys were eating 10 pounds of meat a day. Right?

Rob Dietz

Right.

Asher Miller

And they’re not six foot nine, 400 something pounds?

Rob Dietz

I don’t know. I’m still impressed.

Asher Miller

Okay, I’m impressed too, but  –

Rob Dietz

I’m out of breath just reading his list. Imagine if I had to do the training.

Jason Bradford

I mean, that’s over a week of food for me.

Asher Miller

Thank god he’s mixing it up a little bit. He’s not just literally eating meat all the time.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, well, when you’re wandering out in the wilderness, and you don’t know much about which plants you can eat, I guess that’s the safety food.

Asher Miller

Well, I think they’re burning so many calories.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Well, I think this, you know, they bring this up because of energy. And our show today is about – the hidden driver is net energy. So similar to society, Hafthor has a diet. And the surplus he can get out of that diet allows him to do an amazing amount of work.

Asher Miller

It’s incredible. Lifting a 1000 lb bar.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, yeah. I mean, if you think about if he just had to survive. . . I mean, he’s a huge person anyway. He’d still be having to eat a lot.

Jason Bradford

Yes.

Rob Dietz

But maybe he’d eat three or four pounds a day instead of the 13. Cuz he’s got to put all this extra muscle on and do all these high calorie activities.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, I read some time ago, if Flash, the superhero Flash?

Jason Bradford

Yeah, The Speedster.

Jason Bradford

The Speedster.  Someone had said, if he was actually going 700 miles an hour, and he ran this far, it’s using this many calories. You’d have to eat – and it was like a Thor diet or more, right? You know, not a Hafthor diet, a Thor diet. So it always bothers me that superheroes don’t seem to eat a whole lot because they’re using a lot of energy.

Rob Dietz

Well he’s so fast. He just eats and you can’t see it.

Asher Miller

We are really geeky. Last night, I was having a conversation around the dinner table with my family and it’s my son’s birthday. And I don’t know, for some reason, my younger son brought up the idea of like, what if you made a baby in just 15 minutes instead of nine months? And we’re talking about how many calories you would have to consume over a nine month period.

Rob Dietz

Basically the same Hafthor in a day?

Asher Miller

Yeah. More than that. I think it was something like, you know, 30,000 calories or . . . No,   300,000 calories.

Jason Bradford

So she couldn’t even possibly eat all that.

Asher Miller

Right.

Jason Bradford

So I think that’s what’s interesting. So there’s sort of an analogy here that we kind of take for granted that Thor can just get all this food and do these great things, or Hafthor, sorry. But our society is kind of the same way. You know, this exorbitant  energy we have, specifically we want to talk about net energy, has been available to society since the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels. We tend to be kind of blind to that. And so we want to basically talk specifically about net energy and how it created this modern world we’ve got.

Asher Miller

Can we just start by defining it for folks?

Jason Bradford

Please, you’re good at this.

Asher Miller

Whoa, give me that compliment after I’ve tried to do this.

Rob Dietz

Right. Let’s not be too hasty in dishing out the awards here. He didn’t deadlift 1000 pounds.

Jason Bradford

No he didn’t. He just ate like a couple pounds, not even.

Asher Miller

So the first thing I’d say is we’ve spoken about energy quite a bit on this podcast. It’s a major focus, obviously, for Post Carbon Institute. We’re talking about hidden drivers in this season of the podcast. But we see energy as the kind of the key driver of the world that we inhabit now. So we’ve talked a little bit about net energy before, and people might want to check out some of the early episodes we did like in season one, for example. But just to rehash and redefine a little bit. I think we have to differentiate net energy from gross energy, right? So gross energy is all the energy that is basically being produced or consumed in a situation.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, it’s like when you read a stat like, the U.S. consumes X amount of energy in a year. Or your household used X amount of energy and you pay your bill. That’s the gross energy, right?

Asher Miller

Yeah. But the net energy is actually the energy that’s leftover after you’ve expended energy to get it in the first place. Does that make sense? So if you’re out there hunting to get calories, you’re spending some energy to get the calories that you end up getting from hunting. So, that difference.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, I think a good analogy actually was like, “Hey, I made a million dollars last year.” And then it’s like, “Well, how much did you spend?” “1.2 million.” Right? So what’s impressive is actually not the gross, but the net.

Rob Dietz

I think it was impressive that you spent $1.2 million and earned 1 million. We should stop this podcast and get you working on a different kind of a show.

Jason Bradford

I lost weight, I lost weight.

Asher Miller

So in our world, there’s a concept that’s gone around that’s basically Energy Returned on Investment. Which was coined by a guy named Charles Hall. Sometimes it’s called Energy Return on Energy Invested. So EROI or EROEI. It’s kind of a take on the sort of the idea of ROI, which is a very common concept in business, right? Return on Investment. So this is the Energy Return on the Investment. That’s the same thing as net energy basically.

Rob Dietz

And it’s kind of – I’ve written about this before, it makes such great sense as a stat. Like, if you’re gonna say, bring in oil and use it in the economy, first you got to go out and get it and that takes energy. So it’s a question of subtracting what’s leftover after you’ve gone out looking.

Asher Miller

Here’s the key thing. We don’t track it. We don’t understand it. We don’t think about it. We don’t talk about it. All we talk about is the gross energy numbers. Net energy is not something that’s factored into any decision making. It’s not something you can easily find anywhere.

Jason Bradford

And that’s why it’s a hidden driver.

Rob Dietz

Well, and I think it’s – maybe you weren’t meaning to do this, Jason, but I think it probably comes down to money. You know, like we track everything in dollars. I don’t track things in energy.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Well, I think it’s easy though, to understand if you give real life examples. So, the three of us, I just want to let you know that we’re going on a hunting expedition after the show.

Asher Miller

Wait, we are?

Rob Dietz

Can’t wait.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. So anyway, we’re gonna meet under the oak tree over here, and I got some spears lined up. And we’re gonna basically — we have to bring home dinner.

Asher Miller

Can I bring you home dinner?

Jason Bradford

No.

Asher Miller

That’d make it a lot easier.

Rob Dietz

Looks like we’re eating spears for dinner.

Jason Bradford

Well, just imagine, though, the difference. Let’s  say we do a really good job. Either we’re skillful, or we’re lucky and we go out and in 10 minutes we’ve speared a mastodon.

Rob Dietz

What kind of farm are you living on? Welcome to Jurassic Farm.

Asher Miller

It sounds like one of those big game hunting places where you feel like you’re this hero, but they’ve actually just populated animals for you to shoot.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, that’s like Dick Cheney’s famous hunting session.

Asher Miller

Yeah, none of that.

Rob Dietz

Where they let the bird out of the cage. . .

Asher Miller

Please don’t shoot me in the face.

Jason Bradford

We just have spears.

Asher Miller

Yeah, don’t spear me in the face.

Jason Bradford

But you know, if we come back with a giant quarry after 10 minutes, it’s party on. Like, our families are gonna be so happy. You know, it’s gonna be just fun times. We’ll have days, weeks of leisure because we’ve gotten enough return on that  investment of going out and hunting. The net energy we’ve come back with is enormous. By contrast, what if we were to go out, and were gone for like a week, and we come back with two squirrels and a guinea pig? You know, that would suck. Right? And it really wouldn’t have been worth it and no one’s gonna be happy with us and we’re gonna have lost weight. And so I think that’s important for us to understand. If you come back quickly with a high reward hunting expedition, you’re freed up to just sort of party for a while. And if you don’t, it’s stressful..

Asher Miller

Yeah. And if you’re not successful, you could die and this happens in nature, right?

Jason Bradford

Yeah.

