#175 Drawing Humanity out of the Cave with Dr Simon Michaux
Exploring the first of Michaux’ hierarchy of post-Carbon needs: Power – how are we going to power our civilisation as we ramp down fossil fuels?
This week, we’re returning to the second part of the ongoing series with Dr Simon Michaux. If you haven’t listened to the first part, I’d recommend you do and I’ll put the link in the show notes, but the edited highlight is that Simon is a mining engineer who is dedicated to crunching the numbers that nobody else bothers to crunch – of how much stuff there is: key stuff, like copper and lithium and cobalt and concrete – and where it comes from and how much power it takes to dig it up and move it around and where that power might come from.
Our original plan for this 2nd part in our conversation was to explore Michaux’ hierarchy of needs – the logistical things we’ll need as we move to a low entropy, post-carbon, (which is to say, post-fossil-fuel) world. Everything in these conversations is predicated on the understanding that we’ve got to where we are by burning fossil fuels, which is to say concentrated ancient sunlight, laid down over millions of years – millions of years ago – and that this sudden access to vast quantities of readily transportable energy has changed who we are. Our civilisation is built on this stuff. But we haven’t necessarily used it wisely. If I had time, I might write the counter-factual history where we discover oil in a culture that isn’t predicated on power hierarchies and the accumulation of resources to the few by the many. But we don’t live in that culture. We live in this one and we’ve burned more oil since 1995 than the whole of the rest of human history before that point. In doing so, we’ve brought ourselves to the point where the entire ecosystem on which we depend is breaking down and we need urgently to step back and think differently.
Which is the entire point of this podcast – what does the thinking differently look like? How can we connect to the web of life in a way that allows us to play a constructive, regenerative part in a flourishing web? What are the spiritual and psychological and conceptual shifts this will take and how best can we make those shifts?
In all those questions, I’ve tended to take for granted, for instance, the idea that we need to shift to renewable sources of power without actually thinking about whether that was a logistical possibility. Which is where Simon comes in because he does think about these things and he has the numbers to back it up. He gave his baseline talk 91 times in 2022 – sharpening it at every iteration – and now he’s talking at governmental level to people who are listening, even if they don’t yet know quite what to do. Unless you’re listening in Scandinavia, he is probably not talking to your government. But he should be. So part of the reason for continuing the conversation is so that we – all of us who care – can get our heads around reality and then we can use that understanding to create governance systems that work.
Manda: This week we are returning for the second part of the ongoing series with Dr. Simon Michaux. If you haven’t listened to the first part, I would highly recommend that you do and I’ll put the link in the show notes. But in case you haven’t or time has passed and you’ve forgotten, the edited highlights is that Simon is a mining engineer who is dedicated to crunching the numbers that nobody else bothers to crunch, of how much stuff there is; key stuff like copper and lithium and cobalt and concrete and where it comes from, and how much power it takes to dig it up and move it around, and where that power might come from. Our original plan for this second part in our conversation was to explore Michaux’s hierarchy of needs, which is to say, the logistical list of the things that we need to have sorted as we move to a low entropy post-carbon, which is to say post-fossil fuel world. And for those who haven’t spent quite a lot of time embedded in Simon’s world, it’s worth pointing out that everything in these conversations is predicated on the understanding we’ve got to where we are by burning fossil fuels; which is to say, concentrated ancient sunlight gathered by trees and phytoplankton and laid down over millions and millions of years.
Manda: 350 million years ago. So all that sunlight concentrated down, compressed under layers and layers and layers of rock. And then we found it. And this sudden access to vast quantities of readily transportable concentrated energy, has changed who we are. Our modern civilisation is built on this stuff. But we haven’t necessarily used it wisely. If I had the time, I have ideas to write the counterfactual novel where we discover oil in a culture that isn’t predicated on power hierarchies and the accumulation of resources to the few by the many. But we don’t live in that culture and I haven’t written the novel yet. We live in this one and we’ve burned more oil since 1995 than the whole of the rest of human history before that point. Think about that. In doing so, in burning all this stuff, we have brought ourselves to the point where the entire ecosystem on which we depend is breaking down. And we need urgently to step back and think differently, which is the entire point of this podcast. What does thinking differently look like? How can we connect to the web of life in a way that allows us to play a constructive regenerative part in the flourishing web? What are the spiritual and psychological and conceptual shifts that this will take? And how best can we make those shifts? In looking for answers to all of these questions I have tended to take for granted, for instance, the idea that we need to shift to renewable sources of power and haven’t really thought about whether that was a logistical possibility.
Manda: And this is where Simon comes in, because he does think about these things and he has the numbers to back it up. He gave his baseline talk 91 times in 2022, sharpening it at every iteration. And now he’s talking at governmental level to people who are listening, even if they don’t yet know quite what to do. But that said, unless you are listening in Scandinavia, he is probably not talking to your government and he should be. So part of the reason for continuing the conversation is that we, all of us who care, can get our heads around reality and then we can use that understanding to create governance systems that work. And so in heading towards Michaux’s hierarchy of needs, which is of course based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and incorporates it, they don’t cross each other out, we didn’t get past power. Because power is what structures our society. Power is what’s let us get here. And actually I discovered there was an awful lot to explore in where the power might come from as we let go of fossil fuels. So that’s one of several reasons why this is the start of an ongoing conversation. We did consider cutting this into two pieces, but it seems to flow as it is.
Manda: And Simon is so eloquent and there is so much detail, we have just let it run to its full length, which is long. This is about an hour and a half, which is the longest podcast we have ever put out. So if you find there’s an actual break point or if you just need to have a break and walk around and process stuff and make a cup of tea, whatever, then clearly do that. Either that or it’s several long car rides, I guess, which tends to be how I listen to my podcasts and will probably have to stop being a thing quite soon. Long bicycle rides maybe? Anyway, it’s here in all of its wonder and eloquence and the great humour of Simon Michaux, people of the podcast. Please do welcome for the second time Dr. Simon Michaux from Finland.
Manda: Simon Welcome back to Part two. Hello. We’ve both had a cup of tea, cup of coffee. So in part two, let’s look at how humanity can escape from Plato’s Cave. I thought that was a really lovely metaphor and definitely we need to be doing it. So I have read your paper and you have a hierarchy Michaux’s hierarchy of needs, loosely based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but more grounded in actual logistics of the world. So if you think that’s a good way out of the cave by exploring what we’re going to actually need when we get out of it and how we might build it, then let’s go with that.
Simon: Okay. So the origin of this idea is Plato’s allegory of people in the cave, and they’re looking at the shadows on the wall and they believe that is reality. So we have been convinced in the modern world that we need a whole list of things, but if you actually go back to, say, how society was a thousand years ago, there were some terrible things and some things that were just so different now that we wouldn’t even recognise it. Like a thousand years ago, for example, let’s say if you and I lived in a medieval town or in a tribe somewhere…
Manda: We would be just around the time of the Battle of Hastings, the Normans would just be coming.
Simon: Right, so don’t be in the middle of that. In fact, here’s some good advice. Don’t be in the middle of a herd that’s on top of a cliff that’s about to stampede when someone yells, yo shit’s on fire. What you do is you’re on the edge of the herd and the right side. Bye!
Simon: Right. So if we were, say, living a thousand years ago, we would grow most of our own food or we would know someone who does. We would make most of the things we would need, or we would know someone who does. Now we’ve become so dependent on technology for everything, like the computer that’s in front of me, I have no idea where that was made.
Manda: Or how to make another one.
Simon: Or how to make another one. I physically couldn’t do it, yet I now depend upon it. But this is our society and so we’re now in a society that’s based on whim and like a dopamine hit. Nate Hagens does an excellent job of talking about the thinking behind why people do what they do. So at a fundamental level, we have signed over our power to technology and we have become very, very lazy and we have collectively decided to let someone else do our thinking for us. Because now other things are important, or so we’d like to think. And how do we get out of that? So the idea of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is actually the needs of an individual, from I suppose it’s a social science tool.
Manda: Maslow was mostly a psychotherapist, so yeah.
Simon: See, I’m a rocks guy. My job is to bang rocks together till they get better, right? And so I have no business playing with social science tools yet here I am. This does tend to actually offend the purists.
Manda: That’s okay. We’re not purists. It’s fine.
