The limits to growth and declining living standards

For some light relief as to the recent theatrics, let’s take stock. There seem to be several things not going entirely as expected or planned, and they are a little bit more than down to the antics of one man. Even if his name is Vladimir Putin…

I was listening to a couple of punters bemoaning the energy crisis and saying that the Government really should do something about this, to which the obvious question is, how do they go about doing that?

Energy is pretty much about oil and gas at this stage. You may not like that very much, but let’s start with where we are. If you look at a list of oil producers in the world, the top five in 2021 are the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, in that order. The first three are the big hitters, responsible for about 30 billion barrels a day, and Russia and the US are about neck and neck at ~10bbl/day. Slightly ominously, they say of the top three “since 2014 all three have been producing near their peak rates of 9 to 11 million barrels per day” and Russia and Saudi are the top exporters. We have decided to stand with Ukraine, so that’s the second largest exporter we have declared persona non grata.

What do we use for energy? Fossil fuels, bar the shouting…

the UK energy mix. Don’t be fooled – despite the whacking great three pin pug symbol, I read this as total energy usage, not that used to generate electricity, of which more later

If you look at the UK’s energy mix, it is three-quarters oil and natural gas combined, in about equal portions. So even if we did have a disciplined functioning government that hadn’t had enough of experts, there’s a serious limit to what can be done. I’m not taking an opinion here about the virtue of standing with Ukraine – history does show that it is sometimes necessary to tolerate privation in the interests of a wider goal, but if you want to know why energy costs are rising, well removing a large source of supply for what is basically an imported product will tend to push the price up.

Vlad the bad has played a good hand

I’m not a Putinversteher, IMO he’s is a psychopathic nutcase who is mad a box of frogs, just not randomly mad. He’s sitting on a massive resource that people want – gas and oil, and our Vlad has spent most of his life understanding power. If you are going to have enemies, it pays not to underestimate them. Sure, Putin and/or his military ballsed up some of the initial parts of their invasion, but they seem to be learning from their mistakes. I am not saying this is a good thing in the round, but it is good for Putin and his aims. Putin is right in one respect, in that the much vaunted Western sanctions are a weapon that fires on both ends. In raising the price of energy by restricting sources of supply, Putin doesn’t have to sell as much to raise the same revenue. Well done us. Perhaps there was no other way, but strangulating his cash base only works if the West was like it was before the Millennium, a much larger part of the world economy. The world is multipolar now. Sanctions may have other effects in the longer run, but it’s not a quick win, and energy prices will be higher for a fair while as a direct result. It is interesting that 50 years ago this was predicted. Not in the Nostradamus sense of

Two great men yet brothers not make the north united stand
Its power be seen to grow, and fear possess the eastern lands

which is just as well, because the West is  short of great men, we seem to be scraping the barrel of late. More in the sense of Asimov’s Foundation, with the role of the Second Foundation played by the 50 year old Club of Rome Limits to Growth crew. A couple of recent updates comparing the track we are on shows the future not being terribly rosy even with everybody’s high-tech dreams coming good.

LtG World3 model, with lots of technology (left) and business as usual (right). From Graham Turner on the Cusp of Global Collapse

on the left is the high-tech dreams of Wired magazine – even with that industrial output doesn’t continue rising on the trend of up to now. If we look at extracted resources specifically

LtG World3 model, comparing actual results with model results with lots of technology (CT) (top) and business as usual (bottom). There’s some support in the observed model for the comprehensive tech track relative to BAU, so that’s collapse averted, eh, but growth still ain’t going to carry on as before.

there is some evidence we are more high-tech than BAU. So that’s all right then? Well, Gaya Herrington tells us a little bit about the world your children will be growing up in

CT represents the technologist’s belief in humanity’s ability to innovate out of environmental constraints. It assumes unprecedented technological innovation in a world that otherwise does not change its priorities much. The new technologies do in fact help avoid an outright collapse. However, CT still depicts some declines (Figure 3) because the technology costs become so high that not enough resources are left for agricultural production and health and education services.

There was a nice little radio play about the preparation of the original model, still on BBC sounds

Back to our dictator, who is perhaps a symptom how the LtG model is playing out. Like Asimov’s psychohistory, they did not claim to foresee the individual track the future plays out, just the broad sweep of history rattling in the channel of the available resources. The resource curse means that petro-states tend to be unsavoury, and in the past perhaps we could afford to be precious about our values. These days there is more realism, yes Saudi Arabia did most likely top that Khashoggi bloke but we want their oil so perhaps we need to STFU about that sort of thing.

Putin has willing customers for his oil, which is more transportable than gas due to its value by volume. India seems to taking up a fair amount of Russian oil and China will take some of the gas off Putin’s hands. The leverage of gas is very high because of the same thing – it’s hard to reroute supply for producer and consumer alike. Germany has made itself exceptionally exposed to Russian supplies through Ostpolitik, combined with a historical anti-nuclear stance.

Atomkraft Nein Danke – that’ll cost ya

There’s a cost to Atomkraft, Nein Danke, and the bill has just landed on the doormat with a Cyrillic stamp that says hefty fee to pay, our product our rules. It’s understandable for the country that anticipated invasion through the Fulda Gap for years to try and play nice with the big bad bear, but there’s a cost to singing Kumbaya like that, in the end you get to rely on Russian gas. As the old saying goes “When you have them by the balls, hearts and minds will follow”. It could be a long winter, and Germany is already rationing gas.

Before we think stupid Germans, I suspect we will see energy rationing this winter. Germany has relatively deep pockets and will drive up the price of gas from other sources. You just can’t knock out a leading supplier of energy and carry on as normal. Italy seems quite exposed too, so perhaps we will see another Euro crisis. I don’t know how Greece will fare…

The Ermine as a nipper can remember Britain before central heating became widespread in the 1970s. Insulate Britain is wrong – British houses in the 1960s were far less insulated than now, they were draughty and often heated with coal fires, which needed a decent airflow from outside to get enough draw. People generally heated only one room – the one with the fire in it. If you wanted to heat another room you got to do that with open bar electric fires, or the sort you wouldn’t be allowed to even think of now. A mustelid kit learned something interesting about the power of electricity with a screwdriver and one of those.

People got cold. Ice would appear on the inside of the single glazed window panes. People survived. They used coats, jumpers, blankets, tea and hot water bottles. That is how we will deal with less energy. We aren’t going to ponce about insulating the bejesus out of homes that serviceably sheltered earlier, hardier generations and were never designed for insulation. They worked OK then. They will serve people again.

You will have to be better off to heat your home to the levels we have been accustomed to. Others will use hot water bottles, electric blankets and coats and jumpers, as previous generations did. You don’t have to take my word for it – look at the photo at the top of Martin Lewis’s guide to heat the human, not the home for how many people will be doing it this winter. And many more… This used to be common knowledge before the 1980s. We have become decadent and wasteful with heating, and fewer people will be able to afford to do that.

Heating isn’t the only problem with energy. Energy is an inbuilt cost for a lot of things that keep life as you know it running. Take t’internet. One of the myths is that it was designed to reroute around damage, to survive a nuclear strike. This puff piece in the WaPo repeats this meme. Like many myths, it is founded on a truth, a distributed network of packet-switching nodes has no single point of failure. What it does need is more power – inherent in that redundancy is the need for idling capacity. The deafening noise of the fans in a server farm is the first stage in handling that power off to the HVAC system that will take it away from the system. While an analogue Strowger telephone exchange was a bloody noisy place the noise wasn’t made by cooling fans, and in general the power trend for modern communications is up.

We are a fair way from that being a major issue, but for those of you with grandchildren, I hazard a guess that their children may see a day when it becomes economically unviable to service the power demands of the Internet in its present form, never mind the vastly more power-hungry variants that will be developed in the meantime. It is possible that we will be running data centres off unicorn shit or mini nuclear reactors, but not that likely. If you say you’ll use your mobile data, good luck with that, there’s an hour or so of standby. Lancaster went through the experience of day long power failures in the Storm Desmond flooding. Observe the serious lack of resilience of the communications network, analogue plain old telephone service held up best of all1.

The resilience myth isn’t even true any more. The early Internet was one where the end-to end principle was king, because geeks love its purity. In a previous life an Ermine observed the development of some of this as it became more widely adopted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The end to end principle was terrific for the ability of the network to self heal and reroute around the proverbial nuke, although routing protocols would probably not have scaled to today. There two serious flaws, however. The end to end principle meant that the intelligence resided at the edge, so people had to run servers. I ran an SMTP mail server personally rather than for work, for a time in the 1990s. I ran a web server in Telehouse. It was an absolute pain in the arse, and expensive. Moxie Marlinspike was right

People don’t want to run their own servers, and never will

This is how we ended up with Facebook, and Twitter, and the centralised surveillance model of t’internet. Not so much because it’s better, but because it’s easier.

The end-to-end principle died because people didn’t want to become geeks and grub about with the plumbing. So they ceded it to Facetwitter, and their asses were handed to Facebook, Amazon and Google to follow them all over the net. This is not your father’s internet, Maya Millennial.

