Responses to Power in a Depleted World

December 21, 2022

Some of the responses to the last couple essays inspired a bit more thinking. I decided to share it because that’s sort of the point of this writing, communication. Back and forth. If all I wanted to do was to blurt out my thoughts, I’d choose a lower effort medium, like notebooks… or my marginally attentive cat. But I want to talk and then hear what others have to say and then revise some of my thoughts or share more details on what was going through my head. This is the latter case. Because it seems that I haven’t said enough to paint a clear picture.

On Power in a Depleted World

There were a few comments in email and on Resilience about the potential for the wealthy to create havens where they can continue to live as they do now while the rest of us fall into chaos. I’m pretty sure the wealthy would like us to think that this is possible so they can use it as a scare tactic to keep us beholden to them. Make just enough of us believe that we’ll be included in the safety net to keep all of us from abandoning them… Some of the more delusional may actually believe it themselves. There are indisputably many who are buying up bunkers and islands with the objective of building a compound in which to ride out the worst of the messes.

But… reality?

I might note that most of these rich men are old. They aren’t going to live long enough to inhabit a compound for long. They certainly don’t have many able-bodied, dementia-free years left to be able to do much for themselves (if they know how, which is… uncommon…) Even the younger ones are going to find it hard to go off to an island by themselves, and they don’t seem to have a large community of people who would go with them voluntarily. Even now, as billionaires, they are largely alone. They have to pay others for everything, even care. (Hence trophy wives…) As money becomes worthless, their social standing will run to zero. No people will pay attention to them because they will no longer be capable of paying for that attention. (Honestly, they don’t have much true standing now. For example, Elon Musk apparently has no life. I mean, by all accounts, he has sufficient free time to have adolescent pissing contests all over Twitter all day long. Think someone with a real social network might have better ways to spend the time…)

But if they want us to indulge their delusions, I say, let them have their islands and good riddance. Takes care of that annoyance. Most of these compounds, if they are ever put to use, will undoubtedly prove to be death traps even for the young and healthy. And I’d feel bad about that if the people building them had spent even one minute of their lives not spreading harm all over the globe. But I rather doubt that any of these compounds will be used because even billionaires are going to quickly discover that food does not come out of a machine, nor do machines magically appear when you need them. More importantly, the “worst of the messes” is not a finite time period, never mind being within the lifetime of a fragile old man. Mess is where the world is headed permanently on human time-scales. There will be no exterior human world to keep their compounds supplied and staffed. These compounds aren’t going to be retreats; they’ll be mausoleums. Where the wealthy go to die alone… But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So let’s go back to the basics. Let’s start with money, because that’s how billionaires are defined. Money is where their power and influence reside. But money in the future?… will be worthless. It already is useless. You can’t eat it or wear it or live in it. It doesn’t even burn well. In a depleted world it will not have sufficient value to exchange for any of these necessary things. When there isn’t as much stuff to buy (ie supply is generally less than demand), there is inflation. It costs more and more money to acquire a thing that is in low supply. When all things are in low supply, because the energy to run all things is in short supply, then money is worth nothing — and everything based on money falls apart.

You can’t pay people to work for you when all you have is money and nothing much is available for purchase with that money. People don’t need money. They need what money can buy in this system — food, shelter, security and comfort. When all those things cost more and more money, people skip the wage-earning step and go directly to producing their own needs for themselves. This has happened countless times in history. Billionaires (apart from Bill Gates and his somewhat nervous-making global land-buying spree) have nothing of intrinsic value to offer any other human. Put in earthy terms, they have nothing that will keep bellies full and bodies warm. All they have is money. They will soon learn that people don’t do what you say if you aren’t paying them in terms that meet their real needs. People aren’t working for billionaires because billionaires are cool; they work because their paychecks buy stuff. When that ceases to be true, there is no more work done for billionaires — or any other wage-payer.

History indicates that before the money system completely collapses, money will begin to hemorrhage throughout the system, losing value the more it flows. It will cost thousands just to buy a quart of milk. Paychecks will run in the millions. Most people will pile up enough money to be billionaires themselves. And none of them will have any influence or power at all. Because all those piles won’t be able to buy what doesn’t exist. When everybody is a billionaire, then nobody is.