Simon: Me especially. So what we’re looking at here is the idea that, um, from the individual level, what does that individual actually need and in what order? You know, for example, I need oxygen to breathe. Okay. Then I need water to drink, and then I need food to eat, that sort of thing. So normally we actually look at Maslow in terms of society. What does a society need? And usually it’s things like, let’s say a flood hits my old town of Brisbane in Australia. The floods happen every now and then. Society stops what it’s doing, puts aside its normal method of operation and they go into emergency mode. The mud army deploys, because everything’s now covered in mud and so hundreds of people turn out to clean mud off, you know, the houses and help people get on their feet who have been affected. And that’s how they respond. We all pull together and we look at what does society need to get to where it needs to go. So I’ve taken that basic idea, but then I projected it on, well, we’ve got a number of things to look at. There is what do we need? And so humans are now in large concentrated populations called cities. And a city like New York, for example, cannot function unless we have technology at a fairly sophisticated level. And stuff imported from far away, like lots of food is imported, Lots of material goods are imported. We’ve become dependent on that.
Manda: Even our water is imported. Everything is imported into modern cities except the air, possibly. And even that’s not very great.
Simon: So stop the average person on the street in New York and say what’s most important to you? Oh, my coffee from Starbucks. Mm. Yeah. Okay. What’s next important? Netflix. Okay. What after that? My computer game.
Manda: I speak as someone who plays World of Warcraft in her spare time. I can completely relate to that. Yes.
Simon: No no, well, I’m actually replaying all the old games. I’m currently playing UFO XCOM Enemy unknown. That’s from like 30 years ago.
Manda: I didn’t know you could still play that on existing tech, but there we go.
Simon: Anyway, moving along. I shouldn’t be giving you bad hints like that. You won’t get any work done! So what has happened is the average person has now completely lost touch with what they actually need. Because what they need is delivered to them in large quantities and they don’t have to think about stuff anymore. Food appears in the supermarket. We live, each individual, live like kings and royalty. Someone did a calculation: we live like we are served full time by something like 50 people, working full time to to serve our needs, in terms of energy and materials consumption. And that’s what technology has done for us. The problem is what we call the commodities industry is evolving into a point where it can’t function the way it always has. And so our technology sphere is not going to function the way it always has. Technology will no longer be delivered to the market, and our ability to pay for stuff on that market won’t necessarily be that useful.
Manda: Okay. That was episode one, really. We basically we established that there isn’t enough stuff and we need to shrink what it is that we need, and we need to decide quite quickly what the priorities are. So Michaux’s hierarchy of needs is a mapping of that.
Simon: So how do we do that? So I’ve taken Maslow and I’ve projected it onto, for example, let’s take manufacture. Manufacture of technology. From the point of view of manufacture. Let’s say you are the manager of all technology systems. What do you need to do your job? And in what order will you need that thing to happen? So we need energy. And then we need raw materials and then we manufacture and then we need logistics. And so there’s all these things that you will need, but there’s actually an order that it happens in. Let’s say you’re running a factory and you make electric motors widgets, the widget. You’re the widget manufacturer, You’re the widget billionaire, right? So your factory needs a number of things to come into it to function. And there are things like electricity. We need raw materials, stuff. We need components sent in from somewhere. We need energy, we need heat, and we need electricity. Okay, so you’ve got all this stuff. Is there a hierarchy? And yes, there is. Why is there a hierarchy? You can have a stockpile of components to make your widget, you know, like the ca.the red button, the red button on the side. So you can have a list of components that are brought in and stockpiled and they can sit there for an extended period of time. Energy cannot be stockpiled. You must use it as it comes out of the wall, and it’s either on or it’s off. Now to help with this, the origin of this idea was something that actually wasn’t published. But I’m going to tell you this idea anyway.
Simon: How do you actually model the industrial system? So we need to actually get our head around the industrial system to work out the hierarchy of needs here. And this is an idea of Isaac Newton. Newton was very interested in the concept of alchemy and the way he saw the world and how he mapped the world was the five elements, right? And so now I’ve got a mapping system that sits outside the entire existing paradigm we call industry. So then I actually went through this process, this is how we got the hierarchy of needs. So there is a point to this. How can I actually carve up the industry system in terms of the elements and what they mean? And so earth, industrial sites like construction of power plants, smelters and factories, difficult and expensive to build and once constructed, these systems are not flexible and must operate exactly as they were designed to. Right. So that’s the foundation, which everything else sits on. So that’s Earth. Okay. Element of air; this is the decision making system for what we do and how we do it. Why do we do something? How do we do it? When is something not worthwhile doing? So this is the flow of information and data. Air can change at any time and be transmitted over long distances instantly. And this is the key to manage what actions are to be taken and when.
Manda: Right, so this is the field of the mind. Air and mind often map onto each other, right?
Simon: Yeah. So this is an idea out of left field that would offend the purists in the technology world. Sorry about that.
Manda: I don’t suppose many of them are listening to the podcast. I think we’re okay.
Simon: Element of fire. This is the flow of energy, electricity and heat, channelled through constructed industrial infrastructure like power stations and electrical power lines or pipelines. This kind of energy cannot be stored for very long and must be used real time or close to it. It’s either on or off. Fire is in balance, contained and directed through a static and inflexible path. So what I’m trying to show here is the industrial system has components to it. Some are flexible, some are not. Some can sit there indefinitely, some must be used real time. So how do we describe all this? Okay. Water. The flow of materials that has no end. It has no beginning and it has no end. Materials have always been there and they’ll be here when we are gone. Right. Minerals, metals, refined chemicals, food products, biomass. Any resource that is extracted, used, transformed and combined into something else that is input feedstock to society or an industrial function. It can be modelled as a fluid. It is highly flexible and mutable. The source of a given material could be disrupted. For example, you can’t you can’t get something supplied, so now you’ve got to get it from somewhere else.
Manda: We talked about copper. Yes.
Simon: It’s now sourced from an unconventional origin. So materials are flexible. They flow around everything. So raw materials have no end and no beginning. It’s cycling and recycling in all its forms, whether it’s mining or recycling or manufacture or use. And the last element is Ether, and this is the new social construct. This is the relationship between people, the environment and industrial systems. Who are we? What kind of society do you want to live in? And how do we decide what to do? And what form does our leadership take? And how do we interact with the support systems that make human civilisation possible? Right?
Simon: So where all this came from, is I’ve been for years trying to get the subconscious to talk to the Conscious. Well, it’s been a little crazy. So I wrote this out, but I haven’t actually used it yet. So your listeners are hearing it for the first time. So what what I do, for example, is when I go to sleep, I concentrate and focus on a problem. And then when I wake up, first thing I look at the problem again and write down the answer. So what I’m trying to do is when I dream, can I dream the solution of what I was working on when I go to sleep?
Manda: You see, I knew there was a reason we got on. I spent the last 20 years teaching shamanic dreaming, which is essentially you’re doing it without being taught. So that’s grand.
Simon: So. Well, this came from my Chinese martial arts sector.
Simon: The people around me I work with often ask, where do these crazy ideas come from? And because they’re not in a paradigm to actually understand, I just put my hand on my heart and say, I don’t know, I Just had an idea. I don’t mean to be so mysterious. It’s just the way I am.
Manda: And actually, Daoism is really shamanic, so there we go. It came from the dreams. You’re blowing your credibility with every word you’re saying, Simon. But that’s not my problem. So we’ll keep going.
Simon: I’m not sure I care.
Manda: That’s good. No, I don’t either.
Simon: I’m already in a place where my work is now in front of the right people and it no longer matters, Right? So now that we’ve actually carved up the industrial system into elements, is there a hierarchy of elements? For example ether, the social contract, must control everything. So that’s what we do. That’s the authority that tells everything else what to do. Then it’s air, our decision making. What do we do? When do we do it? How do we do it? And so then there is water, the materials. Where do we get our materials from to make the stuff? Then we get to fire, which is energy. But the fire can only happen when everything else is in place. So we build the transmitters for the fire. Then we get to Earth to build all the industrial sites and then we turn fire on. So the action of fire is last. So while the authority is actually the element of ether, all the other elements have to be constructed in an order for things to work.
Simon: So this whole idea didn’t really fit in the document I sent you. I’m probably going to write it up as something separate somehow. So that comes back to the hierarchy of needs. So now that we’ve actually done that and we’ve carved things up, now let’s go back to manufacture. What do we need? Okay, so there’s two parallel paths. There’s the physical raw materials: we need energy first, then we need heat. These are the things you need to use real time. Then you need raw feedstock to actually operate. This is what you need, in order. Then you need your chemicals, then you need your potable water, then you need your components. Where are they from? And you get your operation. Then you get your consumables. And then you get your manufactured product distribution. And across all that, you’ve got your support infrastructure. Running next to that you need first is capital. Nothing happens without money. Then you need to have your site constructed and commissioned. Is it done? And if it is, great. Then you need competent staff to run it. You can have money, but if you don’t have people to run it, then you’re snookered. Then you need a maintenance cycle. And then you get life cycle maintenance, like when does it all get shut down? So now you’ve got a hierarchy of needs for industry. This idea has been taken from social science and has just been applied to industry.