Technology will be much more targeted if energy goes short. Tech boosters will say we are all going to use wind power or unicorns on treadmills and it’s quite true that there’s more that enough energy streaming in to Earth from the great fusion reactor in the sky that this is theoretically possible. It’s just such a bitch that this energy is so goddamn diffuse, which makes the engineering challenge hard, particularly as we have been ODing on the highly concentrated liquid fuels made with ancient sunlight, heat, pressure and hundreds of thousands of years, spaffed in a couple of hundred years. “since 2014 all three have been producing near their peak rates of 9 to 11 million barrels per day” tells us there isn’t much spare capacity in the system. That means it’s not so easy for one of the Big Three to amp up their production to compensate for the loss of Russian supply, and the price rises on trying to knock out a major supplier are proving the point. We have set everything up for highly concentrated sources of energy, because it’s easier and cheaper that way.

Unless you are of the opinion that somebody is going to whup Vlad’s ass so hard he will back down, expect to pay more for energy for the foreseeable future. Martin Lewis has been on t’telly making cataclysmic warnings of rising prices and demanding the Government Must Do Something. There is nothing the government can do. It can’t whup Putin’s ass, and Putin doesn’t need to carry public opinion at home. So we are left with two choices, pay more or use less, it’s as simple as that.

It isn’t just heating our homes or watching endless cat videos or WFH on Zoom that we have increased our energy usage compared to 50 years ago. We commute longer distances to work – my Dad got the bus to work. I walked to school, whereas in the town I live in, which is small enough that I consider pretty much everywhere walkable, I see a stream of 4x4s dropping the kids off to school, nary a bike to be seen. Although I drove most days it was 15-20 minutes, not hours, I was able to cycle to the Firm. Now lots of you well-paid white-collar people will be able to WFH more and therefore reduce those costs a bit, but the minimum wage droids that wrangle physical stuff for you can’t do that. You’re going to have to pay more for those goods and services or do without. Just like in the 1970s, dearer energy makes other things dearer. Hello inflation, my old friend.

Tiggerish Technology aside – the Great Inflection is coming

That’ll be Graeme Leach, with a book to sell, telling us that the coming decade will see the ‘Roaring Twenties’ due to a technology led surge in productivity growth.

If you buy that, I have a bridge to sell you. Let’s all try and forget what came after the Roaring Twenties last time, it didn’t end well. In theory it might be possible, if everything went right. I don’t know how Graeme is going to power all this fancy tech, but let’s run with the idea that this can be done. Let’s first look at AI. It seems to cover a multitude of sins, self-organising information processing that often gives you the right answer but you can’t say how and it won’t show you. One of the problems with that as an engineering approach is you can’t fix problems, because you can’t isolate them and separate the variables as to why does this break in that way. That’s dandy in many areas but not all. Take Tesla AI, which seems to have a problem discerning stationary fire trucks in the highway right in front of you, particularly is the pesky blighter in front of you is a non-artificial intelligence that swerved to avoid the obstacle rather than pile right into it.

“Traffic-Aware Cruise Control cannot detect all objects and may not brake/decelerate for stationary vehicles, especially in situations when you are driving over 50 mph (80 km/h) and a vehicle you are following moves out of your driving path and a stationary vehicle or object is in front of you instead.”

Wait but what? The only thing that’s funny about this is Wired dedicating a whole article to how this is perfectly reasonable and isn’t a problem, really. I could probably teach a five-year old, or a pigeon to recognise a stationary fire truck in the middle of the highway, even if the meatsack driving the car in front switches lane. Y’know, so that they miss running into the stationary fire truck in the middle of the road, which is the bleedin’ obvious course of action to their non-artificial intelligence. A horse wouldn’t faceplant on that stationary truck either.

Boosters will say yes but statistically by miles driven humans create a lot more accidents so therefore a few people getting mashed in the back of emergency vehicles is overall better. I’m not sure there are enough Tesla AI miles driven to substantiate the assertion, but let’s say it’s true. Logic is on their side, but that’s a tough sell. Hey, buy this Tesla and you can watch DVDs or have a cheeky shag in the back at 70mph, if you accept this disclaimer and the .0001% risk of ending up a thin paste decorating some stationary piece of street furniture. Perhaps we will get used to it. I note we don’t do that with aircraft or trains2, despite this being an more controlled environment with professional drivers and an overall supervisory control system (signalling for trains and ATC for flying), which makes these systems much more suited to automatic control.

Let’s say that Leach’s AI electric dreams aren’t tainted by Elon Musk. The social problem is that technology is an amplifier of ability. In business, tech, particularly IT, often amplifies high-level design and innovation. And while there’s something a little bit swivel-eyed in this fellow’s article as a whole, he nails the problem space

The lynchpin of all these new technologies is the rapid rise of machine learning/AI (although whether anything at present is truly AI is debatable), which is accelerating a lot of these trends. It results in the value gap between the most productive workers and the least productive, growing at any ever accelerating rate.

Which is pretty much what we have been seeing with work over the last few decades. Those who use computers to magnify their capabilities do well. As an example, I earned some pin money over the last couple of years doing some CAD. I didn’t have mechanical design experience, but an inquisitive snout and thirty years of general engineering experience amplified by the power of Google’s AI and open-source FreeCAD meant I could design these parts, send them off through the Internet to get them laser-produced and it all fitted together right. That’s the above the API part of the pyramid in Maya Millennial. Those that take their orders from computers are below the API, like Uber drivers, Amazon pickers etc. They end up on zero-hours contracts told what to do by an app, and treated like shit. Somehow I’m not sure that Leach’s utopia will be experienced that widely, since it is the nature of the pyramid that there’s a lot more below the API than above it. However, I offer you his counterfactual here

From a business perspective, over the past two decades, the Baby Boomers were still in charge and therefore ‘didn’t necessarily get it’ with regard to digital business models.

So there we go. I can’t appreciate the Kool-Aid because I am a recalcitrant old git. I still want to know how he is going to power all this shit, and fix the problem of all the angry young men who end up taking orders from computers on minimum wage. Flattening any hierarchical pyramid creates more human misery, because the odds of getting off the bottom get worse.

The cost of living crisis is a misnomer

Because it names the symptom, not the cause. The problem is that there is a slow-motion energy and pollution crisis, and the value of money is declining. We have decided, on balance, that our most favoured source of energy since the industrial revolution pollutes too much. And the trouble is that Western capitalism is built on a foundational myth of limitless growth. There’s another myth in the Tiggerish technologists that say human ingenuity and resourcefulness will always prevail in the end. It is true that you need a lot less energy to make a unit of GDP in the West nowadays than back in the 1970s, but the world population is a lot bigger and there are more people in the global economy than there used to be. So energy use is not declining, and we are using all the oil we can pump. True, the West has decided it can do without Putin’s oil, but India and China seem to be taking it off his hands. So let’s replace this with renewables, eh?

The diffuse nature of renewables and so-called clean tech make them expensive. They involve intricate trade-offs – David McKay’s Without the Hot Air is a decent exposition of the problem space. There are many things you can do now that you won’t be able to do in a sustainable energy future.

If you are looking to renewables to preserve your current lifestyle then you are going to be disappointed. The inestimable Michael O’Leary summed up the problem with his own style :

The best thing you can do with environmentalists is shoot them. These headbangers want to make air travel the preserve of the rich. They are luddites marching us back to the 18th century. If preserving the environment means stopping poor people flying so the rich can fly, then screw it.

Quite. The cost of living crisis is not so much a cost of living crisis as a symptom of the fact that for an increasing number of people in the West living standards are going down. That doesn’t mean everything is getting worse all the time, just that some of the important things are getting worse. You smartphone is better than it was. Your computer is better than it was. Your TV is sharper and more reliable, and doesn’t take up half your room. You can control your heating by talking to it, at the cost of having everything you say in your house sent to Amazon/Google to do with it as it sees fit. Your car is better than it was, both in not rusting and also in being more reliable, though when it does go wrong it’s much dearer to fix it.

But your children can’t afford to buy a house. Going to university is better3 in that it is more widespread and a lot worse in being much more expensive. Your pension is a lot more expensive and less predictable in outcome than your father’s was. Your job is a lot less secure and predictable that your parents’ jobs, and for an increasing proportion of the workforce you are treated like absolute shit. Again, the misery isn’t evenly spread – for some people the opportunities are far richer. At the bottom end parasitic middlemen like agencies steal part of your earnings and part of your rent, despite the Internet being supposed to be the great disintermediator. You can’t find an NHS dentist and your doctor’s surgery sheds load by making appointments really inconvenient to get. Oh and there’s talk of 50 year mortgages so that

The idea has been floated within government as it could allow people to buy a bigger home than they otherwise might be able to afford.

No mention about being able to afford that house. We have a name for people who buy more than they can afford. Debtor and spendthrift are two. It’s not a good look.

