Tom Murphy: Time to Be Honest With Ourselves About Our Looming Energy Risks

I want to take the lowest risk approach to the future. So much is riding on it.

Personally, I feel that the scientific progress we have made over the last few hundred years is astounding. I don’t want to lose that. I think that is a gift to the future, and I don’t want to run the risk of a collapse that could destroy all that we have.

Even if you think the collapse is a low probability let’s say it's 5%, 10% probability it is an asymmetric risk. The downsides of not treating it seriously are huge.

I mean, you buy fire insurance for your house, even if it is a 0.1% probability that your house will burn down in your lifetime. But the consequences are so negative that you do it. And when you are talking about the accomplishments of all civilization, you need to buy insurance and treat that with the respect it deserves.

Tom Murphy, associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, has mapped the distance between the earth and the moon to within a millimeter and built instruments to study colliding galaxies. We feel comfortable saying he's a pretty smart guy as well as an optimist about what human ingenuity and technology can do for the advancement of society.

In 2004, he became intrigued with the global energy situation and brought his disciplined, empirical approach to bear. He set out to determine which new sources were going to pick up the slack once fossil fuels began becoming scarce. Looking back, he says the theme underlying his findings was "disappointment."

The math showed him that there simply will not be nearly enough BTU yield from alternative energy sources to meet the rising global demand. In fact, if anything, his investigation made him realize how few minds today are truly aware of the extraordinary energy throughput we are getting from fossil fuels.

The gap currently is huge. Almost all of our energy comes from fossil fuels.

But the optimist would say, that is just because it is easier and cheaper right now. We could easily transition to solar, for instance, which is super-abundant in its delivery of energy to the planet’s surface. The numbers there are quite impressively large. Wind, less so. That is a secondary manifestation of solar power. Waves are a tertiary manifestation of solar power through wind. So as you cascade down, you get less and less energy in hydroelectric, for instance.

So all of the neat and fancy ideas that we hear about are maybe clever, but just don’t stack up in terms of abundance. There are some that are truly abundant in nature, solar being one of them. But there is a real disconnect between what solar offers and what we are trying to replace. It turns out we don’t have much trouble generating electricity. There are loads of ways to make electricity.

What we are really missing is the liquid fuel. It is very difficult to transition from solar, nuclear, whatever you want, into the liquid fuels that allow us to move ourselves around, it is very important in agriculture. And that is where the pinch point will come. There are certainly sources that can be labeled as abundant. The gulf is really one of practicality more than one of the sheer energy scale. That is a little bit harder to quantify. So you can quantify the abundance and how much you might get out of a certain source. But it is very hard to quantify things like public acceptance or how difficult it will be to pull off things like intermittency, how to deal with the storage, practical storage solutions. All of these are very tricky.

And one perspective is that we have known since 1970 roughly that fossil-fuel peak was coming at some point. We knew that we needed alternatives in the 1970s. We had lots of discussion of alternative energies. Forty years later, we really aren’t that much further along. We sort of don’t have any new players, and it feels to me that if the liquid fuels decline in the next few decades, which I think is likely, we have already got the players on the stage right now.

And so all of these technologies take a long time to develop and mature and scale. Even though I'm a fan of technology, I am not a fan of gambling on the sense that an entirely new source will come along that is as yet unappreciated. The fact is that our alternatives are deficient in various ways compared to the ease and abundance and convenience of the fossil fuels.

He likens the earth to a battery having spent eons soaking up solar energy and storing it (in the form of hydrocarbons). Humans finally figured out how to tap into this battery ~200 years ago, and we've been drawing it down so quickly and violently within such a short period of time (an instant, geologically-speaking) that it's akin to a short circuit. The big question is: What will life be like once this once-in-a-species planetary gift is gone? 

Returning to the math: Anything whose growth is dependent on something that can't grow will stop growing. Like our global economy. The way it is set up today, it must grow in order to function properly. But that growth is dependent upon ever more energy output each year to power it.

We must either choose to transition now to new economic models that do not depend on growth, or be forced to do so later, once our current model stops working. Either way, our relentless demand for growth will end.

And so to me, that is, my motivation is to say, not only can we get off of this ridiculous treadmill we are on which has no future, by the way; it's unsustainable and step into this new life, but it is actually something we want to do and it is time to do that. We either do it or we don’t. I am a scientist at heart. Trained in the physical sciences, natural sciences, and I just know that limits are limits. And we will, like any organism, discover our limits. And we will either discover that on our own terms or on some other terms.

 Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Tom Murphy (43m:38s):

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

When Chris introduces someone so knowledgeble as Mr. Murphy to us, I feel like I’ve hit gold (figuratively speaking). Although it is obvious that he is in the same camp as Chris and they cover a lot of the same concepts and conclusions, reading his work, as I plan to do ASAP, will be a great learning experience.
Thanks again Chris for the value you provide your followers.