Simon: So then you apply it to all other systems. Food production. What does food production need to survive? Well, we need good weather and we need good Land…
Manda: We need six inches of soil. And the fact that it rains. Somebody once said.
Simon: Yeah, yes, that’s right. So things like water supply, what does that need? What does that need in terms of, you know, first things first, second things second, third things third. But from the point of view of industry or the point of view of food production. So now we’ve got what does society need? What does industry need? What does water need? What does sewerage need? Sewerage, sanitation. Without that, we we have all sorts of disease ripping through society and so on. I’ve actually picked 5 or 6 things to look at in this sector. Each one has its own hierarchy of needs, and then you go through them all one by one. But then you do them in order. Society first. What do we need? Okay. So energy’s up next. So what does energy need to function? What does manufacturing? And then you go, well, how much of this is actually practical?
Manda: So let’s do them in order, because you have six that I looked at. Starting with water, I think because that seemed to be…
Simon: So food was first. But actually energy is the rate determining step for everything. So energy should probably go first.
Manda: Because we are a thermodynamic culture and energy. Okay, so let’s start with energy.
Simon: So we need, first of all, a raw material as the source. The energy has to come from somewhere.
Manda: It all comes from the sun originally, though.
Simon: The sun is the primary source of energy. But to access energy from the sun, now we need technology. We actually need to make a solar panel. Right. So first you need the raw material source. Like hydro, for example, is water. Moving water is the source. Wind turbines, wind is the source of the energy. So first you’ve got to recognise where does the energy come from that we are harvesting? Second thing we need is, well, now we need some technology to harvest that energy in some form. Like human beings, for example, we’re an energy source. But where does our energy come from? Food.
Manda: From the sun originally.
Simon: And then there’s the sun, right. So it starts energy first, raw material. Then it’s technology. Now then we need to be able to make that technology, manufacture. And then you’ve got all the steps in that. But then the manufactured bits are made up of metals and materials. Where do we get that from? Minerals in raw materials in some form, recycling if we can do it. Mining and recycling should probably merge into one system in this world. And so even though it’s a fairly simplistic step, that’s energy.
Manda: Let’s unpick energy a little bit, because it seems to me we’ve missed a couple. When I speak to people outside my bubble, a lot of them seem to be holding their breath waiting for nuclear fusion, which as far as I can tell, has been ten years away for the last 50 years and I can’t see it becoming industrially applicable in a timeframe that makes any sense. And there’s nuclear power. Still there seems to be a group of people across the spectrum of the environmental movement and elsewhere who are really hanging their hats on an ordinary old style nuclear fission. So we’ve got solar power, however we can gather it. We’ve got wind power if we can gather it. We’ve got hydropower, if we can gather it. We’ve got biofuels, but we’re going to want to eat. And they use a lot of water. So they’re not I don’t think they’re really going to fill a big gap. And then we’ve also got the potential for different ways of transforming a nucleus of an atom into something different. Useful or not useful?
Simon: Everything has its place. There is no magic bullet, and everything we have on the books at the moment will be useful because it exists. I did a simulation where you’ve got to face nuclear and look at nuclear, because so many people believe it’s the future. So the nuclear fuel cycle in its current form is very complex and it’s rather large. Um, and my personal belief is what we call nuclear should evolve into something else. The whole current nuclear industry is actually a stepping stone to something else and in its current form is actually not the solution.
Manda: The stepping stone to nuclear weapons? Or it’s just a stepping stone.
Simon: No, no, no. No. No, no. A stepping stone to another form of energy that has its origin in nuclear, but the current fuel cycle doesn’t work very well. And if we could have a nuclear fuel cycle that excludes nuclear weapons, that would be most useful. And I believe that’s, well, I think that’s possible. We can talk about that in a moment. So I did a simulation. It takes about 25 years or something like that to make a nuclear power plant. So it’s actually got seven years of build time in that. And so I did a simulation, and nuclear power has about 10% of the energy mix at the moment. But now we want to expand nuclear to be the primary energy source, it’s going to replace fossil fuels. Let’s say that’s true.
Manda: Some people say that,yes.
Simon: And so my work was to look at this, it’s the 1000 page report that was supposed to be referenced, not actually read.
Manda: You have to read it to reference it, though.
Simon: Well, it turns out a lot of people did and they found a few typos. So I looked at what’s called scenario E. And so from 2025 onwards, what would happen if we had a net 25 extra nuclear power plants constructed and added to the power plant fleet every year from that year onwards? Where each power plant took five years to construct.
Manda: Less than the current.
Simon: Less than the current, like one fifth of what the current is. So what would happen if society put aside its reservations about the nuclear industry and got behind it to try and actually make it work? Could we expand? And so the answer was we weren’t able to generate enough power to be useful. You’re going to go from 10% of the current energy mix to phasing out fossil fuels and supplying everything; EVs, hydrogen, and now the power for that. The answer was 75 years later, the nuclear power plant fleet is now 3 or 4 times or 5 or 6 times the size, I forget the exact number, of what it is now. So you’ve got this massive number of nuclear power plants. But you get about 60% of the way there, and at that point existing reserves of nuclear uranium, from reasonably assured reserves all the way out to unconventional reserves, so that’s everything on the books, runs out in 75 years at that expansion rate. And we get 60% of the way, and that’s 75 years. Now we need something operational in the next 5 to 10 years.
Manda: I’m thinking and you must or somebody must have done the arithmetic on, because nuclear power stations seem to me to use humongous amounts of concrete. And we keep being told that the production of concrete is an extraordinary carbon emitter. How much fossil fuel would it take, do we know, to create this 25 extra nuclear power stations every year? If we can persuade anyone where we’re going to put them that isn’t going to create another Fukushima. That’s a separate issue. Would the energy return over energy invested, has anyone done the actual figures of the amount of fossil fuel it actually takes to build a nuclear power plant? As opposed to what we theoretically might get out of it? Because we also have to factor in and then what do we do with the spent fuel? We’ve then got 75 years down the line, huge numbers of power stations presumably coming to the end of their lives and we’ve got this incredibly dangerous product that we then have to find something to do with, using the energy that we’ve just produced.
Simon: So I did some of the numbers for that. Like I worked out how much spent nuclear fuel we would have. And you put it in power cold storage for a period of time. Then you take it out and you put it in your various different storage facilities. You’ve got to build those storage facilities. Finland is the only country in the world with a deep geological repository for nuclear power. Everyone else is putting it in power cooled storage as a temporary measure.
Manda: Oh my God.
Simon: There’s a lot of things that they’ve actually done that were just, you know, temporary measures. We haven’t done the proper infrastructure to support. They’ve cut corners.
Manda: We just kicked the can down the road and somebody else will fix it.
Manda: Oh, dear Lord.
Simon: So Finland is now, in 2025, in a position to actually run a nuclear fuel cycle properly. But it’s still dependent on Russia in particular for the manufacture of nuclear fuel assembly rods.
Manda: So it’s not great.
Simon: Yeah. Well yeah. So in its current form, nuclear is not going to be the magic bullet. But in the non-fossil fuel power set, it’s the only way to deliver concentrated amounts of power in all weather conditions.
Manda: They take it as their baseline, don’t they? They say nuclear has to be the baseline because everything else fluctuates. And it’s the one thing that we can just keep stable regardless of the sunshine or the wind blowing.
Simon: And so nuclear will be needed in its current form, but we need to first of all, value it much more highly than we do now and it has to be used more effectively.
Manda: How do we use it more effectively than we do just now?
Simon: Well, at the moment we waste a lot of power. Our society is very, very wasteful. So we should across the board, and we’re back to the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it’ll be less actions, less quantity of higher quality. So if nuclear power now is the supporting power source for what we need to keep industry going, but industry is only part of the pie. We’ve got to use nuclear in certain applications only.
Manda: Do you have an idea of what those applications might be?
Simon: Like for example, a smelter, a metal smelter requires a lot of energy.
Manda: Can we do that with nuclear power. We can create enough energy to do that?
Simon: So there’ll be less. There’ll be far, far less. There’ll be less Smelters. Like a mine site, for example, has what’s called a sag mill in it that does all the grinding. That’s like 32MW of installed power for some of the big ones. We’re not going to do that with solar panels and wind turbines.
Manda: We need a nuclear power station next to the mines and that’s going to be an issue when the mine runs out and the nuclear power station is still there?