Welcome to the Elephant Curve, Maya Millennial standing proxy for what used to be called the middle class in the rich world. The things that are important to people – being able to have stable relationships, having a reasonably stable place to live with some security of tenure, a job that doesn’t treat you like shit, being able to heat your home in winter and feed your kids, these have become harder for many people in the West. It’s in the nature of a PF blog that readers may be further along the rise of the elephant’s trunk, so you may not recognise that. Although it took me longer to pay off my mortgage than it did my Dad, overall I can’t complain. But an increasing number of Britons can.

In a capitalist economy the role of the price mechanism to to shed excess load through demand destruction. The limits to growth do mean that there will be some march back to the past, though 200 years of knowledge will not go away. We won’t be using whale oil or candles but probably LED lamps. It is a moot point whether we will be heating the whole house in winter. You won’t be flying on city breaks every month in 20 years’ time because this. O’Leary again

“The airline business is it is mostly run by a bunch of spineless nincompoops who actually don’t want to stand up to the environmentalists and call them the lying wankers that they are.”

Things that can’t go on generally don’t, in the end. The environmentalists may or may not stop his plans. But the increasing cost of fuel may be less susceptible to his invective.

Oil production has pathologies of its own, because of the long lead times and high cost of exploiting increasingly hard to access resources, there will be a tendency towards a stop-go pricing and investment cycle. The Covid reduction put an impulse into this unstable system, and it will rattle around.

It’s not all Covid

A lot of money was created to tackle Covid, and it’s easy to blame that for inflation. The UK has the additional drip-drip-drip of Brexit-disadvantaged trade, but high inflation affects the US and the EU to a similar degree.

It’s not like there wasn’t a problem before Covid, the (US) tale of Maya Millennial sums up the problem. Building wealth is harder now, on average, and an increasing number of people are getting left behind. The middle-class bastion of wealth-building, housing, is less and less an option for the children of those wealth-builders, because they vote for governments that do their damnedest to never let house prices fall in nominal terms, and if they do they vote them out. In this benighted island the middle-class ate their children’s housing prospects because property is my pension, innit. Hence this pean to the noble and hard put-upon BTL landlord, dispensing services to the unmoneyed multitudes. I find it hard to drum up compassion, if you couldn’t read the tea-leaves ever since Osborne, never mind the increasing proportion of renters who are shat upon by your obnoxious Rachmanism then you shouldn’t be investing, mate.

Let us look at what a generation of this has done. In 2002 London house prices were on a 6.7 multiple of annual earnings, for the UK as a whole this was 4.9. 20 years later the respective multiples are 13.7 and 9. Let’s ignore the specific bonkers nature of the Great Wen. Your average Brit first-time buyer hypothecates almost a third of their working life to buy a house, and worse still, that earnings multiple is before tax. It means someone now has to allocate twice as much of their lifetime earnings to buying a house than their parents. That’s a fall in living standards across a generation.

At the same time there is the slow energy crisis, raising the price of a lot of things. There is the result of the decade of ultra-low interest rates after the GFC which has allowed many morbid forms to appear. And now that the horseman of inflation is there, that economic tightening is meant to happen, though the central banks are timid, more Alan Greenspan than Paul Volcker.

If you overpaid for a house, inflation is your friend, provided you keep a job, and provided you have the leverage to get that to track inflation. Otherwise, not so much.

Eight years ago, a cynical devil working for Terry Smith at Tullet Prebon titled his report “Thinking the unthinkable: might there be no way out for Britain? Project Armageddon – the final report”.  One could argue that His Tim-ness jumped the gun by eight years, because none other that The Office of Budget Responsibility comes along and say pretty much the same thing,

Factoring in a stylised estimate of the asymmetric costs associated with inevitable periodic shocks would push debt up to 100 per cent of GDP by 2047-48 and nearly 320 per cent of GDP in 50 years. These figures are based on a simple reading of post-war UK fiscal history.

Faced with that, there’s only one response, eh?

What do we want? Tax cuts. When do we want them? NOW

Hmm, the leadership hopefuls don’t seem to have gotten the memo. They’re vying with each other to see who can propose the biggest, baddest tax cuts. I guess they have to impress the pale male elderly party members who brought us the multifarious talents of Boris Johnson. I am not sure that’s quite what the OBR says should happen, but what the hell. Experts, schmexperts, we don’t need to think about this, the people of this country have had quite enough of experts. So that’s all right then.

I note from the summary of tax cut promises that the fellow least of the way along the fairy dust axis is Rishi Sunak. That’s his hopes done for, since he is presumably an expert having been chancellor for a couple of years, and we’ve had quite enough of experts. Magical thinking and fairy dust is the order of the day. No wonder the West is in the shit. Previous generations  built its capital with a serious amount of brutality and Niall Ferguson’s killer apps, none of which include magical thinking, fairy dust, Cosmic Ordering or Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, but apparently that’s the big sell nowadays in Toryland.

While an Ermine would gain from a 1% income tax cut, 43% of adults in the UK don’t pay income tax, as the Daily Fail fulminated, so an income tax cut is definitely looking after the better off. Daily Fail by name, Fail by nature –

The group of adults who pay no income tax includes the unemployed and home-makers with no earnings, as well as retirees, and anyone who earns less than the tax free allowance.

This retiree does pay income tax you innumerate gits, it is NI that retirees don’t pay, in most cases.

Welcome to our new overlords

Welcome to our new overlords – unicorns, fairies and magical thinking. We’ve had quite enough of numerate analysis – feelgood is what matters now.

This ain’t gonna end well. Last time we had loads of people believing in magical thinking and The Secret, Americans were borrowing money on liar loans and flipping McMansions and it all went bang. In the battle between reality and Cosmic Ordering fairydust, reality always wins in the end. Fairydust has its place, but don’t bet the farm on it.

What can you do about it

You can’t forestall the decline, it is a cultural and practical problem. You can reduce your exposure to it, but that generally involves paying money or foregoing consumption. It’s probably not an apocalyptic collapse, but a steady slip-sliding away, along with sudden jolts along the way – the current energy price rises and inflation being one example of that sort of jolt.

In practice, if you want to save energy, focus on anything that reduces electricity consumption, and favour heating with gas. It goes directly against the electrify everything shibboleth, and that is because your individual interest is not the same as the common good. Much of this is because of government action, loading the cost of carrying a lot of passengers onto electricity.

Britain generates a third of its electricity using gas, but the problem is that all the green crap is loaded onto the price of electricity, which has a much higher cost per kWh than gas, because policymakers figure it’s much harder to do without electricity. It may be good for the country, but I don’t want to carry these passengers. If I want to invest in renewables I will do that myself and take the income, or which more later.

UK electricity mix – gas is still the big hitter. Note that mots of the achieved win is acheived by using less, and note the painfully slow progression of renewables – it’s just not that easy, and the easy renewable sites will be picked off first.

So I have attacked electricity consumption. Anything that heats or cools is a target in the first instance. Forget about your mobile phone chargers, and while it may have made sense for you grandparents to charge around the house telling the kids to turn the lights off when they used 60-100W a shot that’s less important when they use less than 10W. The first win was switching from the electric shower back to the gravity-fed shower that is heated with cas from the hot water tank. The second win was taking out an old electric cooker and replacing this with one that is an induction hob, which targets the heat much better by heating the pan. This needs a greater capital cost, though the old cooker was fairly decrepit.

Energy saving in itself isn’t going to win the fight, so the next step is to invest in energy, both BP and Shell for the income and TRIG, ORIT and UKW to start to make some of the green crap work for me rather than be a cost centre. I have invested in this mainly in my GIA to try and use the £2000 dividend allowance, this is additionally to my ISA not instead of. My aim is to lift my tax-free income above the increase in power costs, and using roughly energy-related investments to do that. If power prices come down then the value of these will fall, so I am taking capital risk. More so with oil than the renewables, because oil has a serious feast or famine volatility pattern, as well as being susceptible to PR disasters like Macondo. Renewables tend to have inflation-linked price guarantees, this is part of the problem of the loading of the green crap onto the price of electricity. You can’t stop the government doing dumb things in fiddling with the market, but like Help to Buy, you can try and get on board for the ride.

a non-financial investment in resilience

The final step was replacing an old gas fire with a wood burner, and getting a supply of logs. This is more for resilience than for energy saving.

All these are part of a general philosophy that given the decrease in the value of money as indicated by inflation, it is good to bring forward investments, both in terms of financial investments, given the bear market, and in capital and non-financial investments. That, however, is an approach from a relatively privileged position. For most, I would say the priority is to get out and stay out of debt4, and to use less. I can’t see how tax cuts are going to anything at all to help the people that will be hardest hit – by definition if tax cuts make a difference to you, you are one of the better off half of the adult population. Perhaps there’s a case for removing VAT on domestic fuel, but this is a 5% reduction on an almost 100% increase in two years.As David McKay said in without the hot air, Tesco are wrong, Every Big helps.

