The Perils of Prediction

A couple of weeks ago The Royal Society published a major new report called People and the Planet(pdf),which has drawn a lot of criticism for its apparent commitment to outdated “Limits to Growth” type thinking.

Who can know the future?

As Tim Worstall points out, while there is much to merit in the nuanced analysis of the main report, in the actual discussions of what we should do about both consumption and population,

it appears that we really are running out of “reserves” and that we should hand out condoms to all and sundry. That last isn’t all that surprising, as Jonathan Porritt is part of the team and he’s incapable of saying anything else on the subject.

Indeed, Porritt is not of course a scientist at all, more an activist, and his presence here which does in itself raise serious questions about the integrity of the study, if it means that the science is being mixed up with ideological interpretations and policy recommendations.

Similarly, Mark Lynas argues

Whilst using a lot of dark language about increasing numbers of humans globally, the report nowhere acknowledges that the current median level of total worldwide fertility has fallen dramatically from 5.6 in the 1970s to only 2.4 today. In other words we are already close to natural replacement levels in terms of total fertility – the reason that the absolute population will continue to grow to 9 billion or more is that more children are living long enough have their own children. To my mind a reduction in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy are self-evidently good and desirable – and their impact on world population levels should be celebrated, not bemoaned.

Lynas goes onto to explain that the main failing of neo-Malthussianism is that it assumes resource consumption is a “zero-sum game”- that there is a finite pie to be shared by an expanding population, with only one possible outcome- not enough pie to go around. While this might be true in an absolute sense, it ignores technological developments which allow economic growth – “qualitative” rather than just “quantitative” growth to continue even as per capita, and ultimately even total impacts may plateau and even decline.

Chris Goodall at Carbon Commentary picks up on this theme by arguing that more resource consumption and growth need not necessarily result in greater impact. He uses the example of waste and rubbish:

Waste production per person in the UK peaked at around 520 kg a year in the year to March 2002. The latest two quarters figures are fifteen per cent below that level. The latest quarterly figures suggest a figure of about 443 kg. The decline from year to year isn’t smooth but is probably getting steeper.

As societies get richer, they become smarter, more eco-conscious and generally have a tendency to clean up our act. Goodall wryly continues

In contrast to what the Royal Society says, growth may be good for the environment. We waste less and are prepared to devote more cash to ecological protection. Technology improvements mean things last longer and use fewer physical resources to make. Regretfully, I have to say that the world’s most prestigious scientific institution should spend more time checking its facts.

Ben Pile sees the Royal Society’s report in the context of climate change politics, an old story used to bolster the floundering old story of catastrophic climate change:

the Royal Society’s sideways step from climate alarmism to Malthusianism is also a step backwards. Before climate change became the dominant narrative of political environmentalism, the principle issues were ‘limits to growth’ and ‘the population bomb’. Those vehicles failed to give the environmentalists’ political project the profile it needed. Malthusianism was, in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, too easily rebutted. And in the dark days of the cold war, we seemed to have bigger problems to face. The end of the cold war arrived, and the brief era of optimism ended with climate change. It filled the nuclear-winter-shaped hole. But now there is widespread acknowledgement that climate change has been over-stated, the institutions which have sought to attach themselves to the issue have had to find a new story. And the new story is an old story…

Pile is critical of the august scientific institution stepping beyond its role of science into the realm of public policy and lifestyle recommendations- hand out contraception, get the rich world to curtail its consumption.

What caught my eye in particular was Pile’s pointing out that just the week before the publication of the report none other than Paul Ehrlich was made a fellow of the Royal Society.

And in doing so, the Royal Society abandons its claim to be a scientific authority. It has embraced a particular ideology… a nasty, anti-human perspective on the world. It can no longer say Nullius in Verba (on the word of no one). It’s perspective is no longer fixed on the material world. The object of its ‘science’ is now the human world, and control over it.

As it happens, I had just purchased on impulse a copy of a book that has quite a lot to say about Mr. Ehrlich. Future Babble by Dan Gardner is a truly fascinating study of failed predictions of apocalypse, both supernatural and ecological.