Rob Dietz

Yes. I have to go back to the book, “Born to Run.” I know you think it’s just a Bruce Springsteen song, Jason.

Jason Bradford

I won’t burst out in the song.

Rob Dietz

Okay. I was close. I was just trying to tempt you.

Jason Bradford

I was so close. I started by pulling back.

Rob Dietz

But no, it’s a book by Christopher McDougall. And it’s about persistence hunting. Like how humans used to run down prey like antelope out on the Savanna. They take days chasing an animal till it burned out and had a heart attack. How does that return any calories?

Jason Bradford

And it’s because we can sweat. It’s a big deal.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. If it were the three of us on a persistent hunt for the guinea pig and two squirrels, we’d probably be — the squirrel would be dragging your body back, Asher, and one would have you Jason.

Asher Miller

I’d make it like 100 yards, and then I’d be bending over, breathing heavily. Like, “You guys go on.”

Jason Bradford

There’d be a guinea pig population explosion.

Rob Dietz

Well, so okay. I think I have a pretty good understanding of what we mean by net energy. And hopefully our listeners do too. But I want to turn to what are the implications then? Like, if we’re able to achieve high net energy what is it that that does for us in society?

Asher Miller

Can we just do a quick historical take on this for a second? We’ve spoken about this before, but I think it’s important to point out. We wouldn’t exist without net energy, right? No organism would exist without net energy. And when we were in hunter gatherer tribes, we were able to sort of figure that out. In some cases, you could say that they were more successful in achieving net energy in terms of how they foraged and the things that they did. But a big thing that happened for us, and we talked about this was in the complexity and specialization one. Where, once we figured out agriculture, we’re able to be sedentary. We were able to get a surplus and store it. And then that created complexity and society and all these other things. So that’s something that we’ve been able to achieve as a species, you know, for millennia. But something really dramatically different happened when we found fossil fuels. Because it’s kind of like, and we’ve talked about this before, too, it’s sort of winning the energy lottery. They’ve calculated that some agrarian societies, they sort of operated on a 10-1 ratio, right? So for every one calorie of energy that they had to expand on creating energy, mostly in the case of food, they would get 10 calories back. That’s a 10-1 ratio. When we found out how to harness fossil fuels with technology, particularly if you look at oil, we’re talking about just a magnitude difference. You know, early oil, like the Beverly Hillbillies thing, you know, where you hit a hole in the ground and it gushes out. We’re talking 100s – 1 ratio, you know. So just by way of context, what a windfall. And unprecedented in nature.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, very little energy expended. And suddenly, huge energy return on that original energy investment.

Jason Bradford

And then the key is to understand is that’s all ancient sunlight. So the energy came from the past, and it got fossilized, right? And it took millions of years. And so then it’s mostly underground. So you’re not competing for above ground sort of space, or, you know. . . There’s very little trade off you have to make. Whereas in agriculture, or forestry, it’s like, you’ve got to harvest stuff in your environment and your immediate environment. And so you can’t do other things with that space as much. Whereas with fossil fuels, you’re tapping these underground reservoirs and you can still build around them and farm around them. So there’s less trade offs in terms of spatial relationships, too.

Rob Dietz

Well, look at what we’ve done since unleashing this treasure trove of fuel. I mean, we’ve built up the societies that are marked by the kind of infrastructure that we’re now familiar with, right? Like, we’ve got roads and electronic equipment everywhere, and we’ve got vehicles and we’ve got manufacturing, and we’ve got giant cargo ships that are transporting goods all around the world. And at the same time, we’ve figured out like you were talking about Asher, the original sort of 10-1 and the food sector. Well, now, we don’t really think that way anymore. We don’t have to because we’ve got these huge tractors that can go out and till up unbelievable amounts of soil. And then we throw in petrochemicals to help grow our corn and soybeans. And we are just mechanizing everything we can because of this huge surplus of energy that way.

Jason Bradford

And the irony, of course, is that whereas maybe the food system used to be 10 – 1 profit, now it’s the reverse. And the only reason that you can have a food system that is negative –

Rob Dietz

Meaning for every one calorie of food that we get, we actually have to put in 10 calories.

Jason Bradford

Like at the farm gate level it is closer to 1-1. Maybe we put in one and a half and get one. But as you go into processing and all that, and we’ve had a whole episode on this as well, nd you get towards like getting it to your refrigerator, that’s when you start getting where it’s one calorie is returned for every 10 you invest. So it’s a flip. Now, the only reason you can run a food system like that is because there’s another system, the energy system, where you’re making these huge windfall profits of energy return on investment or net energy.

Asher Miller

And when you say 10 calories in, that’s not human calories, us burning calories. It’s hydrocarbon calories.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, yeah. So all these energy sort of metrics are interchangeable. Watts and joules and calories, right?

Rob Dietz

Think how fast we can go through 10 calories of hydrocarbons. Woohoo. You know, you just turn on the vehicle for about a minute and you’re just burning it all away.

Jason Bradford

So what we’ve talked about is by mechanizing these primary industries, like forestry and agriculture, mining, and getting these windfall returns, we are able then to have people not need to be laboring in those industries. So you can create labor in other industries.

Asher Miller

So, I think we’re done with our podcasts Happy ending. Happy story. Pat ourselves on the back, we won the lottery.

Rob Dietz

Excuse me sir. Excuse me. I’m not sure the story is complete yet.

Asher Miller

Right. So obviously, there’s lots of downside to this, you know. I don’t think we’re going to spend time talking about the environmental downsides, or the human cost downsides, or any of that stuff. But, of course, there’s a shoe to drop. And that is that we’re dealing with declining net energy. And we’re dealing with it in the fossil fuel energy system, as well. So if you think about it, our colleague, Richard Heinberg, often talks about it as we pick the low hanging fruit first, right? So the cheap and easy stuff to get was the stuff that we went after first. And that had the biggest energy return on energy invested, had the biggest probably financial return as well on financial investment. And when you pick the low hanging fruit, at a certain point, you’re going to run out of that stuff, and then you got to go for the harder and harder things. And here we are in a situation where, and I may have talked about this before on the podcast, but 10 something years ago, was it 10 years ago? The Deepwater Horizon explosion that happened in the Gulf of Mexico, you know? It’s this deep water ocean rig, and there’s an explosion, you know, 1000’s of feet down in the Gulf of Mexico, and it was basically just pouring out all this pollution. Nobody talked about, at that time, why are we even drilling 1000’s of feet down in deep water in the first place?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, think of the engineering complexity of, it was like 5000 feet of water plus another 5000 feet of ocean bed or something like that.

Jason Bradford

Right. Right. Yeah, it was like a 10,000 foot drill.

Rob Dietz

Holy shit. What an engineering marvel, but like, yeah, that’s a lot harder than Jed shooting at his squirrel and hitting a gusher in the backyard.

Asher Miller

And think about it. I mean, you got tar sands up in Canada, where that’s not even oil that’s finished cooking and being prepared. We have to like pour water and natural gas into it to finish it up, you know. And we’ve got fracking, where we’re drilling down 1000’s of feet, and then going miles laterally, horizontally, exploding rock. We’re going to the source rock oil there and gas. We wouldn’t be doing that if we weren’t faced with a situation where the cheap and easy stuff was harder and harder to get to.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. What are some estimates of current projects’ net energy that you’ve seen?

Asher Miller

Well, I think one thing that’s important to reference are some caveats here. So one of the challenges we’re talking about net energy is where you draw the boundaries. People have different, because we have not prioritized this as a society, there isn’t a standard. It’s not a field of study. People are not collecting information and data on this the way that we collect on a bunch of other things. And so people’s definition of where they set the boundary varies.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. So like, you could have two different researchers saying, “Okay, what’s the energy return on energy invested for a rooftop solar array?” And they would come up with maybe two different numbers. Because one of them includes the aluminum for the frame that the panels sit on, the other one doesn’t.