I pinched the title from the Club of Rome’s 1972 book/report called the Limits to Growth, produced after another energy malaise, the 1970s oil crisis precipitated by American production peaking and starting to decline, which was exacerbated in 1973 with the Arab-Israeli war. The model has stood the test of time for 50 years, and the prognosis isn’t great. It doesn’t have to be dire, but we shall see. I find Gaya Herrington’s sustainable world model Pollyannish at best, but then she is a couple of decades younger than me, perhaps Maya Millennial will save the world.

  1. Provided your wired phone had a handset with a curly lead rather than a DECT wireless gizmo. That won’t be an option from 2025 – the market drives out resilience because it doesn’t want to pay for it. 
  2. Yes, I know, Docklands Light Railway and the Stansted terminal trains, I have survived both. I don’t think you need AI to have an automatic train system. 
  3. I am not convinced that half of school leavers going to university is a better thing it it becomes an unaffordable luxury at the same time, but that’s what we seem to want. 
  4. I am more hard line than Monevator. I include a mortgage in debt, after retirement age, although it is an unfashionable view, and arguably I would have been able to reduce income variation carrying it a little bit longer. 

67 thoughts on “The limits to growth and declining living standards”

  1. Given B D Skinner’s efforts to train pigeons to be bomb targeting devices (single use, not sustainable), there is some merit to using them for autonomous vehicles.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fail by name, Fail by nature 😂
    Really though, one major area the premium mediocre’oise could look into, if they really want to improve their standard of living, is reproduction. If the desire to multiply cannot curbed altogether, one should remember that there are no economies of either scale or scope raising two kids vs one — these only kick in at 5+ children, and not in a good way.
    Taking a more global view, and somebody needs to explain this to Greta, we need to do something about the self-appointed outsourced population providers (some countries in the ME, Asia and the continents of Africa and South America come to mind). Until then, trying to save the planet and solve the demand side of energy one lightbulb at a time is like turning up at an earthquake with a beach bucket.


    1. Just what do you think we should do about those “population providers”?

      I’m always surprised by people who raise this point. We can’t just roll in and neuter the locals or pipe contraceptives into the water supply. These countries are going through exactly the same process we did. Given more development and education they will lower their fertility rate just as has happened in the West. India is already below replacement levels, China actually has a declining population now.

      Not only that but the poorer countries aren’t even emitting that much, climate change really is a problem created by the wealthier half of the population of wealthy countries. Your average substance farmer has pretty much zero impact compared to the median citizen of the West.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Seriously?

        “We can’t just roll in and neuter the locals or pipe contraceptives into the water supply.”

        No, but we can invest in girls’ education and programmes that support women’s rights and healthcare including easy and affordable access to contraception. This would both decrease the birth rates as well delay childbearing.

        “These countries are going through exactly the same process we did.”

        They are not going through the same process we did. Fertility is not even half of the equation in the population growth. Longevity and child mortality are more important.

        Subsistence farming disappeared in Europe and the US in the beginning of the 20th century. Penicilin was discovered in 1928. Up until the end of the 19th century life expectancy in Europe and the US was around 40, broadly comparable to the rest of the world although Africa has always been at the bottom of the pile. In the early 1900s, give or take, life expectancy started to rise everywhere at approximately the same rate, albeit some regions started a fraction later and from a slightly lower base. At around the same time birth rates in Europe and the US collapsed from over 5 in the late 19th century to under 2 in the early 20th century. Reasons? Two World Wars that got women out of the house and into work, the rise of the civil society that decreased the influence of the church and the development of social policies that meant that people no longer needed to use their progeny as their pension / old age care. In most of the rest of the world birth rates stayed high for a long time after the life expectancy increased, and in many places they continue to be as high as they were when the average life expectancy was 30 and not 70.

        “Given more development and education they will lower their fertility rate just as has happened in the West.”

        And how are they going to get more development and education unless we do something about it?

        “India is already below replacement levels. China actually has a declining population now.”

        How about Pakistan?

        Re: China, I don’t wish to shock you, but if you looked into it, I’m pretty sure you’d conclude that China actually did something about that. Something which many consider to be rather radical.

        “Your average substance[sic] farmer has pretty much zero impact compared to the median citizen of the West.”

        Your average subsistence farmer wants to live like the median citizen of the West. And given time and a couple of generations, their living standards will increase and so will the emissions. Unless you’re saying Maslow got it completely wrong, or subsistence farming is what an average human considers self-actualisation? If the living standards can’t increase there will be (more) war over there and a migrant crisis over here.

        I’m always surprised by people who, having read a comment that might, at a stretch, be subject to interpretation, wilfully choose to interpret it in the worst possible way. Your response, although not the most pathetic attempt at virtue signalling I have seen, still measures at a solid C on the dickwad scale.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. > in many places they continue to be as high as they were when the average life expectancy was 30 and not 70

        I didn’t know that, but Queensbury rules, play the ball, not the man, eh?

        Liked by 1 person

    2. My understanding is that there’s a special issue with Africa, which is that increasing prosperity doesn’t lead to smaller families / a lower birthrate, as it has everywhere else.

      I linked to an article about this in Weekend Reading a few weeks ago. Have a Google for it.

      This is one reason why Africans are set to be a really powerful economic/demographic force later this century, climate disaster notwithstanding.

      (And for the record I can’t see that it helps Africans to grow their populations like this given all the other challenges they face either. Similarly, even as a mild Musk fanboy I don’t understand why he is calling population decline the greatest threat to humanity, except perhaps as someone who hopes to sell escape runs to Mars… 😉 )


      1. Many moons ago I read a reasonably well argued post on Usenet that that you needed a large enough population to allow enough hyper-specialization to produce for example the people with the skills to design and develop CPUs, and other cutting edge developments (Starship springs to mind).

        If your population isn’t large enough, you don’t have enough people with the right innate skills go through the right arrangement of personal development to result in a critical mass of people with the appropriate skill/experience combination.


    3. I enjoy reading Chinese history which covers 5000+ years
      China,s leaders are routinely replaced as they become effete and useless and unable to cope with the country’s current malaises by vigorous from over the border steppe warriors with their attendant wives and children
      The state -culture-civilisation -continues because it is such a successful model and desired and admired by all with its rule of law and many trading opportunities
      The new rulers though small in numbers but full of fizz gradually succumb to the delights of a successful culture/civilisation and are duly replaced in their turn
      The particulars of the current situation are too complex for a mere mortal like me to comprehend never mind deal with but the overall picture seems to fit this observation
      The current crop of very diverse Tory candidates may reinforce this view?
      Does one of them have the fizz to turn the ship around or just cope!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m very interested in the point you make about the benefits of changing our expectations, rather than insulating all our houses so that we can be toasty year-round, and it got me to thinking (and remembering).

    I grew up in a Pennine town, and we didn’t have central heating until very late in the day. It was a stone-built house with draughty single-glazed windows, and we did indeed have ice on the inside of the bedroom windows when we woke up on winter mornings. Nobody stayed too long in the bathroom during the colder months, as the single-bar Dimplex heater on the wall above the basin barely took the chill off!

    However, I don’t remember any of us feeling particularly hard done by – it was pretty obvious that you simply wore a lot more clothes when it was cold, ate more filling food, and made the most of the coal fire in the kitchen which was always nice and warm. It didn’t put many restrictions on what we did, and we simply adjusted life a little bit to take account of the temperature. Whatever the weather, we took 2 buses to get to school – if we had asked our father to drive us to school he would have thought we were having a laugh. Our mother did not drive, as was pretty usual in those days…

    Drying clothes was always a ‘mare for everyone in winter, because there were no tumble dryers or automatic washers with high spin speeds. So a lot of extra time and effort had to be put into the laundering of sheets, towels and clothes. There were no convenience foods or deliveries apart from milk, and no home freezers. Food shopping had to be done, at the various individual shops, several times a week and lugged home. All this low-tech and low-energy housekeeping was, of course, pretty labour-intensive and largely facilitated by the existence of that excellent creature the Stay at Home Mother. Most ordinary homes could afford a SaHM in those days. My own mother, a nurse, simply assumed she would give up work when she became a mother and not go back until we were in secondary school and could fend for ourselves. Different time, very different world…

    So the overall picture is obviously more complex than trying to replicate heating and energy-use styles of the 60s and 70s. And, of course, climate change is making us think about how we can keep cool, too. But I agree with you that many of the energy strategies we used then as a matter of course have a growing place if we are to genuinely reduce our impact on resources. And, dare we say it, it might make us more hardy and resilient, too 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. > I don’t remember any of us feeling particularly hard done by

      I think a lot of the problem we will have is that a decline feels crap. We don’t miss what we don’t have, unless we had it once, in which case we are sore as hell. The fact that MSE have to spell it out, heat the human, not the home, is quite remarkable, because in living memory you didn’t heat the home – because you couldn’t.

      > Most ordinary homes could afford a SaHM in those days.