Gardner adopts Philip Tetler’s classification, after Isaiah Berlin, of experts as either “Hedgehogs” or “Foxes”

“The fox knows many things,” the warrior-poet Archilochus wrote, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Tetlock was involved in a committee brought together by the National Research Council in 1984, at the height of the Cold War, to examine the success or failure of expert opinions. In an extensive study involving 284 experts in many different fields, Tetlock compared predictions with reality, and found that the foxes- who tended to make much more cautious and contingent predictions, scored much more highly than the over-confident hedgehogs.

“On both calibration and discrimination, complex and cautious thinking trounced simple and confident.”

Ehrlich provides a spectacular example of a hedgehog, having founded a career spanning several decades on failed predictions.

“In the early 1970s, the leading edge of the age of scarcity has arrived,” he wrote in 1974’s The End of Affluence. With it came a clearer look at the future, revealing more of the nature of the dark age to come.” Of course there would be mass starvation in the 1970s- “or, at least, the 1980s.” Shortages “will become more frequent and more severe”, he wrote. “We are facing, within the next three decades, the disintegration of nation-states infected with growthmania.”…The mere continuation of current trends will ensure that “by the year 2000 the United Kingdom wil simply be a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70million hungry people, of little or no concern to the other 5-7billion of a sick world.”

Despite these outrageously wide-of-the-mark predictions, Ehrlich’s appointment to the Royal Society is only the latest in a long string of top awards, including the Gold Medal Award of the World Wildlife Fund International; the John Muir Award of the Sierra Club; the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the “Genius Award”; and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, widely considered the Nobel of environmentalism. Many of these awards were for his work as a biologist, but they were often given for his popular books like The Population Bomb.

Gardner notes that “the Crafoord Prize citation specifically noted Ehrlich’s ‘numerous books on global environmental problems, such as overpopulation, resource depletion nuclear winter, and greenhouse effects. It has been said that with Rachel Carson he is the one person with the greatest importance for present-day awareness of the imminent global catastrophe.'”

No matter what global catastrophe, Gardner wryly points out- on a survey of Cambridge University alumni in 2009 producing a list of the most important 50 books ever on sustainability, representing “the wisdom of our age” The Population Bomb came in at number four…

Another doomer who has made a career from predicting collapse is peak-oil pundit James Howard Kunstler. Well known in the peak oil community for his role in the documentary The End of Suburbia and his 2005 book The Long Emergency, Kunstler is lesser-known, or perhaps forgotten as “one of the most extreme voices in the Y2K fiasco.”

“If nothing else, I expect Y2K to destablize world petroleum markets”, Kunstler wrote, and the effects of that wil be as bad as, or worse than, those of the 1973 oil embargo. Industrial agriculture will collapse. “Spectacular dysfunction” will plague car-dependent cities. Supply chains will crumble. “I doubt that the WalMarts and the K-Marts of the land will survive Y2K.” That was the minimum-damage outcome. He actually expected things to get much worse…

Failure- even repeated failure over decades- does not seem to be a hindrance for these hedgehogs. “One might think that after Kunstler’s Y2K pratfall people wouldn’t pay for him to be their tour guide to the future, but The Long Emergency was a best-seller and Kunstler- a wildly entertaining speaker- became a fixture on the lecture circuit, where he is paid significant amounts of money to tell audiences they are doomed”- while “for experts who want the public’s attention” Gardner observes, “Ehrlich is the gold standard. Be articulate, enthusiastic, and authoritative. Be likeable. See things through a single analytical lens and craft an explanatory story that is clear, conclusive, and compelling. Do not doubt yourself. Do not acknowledge mistakes. And never, ever say ‘I don’t know’.”

What is fascinating is that retrospect does not seem to make these predictors of doom any the wiser. Rather than admit failure and revise their approach- turning as it were from Hedgehog to Fox- both Ehrlich and Kunstler played down the gaps between forecast and reality: for Ehrlich, the expected population collapse may not have happened on the timescale expected, but it is bound to come sometime- all the signs are still there; while Kunstler tended to exaggerate the actual effects and downplay the extremity of his own predictions. And anyway, even if Y2K didn’t do for America, the whole place is on the way down anyway- which makes him nearly right in any case.