Simon: That’s what the mining industry thinks it’s going to do. At the moment what we do is we have a gas pipeline out to that mine site and then we have a gas fired power station that powers the mine and delivers electricity and all the systems run off electrical. And that’s how we do mining at the moment. And then you’ve got the truck and shuttle fleet.
Manda: Last time I listened to Keir Starmer, current leader of the Labour Party, and I don’t listen to him often as listeners of the podcast will know because it does bad things to my blood pressure. But he was talking about kind of tabletop nuclear in every village or every town. You know, this is the Labour Party’s view. And I’m thinking that’s the terrorists will you know, anyone who wants to wreak havoc is now going to have a way to wreak havoc in every single village in Britain. That’s a really grand idea. Do you think, though, setting aside my natural cynicism to anything that Keir Starmer says, is this a viable way forward? Is tabletop nuclear a thing?
Simon: They’re trying to actually make what’s called small modular reactors. The problem with uranium, you know, if you’ve got your average city council, your shire council is now responsible for running a nuclear power plant cycle. The capacity for a Homer Simpson, you know, is now much higher now. So the problem with uranium in its current form, so to run the nuclear fuel cycle, we need an isotope called uranium 235. Now natural uranium has that in quantities which is normally u-238 and U-235 is around 1% of uranium. It’s like a different isotope. And so we’ve got to mine the uranium, turn it into yellowcake, then we’ve got to enrich it. So the U-235 is around 4%. So then we put it into fuel rods. So the fuel rod that goes into the reactor is really, really radioactive, with half lives of 10,000 years and all that. But the fuel itself is only 4% of that fuel rod. And so when it is no longer able to admit the right isotope anymore and it gets absorbed by neutrons, instead, it’s what they call it being poisoned. They take the fuel rod out. So the fuel rod going in is mostly u-238, but also when it comes out, it’s still 96% u-238 and it’s very radioactive and very hot and you really need to know what you’re doing. Right. And so this idea of having a small scale reactor in every shire? Don’t try this at home. It will end badly.
Simon: So this is why the nuclear industry is actually quite small at the moment and heavily regulated. The possibility of someone, the fat finger pressing the wrong button. I have yet to see small modular reactors for uranium fission to be sensible or viable. Okay. Now, there is a way out of this fusion.
Manda: Not fusion.
Simon: No, the problem with fusion is it’s always 50 years away.
Manda: Yeah. Or ten years away. And it has been ten years away for the last 50 years, is what I keep hearing. It’s just not going to happen.
Simon: So the Chinese have actually created fusion for a short period of time, but to do it they actually had temperatures more than the surface of the sun.
Manda: Okay, so the energy return over energy invested was probably not great. Hey?
Simon: Well, actually, in that case, they they actually had like 300% more energy went in than was actually created coming out. Okay. So they theoretically created fusion, So it was an advancement. The problem is the amount of energy that is going into fusion to make it possible is enormous. So when someone presses the wrong button and something goes wrong, the amount of energy in a fusion reactor is many, many times what’s in a conventional fission reactor. So now you see the problem.
Manda: There’s an even bigger bomb residing in an even… Oh, my goodness. The Half Life of Valerie K. It’s a wonderful, wonderful novel. But when you’ve read that, you don’t want to go near a nuclear ever again in the rest of your life.
Simon: Okay, but now for some good news. There’s another fuel system called thorium. When uranium radioactively decays, 10,000 years later, the neutrons and protons are leaving the atom and it goes down the periodic table and its final resting point when it is no longer radioactive anymore is thorium.
Simon: All right. So now what they’re going to do is they’re going to take thorium. And they radiate it with neutrons, which puts it into a isotope of uranium, generates the power, and then it goes back to thorium. So what ends up happening is you’re making thorium that is not that radioactive to start with. There are complications in the conventional thorium cycle that make it more complicated than uranium at the moment. But there’s another way through this. 96 to 97% of the mass is consumed. So you don’t have vast amounts of fuel left over and what is left over is radioactive, but it is a much different kind of radioactivity to Uranium 238.
Manda: Is it mostly alpha emitting then? So it’s just not going to pass through much.
Simon: So it’s usually isotopes that are suitable to be used in the medical isotope industry.
Manda: If we still have one of those in our current restricted society. But yes.
Simon: It is actually possible to take those isotopes and use them further. And if you do want to store it, you only have to store it for 300 years, not 10,000 or whatever.
Manda: And you’d need much smaller places to put it and presumably don’t have to cool it for a long time.
Simon: That’s correct. That is also correct.
Manda: Why are we not running these already?
Simon: So there’s an interesting story there. I have not seen any good excuse of why the thorium fuel cycle is not operating, beyond money. I think what happened, in the 70’s they developed thorium and they worked out that it’s just not as efficient as uranium at making electricity. And you could also have the nuclear weapons industry, in and amongst the nuclear power industry. And they’re kind of like part of the same value chain.
Manda: You’re not making weapons out of this, you’re making medical applications, right?
Simon: And so thorium, you actually can’t make a bomb out of thorium. Right? It doesn’t work. But the problem is the conventional pellet bed for thorium is actually tricky. This is actually something that, you know, the US military actually got going in the 70’s, but shut it down. It’s what’s called thorium molten salt. And this is something I’m going down the rabbit hole at the moment. The fuel, which is a thorium salt, could be produced at a mineral processing site, like a mine, with a couple more steps. It is a little bit radioactive, but only a little bit above background. So it’s not that radioactive. You can handle it reasonably well and you have less outcomes and it might be possible to run a smaller scale thorium reactor. So this technology is conceptual. No one’s actually done it yet. So is it real?
Manda: And can we take it to industrial scale in a timeframe that will work?
Simon: The answer to that is probably not. But how do you actually go out and develop this stuff, prove it works, scale it up to the point where you can manufacture it and it’s safe and then get it out to 8 billion people.
Manda: And how much thorium do we have lying around?
Simon: Shiploads. So it’s about four times as abundant as uranium. It’s usually a waste product, like it’s a penalty element in any rare earth element mining operation.
Manda: Okay, They’re throwing it away. .This is heading towards a circular economy.
Simon: There is no actual market for thorium at the moment. It usually comes in mineral sands like Monzonite. And there was no market for it, so they actually buried Monzonite that was rich in thorium back in the earth, because there’s no reason for it. There’s no market for it. So extracting the stuff in a mineral processing level at the moment using conventional methods can be tricky.
Manda: Tricky as in people die. Or just tricky as in technically quite complicated?
Simon: Oh technically tricky. Tricky as in how do you get enough thorium together that’s pure enough and can hold chemically. And so no, people are not dying of radiation because thorium is at the bottom of the radioactive chain. Thorium 224. And so there are technical challenges there to overcome, which would take a long time to develop.
Manda: So we may end up speaking about power for the whole of the rest of this podcast, because it seems to me it’s crucial to everything else. Five years ago I did the Master’s in regenerative economics at Schumacher and I wrote the second term paper on using blockchain technology to help facilitate micro grids. In the process of which I discovered that the only legal micro grid in the UK was at Dartington, where the college was, because you’re not allowed to create a micro grid in the UK because they like centralisation. They all still live in the 60’s in their head. But one of the factoids that I turned up and you can tell me if I’m wrong, is that there’s a 30% loss just in the transmission from central power stations to the periphery. Heat in the wires. And so it seemed to me a no brainer that what we needed was to be able to be producing the power local to where we were using it. And then we needed probably blockchain technology to manage the value exchange and we needed an AI of some sort, quite a good AI.
Manda: So DeepMind or something equivalent, to work out exactly your solar panels are producing X amount of power, my washing machine needs y amount of power, somebody else’s television needs z amount of power and how it spreads those. In Micheaux’s vision of the future is there an amount of power that we can create, using existing or likely to come online technology, at a local level, safely, and share with each other in a way that creates a civilisation we would want to live in? I’m guessing it’s a much less complex civilisation. We’re not necessarily making big cars. We might not be mining terribly deeply or very often. We won’t be making a lot of the widgets that we currently have, or a lot of the plastic tat that we currently have, because let’s hope to goodness that the limbic hijack is less and we’re not feeding our little dopamine hits with stuff, as much. But assuming that we’ve got the ether part of your five elements to a point where humanity has become adult, intelligent and caring about the environment, what’s our best power solution?
Simon: So I think such things are possible. But the ones I’m hoping for haven’t been developed yet. They’re all conceptual. And so someone’s got to actually prove their work at a lab scale and then prove it’s viable and scale up. And then they’ve got to make it and get it out to everyone. So all the stuff I hope for is not here yet. And the smart money is all our support systems are about to be put under stress and strain, anyway. So it’ll be a case of we make do with what we have, where the human being might become the principal power source.