      It’s a little bit of a shame that what we chose to do when we set them out to work was to plough all those extra earnings into raising the price of houses relative to earnings rather than get more nice things and services, another indirect example of how the big things get slowly worse even as tech improves in leaps and bounds.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It does seem that all we did was move from a situation where women didn’t have the choice to work to one where they don’t have the choice to not work.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s definitely easier if you choose to make changes yourself rather than waiting for them to be forced on you. I imagine most of us here will be fine but those who are whinging that the government should do something are going to find the transition painful.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Your comments made me remember. I lived in a house with single glazed windows, had to scrape the windows in the winter as they were iced up inside. The heating was crap in the house, one room living in the winter as could only heat one room. Lived in sleeping bags and loads of blankets in the winter. My Mum was a SaHM – my dad was ‘old school’ and did not want her to work – although I think that a lot of it was to stop her having money and the ability to leave him (another story).

      Today, you have to be a two income household to survive and women (or men) have no choice now, both have to work unless you earn very good money. All that has happened is that we have lost choice. We have to commute further and further for work due to anchored housing (we cannot move so easily now – property availability & costs). Our standard of living has been creeping downwards for a while we have just not called it out until now.


      1. 🙂 It took me a few months after moving to the US to stop saying “ta” at work. It’s not a thing outside the Commonwealth and I got weird looks!


      1. Fair enough – but I was labouring under the ‘misunderstanding’ that it was hard/impossible to turn the gas supply off in these pipelines in an orderly fashion.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. > it was hard/impossible to turn the gas supply off in these pipelines in an orderly fashion.

        That’s more a feature of the local distribution network, in the Seventies they moved heaven and earth to try and avoid that. Those long distance pipelines with all those manly valves and stuff are more point to point than the filigree of branching local networks. Presumably they purge the lines with something not containing oxygen when they shut those down for servicing, and there’s more money in it so you can afford the professional services.

        The big fear in the Seventies was air getting into the distribution pipes and the pressure coming back, at some point you will get a particularly explosive mixture. Although there are gauzes in the network to prevent the flame front travelling back, once you’ve lost pressure you start with 100% air and gradually ramp up the mix to 100% gas. Some of those mixes are nasty 😉

        In the trunk network I am sure they have protection mechanisms and sensors to stop that sort of blowout. A section of Nordstream 2 going up would be a hell of a bang! The fact that PiGs can pass though the pipeline all the was from Russia to Germany show there are no arresting barriers.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Two quick things on the gas/heating front.

        You are dead right about the cost of using electricity to heat anything – shower, cooker or house. I found this slightly technical site about using direct drive windmills to either generate heat (bypassing electrical conversion) or better – direct drive heat exchangers.

        I am not sure if it can do anything with it to unchain heating costs.

        I often thought “blinded by electricity” illustrated by the article was an obstacle rather than an opportunity.

        Second and briefly. Last time I mentioned my new standby generator runs on petrol and lpg. I found getting a new lpg bottle difficult if you were a new customer and did not have an old one to exchange. Apparently this is a policy by companies that no new lpg bottles will be sold. It was not impossible, but after six shops I got one through a back channel

        Liked by 2 people

      4. > direct drive heating

        Hmm, you’re not going to be popular with the neighbours, though I guess on a hill location maybe that’s not such an issue –

        generating one kilowatt of heat requires a windmill with a rotor diameter of 8.2 meters

        That was direct heat production, arguably with a heat pump let’s say you can double that. An electrical GS heat pump is considered to roughly quadruple output compared to direct heating with power, but they can control the system optimally.

        OTOH it allows you to use Savonius turbines. Those are absolutely terrible for electricity generation, because it’s a large force moving slowly whereas most electricity generators need a decent speed to work right. But the heat generation can match the mechanical impedance better, so there’s something to be had there.

        However, 4kW of heat doesn’t really go far, so if you need 8m span to get about 1/10th of the output of a gas boiler (for a detached 3 bed house for example) then matching the boiler still a fair old ask!


  4. I must admit I’m somewhat sceptical about anything O’Leary says. He is the master of pushing his own interests above everybody else’s. There is little doubt that we are facing a huge climate problem and air travel looks like it’s almost impossible to decarbonise at scale. Not only that but air travel is projected to grow heavily over the coming decades.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. > air travel is projected to grow heavily over the coming decades.

      Yeah, but things that can’t go on, don’t. The stored energy in the fuel in a jumbo jet is all the output of Sizewell B for 1.5 hours, and the weight of the fuel declines as the aircraft approaches its destination. That’s not an advantage that electrified planes are going to have, they aren’t going to be dropping used batteries from a mile up.


    2. “There is little doubt that we are facing a huge climate problem” Au bleedin’ contraire. It’s a scam. In the nineties I read up a fair sample of the early work which, it so happens, I was equipped to do. They were a bunch of duds and were simply wrong. Later their trade became dominated by crooks, attracted by the research money and the chance of fame and power.

      In the present interglacial, temperature has been on a long, slow decline, with wobbles up and down around the trend. There were mild spells, for instance, in the Bronze Age, the Roman era, and the Norsemen-to-North-America Medieval Warm Period. There were cold spells in the Dark Ages, and in the Little Ice Age that ended in the mid 19th century. We have enjoyed slightly erratic recovery from that LIA. And that’s about the size of it. CO2 from fossil fuels might have made some pretty trivial reinforcement of the trend but if so it’s something to celebrate not to bemoan.

      It’s not just a scam it’s a quasi-religious scam, with hysteria, End of the World predictions, and a sainted bloody schoolgirl prophetess. It’s as if The Enlightenment had never been. Shame on any fool credulous enough to fall for it.


      1. Hmm! A scam promoted by virtually all scientific societies around the world. Virtually all Governments (they sign off on all IPCC reports and COP agreements). And the thousands of individual scientists who did all the work. That is some conspiracy. And what have you got beyond a gut feeling that you don’t like the answer? If you think you can overturn the whole basis of physics and chemistry going back to at least the mid 19th C, which you would have to do (look up the work of Tyndall and Svante Arrhenius), you go for it. I will stick with the science thank you very much.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I look back fondly on my Uni days where heating was a premium, we’d wrap up warm, and my housemate and I would see how much of our own breath we could see… sat in the living room.

    I get this is coming from someone who was a relatively healthy 20-something at the time (older peeps will have less resilience to these temperature changes), but I agree – despite not having been alive in the 80s – there’s something simpler about a time when heating yourself was expected to be done by you and not your home. For all the shouty shouty about ‘going green’ nowadays, maybe at least part of the price rise narrative should be “well this is fucked, but maybe we should take this as an opportunity to stick to our eco-guns and be less reliant on heating that could be done by a glove or two”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’d agree the crisis will make people think a bit more. After all, I hadn’t realised the shocking 40A current drain of the electric shower, and it starts to look like the old-style electric cooker had been appallingly inefficient compared to the induction hob. I’d generally assumed that heating anything electrically is always about the same efficiency in terms of turning electric power into heat – the problem with the hob seems to be the thermal capacity of the elements was stupendous, much larger than the pans and stuff in them, compared to the glass surface with the 27MHz induction part, that heats mainly the pans and contents. The shower was an obvious win by switching from electric heating to gas heating, the cooker was more obscure.

      So although I will choose to accept the extra cost and still heat the home, I have improved efficiency along two axes. Similarly in looking for a house I learned from the last one, which while it could be heated by a wood burner had a poorly insulated flat roof extension where not suing the central heating resulted in mould in that extension as wel las it being brass monkey in winter, so I nixed anything with extensions and anything with a flat roof this time. The wood burner is in the middle of the house, though if we go that way I will still run the CH at a low level to avoid the mould problem. Assuming we do have gas in the winter 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. About 20 years ago, I worked as an office manager at a place filled with highly degree’d people, a lot of whom I’d known for years and liked, so I assumed they were reasonable and smart. Tasked with cutting waste to make the budget, I tried various things and one I thought would be easy was asking people to also use their coffee mugs for water from the office coolers, since everyone already had one on their desk daily. Up until then, we used to burn through boxes of disposable plastic cups weekly, people didn’t even use the same one all day for themselves. I routinely used humour to get cooperation, so they didn’t feel forced and as usual put it to a vote. The request overwhelmingly failed, shocking me and also making me wonder what the hell that was all about, so I simply asked my long-term colleagues and the answers were bewildering and unclear, but if I understood correctly, they just didn’t care/enough. They thought the whole environmental concern was needless fussing and even if real, the climate change wouldn’t affect their lifetimes and even if it did, technology would always step in to save the day.

    Today I looked at the weather forecast on the BBC website and early next week there are a couple of days at 36/7 C., which I can’t remember in my lifetime, whilst my buddy in Germany told me last week they’re expecting 47 soon. I asked him to repeat it thinking the connection was bad because it’s just so unreal. So now, energy experts are predicting possible serious problems this winter, with rolling power cuts and maybe protests at living costs too, again a lot of people will be thinking ”that’s impossible, we’re not a banana republic”, but if you choose to be governed like one, then at some point, this is what happens.