This rationalisation follows a very similar pattern to that described by Leon Festinger in his classic 1956 study When Prophecy Fails.

Marian Keech, an American psychic who had had a vision of the imminent end of the world, had gathered a small group of faithful around her, who all believed that they would be saved by aliens on a certain date while God wiped out the rest of humanity. Some of Keech’s followers had given up their jobs and sold their houses. But when the hour of destruction arrived and nothing happened, they had to reinterpret events: it was their faith that had inspired God to have second thoughts and save the world after all.

Gardner does not only look at failed predictions of doom- he also considers the spectacular failure to consider the aftermath of the Iraq invasion for example- but our preference for negative predictions has its root in our evolutionary psychology: better be safe than sorry, and expect the worse, may be hard-wired into the human mind: that rustling in the bushes might be just the wind, but you get it wrong and it turns out to be a sharp-toothed predator, you might not survive to pass on your incautious genes.

The book also considers the great-grandfather of peak oil, M.K. Hubbert, who correctly predicted in 1957 that US oil production would peak between the late 60s and early 70s; however his global predictions of global peak in 1995 were wide of the mark, and his expectations of rapid decline even more so: “By 2010 it would be down a terrifying 17%. ‘The end of the Oil Age is in sight,’ proclaimed Hubert in 1974.”

Vaclav Smil, in his book Energy Myths and Realities also points out that while Hubberts’ date for US oil Peak was roughly correct, he had hugely underestimated the level at which this would occur, which was 18% higher- at 4.12 billion barrels/year rather than Hubbert’s 3.5billion. More importantly, says Smil, Hubbert predicted ultimate recovery for the US to be around 200billion barrels in total- for all time- yet by 2005 the US had already extracted 192bb, and continues to be the world’s third largest producer, with 30bb reserves, and is even today once again increasing output due to new techniques of shale oil extraction.

Smil dismisses the peak-oil/collapse camp as a “cult”- Hubbert’s predictions suffered from the same shortcomings that today’s peak oil predictions have- assumptions of linear trends which take no account of improvements in technology of extraction and of efficiency of use, and changes in the way we use energy. Neither The Long Emergency nor other classic peak oil texts like Heinberg’s The party’s Over foresaw the shale gas revolution for example.

“Thus” says Smil, “the post-peak decline of US oil extraction has not been a mirror image of the incline: Hubbert’s rate for the year 2000 production was 1.5billion barrels, while the actual extraction was 2.8bb, or nearly 90% higher- hardly and enviable accuracy for a 30-year forecast.”

Gardner also considers climate change predictions.

For the record, I accept that anthropogenic climate change is all too real. But as the reader may guess, I am skeptical of climate models that purport to forecast changes in the climate decades and even centuries out.

The climate system “is almost indescribably complex” and non-linear, and of course the models might also underestimate the negative effects. That does not mean we should do nothing however. Instead we should make choices that will be winners in any scenario- capturing methane from landfills, improving energy efficiency, and controversially he advocates “a stiff carbon tax with the revenues returned to the economy in the form of cuts to other taxes. Would it deliver benefits even if climate change turns out to be bunk? Absolutely. Carbon taxes raise the effective cost of fossil fuels, making alternative energy more competitive and spurring research and development. And reducing the use of fossil fuels while increasing the diversity of our energy sources would be wonderful for a whole host of reasons aside from climate change.”

Future Babble is a great book with the power to cut through a lot of the blather that pertains to be certain predictions about the future, and in particular provides a welcome antidote to the constant stream of doom-mongering from self-appointed “experts” on the coming collapse of civilisation.
Concerns about the cost of oil, turmoil in the Middle East and the economic collapse will guarantee, says Smil, that pundits of doom will continue to come to the fore and gain disproportionate air-time for their certainties:

No wonder that uninformed, and outright misinformed, pontification on oil futures has been reaching new heights, nor that this flood of opportunistic “analyses” and sensationalized “revelations” has been magnified by scores of cable TV news channels eager to fill their round-the-clock coverage with any willing talking head, and by the self-appointed experts of the blogosphere.

