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Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Getting cool with getting poor

Summary: if we want to avoid a climate disaster, we need to use much less fossil fuel. However everything we consume is produced using energy that is almost entirely from fossil fuel. Money spent, energy used, fossil fuel used and carbon emissions are all pretty much the same thing and all drive climate damage. The proposed solution of wind and solar energy generation isn’t saving us from climate change and can’t maintain the affluence and economic growth we’ve come to expect. Getting poorer is the our only way to reduce our damage to the earth’s ecological and climatic systems, and is the unavoidable outcome of our fossil energy supply constraints. 

Because money is energy, the only way to burn less carbon is to earn and spend less money: get poorer. Cool with that?

The energy is money problem

An imaginary, environmentally conscious but charming school teacher couldn’t decide which of 3 girlfriends he wanted to marry, so he gave them each $50, and secretly pledged to propose to the one who caused the least carbon emissions while spending his gift. One had a massage, one filled her car’s petrol tank, and one bought a basket of organic groceries. Which one should he marry? 
Answer: He’ll have to decide another way. As far as we can tell, they used about the same amount of energy, and it’s nearly all fossil fuel. 
Why? However you spend your money, it drives the same fossil fuel-based energy economy, pretty much in proportion to what you spend. 

The idea

Some years ago I heard a radio report about research into German households that had reduced their heating bills by installing insulation. Much of the money saved on heating was spent on overseas holidays that included a lot of flying. In balance there wasn't actually a net energy saving. I was a keen proponent of energy efficiency, so this was pretty challenging: if people's income and ability to purchase energy is fixed, then savings in one area simply lead to expenditure in another. Perhaps all the efficient lightbulbs and fridges I admired weren’t helping so much. 
More challenging evidence came in the Dust to dust report which examined lifetime energy costs of a wide range of cars. The standout finding (in the first version of the paper) was that a Toyota Prius used more energy per mile than a Hummer, when all lifetime energy inputs, including manufacturing energy and life expectancy, were included (a later version of the paper amended this, but the point remained that the Prius wasn’t dramatically better).
The report showed that innovative technology like hybrid cars require astronomical energy investments to build production lines that tend to be scrapped and re-built as technologies are superceded. Conversely, old technologies are cheap (in energy and money) per unit because the investment in their production has been paid for over a long time and many units. In addition, factors such as life-expectancy, maintenance and cosmetic repairs have a big impact on total energy consumption, because every dollar spent on a car means more energy used. Fuel consumption per kilometre on the road is only part of the story. 
These reports added to my reading writers like Ted Trainer (Author of Abandon Affluence), and increased my doubts that technology - efficiency, renewables, digitisation - will reduce our carbon emissions and save us from climate disaster. 

Efficiency: reducing or shuffling energy?

Most people I'm close to care about the environment and about other people. They are very concerned about global warming, and the range of other consumption-driven environmental problems. Because they care, many well-educated and well-meaning people want to reduce their personal and community-wide carbon emissions. We ride bikes, drive efficient cars, install solar panels, use electrical goods with 5 stars and install insulation. But is doing all these things just shuffling our energy expenditure instead of reducing it? 
Consider our imaginary school teacher - now recently married - who has decided to reduce his carbon footprint. He sells one of the 2 family cars, buys a bicycle and rides to work every day to be a good model to his students. His transport energy consumption plummets and so do his costs. He is not only burning less petrol, he’s saving money - at least $6000 per year. After a couple of years, it’s enough for a holiday in Bali. The money and energy he’s saved from driving, gets used on flying. 
Can he avoid this energy burden by spending his savings on something less energy intensive? What about spending $50 on a massage? While his cycling muscles are being rubbed, little fossil energy is directly consumed. However the $50 he spends will almost always flow to energy-dependent consumption: paying the masseus’ rent (which funds energy intensive building and the landlord’s consumption), car repayments, food. $50 worth of these energy-intensive processes could not happen if he didn’t pay for a massage. 
As long as our cycling teacher earns and spends the same wage, he will be causing about the same amount of energy consumption and carbon emissions. That’s because in our fossil fuelled economy, money represents energy use. 

Money is energy

My proposition is that the money we spend is the best measure for the amount of energy we burn. This is based on the reality that every economic activity consumes energy, and almost all that energy is from fossil fuel. 
It is easier to understand this energy - money relationship by looking at the whole economy. Economic growth as we know it started 300 years ago in the industrial revolution, when Europeans learnt how to burn coal in more creative ways, including making iron and fuelling steam engines. Prior to that, the economy was limited to biological productivity - mostly food and wood - and the amount of productive land limited the size of the economy and population. The only way to get rich was to steal from others: e.g. invading other countries, forcing people to be serfs. Growth really took off in the late 1800s, when Americans started big-scale use of fossil petroleum. The whole unnatural world built in the short time since then has been manufactured with fossil fuels.

World Energy Use by fuel

Above is a graph of total world energy supply, by fuel, from the International Energy Agency. It tells the story of the global economy. Energy consumption has more than doubled since 1971, and nearly all the growth has come from fossil sources. You can see the 1970s oil crisis, the 1980s recession, and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) as dips. The only times energy consumption goes down is when people get poorer. This relationship is illustrated more directly in the graph below, which compares growth in energy consumption with growth in the GDP.  

This graph superimposes energy and GDP growth, showing more clearly that the economy is really an expression of energy use. Again you can see the 1970s oil crisis, the 1980s recession, and the 2008 GFC that show as dips in the growth rate of both energy and money. 
If we understand the modern economy as a fossil-fuel-powered process, we can view money spent as the flow of fossil energy.