    As you say, the only thing you can really do is boost your personal resilience wherever you can and stop voting for the ******s who got us here and can only do more of the same to matter what sweet little lies they whisper in our ears come election time because they kiss your arse until they’re back in power, but then you can kiss theirs.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Since I know you done the research. I don’t need to tell you how polluting the wood fire you’ve fitted is. Fact: Wood burning in homes produces more small particle pollution than all road traffic in the UK.,health%20warning%2C%20according%20to%20scientists.

    Just incredibly selfish.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, look on the bright side. If the Guardianistas are right, then it will finish off me due to an indoor air quality fail that much quicker, eh? removing me and my polluting ass quicker that you can say Chelsea tractor


      1. Bonus, thanks for doing all the research on wood burners, please can you tell me a good one to get?


  8. Hi Ermine, nice rant and thanks for the link.

    It’s also good to see you’re getting another opportunity to run out a new version of Peak Oil, after that was kicked into touch a few years ago 😉

    I still believe you’re far too pessimistic about renewables. True, we can all do our selective reading about this, but an article of this type that doesn’t include a graph showing the declining cost of solar PV or its competitiveness with fossil fuels suggests something may be being missed. 😉 (On the other hand I’m getting more worried about the lifecycle pollution issues of solar, but that’s a different matter.)

    Solar (/most other renewables except hydro for industry) does have limits, but we have nuclear for that and it seems people are waking up to that reality.

    Re: energy use and the Internet, I wouldn’t particularly worry about this. As I see it most of the growth of the Internet (ex-cloud applications, which arguably are probably energy efficient because of centralization) will be at the edge, which will be lower-powered, and increasingly solar-powered at that.

    However where we do need to keep an eye out is perhaps AI. As you know, the current state of the art (ML) is absolutely predicated on putting as much energy as you can into devouring the largest data sets you can find. Indeed one of my best hopes personally that humanity will even have a future (post-AGI) is energy constraints here. (As in tappable energy in the universe etc).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. > Peak Oil, after that was kicked into touch a few years ago

      Fair cop. Peak oil will happen, arguably is happening, the debate was whether other forms of energy would take over. That 20-year trajectory of a rich country in the First World still at 3/4 fossil fuels in power generation suggests to me that the tipping point needs to get a hefty kick up the butt soonish if it’s going to keep the party going. Maybe Vlad will do the world a favour in precipitating that, but innovation tends to be easier against a background of economic strength rather than secular decline. It’s all very well to have the metaverse but not so much fun if you have nowhere to plug it in 😉

      > current state of the art (ML) is absolutely predicated on putting as much energy as you can into devouring the largest data sets you can find.

      Don’tcha find that scattergun approach ever so slightly depressing in a monkeys and Shakespeare sort of way? Shouldn’t AI be solving mathematical theorems and telling us how they work (if we are capable of understanding, fair enough) or doing something through analysis, or at least contributing to understanding of the world? Protein folding is the only thing I can see does that, and even that is using the speed advantage to try things out rather than intelligence. If you saw a person going through all possibilities like that you’d slap em round the chops with a wet fish and suggest they get a clue.

      That’s not to say the exhaustive search of the problem space and correlation can’t throw up useful results, but if there is no understanding then these things are hard to fix when they screw up – like ramming the back of a fire truck or parking the moron that believed the Musk hype under a tractor-trailer – rinse and repeat even when the trailer is parked. Musk doesn’t seem to be able to fix that because there’s not enough understanding of how the so called autopilot works in the first place, though hopefully his boys exclude the know failure modes as they come to light. Banning him from calling it autopilot could be a very good start, though humans are particularly bad at jumping to attention after long periods of uneventful travel.


      1. Re ML: I agree. I was involved in ML nearly 40 years ago and progress has seemingly only been made because of faster/cheaper computing – sad really! More generally, IMO AI seems a bit like another Unicorn – but it apparently sells better than snake oil!!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hopefully the scarcity and unaffordability of the remaining concentrated hydrocarbon fuels will kill off this generation’s global ponzi scheme, bitcoin et al., aka Church of the Latter Day Tulips. Apparently all the ‘mining’ in their creation equates to the power usage of a large country in the name of creating something invisible + of no physical use and real value. Anyone disappointed can buy my new, renewable energy-generated substitute I’ve just launched, it’s initially publically offered at equivalency and is called Unicoin. Roll up, first come, first served.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s certainly possible to adapt to lower temperatures to some degree. I grew up in the kind of household you describe, no central heating, a back boiler in the kitchen and maybe a coal fire in the sitting room in the evening. No heating in bedrooms, and even heating in schools ran to a strict timetable; I think it was switched on in mid-October, if there was a cold snap before then, tough. Ice on the inside of windows, etc. But still I have no memory of feeling cold. My dear old mum was an inveterate knitter, so we spent the colder months encased in various lumpy (but warm) jumpers. It really wasn’t a big deal at all. We could return to that way of life easily enough. Even earlier this year when the oil tank needed filling, as a kind of personal protest at the leap in fuel prices I switched off the heating in March I think. Cold at first, but within a couple of weeks I didn’t really notice the lower temperatures. Apart from layers, I (re-)discovered one or two other truths: having a hot meal in the evening kept me warm for a couple of hours, topped up by the occasional cup of tea. Physical activity (hillwalking, chopping wood, etc) fires you up for much longer than the activity itself. Your discovery about the power of electricity made me laugh. I tried something similar as a kid (carefully removing the lightbulb from a table lamp and sticking my fingers in). Jesus, I can still feel the jolt 60 years on. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger / wiser, but it was a close-run thing.

    The link to your piece on Tim Morgan’s report was interesting too, reflecting my own feelings about “Whither UK?”. Things have got worse since then too. Of all the recent comments on this, Paul Keating’s (ex-Aussie PM) seems one of the most apposite; “the UK is an old theme park slipping into the North Atlantic”. It’s hard to take a country seriously in which a quarterwit like Truss is considered as one of the more likely candidates for PM. Her being unable to find the exit after her wooden speech yesterday stands as a metaphor for the UK that I don’t like to contemplate for too long. Not that she is much worse than the other candidates, who all seem to have had extensive work experience at the Ministry of Truth, and are using it to busily erase their record of the last few years as members of Johnson’s cabinet. The final nail in the coffin was Brexit of course, but that will never be acknowledged by the diehard Brexiloons, for whom the worst trade deficit since 1955 and a fall in exports to the EU of 12% (?) are just teething troubles on the way to the sunlit uplands, etc, etc. One way or another we are probably stuck with it for a generation, with all that implies for continuing economic haemorrhaging and low productivity growth. Fixing the multitudinous problems with the UK will require a lot of money; where this will come from in a stricken economy is a moot point: it won’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. > so we spent the colder months encased in various lumpy (but warm) jumpers. It really wasn’t a big deal at all. We could return to that way of life easily enough.

      The woolly jumpers etc of our childhood have improved somewhat across the decades too. Not only the sort of tech fabrics for walkers etc, but the USB heated gizmos. I was totally cynical that 5-10W could be any mroe useful than a chocolate teapot, but Amazon offered me a heated gilet for about £20. My lab is in the garage below the house which is cold in winter, and while a fan heater sort of works, it’s wasteful, and 1kW. Surprisingly the heated gilet works OK, and I run it off the bench power supply. Having said that, the lowtech guy isn’t totally right, even sedentary work like that involves much plugging unplugging to go get parts, and use tools ,and stand up and drill stuff. So I use a USB extension cable to avoid destroying the connector on the gilet. It took a little while to convince myself I wasn’t going to turn myself into a walking electrical plastic bin fire what with the quality of Chinese low-end manufacturing but so far so good 😉

      The slightly more worrying thing for me was to see the OBR sort of replicate Tim Morgan’s report with updated data. A bit like the updated LtG report. Despite the Tiggers, the opportunity space doesn’t seem to have enlarged with 50 years of techno-wizardry. We are perhaps running along a less immediately malign track than the 1972 assumption, but the comprehensive tech tracks was one envisaged by them.

      The power of electricity eh, very much like Twain’s carrying a cat by the tail. Never really understood how the bayonet lamp connector was ever allowed, along with the adaptor to take a feed from it…


  10. Mmm, AI – the great solver of all our problems, preached by the disrupters. It is not just Tesla AI for crashing into stationary vehicles. It is now being touted for the speed limiters that all new cars on UK and EU will require within the next year or so. These speed limiters work by using cameras and GPS. The cameras will ‘read’ speed signs – yet current examples have read side road signs or even speed sign stickers on the back of lorries and caravans and have then reduced the vehicle to those speeds. Dread to think how well that is going to work. Part of this new subtle scheme to reduce speed of traffic, another crack at solving the climate crisis and emissions. Have you noticed the reduction of speed limits in towns and built up areas? Its more than just near schools.

    I read articles about AI replacing jobs; book keepers, accountants, lawyers, etc.. The de-skilling and removal of higher paying jobs as well as the old factory jobs will just keep pushing down salaries and removing employment.
    If we remove all these jobs what do humans do?
    Maybe its good our population is shrinking.

