Decadence = EROI less than 1
Being realistic about energy is too much adulting, what are we, poor?
EROI: In energy economics and ecological energetics, energy return on investment (EROI), also sometimes called energy returned on energy invested (ERoEI), is the ratio of the amount of usable energy (the exergy) delivered from a particular energy resource to the amount of exergy used to obtain that energy resource1
The more prosperous and Virtual you are, the more important decisions in your life can escape the tyranny of EROI. You can dream. You can ignore Joules and attempt to replace the dirty adult solutions with a crayon-drawn dreams.
This week, yet again, I stumbled into the CV of a European leader: a climate/energy minister with an arts degree and a history of sitting around on bean bags in a bunch of NGOs, before the Greens or whatever party she’s in pushed her into actual power. Her credentials didn’t even include a term at a city council or a similar, humble stepping stone, no, she just woke up one day with - nominal - power over the currency of the universe, energy.
The last EROI scare
In the last years of the past decade, in the general post-2008 gloom, the subculture of Peak Oil flourished. Its members were obsessed with breaking free from the cheap slave labour of hydrocarbons, and their prospects were bleak: while individuals might be able to retreat to a compound and use expensive technologies - mostly photovoltaics - to survive for a while should the shit hit the fan, the economy seemed to have no alternative solution for its energy needs. Wind farms and solar farms needed more capital and energy to build than what they would provide over their lifetime, and even if they managed to break even, they could not compete with the most expensive, exotic fossil fuels in energy return. The problem of storing electricity didn’t even enter the picture. Oil seemed to have no substitute. Negative EROI was the boogie man of these finest survivalists, many of them claiming to be in the industry.
Then came the 2010s, doom slowly became a fading memory and a decade of general prosperity began; Peak Oil became so forgotten that no one even bothered to celebrate its proponents being wrong. While we’re yet to run out of it — geologically, politically you can always chose to do so, see Europe today —, oil still has no substitute.
In peaceful and prosperous times, people can afford to ignore energy-return-on-investment calculations in every decision they make. That’s the poor man’s burden. The poor don’t buy cars for fun at a whim, they don’t even buy a washing machine that way, not in East Europe anyway — here you can’t afford to be poor and foolish with money, karma comes fast at the financially whimsical.
Buying a beer on the beach? We bring a cooler to avoid that! My parents have a West German cooler, it’s more than 30 years old, still working, still saving money. Whatever it cost, it has long payed for itself, it’s making pure profit by now. Made of a plastic that will last a millennia.
Of course it’s easier to just have a credit card, sit down at a bar and give a generous tip while you’re at it. It’s more aspirational. A welcome upgrade from the prey animal mindset that the poor have to live with in every wake moment of their lives, even on holiday, especially on holiday, that’s when everyone’s out to get you. We understand both sides in Hungary: we’ve just recently started abandoning the beach coolers and getting comfortable with having just a plastic card in our pocket, however this transition is recent enough that we only have one foot inside the VIP lounge of Western consumerism, the other is still set firmly in the insecurity-dominated East European junkyard that nurtured all but the luckiest of us.
We can revert to the beach cooler in no time, because we’ve never taken the recent upgrade from it for granted. It’s nice, but nice things are fleeting. Apart from a tiny wannabe elite in the cities, most people never entertained taking their eyes off the everyday aspects EROI, despite the material gain they’ve experienced in the late 2010s (literally 7 good years). Consumer spending on credit remained comparatively low up until 2019, to name one example of our cautious nature2. Some shit is always just around the corner.
Ignoring the reality of thermodynamics is a rich man’s game: Volkswagen, not so long ago, sold SUVs with V-12 diesel engines. Why not? Makes no sense from an EROI standpoint, but the customer can afford the decadence. The most rational car maker of the most rational nation in Europe, in the 2000s, could afford crazy projects like this. Volkswagen went even further, their grandeur culminating in the Bugatti Veyron: as decadent as automotive engineering gets.
Decadence always has an EROI less than one, less than one EROI is always decadence.
A decadent escape from guilt
Today such selfish, fossil fuel wasting luxuries would be frowned upon by the masses, thanks to the opinion maker elite’s values that slowly trickled down to them since the late 2000s, just like the preference of having avocados in December as a morally superior option to planet killing, animal torture meat that was raised just out of town.
I myself was told once that my grandparents, who raised animals in their backyard were killing the planet, by Western vegetarians who were enjoying an exotic fruit salad in a metropolis in winter. They would have find the notion that the fruits they were accustomed to were exotic hilarious, this wasn’t the 1950s after all, these fruits were basic ingredients, available 24/7, taken for granted, naturally. They had this belief despite the underlying mechanism of getting mangoes from growth in some third world place where manual labor is cheap to a London supermarket as a finished, packaged product being fundamentally unchanged since the 50s: diesel power, all the way down.