The problem with energy efficiency

Energy efficient technologies are often promoted as a solution to climate change. Recognition that money is a measure of energy helps to explain why brilliant technological advances in efficiency have not resulted in decreased energy use.
A recent essay by Kris De Decker in Low-Tech Magazine makes the case that energy efficiency in the affluent world is part of an escalation in expectations about energy services (the services that depend on energy), and itself doesn’t reduce energy consumption at all. Ever increasing expectations: of air conditioning in summer, heating in winter, convenience of transport, size of houses; serve to increase our total energy use, despite increasing efficiency.  
Kris writes of efficiency: "it is about not using a fuel that does not exist”. This is deliciously similar to my children’s joke about bargains: “I saved so much money buying that bargain mountain bike, I had enough left over to buy a used iPhone and still be $150 ahead”. They can see that savings relative to an imaginary expenditure, as if it was real money, enables us to evade the reality of what we have actually spent. Where are our brilliant advances in efficiency in the world fuel consumption graph above? You can’t see them, because they have been used to increase affluence instead of decrease consumption. Wouldn’t we have used heaps more energy if we hadn’t invented all the efficient cars, planes and lightbulbs? No, because energy costs money to produce and has a limited supply in the earth. People have spent as much on energy as they can afford. 
The failure of energy efficiency to reduce energy consumption was recognised 150 years ago. The Jevons Paradox is named after a brilliant English economist, William Stanley Jevons, who was concerned about depletion of coal reserves in the 1860s, and observed that greater efficiency of coal use led to higher consumption - not less. 
To me this now seems obvious. Energy efficiency is really the lowering in price of energy services, which leads people to consume more and find new uses for energy services. It's like junk food: as it gets cheaper, people don’t spend less on junk food, they eat more and spend more on it. Similarly, cheap cars enable more people to buy cars, and efficient cars enable people to drive further. A good argument is made that efficiency is fundamental to economic growth
Efficiency is useful. In an energy-constrained situation - this means a level of poverty - efficiency can raise people’s standard of living with real benefits. But again, efficiency helps a poor person to increase their affluence, not reduce their demand for energy. 

The innovation myth

I’ve found the arguments against the energy efficiency paradox almost as interesting as the idea itself. Dust to Dust was fiercely rebutted (e.g. Critics defended the Prius as a solution to energy problems, illuminating a strong commitment to the idea that technological developments will enable us to keep driving without cooking the planet - the modern man defending his right to drive. 
Perhaps the Prius is a symbol of how we try to fix the problems created by innovative use of energy, with more innovative use of energy, further digging ourselves into the hole so well described by Jevons’ paradox. Energy efficient or electric or hydrogen fuel-cell or hover cars are the wrong answer to the wrong question. Our current car culture is itself not sustainable, whatever technology is used. Moving ourselves around in 1 or 2 ton metal boxes just takes a lot of energy. 

Economics: pretending the one way flow is a circle

I suspect much of our confusion about energy comes from economics. Economists tell us that money moves in a circular flow, from consumers to businesses, then back again, but this is a misleading model. The real value of money is in enabling us to spend energy which flows one way: from the resource (mostly in the earth) to waste (mostly in the atmosphere). Thus, the economy is really a flow of energy from resource to waste. Money is used to control who gets the benefits from that flow. Jevons Paradox is only a paradox because we have been confused by the circular notions of economics, and ignored the one-way flow of energy, mostly from coal, oil and gas that get burned up and never come back. 
Have a look at how a physicist describes the economy and energy

Prove it

I haven’t provided a strong evidence-based argument for the proposition that money is the best measure of emissions. In the complexity of the global economy, this is difficult to prove. Imagine chasing down the energy content of dollars spent in different ways, through the infinite open channels of the economy. This idea has  been proposed many times before. Economist Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity without growth, gives a figure of 770g carbon per dollar (presumably US$) in the global economy (hear his excellent presentation at 

Tim Garrett, a climate scientist who writes brilliantly on the relationship between economics and energy, proposes a more sophisticated relationship between money and energy. He says it takes 7.1watts of continuous power to maintain every US$1000 (2005 money) of historically accumulated economic wealth (read it here)
It is clear that each dollar spent does drive fossil fuel use - not instantly, but each transaction causes a chain of events. There isn't any place to spend money that won't lead to energy consumption. However, the money is energy argument would be weak if the ratio of money to energy was wildly variable, or if there was a better measure. 
We don’t have a better measure. Research-based measures of energy consumption are common, e.g. Dust to dust comparing cars, or Elephant in the sky critiquing the role of aviation in carbon emissions. However reducing emissions using this reductionist approach is difficult and can lead to misunderstandings. If our cycling schoolteacher decided not to holiday in Bali, to avoid aviation carbon emissions, he might instead drive to a holiday at the Gold Coast, where his money would pay for energy-intensive construction of high-rise apartments and the jet-setting lifestyles of their owners. 
Understanding the role of our money in driving consumption, energy use and carbon emissions is fundamental to our decision-making. This helps us understand that the real solutions are humble and frugal, not technological. For example, in transport energy use, social behaviours make far more difference than car fuel efficiency. An old six cylinder Holden carrying a bunch of labourers to work emits far less carbon pollution per person than one professor in his Prius. The research may tell us that a Prius is more efficient in petrol per kilometre than an old Holden, but this doesn’t really help us decide how to get to work. The cost of the Prius tells us about the huge energy input to its manufacturing, compared to keeping an old car going, and if it’s only carrying one person, that energy cost isn’t being shared around.