But well before everybody is a billionaire, we’re already seeing that billions of dollars can’t buy stability. Billionaires don’t seem to be able to hang on to their billions. That’s because most of the billions come from industries that are… nothing… Tech bros and finance gurus can become billionaires seemingly overnight — and they can lose all that money just as quickly. This is because they aren’t selling anything of intrinsic worth. Tech toys and growth stocks have no biophysical value. These products are worth what the producers say they are worth. What they are truly selling is status, and because we are sort of stupid about status and because there are actually few ways to differentiate between humans, we believe the snake oil salesmen and buy their worthless stuff — for billions. We make them billionaires. And we often unmake them just as efficiently.

This instability will only increase as depletion and pollution take their tolls on our physical lives. As biophysical needs become harder to meet, nobody is going to waste any resources on such empty pursuits. But the more intractable problem faced by the billionaires is that most of them make their billions in industries that aren’t going to be physically viable in a depleted world, especially an energy-depleted world. Communications — which is basically what we mean by “tech” and what is basically done by “finance” — rests upon huge energy inputs. This is already untenable. In the nearest future it will not be possible at all.

Go look at a television station or a web server farm. You can’t even see the electric meter numbers as they shoot up and up and up, twenty-four / seven, without stopping. This is extremely costly now; it will not be possible at any cost when the electron flows are much reduced because we are relying on sources that are much lower in energy density and highly intermittent. (Also, in the case of solar electricity, the type of flow is wrong for most tech pursuits — the whole AC/DC thing makes for a relative loss of power from solar-generated electrons.) What we can get out of renewables will largely be used up in household needs. It will also largely be localized. Transmission at grid scale really only works well for constant flow sources which, among renewables, is increasingly impossible even for hydro-power, never mind wind and solar. So electricity-sucking industries are going to have to beg communities — beg you — for their power. One can imagine how that will play out…

And just to ice that cake, all that electron flow powers physical machines and physical infrastructure, actual things, all of which require much fiddly and costly resources, production, and maintenance. Have you seen a computer chip factory? It’s a ludicrous waste of real, physical resources, much of which generates literal rivers of toxic waste on top of using up all that valuable stuff. (Which pollution takes more resources to address, and etc…) All to make stuff that meets no needs whatsoever. I know we’re stupid about our status toys and tech bros will keep trying to sell us their special brand of snake oil as long as they can, but there just isn’t any way this will be able to continue. There isn’t enough power.

And now, let’s address that… power. We talk about it like it’s divorced from the physical world. But, apart from that not being a thing, power is certainly nothing but grounded in physicality. Influence isn’t some mystical force; it is based on the ability of the powerful to make us believe that they are meeting our needs. Our biophysical needs. When that story is no longer credible, the powerful lose power.

As the world is depleted in real things that can meet needs and make that story believable, the powerful will turn to coercion to hold onto what they have. But this, too, is based on real physical things. Coercion rests on the ability to pay others to risk their lives for you. One billionaire can’t force anybody to do anything. He needs an army and quite a lot of expensive tools — all of which have real value (if of a rather nasty nature). As stuff becomes more depleted and more expensive, as people begin to focus on working directly at meeting their own needs, and as money becomes more and more worthless, the rich and powerful are going to find that they are really neither. They have no real wealth with which to pay others to take on bodily risks, and therefore they have no power.

In the past, rich men bought their coercive power — their knights and nobility as well as laws and publicity — with things of intrinsic value. They paid for fealty and service in serfs and land, which are the means to fill bellies. They paid a living, not a living wage. Furthermore, they paid to the family or designated heir of their servants. If a soldier died in service, he died knowing his community would be provided for. This has not been true for a long while but only because high energy flows have created high wealth flows, and those who are not in the top ranks can still expect to trade money for real value — a living. When that living can’t be bought with wages, nobody is going to work for them, much less set their lives at stake. Billionaires are going to find it very difficult to maintain power through force. And that is the only path they seem to understand.

There is one more issue… physical power is, well, physical. There won’t be electricity when we run out of affordable hydrocarbons. There is a general misconception about the future of energy, even with all of us folks belaboring the point every day. People still think that we’ll just have the energy necessary to run these energy sucking industries. We’ll pivot to renewables or we’ll just magically keep the power on somehow. And thus will billionaires maintain their advantages. So let’s get this straight. There is no possible future where the energy keeps flowing as it is today, and there is no possible way to run most communications, most high-temperature manufacturing (including recycling), most mining, and nearly all transport without that fast-flowing energy.