    Cost of living:
    Its been getting worse, the current crisis has just put it into focus, the jolt you refer to. Why are people asking the Gov to help out with the energy bills? Before the Gov sold off the energy industry to private hands we didn’t pay VAT, once sold off VAT was added to take a slice of the lost income. If it had remained state run – would we be better off? Could this energy crisis have run a different path?

    The constant push to reduce costs and lower salaries as staff are normally the biggest cost for a company is just widening the gap and making things unaffordable. UBI will raise its head again in years to come as touted by the very disrupters inventing AI and other new tech.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. “the top five in 2021 are the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, in that order.”

    1 US
    2 Russia
    3 Saudi
    4 Arabia
    5 Iraq


  12. I’m one of those who puts on layers in the winter rather than the heating – something I learned as a student living in draughty old houses with no/faulty heating. Make use of hot water bottle and draught excluders – have a winter duvet ready for the cold nights. My sister swears electric blankets by but she’s a bit nesh so that might be too warm for me.

    We’re all in a pickle energy-wise, there won’t be a quick solution so am expecting many winters of discontent for the government to try to sort out.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. As we wait for the elite private school club to choose the new head of state and the last two nominal candidates promise ever more seductive lies to their respective sub-bases, are you confident you will have enough wood to take you through the next few years? Not much of the UK is still forested, let alone sustainably so, and as more people attempt resilience when they realise fuel bills are going to double, what there is locally available has to increase in price as must shipped in options.

    The tax cuts will apply disproportionately according to your situation, so given the history of the ever ruling party, under the rebranded austerity the working poor will find it taxing, the non-working poor their lives cut short and just enough of the middle classes to retain power will be able to fund the higher bills from their tax bribes. So, as the iconic line went, ”You have to ask yourself the question: does Sir feel lucky?” 🙂

    Nationally though, that still wont solve the problem of declining available/affordable energy. You can print money and lies, but not real energy,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. > does Sir feel lucky?

      Not that much 😦 sure, I am better off than most, although I’m not sure I will do so well from the tax cuts. I don’t pay that much tax as it is, because I am to a large extent one of the unproductive non-workers everybody is getting so worked up about. The tax bribes ain’t going to be what lets me pay £500 a month, that’s dividend income from UKW et all. But if the water rises and it all goes titsup than it will rise over my head too.

      Heck, I saw it coming ten years ago. I am not immune from the decision tree of the Ermine behind a green banker’s lamp .

      Anyway, you are overly harsh on one of our dear future overlord candidates, who was apparently drug up in a sink-school Leeds comp though there is some pushback on this revisionist narrrative along the lines of “well, that sink school was enough to get you into Oxford, innit?” Rish! fits the description to a T, prep school Stroud and public school Winchester College.


      1. Yup, it’s frustrating that even if we know what is coming, our ability to dodge the bullets is still limited, not having the tools to hand as do those tailoring the future to their wants, like savings in the Panama papers etc.

        Call me a jaded cynic, but I feel played, (yes, shocked, shocked I tell you!) re: the ‘choice’ between Goldman Sachs’s suit-boy and the thin person in Boris trying to get out, one for the ladies, lets hear it for Liiiiiiis Truss. (Silent ‘t’ at the end of that surname for a reason) The only mild excitement I can work up is on whether the 80% proof brexiteer tory members put aside their rascism or misogyny, if they can’t do both given this hand to play, because the pain will be the same on score if not exact flavour.

        With the strikes building up though, I wonder if we could have the next generation’s poll tax moment, it would be just Boris’s luck to neatly leave a stinker in a crowded lift, get out in time before anyone realised, then attempt a comeback to ‘save’ everyone from the consequences.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. > our ability to dodge the bullets is still limited, not having the tools to hand as do those tailoring the future to their wants, like savings in the Panama papers etc.

        I’m not sure even money is enough for the 1%ers to tailor the power future to their wants. Energy is a large-scale sort of operation, seasteading ain’t gonna cut it in terms of keeping the LearJet in the air. You need the full output of Sizewell B for 1.5 hours to power a transatlantic flight, and despite the boosterism about prefabricated small modular nuclear reactors that’s still a bad fit for a seastead, because they are still buggered as to what to do about nuclear waste. How to keep the terrorists out also seems a tough ask. The 1950s dreams of nuclear batteries in everything were technically perfectly possible, it’s just that humanity contains about 1% of general nutters and 0.1% of real headbangers, so that tech isn’t compatible with people IRL.

        Having said that, history and even LtG shows the arc of decline is through downward steps rather than like the movies in one apocalyptic bust. Arguably we are seeing this in energy prices – this hike means that a lot of people who could afford to whole-house heat their houses can’t any more. They will move towards the solutions previous generations used – as Martin Lewis said, heat the human, not the home. This was common knowledge in my childhood, it will become understood again.

        As for the choice, you don’t sound the sort of fellow to be a card-carrying member of the tory party 😉 Personally if I had a vote I’d take the suit boy because I don’t know what the hell went on at Oxford to admit Truss, she seems both delusional and thick as shit in terms of relating consequences to actions. At least BoJo knew he was lying, he just couldn’t do anything else after a lifetime of success at bullshitting, whereas I fear Truss can’t parse fact from fable. But ours is not to reason why…


  14. Well, it looks like Tim Watkins (also not a ruling party card-carrying member) agrees with us on how we’re going to all have to live within our means again, like our grandparents:

    Most people still believe our side’s propaganda that TINA (there is no alternative) to our vile leaders’ policies and as ludicrously, that Putin’s evil genius did for us, but those of us who can handle the truth that dare not speak its name, know it was our own greed that screwed us, we needed no help.


  15. I’m curious about these gravity showers you have in the UK. Here in Australia, every time I table the idea of a low-pressure, gravity-fed shower to anyone (including those living “off-grid”) I am laughed out of the room. Apparently we need at least 150kpa of pressure in Australia to do anything, and the plumbing supplies available in this country seem to reflect this (good luck finding kitchen faucets, shower roses or washing machines that will function at all at low pressures).
    Could you give me some insight into how the showers you mention work? I guess you can easily buy low pressure fittings over there? (I’m thinking I may have to order some from the UK…)


    1. In the past (1970s and before) most UK houses had this sort of indirect cold water system with a cold water tank in the roof space. Modern practice to to go with a direct on-line system at the pressure of the incoming mains water. These systems heat the hot water directly on demand using a combination boiler, firing up the boiler as hot water is used

      I still have the indirect system, and reactivated the old shower which mixes the cold water from the header tank with the hot water (from a tank which is pressurised from the header tank, so at the same pressure)

      Most UK houses have the bathroom upstairs and put the cold water tank on the floor of the loft, so the water head is about 30cm + the height of the water in the tank. That is not usually enough for a decent flow rate, but raising the tank about a metre on a timber structure (and having the slats no more than six inches apart, else the plastic cold water tank will slowly deform) fixes that. This comment in the Guardian implies the indirect system is not unknown in Australia, so you should be able to get parts.

      I believe a combination boiler is more efficient, because you aren’t keeping a tank of water hot but only heating it on demand. Other people’s experience I’ve heard does seem to support the fellow that said these are more of a maintenance liability.

      The electric shower is fed from the incoming cold water rising main. Perhaps spending more money would solve the problem that had, which was running another tap off the rising main like the kitchen tap would drop the pressure a little ending up with the electric shower varying in temperature.

      Surprised your off-gridders don’t use this sort of thing – in summer this sort of camping shower works OK in Blighty, so I would have thought it would work much better in Oz with more sun!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My house was built in 1970 and all the cold taps are fed directly from the rising main. My late parents’ house built in the 1930s , which I grew up in, was the same.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. > all the cold taps are fed directly from the rising main.

        So are all of my cold taps, and on the previous house too. That’s a bear when you have a mixer shower or one of those bodge jobs on the bath taps, because the cold rising main always has more pressure than the hot water on an indirect system, which means you get to shell out for a thermostatic mixer tap which uses a wax component to adjust the mix, or put up with massive variations in shower temp and all the action at one end of the control.

        Feeding this shower from the header tank as in this house means you can get away with a lo-tech straight mixer, and the cold taps being fed from the rising main means the temperature doesn’t vary if the washing machine is running or someone makes a cup of tea. I am very grateful to that former installer for getting this right!


      3. Thanks for that link describing indirect systems. Very interesting. Certainly not something I’ve come across in Australia, but perhaps very old houses here had something like this once upon a time. I can assure you there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of low-pressure fittings for home use here…I’ve searched high and low. In Australia everyone uses mixers rather than hot/cold taps nowadays (similar to continental Europe by the sounds of it). These require a considerable amount of pressure to operate.

        The reason I ask is because I am actually not connected to mains water – we rely on rainwater tanks alone. Our house is 2 story and in my quest for low tech solutions that are resilient to power outages I have this wacky idea of putting one of our rainwater tanks on a stand just below the bottom of the roof, with the bottom of the tank just above ceiling height at the lower level. So this would give us a similar kind of head/pressure as what you would get get from your loft-occupying tank.

        I’ve mentioned my idea to loads of people here and they all say it’s not possible, but it sounds like it indeed is, if I just buy my plumbing fittings from the UK!