Manda: Bicycles for transport.
Simon: So we have to go back to the idea that we are less dependent on technology and more self-reliant. And we’re going to socially evolve both at the individual level but also the society level. At the individual level we’ve got to become more capable and stronger. And at a society level, we’ve got to become more aware and wise. So back to our energy systems we will make do with what we have. Now Finland, for example, gets 80% of its electrical power from non-fossil fuel sources.
Manda: But balancing out, you said in the last podcast, it balances out with Denmark and Germany and there’s our fossil fuels. So if both of them stopped tomorrow could Finland be 80% self-sufficient?
Simon: I don’t know. So they they use the gas industry to balance stuff out. Russian gas no longer comes in. The entire transport fleet, which everything runs on, like the whole society,Alice Friedman wrote a book called When Trucks Stop.
Manda: We’ll find it and put it in the show notes.
Simon: And the second one is Life after fossil fuels. And she lays out with brutal practicality the problems associated with getting rid of fossil fuels and our dependency on transport.
Manda: I need to get her on the podcast.
Simon: She’ll be a useful person to talk to. Alice, if you’re looking at this, Hello. So the entire transport fleet is still fossil fuel. There’s a high number of electric vehicles in Finland. Right. But all trucks, for example, and all the transport and everything. Most of that is still ICE based.
Manda: The internal combustion engine.
Simon: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so we can’t actually just turn off the tap and hope everything’s fine. But, if we do turn off the tap, for example, the oil stops flowing and the gas stops coming and and all that. There are large energy systems that are already here; like Finland is already operating an industrial suite that does not need fossil fuels to run. We are able to heat our homes with things like combined heat and power, where we’re harvesting biomass from the forests. But it’s only possible because Finland is like 75% forest and lake.
Manda: Are they doing this in a regenerative way where they’re working out the amount they’re taking and making sure the growth replaces it?
Simon: There’s a current brutal punch up in Parliament at the moment, between the environmental department and the economic department about what is sustainable to harvest out of the forest. And around that exact question, one group is looking at economic sustainability. Another group is looking at biodiversity sustainability. Where the reality is both of those things need to be looked at and a bridge between the two. And there’s no work on that done yet.
Manda: This is why you’re going to talk to the Finnish parliament, because then the economists will get their heads around the idea that actually the environment matters.
Simon: So they are actually talking in those terms, though. So the conversation is happening and the fact that it needs to be sustainable is not a question.
Manda: Is any other government in the world holding this conversation or is Finland unique? And is Finland unique because you’re there or are you there because Finland is unique?
Simon: I’m there because Finland is unique. When I arrived in Finland five years ago, when I landed at the airport and I looked out the window and I saw Helsinki Airport, it struck me that this was the Star Trek society embedded in a pristine wilderness. It’s not a perfect society like anywhere else, it’s got its problems. But when I actually went to the interview, the people who would later become my management, I was able to ask them some challenging questions. Now in Australia they would either run screaming from the building or they’d turn the fire hose on. One of the two. So what they did do, they either understood basically some of the questions already, or they hadn’t come across the information before and they were able to have an adult conversation where they were actually problem solving on the fly. And I watched it happen from the other side of the table. And so my instincts were it was possible to do certain work here. And that instinct turned out to be true. And things are possible in Finland that are not possible elsewhere. Sweden also has, I think, similar thinking, as does Norway. I think Iceland probably does as well.
Manda: Yeah, I’m thinking New Zealand under Jacinda Ardern and Scotland under Nicola Sturgeon probably did have and that possibly both of them won’t have when their replacements come in, but that there was a possibility there.
Simon: So. Actually I talked with people in New Zealand a lot. And there’s a lot of people on the ground in New Zealand who are interested in trying to get this work done. But I found that Jacinda Ardern, while she presented magnificently and what she was, but what she actually did was actually quite antagonistic. Like a lot of these initiatives, we tried to get going, they all died. So look at politicians. What they do, not what they say. I really liked Jacinda Ardern. Like she presented really, really strongly. Didn’t know much about Nicola Sturgeon. Each politician is beholden to the system around them. And that’s just the simple, brutal truth.
Manda: And the system is designed not to change. I will tell you one brief anecdote about Nicola Sturgeon. I have a friend who had a friend who was the Earl of Glasgow, and so he went to the Earl of Glasgow and said, COP26 is happening in Glasgow and you are the Earl of Glasgow and you have a castle, about 20 miles south of Glasgow. And the Earl of Glasgow said yes, because he’s in his 80s and very Tory. And he said, Right, we’re going to borrow your castle and we’re going to bring all of the indigenous people who want to come to COP26 and they’re going to stay at your castle. That will be all right. Okay? And the Earl of Glasgow went, Yes. And Nicola Sturgeon, her first meeting of COP26 was with the circle of indigenous peoples at this castle. And she took off her shoes and came and sat cross-legged in the circle and listened to everything that they had to say before she went and listened to the suits in Glasgow. And I was immensely impressed that we had a political leader in Scotland who would do that. And I think COP26 was pretty much a disaster, but I don’t think it was a disaster because she wasn’t able to listen. I think it was a disaster because the system has a huge amount of momentum keeping it going in a particular direction. But anyway, let’s get back to the idea that Finland has an industrial suite.
Simon: So we’ve got a lot of industry here. So in Australia we have a lot of mines, right? A lot of holes in the ground. In fact, that’s our metric for success. How many holes in the ground are they?
Manda: It must be one of the few global north countries that’s still doing mining, because everywhere else you know, we don’t want miners going on strike. So we just shut all the mines and send them off elsewhere.
Simon: So I’m talking to the people in the UK about the benefits of actually starting a mining system again. Because they’re now dependent on China for everything. And the Chinese are not playing nice anymore, because we keep sanctioning them and we keep lecturing them about what bastards they are. And they are bastards, but if we’re going to sanction them, should we make sure that we’re not dependent on them first? So in Australia it’s all about mining. How many holes in the ground? We don’t care who is mining it. The fact that it’s all foreign investment,they don’t care.
Manda: Is it all Chinese foreign investment?
Simon: A lot of it is. Every single mine that’s large is controlled by a hedge fund. The banking sector hedge fund now controls the mining industry, in particular for the last 30, 40 years. In Australia all ore mined, the concentrates are sent out of Australia to be smelted into metal. There is no smelter operating on the Australian continent. We did have smelters, but foreign investment came in and bought it, bought it all out and they said it’s cheaper if we export it off into China. So everything was exported into China and now we are absolutely dependant.
Manda: Transported presumably in great big ships by fossil fuels.
Simon: Yep. So, for example, the iron ore industry. Digs up the iron ore. We put it straight in the ship and the ship goes off to Japan or China. We don’t even make pig iron. So we’re a quarry. We’re not a mine.
Manda: So at the point when the Chinese go, tell you what, we’re not sending any of that iron back. Sorry, guys. There is no recourse other than war and we do not want to go to war with China. And then we can keep mining the iron as much as we like; we’d have to rebuild the smelters.
Simon: That actually has already happened in the gas industry in Australia. If you want something funny, to feel better about how Scotland is doing. Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, they collected 24 billion USD in royalties for gas. The fracking industry in Australia, for the same period of time produced the same amount of gas. Our royalties were 800 million. We are being screwed.
Manda: Also, fracking, not that grand. Big methane plumes. Nasty.
Simon: It’s absolutely not that grand. Now it became clear, all that fracking stuff, the infrastructure is pipelined out to ships, to be exported. There’s not the infrastructure in Australia for that gas to be used by the domestic population at all. So it’s sent out of Australia and then it’s sent back.
Manda: Oh dear Lord.
Simon: Right it gets funnier.
Manda: Who amongst the politicians thinks that’s a good idea?
Simon: All of them. I’ve got a I’ve got a coal story for you in a moment which will make you laugh or cry or both. So they’ve already worked out that that gas industry, they make more money by selling gas in other markets at a higher price than what the Australian market is. So now there’s gas shortages in Australia, but we’re the ones harvesting the gas and we’ve got no recourse. Now there’s a mine, a coal mine in Australia called Adani. Right. The nation state of India will purchase this deposit for a fraction of its value off the Queensland Government. And they say oh we’ll bring in jobs, lots and lots of jobs. But then when they actually got down to what they wanted to do, they want to actually have the smallest corporate footprint on Australian soil and manage this mine remotely with technology from New Delhi.