Now, note that grid-scale renewables are just as dependent on burning hydrocarbons as any other industry. It takes a great deal of energy to acquire the resources that go into them, to manufacture all the parts, to transport the heavy bits all over the globe, and to maintain these things. Then it takes even more energy to deal with the used up equipment — more shipping, more heating and melting, and a sort of terrifying amount of processing of toxic electronics waste. And if we managed to build out a grid of solar, wind and wave turbines, there would still be problems with intermittency which electro-chemical batteries just can’t bridge. Not at our present state of technology and probably not at all.

Batteries can’t store electricity for long time periods. We all know they run out of charge. We have to charge our car batteries off the alternator or they run down within days. Without use, lithium ion batteries can hold a charge for up to a year, but their lifetime viability is compromised substantially if they are allowed to run down too much. “Deep charging” takes years off of the battery’s life already short life of maybe a decade. It prefers to be used a little every day, but what we need to buffer renewables is something that can take a charge and hold it for weeks or months.

We could accomplish that in hilly places by using the wind and sun when they are available to pump water uphill and then letting the water flow back downhill over a turbine when the sun and wind are lacking. We could do that small scale with elevated household water tanks — to keep the refrigerator on at night, for example. But this does not seem to be happening.

What buffering we are building is the electrochemical variety, which is the least efficient, least long-lasting, and most toxic option in our toolkit. (Not that that bothers tech folks…) And yet that still falls significantly short of our needs, and would even if we could build it all out. Which we can’t… because depletion and pollution… In any case, all grid scale electricity plans incorporate hydrocarbon back-up to keep the flow of electricity constant. This isn’t a choice. If there is a break in flow, not only is the power off, but all the machines and infrastructure that use and that deliver that power break down more quickly, some instantaneously. So there is no renewable power that doesn’t have substantial operative input — in addition to the production, transport and recycling inputs — from burning hydrocarbons, the only thing we know how to do to make constant electrical flow. And this will no longer be an option when hydrocarbons are harder to come by.

And hydrocarbons will be harder to come by no matter what we do. For one thing we are running low on the fields and mines that are easy to access and use. But it was never a simple matter of filling up a jug of oil at the well-head and going about using it. There is a whole global supply chain going into getting oil into a usable state where it is needed. The same goes for methane. The same goes for coal. But it’s worse now because nearly everything that is left requires even more expensive machinery (think deep sea wells) and extra refining or processing (think turning nasty shale oil into something that won’t choke an engine). But hydrocarbons themselves are dependent upon… hydrocarbons. We need to mine, refine, transport and manufacture all the equipment that goes into all those processes; and all of that requires the quality and level of energy that only hydrocarbons can deliver. And the more difficult it is to acquire the oil or gas or coal, the more oil and gas and coal go into the acquisition process. This is the physical expression of that ERoEI number we see everywhere these days. Energy return on energy invested. The more difficult energy is to get, the higher the energy that must be invested and the lower the energy that is available for use to anything but the acquisition process.

Now, also notice that there are huge parts of the billionaire-industries world that use energy other than electricity. Electronics themselves are dependent upon mining, manufacturing, and transport, none of which can be done with electricity. We also can’t efficiently heat anything with electricity. We can’t move heavy things or travel far with electricity. We can’t farm with electricity, and farming is necessary even for billionaires. We can’t process our wastes or recycle much of anything, including electronics. We can’t make roads or glass, concrete or steel, most metals and all plastics with electricity. All these physical processes require high hydrocarbon use at every step in production, use, and waste processing. Without these processes, there is no tech world. Without these processes, there is no power. Without these processes, there are no billionaires. Full stop.

So, let’s just agree that no compounds are going to be possible without this full flow of stuff all around the globe. All the stuff that goes into maintaining a compound is dependent on energy. Moreover, all that stuff is dependent on human labor — which is not going to be had for money (which won’t be much of a thing) or love (because nobody loves these assholes…). But… if they want to delude themselves into believing that a compound will work, that they can escape the disasters they’ve created, I think maybe we just let them. Let the billionaires go off to their fitting ends. Maybe we can think more clearly without all the noise and stress they generate.

This is, I think, the last of this sort of thing for the year. I’ve got much more important things to do… and so do you! There will be more holiday posts, and maybe some poetry and fiction. But nothing more on the crazy-talk of our idiot overlords. OK?


Teaser photo credit: Typical Living Quarters in Vivos Europa One. By Vivos Command – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: energy transition, Resource Depletion, tech billionaires