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Dave, I think you make a similar mistake in your reasoning (extrapolation): that emissions will track growth. It is entirely possible that GDP flatlines and then starts decreasing while total emissions stay the same or even increase.

How? In our desperation to run the global economy on any source of energy we can find, we'll gladly tap dirty sources: tar sands, shale gas, shale oil, etc. Each of which will fail to provide us the level of energy we need to continue GDP growth, but which also produce much more CO2/CH4/... than their counterparts per unit net energy delivered. (Compare tar sands to onshore oil or conventional gas to shale gas or low-grade coal to anthracite.)

John D

Having followed your blog for over a year, I understand mankind is screwed and realize our system is so corrupt that nothing will change to fix it. By now I should be numb to it all. However, I confess to some intellectual interest in trying to figure out which will come first- environmental collapse or economic collapse, and how they both work in unison. I guess we all have our morbid fascinations.

Dave Cohen

Re: a similar mistake that emissions track economic growth

We're already exploiting shale gas, tar sands oil and oil from shale reservoirs. We will continue to do so.

I said "all things being equal" and I meant it. It is one thing to mindlessly extrapolate past economic growth rates into the future. It is quite another to PREDICT that the energy intensity of the energy supply will rise or fall. I made the only reasonable simplifying assumption -- it will stay the same.

Your conjecture that the economy will not be growing but anthropogenic emissions will be increasing is wholly unsubstantiated by the historical record. See the longer essay I cited in the text. When the economy is not growing, or shrinking as in a recession, emissions decrease because aggregate global demand for energy stays flat or decreases. That's what less economic activity implies.

Although your argument that tar sands oil is dirty (measured by emissions) is correct, these emissions are a drop in the bucket compared to coal emissions. Furthermore, you must consider the RATE at which tar sands oil production can be increased. The increment is relatively low. And "unconventionals" like shale gas and oil from shale reservoirs are not particularly dirty in regard to emissions.

Of course, in 40 years people might be cutting down a lot of trees for firewood and making charcoal. But that's a whole other story ;-)

-- Dave


The world's energy mix is moving towards coal (and has been for at least a decade) as China and India turn to it. And recent studies have shown that contrary to popular belief, shale gas produces far more emissions than conventional gas in large part due to Methane seeps (not to mention lower EROEI). (How much worse is still up for debate as the studies aren't conclusive yet.)

Dave Cohen

Re: studies show

ALL natural gas production involves methane leakage. In fact, I wrote a post about the fact that massive switching from coal to natural gas doesn't help much with emissions for that very reason.

I seriously doubt shale gas is much "dirtier" than conventional natural gas production. And remember, shale gas is only a drop in the bucket compared with world natural gas production. People think about shale gas only because its a BIG DEAL in the United States because of all of the hype, most of which is unsubstantiated. I have written several posts on the subject.

And as I noted above, demand for coal would decrease if the global economy is shrinking. Actually, the "energy mix" is not changing much at all. Regarding coal, emerging economies are just burning more and more of the stuff for power generation. They aren't making liquids out of coal (CTL) and they are very likely using natural gas for power generation when there is a reliable supply because it is cleaner.

Unfortunately, the Saudis are burning OIL to generate electricity. This is a very disturbing trend. One of their internal ministries said that unless they start doing some fuel switching -- change the "energy mix" -- they will have no oil for export by 2025. That's what I call really bad news.

-- Dave


I quit my high paying government job in sustainability research, sold my house and moved into my in-laws house on the farm all so that my kids can learn the only skills I know will be required in the future, food production. I lost interest in trying to make an inherently unstustainable model sustain itself a bit longer. Who knows what the future holds for us. The earth cannot sustain 7 billion people. The economy cannot grow exponentionally forever. Carbon resources are finite. These are facts that most scenarios ignore. How it plays out is anyone's guess. It's all pretty depressing and hard for the psyche to take, which is why most people want unrealistic future scenarios. Who wants to be an undervalued farmer that needs to work like a dog to get less than minimum wage...

Mike Roberts

Good post, Dave. It gets down to the core concept that we're screwed, either way. If miracles really do happen, then we're screwed on the climate (or, more screwed than we actually will be). If miracles don't happen, we're screwed on the economy and our societies. Since miracles don't happen ...

However, when politicians and Joe Public think about the future, they assume that growth actually will return and definitely over the next 40 years. With that mindset, it's perhaps useful for them to realise that, in that impossible scenario, we're screwed.


Overall I agree w u Dave. I think you serve your blog well by your focus - please keep er up. There are deeper darker scenerios that are more probable. For instance, review Krugman's views of the issue of our future. He has clearly written about peak oil and climate change, and I think is in agreement with your views Dave. His vision of the future is much different however, probably for many reasons that we'll never know. The main source of GDP growth going forward for Krug is technology and automation:


Your blog has killed tech solutions since I've read it. I agree with you. BUT, the elite (represented by Krug) do not subscribe to this view. as our opinion will NOT matter, technology will be the game changer like it or not. The challenge for us trying to survive is what does tht mean. It will be lower energy use for poor and middle classes and MORE for smaller group of rich. It will mean less environmental effects as the rich are a small group. The worlds population of 8b is mostly poor- we will need to get used to he idea that most will die off.

I don't see anyway beyond this scenerio. Please give me alternatives. But before doing so please read through Krug and consider his ideas as He is clearly connected to what will happen like it or not.



your focus and reasoning are excellent!
too bad you do not extend them to try thinking about what is beyond die-off of poor and PMC (professional-middle-class)
many people call homo sapiens sapeins "stupid" and "lacking sapience" and so on and so forth
i simply say that resources have not been yet depleted and corrupted to the degree that human condition for organism-whole had evolutionary significance

we simply need couple of generations of killing each other and elites guarding their lifestyles before those who can think straeight are spurred to action

of course the collapse and die-off is inevitable over next 50 - 100 years but once we have a generation or two of "elites" educated on the background of die-off things will be vastly different

too bad none of us will live long enough to see it

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