Simon: And the people that they want to employ, the people at the mine, they wanted to import Indian citizens to run it. So that’s now a little piece of India.
Manda: And the politicians said, Yeah, that’s grand and fine.
Simon: Yeah, it’s fine. It’s fine. But it turned out they were going to create a thousand Australian jobs for the whole project. Now they convinced the Australian Government to build all the infrastructure around it. And you know, like there’s, there’s a coal loading port out on the coast. Permission was granted. I think permission was granted, but they didn’t actually do it. So I don’t know if this has actually gone through or not, but I think it was granted. Because the coal ships have got to come round the Great Barrier Reef. Instead of actually coming around the Great Barrier Reef, they got permission to carve a trench through the Great Barrier Reef. And this was authorised.
Manda: I thought that was a World Heritage site. I mean, I know it’s dying because of the acidification, but I thought.
Simon: It’s still a World Heritage site. Yet here we are.
Manda: Oh, Simon, I’m I’m going to have nightmares about this.
Simon: So what politicians say and what they do are two very different things. And so, you know, the old phrase, money talks and bullshit walks, that is actually what are we looking at. And it’s all over the world, in every sector, in all directions. The key to that is human society in general see and understand a different reality. We come out of the cave. We stop looking at shadows on the wall. We stop thinking what we are told to think. We actually see what it is we really need to live and understand that the future, because it’s going to be a low energy future, will have to be more decentralised. So we’re not going to be told and administered from a central point. So this is the World Economic Forum Global governance.
Manda: Politically, economically and logistically, everything has to happen closer to the places where people actually live.
Simon: From an energy, from a biological organism point of view, the size of an organism is dictated and the complexity of an organism is dictated by the energy you put into it. Less energy – smaller organism. Less energy – less complex organism. So if we are going into a low energy future, which we’ve got pressure on two fronts now or three fronts, even.
Manda: And those three fronts are?
Simon: Okay, fossil fuels are going, then we’ve got the green transition of we don’t have enough materials to make the green transition. And the third front is we don’t have the capacity to bring stuff to the market.
Manda: We also have a dying biosphere that we cannot let die.
Simon: So but those three things are happening whether we like it or not. So whether we like it or not, right, that all checks out.
Simon: So now we’re going into a smaller energy future. So that small energy future will mean our current system will have to simplify and get smaller. So nation states, for example, let’s say in the nation state of France. Or the British Isles. You’ve got like 100 million people, and you’re administered from London. That will have to break up because energetically it will now have to become simpler.
Simon: So and politically, what that means is,.I went through this thinking in Australia. The three levels of government, federal, state and local city council, shire council. Who’s going to do the useful work? The Federal government doesn’t contribute anything of use. They do defence and they manage the currency, right? The state governments don’t own anything, but they throw their weight around telling councils what to do. They own the roads. But the assets that are actually owned that are useful, the hospitals, the schools, the rubbish dumps, the waste transfer stations, the sewerage sanitation plants, that’s all city council or shire council. So the level of government that’s actually useful here is your local shire council. So what will happen is I don’t think you’re going to see nations breaking up as such. But the authority of what happens is now going to move from the central federal level, to the local shire level. And the federal level will be more about transfer of information. And, you know, how do we actually distribute the raw materials and what goods do we have available amongst the shires? What do you do with them?
Manda: We’re going to wrap up shortly, but we’ve still got power. Let’s make the assumption that of your five elements, ether has been sorted. The governance and the social contract has been sorted and good choices have been made. We can sort out what those choices are at a later date. At the purely logistical level of creating enough power, I have heard you say I think, that we currently use 19 terawatts on a rolling scale and that we need to get to five.
Simon: Well, five will get to us
Manda: I’m wondering. All right. So, yes, this is back to Nate Hagans and de-growth is what we should do and post growth is what we’ll get. But let’s again make some assumptions that the right decisions have been made, because we won’t make the right decisions unless we have some idea of where we’re going and what those need to be. We’ve got governance at a way that works, that gives everybody a voice at the level local to where it is impactful, which is to say most decisions are made locally. At what level do you think we are creating our power? Is it a household by household level or a village by village level? And supplementary question to that; has everybody moved out of the cities into suburbs? Or how do you envision? Because I’m thinking big cities just don’t work. You cannot keep that. We can’t keep making the food and shipping it into the cities. We have to bring the people out to where the food is and where the water is. And then if we’ve got the food and the water, can we make the power at small local levels and distribute it?
Simon: So this is an interesting question. Back in the day, the village was the basic social unit, say a thousand years ago, everything happened at a village or a tribe. Because, you know, the tribes in Africa thought the same way. Like the survival of that tribe was more important than the individual. And so people would happily lay down their life in defence of that tribal village. So then we developed our current system and the family unit became the fundamental unit in the way we are. And in the last 30, 40 years, there has been an erosion of the family unit. And now they want to create a situation where the individual is the unit, and that individual is dependent on the state or state run activities.
Simon: That’s where they want us. Where I think we’ll become empowered again is we’re going to go back to groups of say, 30 to 40 families.
Manda: So we’ll go back to Dunbar’s number, 150 people all told.
Simon: Something like that. It’s going to be messy and there’s going to be no rhyme or reason to it. But groups of families will bond together. Someone asks me, for example, how big is a circular economy? And if we take the future is it’s an alliance between industrial clusters, the circular economy will be across what I call the Nordic frontier. Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland will merge together.
Manda: Scotland. Scotland is in there.
Simon: Yes, but then we need a dance partner that has manufacturing capacity, and the British Isles, Scotland has a lot of that. So what we need is the British Isles to do something like that. And then that’s our dance partner with it. Scotland is probably close enough to Scandinavia or Nordia to interact with it in terms of industrial clusters, talking to each other. But it won’t be politics anymore. It’ll be industry. Something to trade. But now we go back to people. We’re going to band together in groups, I believe 30 to 40 people, because the complexity of what we need cannot be done by a single household. And so we’re going to have to band together to, to see to the basic needs, but also the more complex needs.
Manda: Yeah. Because there’s growing food, there’s filtering the water, there’s getting it around, there’s making our clothes. All of those are really, really basic. But then if we want something like a hospital, that level of complexity just skyrockets. I’m interviewing a guy soon who’s spent a year, or will have spent a year, living purely from the produce of his own regenerative farm. And the interesting question for him is how many people would you need and how much land would you need to be able to create enough food so that you were feeding at least one order of magnitude more than the number of people on the land. Which is, I think, quite a relevant question and one that I haven’t seen answered yet. So that level of complexity is back to Pre-roman. We did that before the Romans came. But a hospital? A whole different level of complexity.
Simon: So the hospital will probably reinvent into something else that tries to service the same actions, but in this world. And pharmaceutical medicine might actually make way to say more natural based medicine, where we make the pharmaceuticals from the local environment ourselves. Herbal medicine.
Manda: Herbal medicine. Good thing to learn. While we can.
Simon: And, you know, things like all the actions that might service and support a midwife around that. So instead of using pharmaceuticals like epidurals, we’d have to find some other way.
Manda: So what we’re beginning to paint is a step back into a medieval or even a pre-roman, because I much prefer the idea that. And actually what we want is to go forward into something which is technically literate. And so, for instance, part of our five terawatts of power is going to have to be servicing an Internet so that I can still talk to you in Finland, because that’s going to be really essential. And one of my students who’s in the old East Germany is busy taking what used to be grain silos, turning them into server towers, using renewable electricity allegedly, and using the heat product of that to heat what is going to become a renewable village. Which may or may not be a thing. But how do we get to the interface? Because as you’ve said before, I don’t know how to build a computer. It takes copper, which we aren’t going to have very much of. Quite quickly, it seems to me like really within the next couple of years, we need to start making the decisions on a global scale of what are we actually going to need, how much power are we going to put into making those and where are we getting that power from and what are we letting go of in order to free up that power? Is that a metric anyone is doing?
Simon: No one’s actually doing it yet. But so this is where we come out of the cave. So instead of actually recreating an old paradigm, let’s go back to Pre-roman.
Manda: Which nobody will want to do except me.
Simon: Bloody Romans. What did they ever do for us? Monty Python. So. Hang on. So all problems are put on the table at the same time. All solutions are put on the table at the same time, including the stuff we’ve previously rejected, because we reject it in the old paradigm. And maybe we’ll reject it again.
Manda: Like Thorium reactors being part of that sort of thing.
Simon: 150 years ago, Nikola Tesla came up with an energy paradigm based on frequency and vibration, and big business decided he was too much of a problem and it all disappeared and the electric motor was developed instead. And Tesla’s been written out of history. Faraday came up with similar ideas. There was a whole energy paradigm back there, which involved an entirely different view of what we call physics. We’ve rejected it. Why did we reject it? Well, we have this thing called oil.