The pool of consumption

Is the ratio of money to energy widely variable? I doubt it, because nearly all money flows to the same pool of economic consumption. Think about where the money goes when you buy anything: it flows to the energy consumption of all the machines and people along the economic path to you. It is the same with buying energy: if you buy a tank of petrol, your money flows to the petrol station staff (who spend it on their living costs: car, house, clothes, food), the station infrastructure (building made of gas-fired concrete, coal-fired electric lights, refrigerators, pumps), oil transported in ships made from coal-smelted steel, delivery trucks, thousands of oil company staff and their living costs. In fact no money goes directly to the petrol, it all flows to the millions of expenditures that get oil from the ground to your car.
It is the same with coal. Most coal we buy is for electricity consumption, a mind-bogglingly complex system resulting in a vast number of economic and energy transactions, through wages to employees, royalties to governments (spent on roads and schools), and payments to factories for transformers, turbines. Huge amounts of oil are used in coal production: transporting coal, machinery and the people who work producing it. If you blur your eyes a little, these expenditures look very similar to the whole economy: people, buildings, machines, energy. Whatever you spend your money on, it flows into the same pool of energy-dependent consumption. 
This is all really applying the idea of ‘embodied energy’ (the energy that needs to be used to consume a product) to money. Every expenditure of currency drives fossil energy use. We could call it the embodied energy of money - similar to Tim Jackson’s 770g carbon per dollar. 


Of course dollars spent is an imperfect measure of energy cost, because there are distortions within the money system and in the relationship between money and energy. There are differences in emissions between fuels: coal is more carbon intensive than oil, which is more intensive than gas. However, as described above, there is a significant degree of blending in the complex paths of these fuels to the consumer: coal is dependent on oil and oil is dependent on coal. I suspect the biggest distortions are economic, such as subsidies, which hide energy costs in artificially low prices, and debt which hides energy costs by delaying payment. 
Some countries deliberately distort the relationship between money and energy by adding energy taxes. Europeans pay more for car and truck fuel – petrol and diesel – because of fuel taxes. This has the effect of making them poorer and is one of the causes of Europeans’ much lower per capita energy use. This is a survival strategy for Europeans, who import more than half their total energy supplies and are very vulnerable to energy markets. 
These graphs show the wide variation in tax rates on road fuel, and the wide variation in energy use per person. 
[OECD (2013),Effective tax rates on energy: Gasoline vs. diesel (road use), in Taxing Energy Use, OECD Publishing.]
[The World Bank : Kilograms of oil equivalent (2011)
By 未知との遭遇 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,]

Rooftop solar

Much hope is focussed on household solar energy as a solution to our climate and energy depletion problems, but if you look at the money, it doesn’t look like it’s helping much. 
What if our school teacher and his wife, earning $100,000 per year between them, install PV panels on their roof. Government subsidies pay $5000, they pay $5000, so $10,000 is spent on energy intensive PV panels, inverter, wire and tradespeople. The PV panels are saving the couple $1000 per year from their power bills: about 1% of their income, so about 1% of their energy consumption. They have reduced their contribution to the energy cost of coal-fired electricity but now have an extra $1000 per year to spend on consumption of other energy-dependent products, perhaps including air conditioning. 
Has installing PV panels reduced their carbon emissions? It doesn’t look like it: government subsidy has allowed the household to spend more money than their normal income, and ongoing electricity bill savings enable spending on other energy-intensive products. In effect, the family income, and thus energy consumption, has been increased. 

Money in the bank?

What if our schoolteacher just leaves his money in the bank - will that help him escape energy-driving consumption? It seems not. “Fractional reserve lending” is an old strategy of money lenders, enabling a bank to lend out several times more money than they hold in cash. It’s legal and it works, as long as not all the depositors ask for their money back at the same time - this happens and it’s called “a run on the banks”. What this means for our climate-conscious schoolteacher is that his $1000 in the bank might be financing $5000 or $10,000 of lending and consequent consumption. Hiding his money under the mattress doesn’t cause this multiplication of harm to the climate, and it does take money out of circulation and reduce consumption. However once he spends it (if he can find it), his money goes back to driving emissions again. 


Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of the “money is energy" proposition is the idea that it may be possible to “decouple” GDP (Gross Domestic Product = total amount of money spent) from energy use, environmental impact or carbon emissions. A good start is this page: . An economic analysis rebutting the decoupling idea here: Tim Jackson roundly rebuts the potential for decoupling in his podcast at
The graphs above show that the growth of global GDP has been matched very closely by the growth in energy consumption, but sometimes a superficial look at some high-tech economies shows periods of economic growth without so much energy. With the shift of manufacturing, rich countries offload many energy-hungry industries to poor countries, and now import high-embodied-energy manufactured products which aren’t accounted for in their national energy consumption figures. This is like paying your neighbour to cook dinner: your energy bill goes down, but your food bill goes up. Overall you use the same or more energy, but more energy cost is hidden in other bills. 

Affluence = emissions

If the argument that ‘money is energy’ is right, then most efforts of the wealthy world’s educated classes to fix climate change are to no avail. International agreements and schemes have had no impact on steadily rising carbon emissions, even in the 29 years since the first International Panel on Climate Chance (IPCC) report clearly outlined the problem. The only occasions when our emissions have been (briefly) reduced have been events generally considered to be disastrous: the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the 1980s recession and the 1970s oil crisis. Economic growth and carbon emissions are inseparable. 
This puts our desires to leave a habitable planet for our children in direct conflict with our aspirations for affluence: a good education, a successful career, and the reward, in proportion to our value as a person, by income - our share of fossil energy. 
There is no way around the uncomfortable truth: if we don’t want to cook the planet for our kids, we need to be poorer, in the economic sense of having less ability to buy stuff. Some people (like Ted Trainer) have been saying this for decades, but it seems a no-go zone for public discussion, even by environmental organisations. Kevin Anderson says we’ve known all about the dangers of global warming for 27 years, but haven’t tried to reduce our emissions. “A shameful litany of technocratic fraud” See him give a straight explanation of our climate situation here: ). 
The other no-go in public discussion is resource limits, which will take away choice and make us poorer whatever we do. 