How come they were so wilfully blind to this contradiction? — I asked myself, expecting to reason with this crowd. But they were beyond reason, had no real appetite for it, they were just pretending to have reason (capital SCIENCE) on their side as long as it was convenient and reinforced their superiority over the straw manned rube, ignorant Physicals who still eat meat and are killing the planet by every other aspect of their disgusting, obsolete ways, from their transportation of choice to their party preference. Back then I stumbled into the obtuse elite consensus that I were to encounter over and over again later, the one I would still encounter from the same crowd every day, should I seek to expose myself to their opinion, but I’m wiser to do so. I realized how foolish it would be to argue with them: as long as they enjoy their comforts, they will remain obstuse until the very last moment. Comfort allows them to exist in a realm that’s beyond reason, one that escapes scrutiny, one where their actions’ consequences is someone else’s burden, the little people’s who they hate anyway.
They are unreasonable, because they can afford to be so: they are decadent.
I still talk about them, mock them, if inescapable, troll them, but I choose my crowd carefully, I prefer to talk to Physicals. They get it: somehow I can get into their thick, neanderthal skull easier than I can explain basic wisdom about energy to an overqualified, decadent vegan. The latter will ignore arguments, will ask for your credentials, and should you give them, will contact HR.
The decadents cheer on the news of the state cracking down on protesting Dutch farmers the same way they cheered on powers abusing uppity Canadian truckers. They think they can do away with both demographics, and they’re probably right: it would make life more expensive, but they can afford the increasing cost of dismantling the working class. Soothing their political insecurity is well worth the price. The decadent Virtuals survived the de-industrialization of the West just fine so far, after all, squashing local farmers and truckers is just one step further along the same path, for them, such destruction is ultimately inconsequential.
Fundamentally, farming and trucking is about energy, it can’t escape the tyranny of Joules. These are not fields that tolerates decadence.
Such fields where few throughout human history. The modern, Western, de-industrialized welfare state propped up by cheap hydrocarbon energy and foreign manual labor cleaning toilets locally and assembling products overseas is an unsustainable civilizational blip.
It’s unprecedented and intoxicating. A dangerous combo that can make even the most frugal peoples go awry.
Nuclear? Scary and eww!
Post-Fukushima German energy policy made no sense from the get go: building renewables with a questionable EROI is one bold step, but in order to back them up, in case the wind doesn’t blow or the Sun doesn’t shine, you need an alternative solution, and natural gas power plants were and are the only available one: so every installed kilowatt of renewable power had to be backed by a kilowatt of natural gas. That’s as prehistoric as carbon can get, it’s some old dinosaur shit you’re pumping into the atmosphere, yet it was lawyered into being grün. It also made Putin increasingly richer and more powerful, the greener Germany got.
But it was fine, for a decade or so, because there was peace and prosperity. Enough wealth was around to waste that this decadent decision did not seem to strangle Germany. It made energy more expensive, the most expensive at times, but that’s the price of adults giving in to the crayon-drawn dreams of children.
The phasing out (and general demonizing) of nuclear energy while making natural gas seem like fairy farts that will propel us away from our guilty physical reality was such a hypocritical proposition that, in retrospect, looking at the universal approval of the North-Western European elites to build Nord Stream 2 you don’t need too much tinfoil headger to suspect Gazprom money behind some of the pan-European green revolution bullshit.
Gazprom already has a museum displaying Western politicians, stuffed full of money.
Whether this is true or not is secondary though: Europe is, after all, democratic. Merkel and her party is out of power, by the will of the German people. Her 16-year rule, with all its faults seems anachronistically pragmatic: if the 2020s turned out to be an unbroken continuation of the 2010s without any major crisis, her kind of politics would have been rejected much sooner by the masses with iconoclastic fervour — instead the crisis and the need for safety and stability allowed her to leave in quiet, eventually pushed out by the vector of progress that even COVID couldn’t change, and the succeeding Netflix-coalition that wished it took power in Forever 2019, as was promised, got the driver’s seat in late 2021. Not a time for decadence.
While Scholz’s pragmatism seems to rule for now, the Greens, as always, are a bunch of angry children (with arts degrees) who are denied to go wild with their crayons due to the circumstances of our times, but they are ever ready.
I don’t mean to singe out the Germans: many other countries also elected coalitions where a clown or two got important positions, a First this and that, mark of our progress and etc. The people wanting nobodies with arts degrees to make crayon drawings real is a universal Western European sentiment.
The people had it too good, way too good.
European prosperity is dead
That time is over. In 2022, European general prosperity is dead, or on hold for the near future. Decadence, for the masses, has become too expensive. Decadence in important matters, like energy, is existentially prohibitive.
Decadence has to retreat to its normal environment, the elites, and the elites need to keep it private. They’re already on borrowed time: should this winter come and Western Europe find itself without energy, they will be held responsible by the yellow vested masses3. They proudly spearheaded the energy regime that Europe is in right now, and those Twitter likes come at a cost, due in the near future. Should they stay openly decadent like it’s Forever 2019, they risk marie antoinetteing a social unrest long forgotten in the West back into existence, which could lead to their - long deemed impossible - demise.4
Many Westerners might get a winter this year in Ceaucescu’s Romania.5 How will the people’s spirits hold up after 2 years of abusive COVID policies?
The elites need to wake up, shove the media people they claim to defer to out of fear into the locker, and get things under control before the angry masses come for all of them. They need to become like the adults of the old, and they need to do it quickly: there are 6 months left until the continental heating season.