      4. > with the bottom of the tank just above ceiling height at the lower level

        I would say (if your aim is to have a shower) that if you can, aim for a head of at least 1m. I actually did this job in my last house specifically to improve the shower experience. However, if you are not fighting mains water pressure then it’s just about possible, after all, a watering can works fine with a head of about 50cm, and may offer a source of parts for experimentation. I believe the head is computed from the upper water level, this is a typical UK cold water header tank so the water is 0.5m deep. If you have a tall tank I guess you don’t need to lift it up so much, though the head will fall faster for a given flow rate as you’re not replenishing it from mains water as in the UK case.

        Caravans have the same problem of a low (or negative at times) head, so may be a source of local fittings. You get 12V shower pumps like this one if you feel OK about 12V powering, although dearieme’s 240V shower pumps work fine too, though they will empty a tank pretty fast!

        For flow rate 12V inline pumps are fine, they are generally not self-priming. On our old farm I used a 12V boat bilge pump off a leisure battery to transfer water from one water tank to another and got plenty wet enough when the hose sprang out with the recoil. My camper van has a submersible Whale pump which runs the sink tap, because the water tank is below the tap. Indeed, Whale seem to do all sorts of 12V shower gizmos and gadgets targeted at the shower market.

        Personally I like passive/gravity fed tech, because the simplicity means there’s less to go wrong, and it’s fixable with basic DIY plumbing skills, though there is some cost in efficiency. But take it from me, 50cm tank depth with the tank floor 30cm above the shower head is not enough head of water to get a decent passive gravity-fed shower experience from a header tank. Raising the tank base 1m makes all the difference!


      5. Fantastic…I hadn’t considered caravan suppliers as a source for this sort of stuff so thank you!

        By using a shorter, wider tank I’m confident I can get the extra 1m of head you’ve suggested.

        The only other riddle I’m trying to solve is that around heating the water.
        We rarely go more than a day without sun so Solar Hot Water systems are very popular here. Trouble is they generally also require mains pressure (this model which seems to be the standard in my neck of the woods requires you to have a pump that delivers at least 350kPa).

        Web searching “low pressure hot water” gives me a dizzying array of alternatives. Any thoughts on what direction you would go in my situation? It doesn’t have to be a solar system like the one above, I’d be willing to consider an electric water heater too, which could be powered with solar energy (I plan to get rooftop PV panels at some point). As long as it works without any kind of pump is my goal.


      6. > Solar Hot Water systems are very popular here. Trouble is they generally also require mains pressure

        How curious. I don’t think there’s any good reason for that. Solar water heating is known in the UK, bizarrely enough – we tend to need to use evacuated tubes tech, although in summer the gonzo camping black bag on the van roof can sort of work, even in Blighty.

        Anyway, take the diagram of the indirect hot water system like mine, pressured from the cold water tank in the roof. There is an insulated hot water tank (on the right of the diagram), hot water is taken from the top and the cold water is fed in from the cold water tank at the bottom, for this to work the hot water cylinder is typically one floor lower than the cold water tank. For a two story house with a roof space the cold water tank is in the attic, the hot water tank is on the first floor. I have no idea why they make hot water cylinders out of copper which si dear nowadays, anyway, you want to get them ready insulated which is usually a sparay on foam, though back i nthe day people used to muck around with fibreglass and rockwoool insulation of bare cylinders. Inside is a copper coil, which is fed by the boiler hot water circuit, heat is transferred indirectly from the boiler hot water circuit to the water in the cylinder, which tries to keep it warm over time, this is good enough for a couple of days in my case. Of note is the water going through the boiler and this coil is a closed system, you do not get a limescale buildup in that.

        For a rooftop solar install, we typically replace this with a hot water cylinder that has two coils, like this one. The evacuated tube system also has a closed circuit, sometimes of a different fluid than water because we have a frost hazard in winter, and that goes through the second lower coil. I believe the solar thermal system still needs a pump, in the 1970s I think people tried to get away with gravity circulation but in these days of cheap microcontrollers it’s not worth the faff, although pumps are always a maintenance liability. If you are in an off-grid situation, I would always keep one spare.

        Anyway, there’s absolutely no reason why your system needs mains water pressure to deliver you hot water. All that is required is your cold water tank is higher than any other point of delivery. My hot water is pressurised by the cold water tank, not mains pressure, and is entirely satisfactory in flow rate, both for the shower, and for the bath, because most people don’t lift their bath up to the height of the shower head, so you get the benefit of an additional ~ 2m of hydrostatic head 😉 In the UK mains water is delivered at a minimum pressure of 10m of head (1atm) which will typically reach the roof space of a two story house, but you don’t need anywhere near that much to use it. 50cm of head is fine for taps, 1m is good enough for a shower, 2m is enough to run a bath in an acceptable time. With installing low pressure systems consider upgrading long runs to 22mm from the default 15mm, but my shower is plumbed with the UK default of 15mm/half inch and is fine. It’s only 2m from the cold water tank by pipe run, however.

        Australia may have specific building regs regarding hot water storage and legionnaire’s disease particularly as your system will not have chlorinated water, though camping supply stores can address keeping non-mains water systems clean. This post from Wandering Bird tells you how. I confess I have never does this with my camper van until recently, and never had trouble in ten years, but I tend to drink the water as tea and coffee so boiling the water probably nails that, though I’ve used the water fro the tank for washing up. I have probably had Legionnaire’s disease from when I worked at the BBC near Broadcasting house in 1988 but I was in my twenties at the time and presumed it was just an odd summer cold. So you may want to think about that hazard in the design or maintenance. Against that, Britain is full of domestic indirect hot water systems and I have never heard of people getting legionnaire’s disease from them, despite the HSE recommending you keep the boiler output at 60C in commercial buildings. Nobody in the UK runs their domestic hot water thermostat boiler at that, because you will scald your hands on the hot tap. But these will all be fed with chlorinated mains water.


  16. We use a “power shower” i.e. it uses an electrically driven pump to increase the water pressure. Works a treat.


    1. UK energy policy has been dreadful. Did anyone else notice that Hinckley point b was quietly taken out of service a week ago, it provided 3% of electricity. Of course we dont notice in the middle of the warmest summer in history – but come the winter!

      They is talk of a £4000 cap for residential customers, but spare a thought for small businesses. There is no cap, and one example is the chinese takeaway with an estimated £50,000 per year bill. The owner says the only way to cover it is to charge £23 for chicken curry with rice – now that’s what I call inflation.


      1. >Hinckley point b was quietly taken out of service
        It keeps happening and as you say, no-one in the media is interested in the actual engineering, just “how much of a handout can you give us?”.

        I’ve no idea how easy it is to prolong the life of these things, but Germany seem to be belatedly doing that. There’s a nice site documenting the coal-fired ones. The fact they have mostly been blown up rather than mothballed, is baffling


      2. I think HP B service life was already extended. Intense irradiation does eventually whack the shit out of materials, making them more brittle and causing other effects not always understood at the time of construction, so you probably don’t want to push your luck on the design service life 😉

        > The fact they have mostly been blown up rather than mothballed, is baffling

        They’re not really a thing of beauty, eh? Mothballing sounds attractive, but you can’t just leave that sort of kit under a plastic sheet for ten years. You have to turn it over every so often and attend to lubrication, and have some answer to corrosion in the boilers and other pressure vessels.

        I’m not saying some spare capability isn’t wise, but remember that resilience is the direct opposite of efficiency. It’s something the free marketeers forget – similarly with water, the last reservoirs built in the UK were mostly built before privatisation. If you rank the Wikipedia list of big reservoirs by year of construction the result is telling 😉 The free market also shut down the Rough gas storage facility, in general the free market hates resilience like vampires hate garlic. But hey, think of the efficiency, particularly as you look forward to the possibility of six-hour power cuts load shedding in January. In the 1970s they kept it down to four hours…


  17. I’m in London for a week & staying in an area around Clapham that I’ve known over the years & the changes in the last 3 years are Chinese-style fast. New sky scrapers are marching in ranks adjacent to the railtracks near Vauxhall station, with more being built, residential as well as commercial use, similarly the riverbanks at Clapham junction are a procession of blocks of holiday condos, the area around which is totally gentrified, (this area’s underclass provided a lot of fuel for the riots in 2011) while the towerblocks clustered spitting-distance apart forming a wall around Battersea power station make that spot on the map look like a high-rise ghetto; the density is so high.

    But are all these units sold, who all will live in these 1000’s of new homes & can the infrastructure around support those lives? It just looks really really buble-icious, sure the developers raison d’etre is ‘build it & they will come’, but council tax, power bills & inflation are going up so much, will people afford to live here much longer anyway?

    You have to see the speed of this change & scale to believe it, is it just building for building’s sake, property as an investment class with occupancy optional, or another massive ponzi scheme incubating again? Sure the UK is always short of homes, but these are expensive ones in zone 2 & are there really that many buyers or is it an extension of the increased debt for life acceptancy, with 100-year mortgages?


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