Peak everything

Our social conversation about energy and global warming is largely within a framework of consumer choice: how can we make choices that are better for the climate? This fits with our societal myth of limitless energy resources which will always be easily and cheaply accessed. Almost all conversation about future energy supply is shaped by our belief that technological solutions will maintain cheap energy: nuclear fusion, thorium reactors, low-cost photovoltaic panels, oil from algae. Prius or Tesla cars are a step along the same thought path, that we are headed for a Star Wars future where our cleverness will ensure energy and materials are always in abundance. 
This view of our future has been shaped by our history, over only a few generations, of continuous economic growth, fuelled by increasing availability and consumption of fossil fuels. We project that history of growth forwards with our science-fiction-based myth of the high-tech future. We collectively hold to a determinism - a belief that a particular path is set for our future - that our expectations of ongoing growth and affluence will be met. Our media, our conversations, our government policies, all align with this myth. 
There is a story that much better fits the facts than the techno-fix narrative: the “one-off bonanza” story. Humans lived on the products of nature for 200,000 years, until their accumulated cleverness enabled them to mine and burn the coal, oil and gas that had lain in the earth for hundreds of millions of years. When this fuel was cheap and easy to extract, humans multiplied exponentially and used the energy in a multitude of ever-cleverer ways. As the fuel became harder to extract, people got poorer, reduced in numbers and this was very hard for them. This perspective is usually described under the heading “peak oil”.
Peak oil leads us to the related issues of peak coal, peak minerals, etc.. If fossil fuel becomes harder to get, everything we we extract using oil is also harder to get, including other energy sources like coal, uranium, silicon for PV panels or wind power. It is like when you are short of money, you are short of everything that costs money. 
While the concept of peak oil is obvious, there is a strong incentive to imagine the problem to be far in the future. However, many people believe we are at the peak now. Consider how new oil is being produced in North America: by cooking tar sands in Canada, fracking tight oil in USA, and deepwater wells in the Gulf of Mexico. These are expensive, energy-intensive ways to get oil, not at all like 20th century oil production. A lot of commentary proposes that producers are losing money with these processes and that reserves are depleting fast. Consider how countries like Britain and USA have peaked in their oil production and are now net importers, while other countries like Egypt have declining oil exports and collapsing economies. As Richard Heinberg, a respected  writer on peak oil says: the party’s over .

Renewable energy 

A strong narrative of the progressive Left is that the solution to peak oil and global warming is renewable energy. Increasing our use of renewable energy is good, but there is no way it can maintain the affluence and growth we feel entitled to. Manufacture of renewable energy devices uses great amounts of fossil energy, so their price is totally dependent on the price of fossil energy. An increase in the value of energy due to fossil fuel scarcity would make renewable energy more expensive and us poorer. If we scratch through the hype, there is no prospect of running an economy that looks like ours, with renewable energy alone (see essays analysing this by Kris De Decker and David Mackay). 

Energy return on investment

To understand renewable energy it is essential to grasp the concept of ‘Energy Return On Energy Invested’ (EROEI). This is a measure of how much productive energy we get for each unit of energy invested in delivering it. For example, an oil well might take the energy equivalent of 1 ton of oil to drill, set up the infrastructure, refine and deliver 20 tons of oil, giving an EROEI of 20. Most renewable energy sources, such as photovoltaic and wind (which together provide less than 1% of global energy) have much lower EROEIs than coal and oil. Renewables such as hydroelectricity and waste wood have a high EROEI, but these can’t be significantly expanded because of limited resources and environmental problems. Ethanol fuel from grain (produced as a petroleum substitute) has an EROEI of around 1, meaning it consumes as much fossil energy to produce as the fuel contains. There is a well developed argument that an affluent, complex and growth-dependent economy requires lots of high EROEI energy (like 20th century coal and oil), and that renewables are not able to deliver this. 

Putting renewables into perspective

To put wind and solar renewables into perspective: they are part of the thin grey line on the top layer of this graph. The explosion of rooftop solar in the last 10 years isn’t visible, wind and solar together hasn’t anywhere near matched the growth in total energy consumption, and hasn’t dented the huge baseline of fossil fuels. By far the biggest renewable energy source is biofuels and waste, which includes unsustainable burning by mostly poor people in poor countries, sustainable wood burning, and a tiny amount of bio-fuels like ethanol and biodiesel which have a marginal or small EROEI. Wind and solar energy are not protecting the climate, nor replacing our diminishing reserves of fossil fuel.
We can expect to increasingly depend on renewable energy in the future, and the sooner we get started the better. However there is no chance we can maintain the growth and affluence we expect, in an economy powered by renewable energy. 