Manda: Can you give us, because we’re way out of time again, can you give us the very edited highlight of what the Tesla Faraday paradigm looks like?
Simon: So I’m actually writing a book on all the stuff they made me take out of the big thousand page report. And this is one of them. I call it the New Electric.
Manda: It’s going to be a 2000 page book. Yay. I’ll read it. It might be a series of books.
Simon: It might. It might be a series. Yes, I might have to behave and actually make a series of books. So Tesla had the idea that everything was based on frequency and vibration and he had the idea of transmitting electricity over a long journey through the air, like we transmit Wi-Fi. Imagine, if you will, that you could download electrical power from the power plant like you’re downloading data from Wi-Fi.
Manda: Or like Bluetooth. Things seem to be able to charge themselves just on Bluetooth, right? Without frying people in the way. Do penguins and things get killed in this process?
Simon: This is the part that actually needs to be looked at. Because you know the whole problems with 5G and human health and and all that.
Manda: Well quite, 4G is not that grand.
Simon: And so imagine if you will, we had industrial power like thousands of kilowatt hours, in the air. And so this needs to be looked at. So that’s what I’m saying is we need to look at this.
Manda: Flocks of seagulls falling to the ground.
Simon: Tesla had the idea of generating power at Niagara Falls. So much hydroelectricity that humanity will never need anything else. He then had the ability to transmit that power to the other side of the planet, from America to England and back again with a 98% efficiency. And so, for example, you could have a big ship and instaed of like a big battery bank you’ve got an antenna and the antenna could download the power and off it goes. So we now use so much electricity and if you had electricity in the environment like that, would there be a problem? Possibly. So we need to look at that. Tesla also believed that we are sitting in a sea of energy, but he couldn’t prove it. What he’s talking about there is zero point energy. And at an atomic level there is energy. Can we harvest it? Now, there are papers that show that this energy field exists, right? But engineering was not able to get us to the point where they could actually harvest it. But now that manufacturing, the smaller the device is, the more effective it is. Now that we’ve got nanotechnology and 3D printing, that might change the rules of whether that’s viable or not. So there’s lots of things out there. And graphene technology, for example, has a way of harvesting energy out of the environment in ways we don’t understand yet. So there are things there that we could bring on the table.
Simon: So all solutions are on the table next to all problems. Anyone involved, let’s call them stakeholders, is sitting around the table and we have an adult conversation, where we all cut the crap and have an adult conversation about what we need to do. About the new limitations. What you end up with is as follows: You don’t end up with pre-roman. We are surrounded by technology. We are surrounded by stuff. We may not need it anymore. But you know, how many ICE cars are there available? And they’re all full of things that are useful.
Manda: If we could recycle it in places where the feedstock would be used.
Simon: So instead of recycling, we’ve got to reinvent recycling. So instead of taking a car and shredding it into little bits and getting the metal, first, you crawl all over it like the old fashioned boneyards and strip out the alternator, the the starter motor, the pistons out of the engine, anything that might be useful, take it. And then you put it in a shed out of the weather. And then you repurpose all of those items into new technology. You don’t make a new car, but you might use the alternator to charge electricity on something else that you might make. So now we’re problem solving. A bone yard is attached to a machine shop, which makes new stuff. Every car that comes in, you could harvest the panels out and now you’ve got sheets of metal, say, off the roof and the bonnet, the doors, the hinges. That’s all hard to make now. And then the bits that we can’t pull off and recycle, that’s what goes into the recycling centre and gets shredded down and we get the metals out.
Manda: And the whole coffee back into milk and water thing has been solved by then we hope.
Simon: No,but you’re not making coffee again. You’re not making coffee again. You’re making a cheesecake. Something fundamentally different. Right? So you could, for example, look at a baseline of 1880s technology.
Simon: Yeah. Your steampunk world. That’s actually not a bad analogy. The technology that we can actually harvest from everything around us and use stuff and repurpose; instead of throwing electronics away, can we pull apart the electronics and reuse the electrical components? Now, I’m not sure how practical that is, but damn right we’re going to try.
Manda: And if somebody solves that and we have an open source internet, then the whole world knows about it by an hour later.
Simon: And that’s the purpose of information sharing. Right? So we’re not going to make a semiconductor microchip, we don’t have the capacity to do that. That’ll still be traded with say China and Taiwan will make that and we’ll trade it internationally. We’re not going to make a transistor. So technology say around the 1930’s level of stuff, we can wind an electric motor, for example. We could cast and smelt basic alloys, right? So we’ll repurpose everything around us. So you have the 1880s base level. You’ll have technology that’s around 1930s in complexity and you’ll have the occasional 2023, you know, computers and existing technology running for as long as possible. And embedded in that there’s all the stuff coming in out of left field. All the new technology and it’s going to still be there, but it’ll be much, much rarer an example. But those rare examples will keep our technology knowledge going. And that is not pre-roman at all.
Manda: No, definitely not. No. And it’s not even steampunk or solarpunk. It’s more solarpunk than steampunk, because solarpunk is all about what happens when you’ve got the solar panel technology on top of it.
Simon: So there’s a group called the Venus Project. Jacques Fresco, I talked to those guys. He had this vision for the future that was quite utopian. What I believe, though, is what would happen if the Venus Project met the prepper world and those two worlds merged into one dynamically symbiotic relationship. And that’s what you’re looking at.
Manda: Right. Guys, I am sorry for the sound of the cat purring, but it’s Velcroed itself to my front and I can’t tear it away without wrecking the microphone. So I’m getting my head around Preppers meeting Venus project. Because when I looked at the Venus project, because you mentioned it, I was thinking we need to be starting that. We need to be starting them in Scotland, in Finland, you know, everywhere in the world where there’s a group of people who get it. We need to be doing something like the Venus Project. And you can tell how much the non preppers and non Venus project people hate this, because when I typed Venus project into Google, the first thing that came up was Venus project debunked. And when I looked at that, the first thing was the Venus Project is a communist cult. And I thought, Oh, this’ll be good then. This is worth looking at because it’s obviously really wound up the libertarians. Fine.
Simon: So, all social systems in the past have been based on growth.
Manda: Well, all social systems in our western educated, industrial rich, democratic, post-roman world have been based on growth. You need to read Graeber and Wengrow’s Dawn of Everything, because there have been social systems everywhere that were not based on growth.
Simon: But even what we call communism was based on growth as well.
Manda: No, no, absolutely yes.
Simon: As was fascism. If it’s not conquest, it’s economic growth. So what we’re looking at is something that has not been seen before. And what I think will happen, is it’s going to be a combination where we take bits from every system we’ve seen in the past, and we’re going to make a Frankenstein hybrid that is genuinely unprecedented.
Manda: And has a new value set. This is the ether of your five things. We need to have an entirely new value set leading us forward.
Simon: So watch this. If we know that resources are a problem, there’s not enough to go around. Either we agree to share those resources or we turn on each other, give war a chance. You know how it says society will split into four basic groups, right? So that is the ability to share stuff. Now we’re talking like what you might call some sort of socialist construct, where we sort of divvy up the resources and we hand them out. However, the human spirit has to have some kind of level of self determination, for it not to go crazy. So each region will have a stream of resources coming into it. What we do with those resources, if we use free market capitalism to actually work out what to do with those resources, with the understanding, every human being understands what the score now really is and we are genuinely aware of the full system implications of all actions. So you have socialism from a top down, but free market capitalism from a bottom up.
Manda: But capitalism is designed to funnel capital from the bottom to the top. But what you’re meaning is more of a market, not necessarily free market capitalism, but market forces of supply and demand.
Simon: Yeah. Where people can individually put forward ideas and we can decide whether we use them or not, instead of being told you will do this or you will do that.
Manda: Okay, so we have our quadratic voting on the blockchain with consensus voting on top of it. And we have citizens assemblies that are well informed to help make the decisions at local level.
Simon: So now we have full transparency and the average citizen or person has to understand what is happening and why everything just mentioned is necessary. And the alternative, none of us will have enough to go around. So it’s going to be a world of not enough. So value systems are going to have to be different. We start by valuing each other and the environment more than things. And so it’s a fundamentally different way to see the world. But all existing descriptors that we use at the moment, I don’t think are appropriate, and we need to have an entirely new language to describe what that actually is. So when you say the Venus Project is Communist cult, therefore we shouldn’t do it. Well that’s actually not what they’re proposing.