Disclaimer: I was, for a while, in a very minor way one such no-nothing “expert”.

In an uncertain world, we are easily seduced by those who sound confident enough to predict the future.

Nobel prize winner and Fellow of the Royal Society, biologist Sir John Sulston, co-author of the “People and the Planet” report claimed in rather unscientific language on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions “we need to cut back on consumption or the planet is going to burn”;

And, it seems, even when similar predictions, made so confidently at the time, have been shown to be out by a mile, those who make them never learn: just this minute as I was finishing the post, a tweet from @mark_lynas linked to a report that a new book out by some of the original authors of the 1972 Limits to Growth study repeat pretty much the same linear projections– apocalypse, not wrong, but just deferred. Again.


20 thoughts on “The Perils of Prediction

  1. logicalunatic

    I’m not sure how to comment on this article.

    I wanted to blast you with facts about actual production data but given your past with peak oil I feel safe assuming you already have them.

    You must already know that the average tight oil well in North Dakota only produces 150 barrels per day (Around 550,000 barrels total) on average over it’s lifetime. You must also then realize that this is the reason that there are record amounts of land based oil rigs in the US.

    You’ve undoubtedly already juxtaposed the chart above with the actual production numbers and formed your own opinion about the EROEI and sustainability of such practices.

    You already know that the world has been on a (bumpy) plateau in light sweet crude oil production for the past 7 years and that production numbers will soon start their decline.

    You must also be aware of the fact that since you finished your first course in Permaculture Design the world has consumed as much oil as it did in all of the years leading up to that time.

    So when you look at the following chart, does the obvious correlation appear to be just happy coincidence?

    Has increased population led to an increase in consumption or has an increase in consumable resources led to increased population?

    Humanity and our systems aren’t as resilient as you think. The plateau of oil production led to a global recession which has led to food riots and mass civil unrest.

    How can you look at what is going on in the world and not call it collapse?

    It saddens me that you’ve changed your tune right when the world needs your voice the most.

    • So… would you see yourself as a Hedgehog or a Fox? 😉

      • logicalunatic

        The Fox is said to draw on a wide variety of experiences while the Hedgehog looks at the world through the lens of a single idea.

        Please don’t mistake perspective for tunnel vision. When a student of biology finally understands evolution they gain perspective and often the entire world can look different. Multiple lenses coalesce into one that offers a far better view of the world.

        Would this student be considered a Hedgehog simply because she now views life through the lens of evolutionary theory? I say no.

        It is the Hedgehog that fails to keep grinding new lenses to look through. It is the Hedgehog who claims their looking glass shows all.

        It could easily be argued that the Hedgehog better represents the optimist and that his particular lens is a fancy shade of rose.

        But I won’t argue that*. I would argue though that both beasts reside in us all. I am both.

        I know you can and have looked at the world through this one rather disturbing lens.

        What you saw rightfully scared you just as it scared me. You weren’t cautious about your prediction and that is easily forgivable.

        That doesn’t mean you should stop being concerned.

        There IS something to be said for warnings. You mention Y2K but it wasn’t a hoax. It was an averted disaster. It wouldn’t have been nearly as bad as Kunstler let on but there would have been huge issues that I believe would have cost more to fix after the fact.

        As always, preventative maintenance is always cheaper than repairs because of collateral damage; even if there was an overabundance of hype.

        That is why it is just as important as ever that you bring what you know about peak oil to the table.

        Enter The Hedgehog

        “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Charles Darwin

        Adaptability is what makes us human animals so darn successful.

        Even without the rose colored glasses the Hedgehog in me sees humanity rising to meet the challenges of this energy dilemma. The end of cheap oil does not spell doom for humanity. Humanity will adapt. Humanity has learned to be clever. Now, hopefully, it will learn to be wise.