Nuclear energy and other technotopias

Nuclear energy is often promoted as one of the technological solutions to our energy and climate problems, but there’s no way it can keep the party going. Nuclear reactors make a lot of electricity in places like France, where they operate under massive direct and indirect subsidies. Nuclear fuels, facilities and research programs have astronomical embodied fossil energy. Conventional nuclear reactors use uranium that has a limited supply, breeder reactors make fuel but have much greater waste and risk. Thorium reactors have an enthusiastic following as a magic bullet, but don’t yet exist as a working source of energy, and would take decades to start rolling out. Nuclear fusion has been promised for decades, and no doubt will continue that way. 
Remember that nuclear energy only generates electricity, which currently accounts for about 1/4 of global emissions. The other 3/4 of emissions goes to activity that doesn’t currently use electricity, because that would be too expensive or impractical (consider trucks, for a start Switching the world economy to nuclear energy (converting everything that now runs on oil to run on nuclear electricity) quickly enough to avoid both global warming and peak oil, and cheaply enough to avoid economic disruption, is not a realistic prospect. 
Perhaps the worst technotopian dream is “negative carbon” technologies: those that claim to be able to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it somewhere safe. This is often titled clean coal, carbon sequestration or carbon capture and storage - a technology that has never been economical to implement (meaning that it takes too much energy to do). I understand that the economic model on which the Paris agreement is based, anticipates that a technology like this will be invented and somehow remove a high proportion of CO2 from the atmosphere in the near future. It would require funding an industrial infrastructure on a similar scale, cost and energy demand of the global electricity generating system. Clearly this is a fantasy invented as an excuse for doing nothing about the real problem. 
Decisions about nuclear energy, fossil fuels, computer games, agricultural chemicals, military adventurism, extramarital affairs, etc. all suffer from the same human frailties: we have a great new idea, exaggerate the imagined benefits, minimise all the problems and inflate sense of our power to manage the consequences.
A cool look at the world’s energy situation reveals that our economy totally depends on a limited supply of fossil energy, which is getting harder to deliver. There are no new energy sources that can meet current global demand, avoid terrible climate change or maintain our current affluence. We need to reconcile ourselves to a future of decreasing energy use. The nice way to describe this is energy descent. 

A peek at the global perspective

I don’t want to write about the climate emergency (there is heaps of good and horrifying information about that), but it’s relevant to mention the scale of that situation. The world’s richest 10% (that’s us) collectively have about the same carbon emissions as the poorer 90%. That means the rich 10% have about 10 times the emissions per capita as the poorer people. This means that if we are to reduce global emissions, nearly all the reductions must come from the rich, as the poor can’t really get any poorer and stay alive. Reducing global emissions by 50% in 10 years (as required) would require the equivalent of stopping all emissions from the rich. 
This gives some perspective of what sort of actions are real solutions: major, short-term reductions many times bigger than the Global Financial Crisis. 

Getting poorer: the only way forward

So far I've made two arguments for getting poorer: it's the only way to avoid cooking the planet; and it's going to happen anyway as we run out of fossil energy. The solutions we are offered as responses to climate change and resource constraints don’t work: efficiency (unless part of a downsizing strategy) simply shifts our energy use to different places; and renewables have no prospect of maintaining our expectations of affluence and growth. 
There are other, very strong, reasons to get poorer, that I won’t explore in depth here. Violence and oppression are used to maintain the shocking differences in wealth between people in the world. A move towards greater equity and less violence would require greatly reduced affluence for people in rich countries. There is also a strong argument that our obsession with earning and spending money wastes our short and precious lives, harming our relationships, families and communities. Once you have enough, more doesn’t make you happier. 
By Thomasjam - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
This graph of social progress relative to energy consumption shows how increased energy use tends to improve social measures. Note that the energy scale is logarithmic, so the countries on the right use many times more energy than those on the left. However energy consumption is not very good at producing social progress: Russians uses about 10x as much energy as Philipinos, but have lower social measures; Americans use more than 2x as much as Danish, with lower social measures.By Thomasjam [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons]

The politics of energy and climate change

If you accept the arguments made above, or the data on energy consumption in the graph above, it is clear that the current political conversation fails to address our energy, climate or economic challenges. The political Right and Left are both totally committed to the paradigm that is driving our climate and resource problems. The Right either denies there are problems with the environment or resources, or says they must not get in the way of growth and consumption. The Left recognises there are problems, but says we will fix them with regulation, innovation, technology and thus maintain growth and consumption. Both are incompatible with the science (the closest thing we have to facts) showing that our fossil energy resource is finite, burning it up is cooking the planet, and the earth doesn't have enough resources, or capacity to absorb waste and emissions, for everyone to live like Americans (or Australians or Europeans). 
In this light, we are all little different from climate-change deniers: the deniers have merely chosen to get off the logic train earlier than those who accept the climate science but can’t accept what it means for how we live. The well-educated classes who “vote for the climate” are driving carbon emissions in proportion to their income, just like climate deniers. 

The non-solutions

I am definitely not proposing that we can address our climate problems by taking a moral position on money or affluence - a campaign for voluntary frugality. That's not going to happen. My goal is that we, as Greta Thunberg says, "tell the truth", so we can make helpful decisions. 
Understanding that money represents energy and emissions, and that we are on a path of energy descent, gives us a “crap filter” for the information blizzard we are subjected to. Expensive “solutions”, like electric cars and solar batteries, are more of the same problem. Political promises to solve problems with economic growth mean wrecking our kids’ futures by cooking the planet, and are probably undeliverable. 
As we begin energy descent, we are at great risk of spending our efforts in denial and violence trying to extend our energy wealth. There are an abundance of voices telling those already frustrated by energy descent to blame their discomfort on some group of people: immigrants, or Muslims, or the other political party. Consider what happened to the USA in the 1860s when the southern states were confronted with the loss of their low cost, pre-oil, energy supply: slavery. The Civil war was a catastrophe, as was the invasion of Iraq (another war about energy), each time wasting astronomical amounts of energy and making most people sadder and poorer. Consider also the American “preppers”, who build bunkers full of tinned food and guns and prepare to shoot their hungry neighbours. The less we understand the reality of our situation, the more likely we are to resort to greed and violence.