Manda: I wasn’t suggesting that I thought that it was. I just thought it had really triggered some people’s trigger points. But what we need is to find language that doesn’t trigger, because we have to take everybody with us, not just the people who like the idea of the Venus project.
Simon: So the premise behind Venus, which I think is excellent. So I used to live in the city called Liege in Belgium. It’s a 1500 year old city that goes back to the Roman Empire in vintage. It predates cars. And so as they’ve gone along, they’ve put layer upon layer on top of everything, just to make do. And all existing systems are actually a function of the older systems. You can see all the old systems that are still there.
Manda: Right. Like having the Victorian sewers still in London. Everybody depends on that.
Simon: Yeah. And so you’ve now got this city that you can live in it, but it’s awkward. It’s actually quite awkward to get around, especially if you don’t have a car and you’re not rich. So then you come to Helsinki. Helsinki, When they actually got their independence a century ago, 1917, I think it was. They actually brought in their actual academics and intellectuals to ask, How should our cities look like? If we were to actually design our cities, where we actually, you know, thought it through. Instead of did it happen by accident or did they mean it? So think things through. And now we’ve got like a century later, a series of cities that are actually planned. And it’s just much easier to get around and everything works.
Manda: And are they at a scale that you think is sustainable in terms of food, water, all of your hierarchy of needs.
Simon: I don’t know. That’s the thing that I think that no one actually knows till we try. Uh, because at the moment, we’re heavily dependent on systems to bring that stuff in. Can we maintain those systems post fossil fuels? Fossil fuels are a hidden subsidy for everything at all levels. And take it away it becomes a hidden penalty.
Manda: Would it not be wise, while we’ve still got a little bit of the subsidy left, to be building systems that are more likely to work when the subsidy is gone. And it’ll be much harder to build them once the subsidy has gone.
Simon: That’s the message. That’s what I’m advocating. We must use fossil fuels because the systems are fossil fuels. Right. Sorry, but our systems are still 99% fossil fuels in all sectors.
Manda: Yeah, and we’re not going to change that in time. So we need to use them while we’ve got them.
Simon: And so if you do use them, you now have the paradigm that if I use fossil fuels, I will do it to make the next system. And every action will be of strategic significance. So should we do X, Y, Z? Okay. And there are implications there, like communal transport becomes more important. Like instead of everyone owning a car, we all get the buses and trams.
Manda: Yeah, but they can have amazing algorithms. So it’s not just standing at a bus stop, like I used to do as a kid. And, you know, you wait for three hours and then three come along once. You dial into your phone and something that isn’t owned by Uber but is owned collectively, turns up, picks you up, takes you to where you need to go, together with three other people that were in your area and going to the same place. Drops you off and goes off and does something else. It doesn’t have to be a bus that takes 60 people and that comes along very rarely does it.
Simon: The system will actually have to be optimised to a new set of boundary conditions. So industry, for example, will contract around the train line, because that’ll be the best way to move large volumes around that are very heavy. Things like that is what this suggests. Right. And so the principle of organising the future is futile. Like predicting what the future will be is futile. But understanding where your actions might work, versus where they’re not. I’ve become interested in biomimicry.
Manda: Yes. Janine Benyus, fantastic woman.
Simon: And James Lovelock’s ideas of, you know, the Gaia theory. And you imagine if this is a jungle and the jungle gets hit with a drought. Something in the environment changes. The dominant species that operated in the old conditions now doesn’t do so well. Somewhere in the genetic library of that jungle, is a series of species that will thrive in the new conditions. They do better and they become dominant. So then the jungle still exists, but it’s made up of a different proportions of species. But there is such diversity in there because no matter what happens to that jungle, something in its genetic library contains the solution for its long term sustainability. Thus, diversity of ideas is actually the solution. This is why biodiversity is actually important at an environmental level, and why monoculture is not.
Simon: So if you use that principle, understanding that if you try and put your energy and hopes into a series of things that were dependent on the old paradigm to exist that no longer exists, it will struggle. If you put your efforts behind something that might do better in the new environment, it will thrive.
Manda: Or if it doesn’t, if there’s enough of those ideas, one of them or two of them or a dozen of them will thrive.
Simon: Remember the idea of the the farm with the fungus on the trees? Do you wipe out the problem or do you try and sort of work to the solution? And then nature takes its course, right? So it’s a combination of the James Lovelock Gaia theory of systems, but also with biomimicry. With how do the natural systems operate and how do they problem solve? So we at a fundamental level have got to decide that we’re part of the environment. And so what that means is our architecture for our systems have to merge in with that environment. And so my message is we should be at a social perception level, merge with the planetary environment, not with technology and surveillance at a biological level, which has been proposed. The fourth industrial Revolution, I believe is not possible. Transhumanism is a dumb idea. You know, and so on. The Great Reset will not work. Blah blah blah.
Manda: There’s a brilliant Sam Harris YouTube of why implanting chips in your brain might not be the best idea. It’s well worth watching for anyone who thinks that’s really cool. Okay. It feels to me like we’re heading to a natural break point and that we should definitely grab it with both hands. Because you must be getting tired. Let’s just sum up. We don’t have the materials. We have the constraints that you said, which are of fossil fuels and materials and organisation, frankly. Currently the Muppets of Cutthroat Island, are ignoring all of these and endeavouring to maintain systems business as usual. But the rest of us have the opportunity to start thinking outside the cave, to start accepting that the old system is definitely gone and is probably gone in really quite a short time frame. And begin to design in our local environments with our communities of place, passion and purpose stretched around the globe, bringing the information locally. The systems that could survive in a post-fossil future. Is that a reasonable, absolute edited highlight?
Simon: Yes, that’s one way to do it. I would add that we are encouraged to think, for example, in a world of scarcity where we should all sort of, you know, go into like an armed encampment and ignore everyone else. If the biodiversity of ideas is actually the solution to long term sustainability at all, then somewhere in the people around you is the solution that you will need for you and your family to survive. Therefore, the people around you are actually your solution, not your enemy. And that is a paradigm that that doesn’t fit well with some of the more negative thinking.
Manda: And because we’re all interconnected on the net and we have our communities that are geographically local, but we also have our communities of passion and purpose, that can be spread right across the world. Then those people that you connect with distantly but by modern technology, could also have ideas that are applicable locally and vice versa. Yes?
Manda: Yeah. All righty. That feels like a grand and wonderful and amazing, frankly, place to end. Thank you. Thank you, Simon. It’s always astonishing talking to you. I love it. Thank you very much.
Simon: You’re welcome.
Manda: And there we go. Enormous thanks to Simon. See, I didn’t apologise, but I am very grateful for him coming back for a second bite and for the extraordinary generosity of his sharing from the vast well of his knowledge. By the time this goes out, the paper to which we were referring will have been published. So I will be able to put it into the show notes. And it is worth reading. It’s a mere 50 pages, whereas as you have heard, some of Simon’s reports are considerably longer than that. Genuinely, it’s worth reading. It begins to paint a picture of the world that we need to get to in ways that are actually building blocks. And there are still gaps, clearly. And as he says frequently, this is one set of ideas and we can build other ideas. But what matters is that those ideas are based in some kind of physical reality that can actually happen. And it’s only listening to Simon that I realise how much we are running out across the canyon. Wile E Coyote, not yet looking down, just in terms of the logistics. So the numbers on lithium, if it’s going to take 10,000 years to mine all the lithium to fit out all the cars, then guess what? That’s not happening. So we do need to get our heads around how we’re going to move from A to B and how far we can move readily. 200 years ago, most people lived within walking distance of the people that they knew. And we don’t necessarily want to go back to a world like that. But we’re not going to be flying halfway around the planet for the fun of it either.
Manda: And we’re certainly not going to be hopping in the car and driving a couple of hours to watch a football match. Not that I ever do, but you get the point. Transport. Transport of ourselves and transport of the things that we need to survive is something we’ve taken for granted and we no longer can. All of those things. How do we power our heat, our light, our computers, our movement of stuff, seems to be increasingly one of the most interesting and knotty questions. And as Simon said, we’re going to have to put everything on the table and then look at actually how it works. So there we go. There will be more conversations, undoubtedly, but it’s going to take a while to digest this one. So that’s what we’ll do. We’ll be back next week with somebody else. And in the meantime, thank you to Caro for sorting out the sound and for the music at the head and foot. Thank you always for that. Thank you to Faith for the website, for wrestling with the tech and for the conversations that keep us moving. Thanks to Anne Thomas for the transcripts. And a huge thank you to you for listening. And if you know of anybody else who needs to get their head around the numbers, who needs to face reality as it is, in a kind and compassionate and thoughtful way, then please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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