Asher Miller

Or the transmission lines and the whole system that is supported by you know, other forms of energy.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, that kind of overhead costs, whether it’s included or not, different levels.

Asher Miller

Right. So, putting that caveat aside, as I said earlier, in the early days of oil, we’re dealing with fields that were netting 100-1. Many cases, more than that. Now we’re in a situation where, probably at the extreme other end, you’ve got tar sands. Depending upon the the way that they do the tar sands, you get a 5-1 or a 3-1 ratio.

Jason Bradford

It’s similar to the agrarian society. And so that’s the thing. I think it’s important. Like you’re saying, it’s very hard to know what the exact numbers are because it’s hard to compare apples to apples. But the trend is so obvious. And it’s obvious at this sort of order of magnitude difference between what the net energy we had to build the modern society versus the net energy of the current energy sources and technologies that we’re now relying on for the future. And so there’s a mix right now where we have this legacy of some of this conventional oil, which is still giving us tremendous returns. And then we’re adding on to that these other sources that are that are not so great. The downside of those is a bit hidden because we’re not fully reliant on them yet.

Rob Dietz

Well yeah. And here’s where I want to take this. I’m not done talking about Hafthor Bjornsen.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, please.

Rob Dietz

Because the guy’s like a comic book character or something. But I think the implication, you know, you say that energy is declining. Well, that’s really scary. Because think about it from the perspective of the Hafthor diet, right? Like if, let’s say we turn that into the Quarter-Thor diet, right? Or even the 1/10th-Thor diet where he just doesn’t have anywhere near as many calories to spend on his bodybuilding and his strongman competition. . .

Jason Bradford

Like we say, today he gets a mastodon leg. But then tomorrow, he gets two guinea pig, right? Yeah, the big difference.

Asher Miller

That’s a big difference.

Rob Dietz

Right. So you can easily, you know, imagine what’s going to happen to him. His muscles are going to shrink. He’s not going to be able to deadlift 1000-whatever pounds. He just won’t be able to perform at the same degree of feats that he had become accustomed to. And I think you would basically see the same thing happening in society as our surplus level of energy, our leftover or net energy, is getting less and less, we cannot do the same things that we’ve been doing.

Jason Bradford

Right. We can’t deadlift as much. And that sucks. Anyway, I think, though, you know, so there are a lot of people, actually, relatively not that many, but there are people who have been contemplating this issue for like years to decades, honestly. And, it’s sort of like the hidden concern, I would say for that this issue, is brought up because it’s such such giant implications for what society looks like in the future.

Rob Dietz

This is good. Society has enough net energy to study the net energy problem, is what you’re saying.

Jason Bradford

Correct. For now. And so what I kind of was thinking about ways people have gotten at this question. What happens to society in a declining net energy state. Where we ended up going from, you know, a 30-1 maybe today, back down to 10-1 or 5-1. And the term is used as the net energy cliff. There’s actually this maybe thresholds where it gets very hard to maintain modern infrastructure and civilization if net energy gets too low. Various ways of looking at this.

Asher Miller

I think it’s interesting to differentiate or distinguish between societies that have maintained a relatively low net energy. . .

Jason Bradford

Demand?

Asher Miller

Yeah. So, if you look at traditionally agrarian societies, you look at hunter gatherer tribes, even the Amish or some other communities that have maintained relatively low . . . I don’t know that anyone studied the net energy profile of the of the Amish or anything, but –

Rob Dietz

There’s a really good book called “Power down.” He didn’t put the numbers in, but it was a graduate student who went to live in a Mennonite community. And it was about just how his life, when you’re powering down your existence.

Jason Bradford

No, it was called “Better Off.”

Rob Dietz

Was it?

Jason Bradford

Yes.

Rob Dietz

Oh, that’s right. Richard’s book was “Power down.” I’ve read way too many of these at this point.

Jason Bradford

This guy was an MIT graduate student, actually. And yet, it was funny, he went and lived with basically this Anabaptist community. But yeah, I think you’re right. That’s a good example. Like, we can look today at some, even within the US, there are sort of these subcultures, which are living with lower net energy.

Asher Miller

But I think that’s the key thing here. That’s what I want to differentiate between. Those who have maintained a certain way being and societies like ours, who went fucking batshit crazy for a long time. Right? And how they adjust to having less net energy. And in trying to think about examples of this, it’s not a total perfect comparison point, but if you think about Cuba, as an example, and what they went through. What’s called their special period, which was that Cuba was heavily dependent upon the Soviet Union for imports of all kinds of things, including fuel. And like many island nations, you know, were heavily dependent on the imports of all kinds.

Jason Bradford

And they exported sugarcane to the Soviet block, and then they got a lot of calorie crops like wheat in return.

Rob Dietz

So you’re telling me that cigars were not the main export of Cuba?

Jason Bradford

A big one, you know, but not everything.

Asher Miller

So, but then the Soviet Union collapsed, and suddenly Cuba was facing a situation where they could not get these imports, you know? And so they went through this very difficult challenging period, where I think the average Cuban lost like 15 pounds. They were not, I’m assuming, quite obese to begin with as a population, right? So, 15 pounds. . .

Rob Dietz

No, I think most Cubans at that time looked like Hafthor Bjornsson. Yeah, they were 425 pounds. They lost 15.

Asher Miller

I just point this out because, you know, many Americans, many listeners would be like, “Yeah, we could all stand to lose 15 pounds. No big deal.” But it was a very challenging time. The way that they dealt with it was fascinating. In fact, there’s a film that was made about it years ago, and people can find it online. It’s called “The Power of Community. I think it’s on YouTube now. And they were fortunate in the sense that they had some advanced planning and preparation for a possibility of this. And they had some university programs that were doing small scale, organic agriculture, right? And they were able to get those folks to train the population very quickly. To basically start growing a ton of food everywhere. In urban cities, you know, rural . . .

Jason Bradford

They broke up the big consolidated farms, and they broke up the smaller units, and got people out to the countryside.

Asher Miller

Right. They took train cars, and they put them on the back of trucks, you know what I mean? And that was their mass transit that they had. So they figured out how to adjust to get around with using much less energy. And they had to do it in a very sudden circumstance.

Jason Bradford

And they’re not like the Soviet Union, like Russia, when it collapsed. There was the notion that the population had these dachas. So a lot of people that lived in Moscow, for example, in these apartment buildings, for the summer, they would go out to these little country shacks, and they would grow food. So again, they had a way of getting by by tying themselves back to the land.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. I want to do a really quick call back to that book, “Better Off” because I feel bad about getting it wrong. That was written by Eric Brand. And it’s called, “Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.” Yeah, great book. It was a good one. I also think, if you believe the historical narratives, you know, you can try to look into the past before we had such this influx of fossil fuels and this huge jump in net energy. I remember in 1980 –

Jason Bradford

That’s way back.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, we packed up the family car. So this is with fossil fuels. And we drove from Atlanta up to the DC area. And on the way we stopped at Colonial Williamsburg. You guys ever been to that place?

Asher Miller

No.

Jason Bradford

I have not.

Rob Dietz

I can’t call it an amusement park. No, it’s more like a working village.

Asher Miller

People like actors?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, reenactors.

Asher Miller

Yeah, they’re like up and playing roles and churning butter and shit.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, we got to go into the gingerbread shop and buy from where they had the big woodfired stove or oven. Yeah, it was great.