What to do about it

An effective response to our climate and resource challenges needs to start in our heads. There are plenty of practical problems, but we can’t deal with them until we’re cool with the reality of our situation. Planning to get poorer peacefully in our communities, instead of fighting over diminishing resources, is a huge opportunity to give our children a safer, happier future. To do this, we need to see ourselves differently as individuals. Currently, our money income defines us: our career success, our status, our sexual attractiveness. Reducing our earning time or wage level is, within our economic and social paradigm, to waste our skills, miss opportunity, become less important. This is the primary task of addressing climate change and peak oil: developing a new identity that allows us to value ourselves and each other without reference to what we spend and burn. 
Our new individual identities need to include our communities, a part of us that has been hit hard by the rise of consumerism. Our future, like most of our history, is built on our successful interdependence with our neighbours. Helping out, and being helped, is not only the cheapest way to do most things, it’s also the happiest. 
If we can let go of (or at least manage) our consumer identities, and rebuild our community relationships, then we can start the task of building an economy of “sufficiency”, focussed on providing people with fulfilling lives on minimum energy and resources. This project has already started, under titles such as Permaculture, Transition Towns, Resilience, Sufficiency, Retrosuburbia; and clearly has a lot of work to do. 
In an economic paradigm of “sufficiency” we could pursue the minimum level of money-based consumption that enables human dignity and health, and devote the balance of our time to doing what makes us happy: looking after family, community and environment. Growing, making and fixing more of our needs in family and community economies of trust and interdependence, or extending local economic capacity with local currencies, increases our economic well-being but doesn’t enable carbon emissions. It also builds a resilience to shifting economic conditions. 
To build cultures and economies like this requires adopting new paradigms in our minds and communities, building new systems that provide our needs, and learning and teaching the required skills. Getting cool with getting poor, and letting go of the dreams that make us wreck our country and our future, is fundamental to this. 
If you did not want much, there was plenty. 
(Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee)


Thanks to Carol Booth for her generous help in editing this - it's a difficult idea to get across!


If you think I must be wrong because nobody agrees with me: you have a valid point. Herd instincts evolved because they work - mostly. Here are some sources I recommend if you want to think more about the challenges I have presented. 
Post Carbon Institute
Post Carbon Institute collects some really good communicators about peak oil and global warming. I’ve been particularly enjoying their recent podcast Crazy Town, about the distressing mismatch between what seems logical (what I’ve written about above) and what everyone is doing. Their new report The Future is Rural is excellent and clear. 
David Holmgren's Retrosuburbia
Our family and friends have been enjoying David Holmgren's recent book Retrosuburbia, which outlines a household and community path for energy descent. I think this is where things are at currently - it's not a time when policy reform can be looked to for progress, culture needs to lead. More information on the book and its ideas can be found at the book's website, including valuable free download reading. An excellent podcast interview of David about the book is here. Our family particularly enjoyed reading the Aussie Street chapter from the book out loud to each other - it shows the power of story to getting ideas across.

Ted Trainer
Ted Trainer was the first person I ever heard or read that really put the affluence myth to the test, in his book Abandon Affluence. Over 30 years ago he showed that renewable energy, at any price, couldn’t replace fossil fuels. 
Kevin Anderson on climate change
This is an excellent, concise, but challenging video in which academic Kevin Anderson lays out the facts on climate change and how government plans don’t match the science. is a program of the Post Carbon Institute, focussed on what sort of new economy we should be building. This is a useful article on “decoupling”, the misguided idea that we can have economic growth without growth in carbon emissions
Gail Tverberg 
Gail is an excellent writer on energy, using the discipline of focussing on facts. Here is her article on peak GDP (have we peaked already?)
Energy cost of energy blog
A more detailed look at fossil fuel consumption
Bedazzled by energy efficiency (Kris De Decker’s essay)
Jevons’ paradox
Living within planetary limits (the challenge of equity)
Sustainable energy without the hot air
This is a really comprehensive analysis of Britain’s energy situation, if it tried to run on some sort of sustainable energy supply. It’s a pdf book, free to download, that takes a lot of reading but leaves you with a much better understanding of the energy situation of rich countries. 

Monday, 7 January 2019

Top bar hive design

This post describes the top bar hive design I am currently using, which is slightly modified from the Les Crowder design to suit my situation. I have written other posts about my top bar beekeeping efforts, including putting a top bar super on a framed hive, and putting a brushed swarm into a top bar box
My first top bar hive at home in our hillside orchard. The framed nucleus hive above it provided the bees for a brushed swarm to start a top bar hive

What top bar design to use?

There are heaps of top bar hive designs visible on the internet. Many tend to be quite complex, and the array of options is confusing to the beginner. While getting started with top bar hives, I've found myself settling on a frugal and simple design which I have adapted for my circumstances. 
I've taken a lot of inspiration from Les Crowder, reading and frequently referring to his book (Top Bar Beekeeping), and watching him on youtube (this one is my favourite). Les clearly is focussed on the bees instead of the appearance of their accomodation, perhaps like those families who are more interested in relationships and good health than the architectural status of their houses. He uses many re-used materials, and only does as much work as is required to make the parts do their job. There’s a lot to be learnt from this approach (I also appreciate the frugality of Sam Comfort’s beekeeping, e.g. this video of him inspecting a top bar hive). 

Hot climate design

Living in a climate where it can get very hot, I’ve followed Les’s lead in using a relatively long bar in a relatively shallow box. This means the combs carry less weight per length of bar, and are less likely to break off in hot weather when the wax gets soft and weak. I’m also providing insulation above the top bars, to reduce the flow of solar heat from the roof, which could heat the top bars and cause combs to soften and fall. 
I'm still considering how best to provide ventilation to my hives. I'm interested that many top bar hives have mesh floors, that give a lot of ventilation, but I wonder if this would make it hard for the bees to keep warm and dry in our winters. 