Kudos to Chris and Tom for this interview.  I had been following Tom’s important work for some time via Energy Bulletin and had been struck by how it resonated with the analysis Chris has been doing.
So, many thanks to you both.


Ever since discovering Dr. Murphy’s blog, "Do the Math" at the UC - San Diego website, I had been hoping that Chris and Tom would some day get together.  One uses the economy as a lens, the other uses energy as a lens.  The discussion here is incisive and overall quite remarkable.  Excellent piece!

 Some thoughts to help put things into perspectiveIf we made an assumption that the average American family has a household energy requirement for the equivelent of 150 gallons of gasoline per month, (about 4900 Kwh electrical energy) for all energy uses including transporation,  this use could be converted to, say, (solar PV in the southern areas of the country ) with the use of about 120 –  235 watt panels which can be done at a system cost of about $300/ panel(assuming volume) with today’s technology - or something less than $37,000 per household. This translates into a national investment of about 6 trillion dollars, not counting the cost of electrical storage or the transition cost to electric vehicles etc, which (I’m guessing) would be more than another 6 trillion or more. I don’t propose this as a total solution to our energy plight as both the problems and solutions are far more complex and will require a variety of methods to supply our needs, however the costs may still be similar. These numbers are intended to provide an understandable (for me anyway) feel for the size of the energy crisis we face. -  the above considers some energy conservation to be instituted and no growth for the future.
Personally, my intention is to maintain power generation equal to or exceeding my power usage including power used by those supplying me products.
An overall plan to accomplish such a goal over the next 20 years or so seems to me to be a National imperative if we are to survive with anything akin to our current living standards

…what an enjoyable fireside chat. I have no idea what or where such a discussion will lead us but so sensible was the discussion that I was extremely happy to be privy to it.
What a privilege to have Adam, Chris and Tom speak in terms that is understood by all who understand the futile efforts of our government, and knowing that if we just button up things ourselves, walk the walk, and talk the talk that through a process of paying it forward that perhaps in due time we will have effectively changed the behavior of many. Then collectively change and educate the true decision makers into knowing what the math clearly indicates, Extending time a bit so that perhaps some unknowable technological advancement will maintain the day. I know this, if we blindly use what we have left, and we use everything to maintain the status quo that we will surely fail.

Chris, my hopes for a scalable energy storage system being a reality is quite strong. Is it enough or are we just going to have to still swallow the poison (so to speak as a human species?). I also see carbon sequestation as a necessary part of our future, and will we resolve either/or in the next 10 years?

Thank you so much for helping me just confirm what scrambles about in my brain on a minute by minute basis. I have high hopes that man will survive this energy mess, and at least manage himself in a responsible and balanced way.

Very Nice Adam, Chris and Tom, well done.


PS: For you golf fans, I shot a 79 today on a course of about 6700 yards. To shoot this after all that has happened physically the last 6 months was so gratifying and joyful. I then played 5 additional holes and was well on my way to what appeared to be a 50 (not good), so I left before I had to sign my card and take that score home with me. The point being, it is so great to be feeling so well when simple tasks not to long ago were difficult. Who cares? My Lady is thrilled so I am thrilled.  


If you think the world economy can’t expand infinitely, what do you think the limit is?

Currently, the world per-capita GDP is about $10,000. What do you think the limit is (in year 2012 dollars, purchasing power parity)?

$20,000? $50,000? $100,000? $500,000? $1,000,000? More?

World per captia GPD sure hit a snag in 2008 per this chart:

World per captia GPD sure hit a snag in 2008 per this chart:
I don't think anyone anywhere is arguing that world per-capita GDP will be positive every single year, forever. But your example is pretty trivial. From the figure you reference, in 2008, world per capita GDP was about $9100. Then it dipped to about $8600 in 2009, and rose back to $9200 in 2010. So, despite the decline in 2009, the world per capita GDP in 2009 was still the second-highest (below only 2008) in 10,000+ years of human history. The simple fact is that, looking over broad averaging periods such as 50 years, not only has the world per capita GDP been growing exponentially (same percentage increase each period) it has actually been growing "super-exponentially" (the percentage increases have been increasing). From my "Random Thoughts" blog (taken from economist Brad DeLong's analysis): Time period...Percent Annual Per Capita GDP Growth 1600-1650.......................0.12 1650-1700.......................0.18 1700-1750.......................0.16 1750-1800.......................0.18 1800-1850.......................0.87 1850-1900.......................1.65 1900-1950.......................1.76 1950-2000.......................2.83 If Tom Murphy, or Chris Martenson, or you, or anyone thinks that world per-capita GDP cannot  be infinite, that person should at least be able to give an estimate of what the upper limit of world per-capita GDP is.