Jason Bradford

Ginger is a tropical –

Asher Miller

Yeah, do you think colonial . . .?

Rob Dietz

Well, it was molasses.

Asher Miller

Okay.

Rob Dietz

They just still called it ginger so that us modern people, we know what the hell we were buying.

Jason Bradford

Yes, molasses cookies.

Rob Dietz

I don’t know if they’re still doing that in Williamsburg. But it was pretty cool, though. I mean, they have the original buildings and the layout of the town is neat. But you can start to see how the reenactors live. Of course they probably just go to their trailer park after the day is done, sucking down Coors beers and watching Netflix, or whatever.

Asher Miller

We’re not even talking about sort of a dark side of societies that have less that energy in terms of how they exploited labor, particularly slave labor. Of course that make me think of that. That’s not something we want to go to, obviously. But I bet a lot of our listeners, and certainly the broader public might be asking like, what are you guys talking about? We got renewable energy. We know we got to get away from fossil fuels. You guys are just talking about fossil fuels here. What’s the issue here? Because we have these renewable alternatives, right? So I think we got to talk about that in this context, and to talk about the role of technology a little bit.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, I think that’s really important. Because, you know, I think a lot of what you would think about renewables – another term I’ve heard for them is rebuildables – and that the infrastructure that you build, if you build a bunch of solar panels, or you build winter wind turbines . . . if those eventually wear out, things break down, entropy is a real problem. And some of the first generation wind turbines right now are being taken apart and put into landfills because they wore out and they’re getting replaced maybe. But what’s happening now is, if you think of all the components, all the metal components of these things, concrete, etc. . . all that stuff is actually getting harder to get. There’s actually more energy required now to go mine copper than there ever was, right? The ore concentration. It’s like, the low hanging fruit principle applies not just to us trying to access energy, but also to access all these other materials that go into the industrial economy.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, you try to imagine a mining machine that’s powered by a wind turbine that’s stuck on top of it? Or some some solar panel? You can’t rebuild an infrastructure right now, a renewable energy infrastructure, using renewable energy as the source.

Asher Miller

So there’s two things here. There’s the fact that renewable energy right now is still heavily dependent upon fossil fuels, and there are major challenges to substitution of fossil fuels with renewable energy. We’ve talked about this before, listeners can go check out, we published a book, which was really an analysis of the renewable energy transition called, “Our Renewable Future.” And you can go to ourrenewablefuture.org to get all this information. In fact, we even have a section on there, if you go to the present section, and when we talk about sort of the life cycle analysis of different things in the average American’s life, to unpack some of that stuff. But just from the standpoint of thinking about the net energy of renewables . . . Again, it’s difficult to come up with an exact number on these things. But I think it is fair, and even conservative to say that return does not match the returns that we had gotten when we built the modern world the way we built it right. Okay? I mean, it just makes sense from what you talked about, Jason, where fossil fuels are ancient sunlight that has been stored, compacted and transformed into this incredible dense, easily transportable form, has all these other benefits to it as well. You know, to think about getting sunlight, that’s fine. Even wind is a form of sunlight. That’s in the present in the sense. And we can talk about storing it, but that takes a lot of energy as well.

Rob Dietz

Oh yeah. Well, even if you say – let’s say that your renewables have a pretty high energy return on energy invested. It still is problematic because of the way that those returns come back to you. If you get a barrel of oil, you can burn it and use it for whatever you want. Whereas with solar or wind, it’s more of a flow over time. All of your energy that you invest is kind of up front. And then, you have this slow payback period, say over 30 years for a solar panel, for example. It’s not that that’s necessarily bad, maybe that would be good in terms of slowing us down a little bit, or making us think a little more carefully about how we use our energy. But it certainly is bad if your intention is to maintain, or even grow, the kind of society that we’ve become accustomed to.

Jason Bradford

And there’s really interesting work being done on this. Some European biophysical kind of economists groups have modeled this sort of thing out. Trying to understand, how does the European industrial economy shift to building out renewable energy infrastructure? And so they looked at this, and the materials required to put into building out the alternative energy infrastructure and the energy required to do that is so large, and it only has a payback that delivers a slow payback, that it basically sucks so much out of the rest of the economy that there’s no way you can get to vote. You can’t do both. And so this has been modeled. And this has been understood, not just from the perspective we’ve been talking about, of like, you can tell these stories about hunting and having a quick, huge return and having all the surplus that you can do other things about. Or, having to really struggle to get enough every day. So what we’re doing is when we talk about this renewable energy transition, it’s putting in these technologies that don’t provide this quick, high net payback. And it means that there isn’t this surplus to have what ballets and libraries and superconducting supercolliders. And all this stuff we think about is like part of modernity. You go, can we support it anymore? That’s the question.

Jason Bradford

And we have another which is, maybe it’s a side topic, but another conundrum for ourselves, which is that climate science tells us we have to rapidly phase out fossil fuels and decarbonize. I mean, to the point where the IPCC report a few years ago, came out and said, basically, within a dozen years – that was two years ago – we got to reduce 45%. That’s just massive, right?

Rob Dietz

Yeah. Most people don’t realize that that report was subtitled: “We’re all gonna die.”

Asher Miller

And the challenge there is that would say let’s do the fastest build out of renewables we possibly can. When you do that, not only do you run into the issue that you’re talking about Jason, which is you’re, in essence cannibalizing energy from the rest of the economy. And you’re probably going to run up against some constraints in terms of natural resources that you need to get for the whole thing. And probably spurring investments and all kinds of the worst shit. You know, more tar sands, more whatever. You get a big pulse of carbon that comes out even if you’re able to do that. It’s a real conundrum. But this gets back to this  whole thing around this being a hidden driver. The fact that we don’t think about net energy means that we are not thinking about the choices that we’re making in a realistic way.

Jason Bradford

We think that technology is going to do it, and it’s like, you confuse the fact that these technologies are all based upon this continuous flow of this high net energy.

Rob Dietz

That’s right. This gets back even to energy literacy, where people don’t even I think, typically understand the difference between technology and energy.

Asher Miller

I got a got a huge point, Jason, I got to share a really depressing story with you on that.

Rob Dietz

Yay, depressing stories.

Asher Miller

So gather around. I was in DC. I didn’t do a car trip, you know, with my parents, but I was in Washington, DC with David Hughes, who’s somebody PCI has worked with for a long time now, looking specifically at what’s been happening with fracking. You know, world and gas production in the United States, around that. And we were there. We were doing some presentations and briefings. And while we were there, we decided to meet with the Energy Information Administration. Now, I’m not going to go on a whole tirade, but the Energy Information Administration does an incredible job of providing us information. They don’t give us net energy information. They give us gross energy information. But they have all this data that’s incredible. They make it available to the public every year. They do this annual energy report which includes an outlook for the future. And they had been for over a decade, been talking up the potential of fracking sources of fossil fuels in the United States. And we were kind of pouring some cold water on that, for lots of reasons I won’t get into.

Jason Bradford

It’s like that they think California had this enormous amount at one point. Remember that?

Asher Miller

Yeah. So they had said that the Monterey formation in California had at the point that they publish this analysis, they said something like two thirds of all of the unconventional resources, oil resources, in the United States.

Jason Bradford

Property values plummeted in Monterey, California.

Asher Miller

No, what ended up happening was you had these universities talking about how there’s gonna be such a surplus by producing this tax revenue and all these things. They could pay for all this stuff, create all these jobs. Everyone was like all super excited about it. And you know, the environmentalists were freaking out, understandably, because like, this is the last thing that we should be doing right now from a climate perspective. And we are like the only ones out there saying, “Well, wait a second. Do we know that this is even real? Like that we can actually produce this much?” And so we actually did publish a report with David Hughes basically saying, there’s no way that we could ever achieve what they claiming.