The key dimension for any top bar hive is bar length. Les uses bars 20” long (508mm), which I rounded down to 505mm (cold climate beekeepers often use shorter bars in deeper hives). Because I see a lot of value in standard, exchangeable bars (e.g. when helping other beekeepers start hives) I was a bit torn between Les’s size and the “Standard top bar” size of 19 1/2” (495mm), but it’s easy to cut bars short if needed. I’ll say more about my top bars later. 
The internal dimensions of the box cross-section are 465mm max width (at top), 235mm wide at bottom and 200mm depth, which gives the sides a 60* angle. 
Hive end board dimensions
End boards and divider boards are made to this cross-section size, cut from 200 x 25mm boards. The tops of my end boards are flush with the tops of the side boards. This makes it easy to put on a capping piece at the end with an entrance; it’s also easier to mill 200mm boards than 250mm boards. This is different from some designs that have end boards standing above the side boards (e.g. Les Crowder).  
The box sides are 250 x 25mm boards, square edged (these could be made from 2 boards joined together). The bottoms are 235 x 25mm boards (or narrower boards fitted together), with the edges angled at 60*. 
I’ve made my full-size hives 1200mm long. This is longer than some designs (Les uses ~1100mm long to fit in his truck), but it gives the bees some spare room in case of neglect during a honey flow. Currently I find the extra length useful for temporarily holding bars and combs I’ve lifted out of the hive.  
I’ve also made a few 10-bar top bar nucleus hives (nukes) which are the same cross section, but 420mm long (outside dimension: side and bottom boards are 420mm long). 
Here's a 10 bar nucleus hive. Note how the sides are made from narrow boards, avoiding the need for 250mm-wide timber. I haven't put an insulating board under the roof of this hive yet. 
The nukes are very useful for making a split (dividing a hive to make a new hive). They are great for collecting and initially housing swarms: small enough to carry to the swarm. They are also easy to transport when setting up hives in another place - I try to avoid moving full-length hives. An empty nuke is also a very useful toolbox and top bar comb holder when doing beekeeping: when you lift out combs from a top bar hive, you need somewhere to put them: you can’t just lean them against the outside of the hive like you can with a Langstroth frame. 

Hive entrance

My hives have an entrance at the top of one end board. The opening is created by a slot 150mm wide, 10mm high, cut into a piece of 30mm x 20mm x 505mm wood, nailed on the top of one end board. 
The centre stick in the picture is an entrance bar, with 150mm wide slot in the middle. On its right are 2 spacer bars, for when the standard bars don't quite fit into the hive
The inside top edge of the end board needs a bevel cut below this opening, so the first top bar doesn’t block the entrance.  
Here's a bevel on the inside of the end board, ready for the entrance bar to be nailed on top.  The bevel allows the bees to enter without being blocked by the first top bar.
And here's what the entrance looks like from the inside with the entrance bar in place. 
Most of the smart top bar beekeepers seem to put the hive entrance at the bottom of one of the hive’s long sides: Les puts his close to one end as a 10mm x 150mm slot, some put 3 x 25mm holes in the middle (e.g. Philip Chandler , Adrian Iodice). I’m sure they’re right about the benefits of a low-down side entrance, but I’ve put my entrance at the top of the end to fit with my local conditions. Because of the steep slope I keep my hives on, a side entrance would require me to stand in front of the entrance while working on the bees, creating an air-traffic-control problem, irritating the hive and giving me more risk of bees going up my shorts. An entrance at the bottom of the hive would also be easily obscured by fast-growing weeds in our sub-tropical paradise. I take comfort from Michael Bush, who describes how he uses a top entrance created by leaving a gap between the end bar and the hive end board. My entrances are easily removed and a side entrance could easily be cut in if my hives are moved to somewhere flatter some time. One of the splendid things about these top bar boxes is how easy it is to try a diversity of ideas, even if you stick to one top bar length. 

Top bars

So far I’ve been using 35mm wide top bars, following Les Crowder, 505mm long. Adrian Iodice also uses 35mm bar width. Many top bar beekeepers use 38mm (1 1/2”) wide bars all through (Standard top bar and Philip Chandler both use 38mm wide bars). 
Some people use wider bars for honey combs and narrower for brood. This is similar to Australian framed hive beekeeping, where it’s common to use 10 frames in a 10 frame brood box, but only 9 frames in honey supers. This makes wider honey combs that are easier to uncap when extracting honey, and requires less wax and fewer frames per kg of honey. Using 2 different widths of bars would add significant complexity to using a top bar hive, as combs that have been used for brood are gradually progressed outwards to become honey combs. Philip Chandler’s top bar hive plans mention that some beekeepers add 6-8mm wide shims between honey bars during a flow. Occasionally I’ve used a few spacers (about 8mm) for bars with extra-wide honey comb. 
My first batches of top bars had a square ridge machined into the bottom edge, intended to help guide the bees in comb building (does it?). I made these from 35 x 25mm timber, and used my circular saw bench to saw away the wood on each side of the ridge, leaving a 35 x 20mm bar plus ridge. Making these ridges adds a significant amount of time to bar-making, and requires the timber to be 5mm thicker than it would be without the ridge. 
Here are my 2 types of top bar, plain on the left, ridged on the right. Both have a cross-cut groove near the end to locate the bar on the top of the hive side
Watching Les Crowder’s video I noticed that although his book advises you can nail on a cleat along the bottom of the bars, Les’s bars visible in the video are plain flat on the bottoms (watch from about 11min to 14min). Les’ bars are a diverse collection of timber scraps: the right width and length, but otherwise anything goes (including what looks like a strip of short-grained 10mm plywood). His combs, however, appear remarkably straight and well aligned to their bars. I now suspect that there isn't much value to making top bars with complex shapes on the bottom, hoping to influence comb building. 
Since working this out, I’ve been mostly making plain 35 x 20mm bars, flat on the bottom, rough-sawn unless planing is necessary to make a straight bar. In the hives, I don’t find the bees align their combs better on either type of top bar. Both require some straightening of combs at the ends. The bees actually appear to attach their comb more strongly to the bars without ridges. 
Here's a ridged bar, standing upright. See how a lot of the comb is attached only to the narrow ridge on the bar bottom, with occasional extra reinforcement onto the bar base. 
Here's a flat-bottomed bar, with the comb attached more broadly and strongly along the bottom of the bar. 
Following Adrian Iodice’s method, I have been making a cross-cut slot near the end of each bar, which engages with the ridge of one hive side board. This is to maintain more consistent alignment of combs in the hive when replacing bars, and cause less interference with the bee space between the comb and the hive sides. Maybe I’m being too fussy…


