a fatal hazard for seemingly 'healthy' systems - points of vanishing returns
Crossing the Lines of Sustainability
The dangerous tipping point in continuing to run up a system's overhead costs as it runs down its resources, leading to shedding whole webs of overhead costs at once.  -  research notes page

p.f.henshaw contact  

The technical question is how to account for complex systems
with measures that correspond to the system's natural working parts.

(rather than represent them with general statistics or the measures of their impact on our cultural values)

For example, here's a diagram of the simplest possible whole system model of energy return on energy invested (EROI).  For discussion of this and related models see "Simple System EROI"


If overhead costs grow as resource productivity declines a system can go physically bankrupt, seize up and need to shed previously necessary overhead costs.
Otherwise healthy maturing systems of economic interdependencies, of any size, that don't control their overhead to match their resources, will naturally need to make successive substitutions of lower EROI resources, tend to generate ever less surplus to invest in decreasingly productive resources, crossing a line to become unable to to sustain their overhead, leading to cascading collapse.
Their chains of interdependencies break and series of whole sectors collapse and are lost, like what we are now just going through.   At the micro-level their independent parts develop increasingly conflicting interests, switching from positive sum games of profit to negative sum games of conflict, their flights to safety and neglect of mutual supports dissolve wide areas of formerly stable and durable system fabric.

 Related to Current work on this:

"The line crossed substituting ever less productive resources to support ever increasing overhead"

The next bigger and more urgent problem than Climate Change

Given the full and vigorous discussion, the next great issue after climate change would then seem open for nominations.    Climate change has been thoroughly chewed over, and the wheels set in motion, and the discussion leaves what will follow in nature’s behavior and the government and industry responses all but entirely out of the hands of those whose ideas have contributed to the discussion.     What I’d suggest to be next is determining when we are likely to cross the line of sustainability.    I think combining Charlie Hall’s and my work on the subject there clearly is a definite “line” we can now see, that he calls “minimum EROI” and I call “the point of crisis” or “point of vanishing returns”.    It’s the point at which the added effort to sustain your overhead and obtain enough returns from depleting resources is no longer worth it.  

For example, the societal overhead for a hunter gatherer is to just pick things up as they walk past them.   If it’s blueberry picking, for example, you continue stooping over to pluck the little bundles of berries until your back is sore or… sore relative to the return in berries.   When berry picking one invariably leaves more berries on the bush than you pick, usually depleting the resource to the point where only scattered individual berries are left and it’s no longer worth the effort to get them all.    Then you move on, substituting the depleted berry patch for another fresh one, if you can find it.   

Modern economies work much the same way, except that they have continually accumulating permanent infrastructure and overhead costs to support, as they switch from one depleted resource to another, and that the “fresh resources” available are actually ever less productive.   The economy’s “hunter gatherer” process has surrounded the whole planet and is no longer moving from one berry patch to the next.    Each resource is found by combing the whole earth for the deposit that takes the least effort!   That means that each substitution with a new resource takes more and more effort for the same return, starting with successively lower EROI’s roughly equal to the ending EROI’s for the resources being abandoned.  Those two differences change the problem entirely.    Our “hunter-gatherer” problem is to ask how long returns from ever less productive resources will be sufficient to support ever increasing overhead.     It’s literally like having ever more children to support knowing full well that your income will be continually declining.   For normal parenting it’s the reverse, your income keeps rising after your children are grown, but that is not the case for the end game of consuming a planet.

So, the question is, how do you do that calculation, estimate the crossing point of increasing overhead and decreasingly resources?    It’s no longer about just asking when one resource is depleted and it is time to switch.  You also need to ask how to keep the productivity of your resources from depleting, and how to keep the overhead you must support from growing in order to leave enough of a surplus to use in securing the next season’s resources.  It’s a cycle that can break down, and without the surplus to invest, there can be no return.     That line, as if a farmer eats their seed and has nothing to plant, is a line of abrupt resource exhaustion, leaving no recourse but to abruptly shed the accumulated overhead that would be unsupported, a form of sudden bankruptcy.   

 The important point is that’s a line that can be crossed at any time by any scale of enterprise.   All it takes is a system failure to balance its physical operating costs and overhead, seeming in our case to involve a combination of rapidly accumulating overhead to be paid from rapidly depleting resources.   It can lead to whole system collapse at the very peak of whole system “success”.    Think of a sprinter that does not pace him or herself, and simply accelerates to the point of their collapse at their top speed, leaving their muscles to deplete their energy faster than the blood stream can deliver it.    That’s the model of system resource use our society seems to be designed to follow, “acceleration ever faster” to just see what happens.   The main error is not the speed, but that we’re just not gauging how much overhead we need to sustain as we substitute resources that are physically ever less productive.   

Why people tend not to see the limits of growth in this way is not that those limits are not fairly visible, but that what we get distracted by how they seem moveable.   Most limits are indeed moveable, with time, effort and imagination.   That means that there is virtually no limit to anything except those for time, effort and imagination.    Usually someone suggests some way to move the limit and the question of what the real limit of moving the limit is just abandoned.   The limits to time, to effort and to imagination are each real enough, though, but the distraction keeps those questions from being asked.   It has a different kind of answer than just “the limit looks moveable”, and uses a more searching thought process, and that tends to get put aside and left unconsidered.   That’s what my various papers on the subject have been about, seeing that definitive crossing of rising physical costs and decreasing physical earnings to point way out of otherwise arduous and ever less useful circular arguments on the subject.

It’s really the two factors,  system overhead rising and resource quality declining, crossing the line where the system is prevented from using its resources, regardless of the apparent quantity (of lower quality resources) seeming to remain.   I think we need to define that point of physical system failure and bankrupt “mission unaccomplished” for other people to really understand.    

The societal danger is in successively running up our societal overhead costs at the same time as we run down the productive quality (EROI’s) of all our resources.     I think even without further degrading our resource productivities the whole system could be pushed over the line, just by continuing additions to system overhead.    There’s a long list of critical resources being degraded to review, and a long list of things driving up our whole system overhead.   Even very desirable additions to our whole system overhead, such as taxing the system to prevent and mitigate climate change, provide universal health care, or achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals could be the marginal difference to do it.   They could raise our physical system overhead above the line allowed by our declining resource quality.  If so that would likely trigger another persistent global price explosion for necessities and another economic collapse, at the next peak of our economic success, but with even more debilitating effects than the recent world financial collapse.

So, the question is this real?   Is it clear what he issue is as I’ve stated it?    Is there a set of connected issues that would need to be answered or connected.     Is it likely, if so when, and why do you think so?     What do you think would happen if the whole economy’s physical system budget went in the red like that?


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