Asher Miller

It’s like hunting guinea pigs.

Asher Miller

And yeah, they then down downgraded their projected by 96% afterwards. But that’s not the point of the story. That story was, here we were having a meeting with these guys. And we were there with the guys that work on the Energy Outlook, every year. And they had kind of hurt feelings because they felt like we were attacking them. And then we had the administrator for the EIA there. The top guy there. Appointed by the government, by the President of the United States, who was there, and he was in a meeting with us. And we’re having a conversation. And we brought up the topic of net energy, and he did not know what that was. He didn’t know what that meant. So we had to explain it to him. And we’re talking to him about, “Well, look at tar sands, 5-1, 3-1 ratio.” And he still didn’t understand the problem.

Jason Bradford

Did you talk to him about hunting mastodons versus guinea pigs?

Asher Miller

Well, maybe we should have. Maybe he would have understood that. But no, he was an economist. He’s like, “Okay, so we pay a little bit more money for it.”

Jason Bradford

Right.

Asher Miller

He’s only thinking about it from a financial perspective. He did not understand that our society, like even just agrarian societies, need 10-1, let’s just say, in order to function, and have any of the things that they enjoy, right? Okay. Imagine our society try to function on a 3-1 energy return on energy invested.

Rob Dietz

Look, look. You don’t want to go appointing somebody who understands physical reality to be the head of an agency. You want somebody who can do percentage share. Who knows that with a little bit of money and tons of analysts with a magic eight ball that the outlook is good.

Jason Bradford

They know how to work spreadsheets.

Asher Miller

There’s two things here that I just can’t hit strongly enough in terms of their importance. One is, all the things that we care about are a result of net energy.

Jason Bradford

Like what?

Asher Miller

Art, education, you know. Health care, advances in science. All the things that we enjoy about life.

Rob Dietz

All the things that we actually think is human product.

Jason Bradford

Warm clothing.

Asher Miller

They’re all a result of surplus energy.

Rob Dietz

What about love? Is love. . .  I guess on some level it really is. If you can’t live, you can’t love right?

Jason Bradford

I know.

Asher Miller

So that’s one thing. And the second thing is, nobody gets that. Nobody understands that. Nobody understands that there’s an issue with this. If you think that the people that are at the highest levels of government and you know, policymaking and all this stuff, get it, they don’t get it either.

Rob Dietz

Well, I get it now. Now that I know we’ve got all this surplus energy. I’m gonna go eat 13 pounds of food and get down to the gym so that I can deadlift, what, 38 pounds.

Asher Miller

Because that is perfect use of that net energy.

Jason Bradford

Hey, buddy, it’s lunchtime. I’m gonna go cook it up for you.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, sweet. Add a guinea pig if you would.

Jason Bradford

Okay.

Asher Miller

Stay tuned for our George Costanza Memorial, Do the Opposite Segment where we discuss things we can do to get the hell out of  Crazy Town

Jason Bradford

You don’t have to just listen to the three of us blather on anymore.

Rob Dietz

We’ve actually invited someone intelligent on the program to provide inspiration. Hey, Jason, Asher, in a ongoing item here where we share a review, we got a new one that just came in from blackpoth05. Would you like to hear it?

Jason Bradford

Of course I do. Make my day.

Rob Dietz

Okay, here we go. “Great podcast. I’ve listened eagerly to nearly every episode. I learned a ton from the overview of energy literacy in Season 1. Asher, Jason, and Rob artfully blend humor and serious discussion of the most pressing challenges we face as a species. For someone who easily gets overwhelmed by reading and listening to content about the climate crisis, Crazy Town hits the spot there.” What do you think of that?

Asher Miller

I just have to confess that was my mom who wrote that review. No, I don’t know.

Rob Dietz

Jason, are you blackpoth05?

Jason Bradford

Not this time.

Asher Miller

I’m distinctly uncomfortable with these kinds of compliments. But I do really appreciate it.

Jason Bradford

I’m really happy they threw back to Season 1. Thank you so much for listening into the deep archives.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, thanks a lot. And please, if you like the show, go out and give us a rating and a review. And maybe we’ll read yours.

George  Costanza

Every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be.

Jerry Seinfeld

If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.

Jason Bradford

All right, Do the Opposite is really tough for this one. Because you you know, just like –

Asher Miller

Don’t use energy at all. How ’bout that?

Rob Dietz

Net energy is always bad.

Jason Bradford

Well, I think the big one that comes to my mind is the fact that we’ve essentially been substituting energy and mechanization for human labor. And that’s been the big drive. That’s what you are driven to do. Almost every business is like, get rid of high labor and delivery service costs. Yeah, drop it. But almost every time we do that, if look at the math, the amount of energy needed to do work goes up. So when we substitute technology, we say we’re submitting technology for labor to reduce labor, we end up increasing the amount of energy needed to do the same task in almost every case. So you can think like the checkout stand at the supermarket. . . It’s like, well, let’s put in computerized checkouts. So people can self serve and we’re gonna reduce labor. More energy. It’s less energy to have a person standing there helping you check out.

Rob Dietz

The only case I can think of to counter that is it’s way less energy intensive to mine Bitcoin as a person, you know. You can dig up any amount of Bitcoin. But the computers running. . .

Jason Bradford

Yeah, super energy intensive. So Do the Opposite is to say like, no, wait, stop. Stop trying to replace labor with energy and technology. Actually, we need to shift to a high labor, or lower technology economy.

Asher Miller

Yeah, good luck running on that platform.

Rob Dietz

Well, it’s also –

Jason Bradford

Vote for Bradford.

Rob Dietz

It’s really, really hard.

Asher Miller

“More work, less toys!”

Jason Bradford

“Throw me in the salt mines.”

Rob Dietz

It’s really hard to do too when this is the system right? Even if you’re thinking about it as a business owner,  every incentive is to minimize cost, which right now energy is still cheap. So It’s almost more like, find the right time to do it. It’s like, prepare yourself mentally for a more labor-intensive economy.

Jason Bradford

Well, I know like, for me, I’m doing farming. I have like student interns help out. I find ways to get people to volunteer. And they want the experience, right? They’re interested in the educational aspect of it. And so you know, there’s ways maybe through training and education programs that you start building in systems that allow you to use more labor but still not go broke.

Asher Miller

Yeah, I still can’t get over how politically implausible this Do the Opposite is. It’s just so far from what everything that we tend to think of as a given us assumption, right? But yeah, but it’s necessary. The other thing I think you just don’t stick with in the technology front is Do the Opposite by avoiding the whiz bang, super complex technology solutions that are being offered.

Jason Bradford

Oh, the latest is hydrogen is back.

Asher Miller

Yeah. Hydrogen paste, right?

Rob Dietz

The Hindenburg people are all selling hydrogen left and right, huh?

Asher Miller

It’s not just from an energy standpoint. It’s these complex technology systems are very vulnerable. And so thinking about more simple technology solutions, there’s a guy named Kris De Decker, who’s got a website called lowtechmagazine.com. Basically, it’s really remarkable. And if you check this stuff out there, he talks a lot about a lot of technologies. There, you know, people call them appropriate technologies or smaller scale. They’re less complex. They meet a lot of human needs. We were pretty ingenious 300 years ago, too. It’s not like we suddenly got super smart, you know. We just have less crazy energy to throw things. In fact in some ways we were more ingenious then.