I’ve used a very simple roof: a sheet of corrugated iron, 1450mm long and 740mm wide, edges turning downwards, on top of some 25mm pine boards, on top of the top bars. The hinged roofs on the fancier hives would have real advantages: light and easy to lift, no need to find a place to put them down. However for now, I’m stuck with keeping hives on a steep slope, I’m using top, end entrances, and hinged roofs wouldn’t easily work. 
I cut the corrugated iron so it has about 100mm overhang all around, keeping sun and rain off the hive walls. This requires cutting along the corrugations, which isn’t easy. I could use an angle grinder and disc, but that burns the zinc coating and leaves a nasty burr, so I manage with special flat-bladed tin snips (or my friend’s electric snips!). I use a couple of bricks to hold the roof on in storms - perhaps I should tie down with a strap or rope like Les does. 
Here's the wooden insulating panel, on top of the top bars
Under the iron I have a wooden panel which is purely to add insulation from the heat of the sun - I really don’t want the bars to heat up on a hot, sunny day and have combs fall down. It is made from 25mm thick pine boards held together with 3 cleats across, screwed together with type 17 screws. I put a layer of reflective foil building paper on top of the boards to reflect heat from the corrugated iron. The cleats, on top of the boards and foil, create an air space under the iron to further reduce heat. 


One of the things I most love about top bar hives is that I can make them myself from timber I mill myself, from trees we grow. 
So far I’ve made most of my boxes from untreated slash pine (Pinus elliottii - the most common exotic pine in this area). This is mostly due to having some old boards to use up, plus my reluctance to use more valuable hardwood when I’m still at an experimental stage. With 3 coats of water-based exterior paint (from the tip) on the outside, bare wood on inside, I expect a reasonably long useful life. The shallow profile and sloping side boards, under an overhanging corrugated iron roof, mean that the top bar box rarely gets wet at all - unlike a framed hive, with tall walls that will be running with water in any rain. 
To make hardwood hives, I’m milling 25mm boards of lighter eucalypts such as blackbutt, flooded gum and Sydney blue gum. Narrower boards can easily be butt-jointed, with cleats to hold them together when required: the bees will fill any shrinkage gaps they don’t like with propolis. Painted, covered and on a dry base, these should last for decades. 
I’ve made the top bars from whatever offcuts I have available from sawmilling, lately mostly slash pine and flooded gum. Additionally, I’ve been experimenting with milling some of the smaller, rarely used rainforest timbers that go to waste locally, and experimenting with non-chemical treatments to avoid beetle damage. 
I screw the hives together with 50mm type 17 galvanised hex head screws, 12 or 14 gauge, whatever used screws I can find. I pre-drill holes for the screws, I dip a little grease on each screw before insertion, I paint the joining faces of the wood, and put a little paint in the screw hole, before screwing the pieces together. These screws are very durable, very strong, and easy to remove when desired. 

Home grown

All the wood I use for my hives is milled here on our place, and nearly all is grown here in our valley. The Eucalypt wood (flooded gum, blackbutt, Sydney blue gum) is from trees we planted here in the late 1980s/early 1990s. The slash pine is from trees planted in the mid-1900s that are old and falling apart. On our fertile, well watered soils, all these trees grow very fast and are light, easily milled timbers. Because the longest piece of a top bar hive is 1200mm, it’s easy to find sections of even a crooked log that can be cut into the various parts of a hive. While it’s legitimate to grow trees for timber, I haven’t ever cut a tree just for wood. The trees I mill are felled for other property management reasons, such as maintaining sunshine on our house, solar panels or garden, or thinning over-crowded forest. If you grow forest, you will have lots of wood to spare. 
I produce hive wood with a small chainsaw mill (here's a post about my current Alaskan mill) and some crude, solar powered circular saw equipment. I can cut 1” (25mm) thick boards for the hive boards with the chainsaw mill. Some of my top bars are specially sawn from small logs, milled into 40mm slabs to dry and later resawn by circular saw; most are cut out of offcuts from my other timber work activities. 
Here's a stack of 40mm Pencil cedar slabs, just long enough for top bars, seasoning in the shed loft
It’s so satisfying to have a good use for small pieces of wood!

Both the hive for the bees, and most of the nectar they harvest, are products of our native forest, along with all our firewood, building wood, charcoal for cooking and blacksmithing, etc.. We live from our forest.