Jason Bradford

There’s ways though, like if we were designing for this stuff, like designing for a low net energy future . . . I’m just imagining what we could do with 3D printing and advanced manufacturing to some extent, right. Like, there’s probably amazing tools we could provide people that are super efficient compared to what they had a couple 100 years ago. But instead, we’re not. The other thing that drives me kind of nuts is the whole fake meat business. I understand industrial agriculture, and industrial meat in particular is pretty horrific. But the fake meat is just a piggyback off of industrial agriculture and saying, like, grow corn and soy, industrially. You get cheap inputs to the factory to produce stuff that approximates meat. Just absurd, right? Another high tech, ultra high processed food item.

Rob Dietz

I think like a lot of the things that the three of us end up coming around to is that there’s a balance here. I liked what you said, Asher, about technologies meeting human needs. Like, there are needs that we have, and there are ways of fulfilling those through technology. But it doesn’t always have to be more and more and more technology. It’s like, we kind of need a when-to-stop rule on it.

Jason Bradford

That book that you referenced by Eric Brand –

Rob Dietz

“Better Off,” yeah.

Jason Bradford

That is a great book. It’s over 10 years old now, but what a great book that was. It really just talks about that from an amazing perspective of technology and culture and how to choose a technology that’s appropriate.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, I think that for me, a Do the Opposite is really trying to get yourself in that mindset, you know. We’re not really experiencing the net energy decline in a really serious way yet. We may experience it soon, you know, whatever. I don’t know that I could predict with any kind of accuracy when we might really feel those effects. But if you can kind of wrap your head around the idea that I can live a more powered down life, and maybe I’m even happier, you know. That I’m finding ways to meet my needs simply. I mean, I think that’s a lot of what the voluntary simplicity movement is about. And a lot of those folks are happy and lead meaningful lives.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Figure out how to get lean. Figure out how to use lower, less complex tech that you can understand and maybe fix yourself. Maybe have someone locally actually make it perhaps. And just demand less energy in general.

Asher Miller

Seems like a lot of work. I think we should just go crazy for a while, eat as many calories as we possibly can, consume as much energy as we possibly can.

Rob Dietz

Figure out how to get lean like Hafthor Bjornsen.

Jason Bradford

We should cook exactly the meal or the daily meals that you mentioned, and just see if the three of us can eat that.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, let’s go get some food.

Jason Bradford

Okay, Crazy Towners. Get ready. I’m thrilled to have the chance to interview Alice Friedemann, a friend of mine for about 15 years now. Alice is one of these rare, prolific generalist type people. She’s an avid reader of nonfiction books, and the peer reviewed literature, and can pull together this comprehensive perspective on so many subjects by being literate and familiar with so many sources. She’s ecologically and energy literate, and the author of a few books we’ll mention in the interview. Most recently, “Life after Fossil Fuels,” and the creator of the website energyskeptic.com. Alrighty, here we go. Alice, thank you so much for joining us on Crazy Town for the Do the Opposite interview on our net energy show. So welcome.

Alice Friedemann

Thank you. Good to see you, Jason.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, good to see you. I gave you kind of the raw recording of the show. So you had a chance to kind of review this show on net energy and follow the conversation that Rob and Asher, and I had. So I just wanted to know, before we get going into the kind of the do the opposite side of things, if you had any additional insights on the importance of net energy and how it has landed us in Crazy Town?

Alice Friedemann

Well, my favorite part of the show was talking about Thor?

Jason Bradford

Hafthor, yeah.

Alice Friedemann

Hafthor. Because in my Life after Fossil Fuels, I stumbled on a Department of Energy website that’s desperately trying to explain to the public how energy works. And they use the burrito unit of measurement. So if a burrito is like 1200 calories a burrito, then we need 600 burritos of energy to stay alive. And they also worked out how much you use in your driving around and your heating of your home. You’re actually consuming 31,000 burritos a year.

Jason Bradford

Okay, so the 600 is per year?

Alice Friedemann

That’s just your food calories.

Jason Bradford

Right. And then all the other stuff is 31,000.

Alice Friedemann

Yeah, and then the world using like 41 septillion. There’s so many zeros that I’m not even sure what the number is.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, so we didn’t do the conversion of the Hafhor burrito diet. But yeah, similar kind of concept. So that’s great. Yeah, that’s a really neat example. Yeah, it was fun to read your book. I got into quite a bit of it. And anything else? Like I remember that there was a lot of interesting stuff, for example, in chapter nine, that I don’t think we covered very well. Do you want to go over some of that?

Alice Friedemann

Yeah. I mean, there’s been a lot of talk about the electricity for trying to build electric trucks, which my first book I explained why that won’t happen. Batteries are too heavy, basically. But there hasn’t been much done about electrifying manufacturing. So how are you going to make wind turbines and so on, if you can’t manufacture them with electricity? It turns out that manufacturing is so competitive, you know, pennies of profit, that nobody’s ever even looked at electrifying manufacturing. Because it would cost trillions to convert existing factories, and they would just relocate to wherever there were still fossil fuels. So just economically, it’s not going to happen. Some scientists have started to look into it. And there still is no electric way to make cement. And it has to do with hundreds of feet long kilns in direct and indirect heat. Steel can be recycled electrically. But fresh steel, you need incredibly high heat. And that’s true for all metals up to 3200 Fahrenheit. And that requires fossil fuel heat. Renewables can’t do it. Geothermal only generates 380 degrees, nuclear about 600, solar parabolic troughs about 750. Even advanced nuclear would only be 1500. So it’s only half of what you need for a lot of products. Glass, ceramics, bricks, microchips, so much of our world is built on that high heat of fossil fuels.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, it’s fascinating. Your book has these really interesting charts that talk about these products that we’re used to getting, right? The steel, the cement, sand to make glass, you know, silicon. And that we used to use wood and we make charcoal out of the wood. But coal replaced that. But that was how we sort of were able to start doing some of this stuff, was with charcoal. And learning a bit with early Industrial Revolution, right? So I find it really fascinating that no one’s really talking about it, like you said. That getting high heat in manufacturing was a critical part of early Industrial Revolution. And electricity is just a very, very inefficient and difficult way to get heat that high. And no one’s really studied it, like you’re saying. It’s just amazing what we’re talking about this transition to an all electric economy, right? And that’s the thing. And you go, “Wait a second. All these in these industrial manufacturing plants, which are enormous, complex places. How do we transition any of them? It’s just like a complete, just nobody seems to be talking or thinking about it. Except for like you. What’s the deal?”

Alice Friedemann

I don’t know. So you know, you raise some hopes with wood charcoal, but that doesn’t scale up. You lose all your forests within a month or two, who knows? I haven’t worked out exactly. But coal makes much better products than wood charcoal, much sturdier, stronger, better quality. And we’ve peaked in coal production in the United States decades ago. Worldwide, probably, too. Oil production peaked in 2018. So even the fossil energy isn’t going to be around much longer.

Jason Bradford

Right. And that’s why it’s called, you know, “Life after Fossil Fuels”  So I think, you know, you do a really good job of sort of understanding why it’s difficult to just continue to manufacture wind turbines, solar panels, etc. without fossil fuels. Like we can maybe build a whole fleet of them with fossil fuels, because we can manufacture things. So they’re made out of concrete, and they’re made out of steel and complex plastics, for example, and sand. And those require this high temperature that they can’t themselves regenerate very well. So . . .

Alice Friedemann

It’s not only that, but renewables are intermittent. There’s many products that run 24 hours, seven days a week. If you interrupted the process, then the pipes would clog up with the chemical or whatever was being made, and ruin the factory for weeks or months until you could get the stuff out of the piping,

Jason Bradford

Right. We don’t know how to do batch processing of a lot of stuff. It’s all this continuous processing.

Alice Friedemann

Microchips can take four months to make. If at any moment the electricity goes out, you’ve just lost four months of microchips that are in every product. Even your toaster has a microchip. One more thing, you can’t store the high heat. It dissipates very quickly, and it won’t store at any hot temperature. So that’s not an option. Like we’re trying to store electricity in batteries. That’s almost impossible, but storing heat is even more impossible. And hydrogen won’t work. All these other possibilities aren’t going to make manufacturing possible, either.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. And we do talk about that kind of in Crazy Town. You know, the energy literacy issue, and the fact that we just don’t quite understand energy and these unique properties of fossil fuels and the trade offs of different energy systems. So I think your book does a good job of that. And what I found fascinating then was, you have this frame, this really key frame in your book of wood world versus fossil world. And there are so many insights into this. And what it means basically, your conclusion is, we’re going to go back to wood world. That civilization, if it lasts, will be a wood world civilization. And so maybe share some of the key points in your book related to what wood world means. And what it means in the context of do the opposite.

Alice Friedemann

Well, obviously, we should be reforesting, and especially building coppice woodlands that people can harvest to cook their food with, to heat their homes, to build furniture. Wood becomes our new infrastructure, too, not just a heat source. Basically, what all civilizations did before fossil fuels. And that gets rid of CO2. Like it’s a real heavy thing to do. Though, the decline of energy is joined at the hip with climate change, and what you need to do for reduced energy also will help with climate change.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. And so if we have to heat with wood again, it seems like then we’ve got to rethink how we live, right?

Alice Friedemann

Yeah, you want much smaller square feet to heat and deal with. Like insulated townhouses or homes built up against each other to share the heat.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, people talk about why cities are then so much more efficient, right. So there’s often this thing in the sustainability literature of, “pack people in the cities because there’s efficiency there.” And they’re often referring to this kind of efficiency. But then the dilemma becomes, these cities are so vast and have such a high area footprint that now people can’t provision from locally. So are we talking more like historic villages where you would have clusters of people, but they could walk to walk to their forests and fields?

Alice Friedemann

Oh, exactly. I mean, in previous wood civilizations 80% of people were farmers. So we definitely need to be going back to that. And organic agriculture. Because another important use of fossil fuels is the natural gas fertilizer, which is not only a component, but the energy to make it keeps half of the world’s population alive. 4 billion people. The only replacement for natural gas fertilizer is composting. Organic agriculture. Which also gives the soil the health to protect plants from pests. And since we’re running out of pesticides, well, then you’re solving that problem, too.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, I do think that, theoretically, organic agriculture done with these good complex rotations, with good soil health can prevent a lot of the problems that these pesticides and these fertilizers are there to solve. It’s almost like we created the problems with all this industrial monocropping that required these high tech then chemical solutions, but we don’t necessarily need them. But it does mean a lot more labor then is back in to managing then the more complex, smaller scale, crop rotations, etc.

Alice Friedemann

Well, that solves the obesity crisis. We’ll all be so much healthier.

Jason Bradford

Many more burritos.

Alice Friedemann

Oh, I love burritos. I could do it. But a lot of people say well, organic agriculture can’t grow as much food. But in my book, I cite a meta study of over 5000 comparisons of organic to industrial agriculture. And in only a little over 10% of the studies across different types of food and climates did industrial agriculture produce more than organic. So this is doable.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. And I think what’s interesting, it’s doable also, and we really haven’t put our minds to it. So I’m always kind of curious on what if the University System, the businesses, and all the talents they have . . . What if they turned their attention towards solving some of the engineering challenges for the wood world? I worry, for example, about all tools that would need to be ramped up and at a different scale for smaller farms. I worry about insulation of homes and manufacturing homes with local renewable materials, designing for these things. I worry about just the manufacturing that does need to still happen, and how it needs to be decentralized. And the storage and decentralization of like grain storage. I used to have – I talked to my neighbor, Francis, who is 100 years old. And I visit her once in a while. And apparently, right across where I live now, near my house was a grainery. Like, I don’t know, 60 years ago? There was still a little grainery here. Just amazing. Like what we’ve lost, right? How do we get that back? And what kind of what kind of talents would be great to turn towards that again, right?

Alice Friedemann

Yeah, I mean, one of my favorite solutions would be to build more living history sites across the country, and get young kids like an AmeriCorps program to relearn these skills. It would make the transition a lot easier to have that in mind. Iron smithing, the whole blacksmithing, the whole what we used to know in the past. Bring it back. And it could almost be self supporting, you know? You could have bed and breakfasts and food to table. I would want to do it. I mean, yeah, it would be fun.

Jason Bradford

I’m always kind of fascinated by the idea of yes, there’s the historical way of doing things, but then also, are there things that we’ve learned that we can take forward? That might be better? Like some of the tools that we have today are probably – We could engineer better versions of the stuff from the 1860’s, let’s say. That would be also really interesting, I’m thinking,

Alice Friedemann

Oh, there’s so much we could do. We could build more canals because water transport is hundreds of times more energy efficient than land transport. People used to only live near navigable rivers, lakes and oceans in the past. They didn’t live in land because it was, you know, crazy expensive. We could build Roman roads again. You know, the roads now have so much rebar in them that rusts and expands that roads only last 20 years. And they’re made of asphalt which comes from petroleum. They built thick stone roads that still exist 2000 years later.

Jason Bradford

The Incan roads exist, too.

Alice Friedemann

Oh, that’s right.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, kind of a parallel sort of road building infrastructure that’s still around. That’s amazing, right? You know so much that we’ve talked about, it needs to happen at the whole society level. And of course, folks like you and I get pretty frustrated because we can’t do that. We’re not going to organize a new canal. So what can people like you and I do besides just speaking up and trying to like plan and consider and theorize, hoping others will someday get on board as as fossil fuels wane? In the meantime, what can we do to get ready for wood world?

Alice Friedemann

Well, I’ve always thought victory gardens were a good idea in World War II. They’re still a good idea. And plant fruit trees. Some of the local communities out here have food forests for the poor. They’re planting fruit trees on public ways that you can harvest from and a lot of the kales and chards are decorative. So they’re planting those instead of shrubbery. The community level is where you can actually make things happen. I think that higher levels are more difficult.

Jason Bradford

Sure, yeah. Lots of useful skills to learn. What about things we haven’t covered? I think, you know, there are risks in this transition from the fossil to the wood world that need to be considered. What are some of the ones that really keep you up at night sometimes?

Alice Friedemann

Well, what we learned from Fukushima, is that it’s not so much the reactor that’s dangerous, it’s the spent nuclear fuel pools where they cooled down. The older cylinders that were making the reactor happen. And they’re not protected. They’re not under a shelter. Up to 8 million people might have to be evacuated in Philadelphia if the electricity failed and these devices couldn’t be kept cool. And then in the long term, we have to get rid of the nuclear wastes in general, on top of that. Because future generations aren’t going to be able to pick and shovel their way and bury it deep enough. I mean, if we’re going to leave the future generation such a crummy world, that’s the least we could do for them. I’m real passionate about that. Because wastes can last hundreds of 1000’s of years. My other big thing, and I love reading books, is the electric grid id going to go down. I write a lot about that in both my books. And so we need to preserve knowledge. And, you know, I prefer something more permanent than books. But since we’re not planning, that’s probably the best way to do it. You know, try to get things printed that you would like to pass on to your children

Jason Bradford

On good acid free paper kind of thing.

Alice Friedemann

Oh, yeah. Yeah, I think most paper now is acid free, but okay.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Okay, great. There’s a lot on your website about that. We’ll give a shout out to your website at the end. So yeah, there’s a lot to take in, of course. I wonder if you want to share, Chapter 33 was interesting to me. You kind of went into some of the upsides of the situation. And the upsides of life after fossil fuels. Why don’t we discuss those a bit?

Alice Friedemann

Well, oil is naturally declining at 8.50% a year, which is offset by 4% of enhanced oil production and new projects coming online. But it’s still declining at 4% a year. Well hello, I don’t know how many hundreds of millions of solar panels and wind turbines would be the equivalent, but I can’t imagine a better fix for climate change than oil decline. Because oil makes everything else possible, including coal and natural gas, steel, everything around you. Transportation above all. And so the scientists that have looked at realistic fossil reserves think that the climate will warm up. But you know, somewhere between the 2.6 and 4.5 scenarios.

Jason Bradford

I think we should make that – that’s not a degree centigrade or fahrenheit. We’re talking about the RCP pathways. This is the IPCC models that look at how much fossil fuels will be burned, how much CO2 emissions there will be, for example. So when you say RCP, that’s like a resource emissions pathway. And the 2.6, I believe now, then referred to the watts per meter squared edition is what it ends up being. So, there’s a 2.6, there’s a 4.5, there’s like a 6, and there’s an 8.5. Which are the four kinds of general buckets of these scenarios the IPCC works with, with RCP 2.6 being at the bottom. So yes. Go ahead. I just want to make sure people understood what we meant by 2.6 or 4.5.

Alice Friedemann

And I mean, I’m not saying I don’t believe in climate change. I mean, quite the contrary. It’s going to be around for hundreds of years. But it will gradually decline, as the oceans and land absorb it. And our new forests that we’re building for the future wood world will help quite a bit, too.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, that’s definitely interesting. I think Post Carbon Institute has done some work also in kind of contrasting the IPCC models with more realistic scenarios for fossil fuel availability. So yeah, people could argue about how fast oil will decline, how quickly people will adjust investment to try to like ramp them back up, you know, if they start to decline too fast. But what’s interesting is you’re seeing all this discussion and the International Energy Agency also now talking about, okay, let’s stop investing in fossil fuel reserves and exploration. And I’ve got two minds to this, right? Part of me is going, “Oh, great. We’re not going to keep exploring and keep investing in these because we’ve got to wean ourselves off of them.” And then part of me is just like, “But oh, no. They have no idea what the consequences are. There is still this fantasy outlook within the energy agencies that these renewables will then somehow substitute. So what’s going to happen? I imagine something like, sure, maybe banks and governments get shamed into not doing fossil fuel development. We have a very fast decline, like you’re saying of oil, and coal. The economy ends up just absolutely tanking, maybe 5 – 10 years out as a result. And then we kind of struggle to figure out what to do, right? I don’t know if you’ve thought about this much. But the future scenarios of geopolitics and finance of all this is just really bizarre to contemplate.

Alice Friedemann

I just hope there’s rationing plans. We’ve been through this before. In the 70’s we thought we were running out of oil. And so the Department of Energy had a rationing plan. And in it, whatever agriculture needed, got off the top. Before any more oil was distributed to other essential services, and way at the bottom were the citizens you know. And they could only get gasoline if it was available. Every other day. . . . It was (you know) hundreds of pages long. Stan Cox, in any way you slice it, has come up with even better, more sophisticated plans. We ought to have those already in place.

Jason Bradford

Oh, it’s funny because  Nate Hagens brought up Stan Cox when I interviewed him recently. And we did cover him in Season 2. We reviewed that book. So yes, rationing. It’s actually our least popular episode if you look at number of downloads. But I’m like, “Why? We need to ration this stuff. It’s super important people. Go back and listen to the rationing episode.”

Alice Friedemann

Well, and I’m old fashioned, but I loved college before the internet. I didn’t have a car. It was very social. We all cooked for each other every night. I mean, I’m almost looking forward to going back. You know, picking up my cello again. This world seems really strange to me. I never understood nuclear families. It’s not natural, right? I’m ready for the village life.

Jason Bradford

Okay. Well, you are prolific at writing about this stuff. And you’ve read so much. I think you only read nonfiction or something? Is that right? She’s nodding yes.

Alice Friedemann

Yeah, my parents were so nuts that like really early on, I was reading encyclopedias and trying to figure out what was going on? You know, what was reality? And then I find most nonfiction is written, you know, especially biographies, can be more interesting than a fiction book.

Jason Bradford

Cool. So, let’s leave people with how they can follow your work. You have a couple websites. Energyskeptic.com is one. And then you’ve got one called wholegrainalice.com. So, you actually are into crackers and these sort of recipe things. So, energyskeptic.com and wholegrainalice.com. Anything else you want to throw out there, or where to follow you? You got two books out.

Alice Friedemann

I think that’ll do it.

Jason Bradford

Okay, “Life After Fossil Fuels,” and Springer is the publisher. And then, “When the Trucks Stop Running” was a previous book as well as your cookbook on the crackers, right?

Alice Friedemann

Yeah. And the crackers ties back in with the whole energy crisis because you can make crackers that’ll last a year. And cheaply if you make your own. It can be like, you know, a quarter versus $6 for the same thing at the store.

Jason Bradford

They’re delicious. I’ve tried them. I’ve got your book and crackers.

Alice Friedemann

And you can make it out of any flour, too. Like lentil beans or nots. it doesn’t have to be wheat by any means.

Jason Bradford

Well, excellent. Well, Alice, thank you so much for your work and joining us here on the fun, do the opposite segment of Crazy Town. And have a great rest of your day.

Alice Friedemann

Thank you, Jason, you too.

Rob Dietz

That’s our show. Thanks for joining us in Crazy Town.

Asher Miller

This is a program of Post Carbon Institute. Get more info at postcarbon.org.

Jason Bradford

Okay, guys, you know, the net energy of farming is kind of marginal, right? You have to invest a lot. You have to plant, prepare the soil, weed, water, harvest. There’s a lot going on. And I think in many ways, it’s easier to hunt, right? If you’ve got a lot of biomass just kind of walking around, and you can go get it. It’s low hanging fruit, so to speak. But savory. And in today’s world, the most common animal around is, let’s face it . . .

Asher Miller

People.

Jason Bradford

Yes. I didn’t want to say it. Yeah. So today’s sponsor –

Rob Dietz

I don’t like today’s sponsor so far.

Jason Bradford

Well, they have an app because, you know, you don’t want to have to run people down.

Asher Miller

You miss a lot of work. It’s all about saving energy, right?

Jason Bradford

Yeah, you want to just couch surf and just draw them in. Right? Okay. And what are people addicted to?

Asher Miller

Games? Their phones?

Jason Bradford

They’re always looking at their phones. Doing shit, right? Okay, so you guys have heard of Pokemon?

Rob Dietz

Yeah.

Asher Miller

Pokemon Go, yeah.

Jason Bradford

Pokemon Go. So today’s sponsor is a hack. It’s a design where basically your app will send out a lure –

Asher Miller

Like a Pokemon character?

Jason Bradford

Yes. Okay. It’s called Pokey-man Hunter. That’s the app. And it’s really very high value characters show up right in front of your home and they draw the people into your layer. So, really it’s that the prey comes to you.

Asher Miller

Right. So you can just sit on your ass.

Jason Bradford

You can just sit on your ass.

Asher Miller

The net energy on that’s gotta be tremendous.

Jason Bradford

They just walk right up.

Rob Dietz

So anyway, please, please do not go out and get Pokey-man Hunter people, okay? Just don’t.

Jason Bradford

It’s a very expensive app.

Asher Miller

Shut up, Rob.

Jason Bradford

But it’s worth it.