        And In Barges The Fox

        “If you’re willing to restrict the flexibility of your approach, you can almost always do something better.” — John Carmack

        Yes adaptation; that double edged sword. Some parts of humanity have become too adapted to a particular cheap oil fueled lifestyle.

        Yes humanity will survive but large chunks of it (the less flexible chunks) are going to shatter into chaos. The cracks are forming as we speak.

        Not all humans can adapt at the same speed. The same can be said for systems of all types from nations and economies down to corporations, families and JQuery Spell Checking Software.

        Yes humanity will adapt to the resource wars and hoarding… but not well.

        Here is a prediction. The US Dollar is less than 10 years from being replaced as the world’s reserve currency.

        And another… My 5 year old daughter will not get the opportunity to get a driver’s license as it will be unnecessary.

        You used to be right.

        You’re wrong now.

        *Praise for The Rational Optimist – “Ridley does an impressively comprehensive job of looking at the entirety of human history through the lens of a single big idea: that of the awesome power of trade…” –Felix Salmon, Barnes & Noble Review

        • logicalunatic

          I could be wrong though.

          If by some miracle the world leaders decide to evenly distribute the remaining resources for the sake of innovation and trade you will then be proven right as rain.

          Until then, I’ll keep my predictions out there.

          • I think the point is that the hedgehog feels certain and over-confident in his predictions, because s/he sees things as being determined by a single variable; and they keep predicting the same thing irrespective of continual failure; the fox recognizes that predictions of more than a few years on things like the price of oil etc are never reliable, and so is much more contingent. Peak-oilers have been prediciting the end of oil/cars etc for a long time- as did I!; one day they may be right, just as enough blind monkeys with enough darts will one day hit the bulls-eye. Oil industry insiders are generally very reticent to make predictions more than 5 years out- they know reserves tend to increase even as we consume more oil cumulatively. Meanwhile, it seems likely we are embarking on a long slow transition to gas as a substitution for oil. After gas, something else will come along through the powers of human technological innovation. Each new innovation will solve some problems and cause new ones. Specific predictions along the lines of your own are merely guesses at best, shots in the dark- know more likely to be correct than a Tarot reading.
            Well spotted the review on Ridley- actually though his big idea is not just trade but also specialisation and innovation, which are equally important in my reading; however, they do not constitute one Big Idea like the hedgehogs- they do not lead to specific predictions a l Kunstler or Ehrlich- more that the future cannot be predicted, but that there is every reason for optimism and linear projections are always going to be suspect in a complex world.

  2. Let me recommend Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. He puts for a counter-argument to the gloomsters who, as you rightly point out, get all the attention.

    If I understand him, his thesis is the reason circumstances have improved for us and our world is that we’ve moved from being hunter-gatherers needing lots of land, to being specialists needing much less land. And the big reason for this specialization was the invention of exchanging one thing for a different thing. No other animal on earth trades one thing for something else and trading certainly does not happen outside of the group. Trade is quite different from reciprocity, which is “you scratch my back, then I’ll scratch your back.” Trade involves things that are different. And trade has allowed all who do it to specialize and be better off.

    Trading meant that we no longer had to be good at a lot of skills; we only needed to do one thing. Of course, by doing only one thing we need to rely on others to do those other things. Ridley argues that self sufficiency is poverty and that interdependence is a good thing. “In truth, far from being unsustainable, the interdependence of the world through trade is the very thing that makes modern life as sustainable as it is…suppose your local wheat farmer tells you that last year’s rains means he will have to cut his flour delivery in half. You will have to go hungry.” Instead, you benefit from a global marketplace, “in which somebody somewhere has something to sell you so there are rarely shortages, only modest price fluctuations.”

    • Thanks Norm
      yes Ridley Ridley’s book was definitely one of the main influences for the change in my thinking a few years ago, thanks for the summary of his points- his perspective on trade and specialization (as opposed to merely linear resource extraction hitting up against population explosion) was a real revelation to me. The other key point is innovation- that is what separated us from our cousins the Neanderthals, giving us competitive advantage- humans have technology that keeps evolving, which is why we keep overcoming problems against the odds, and why natural limits don’t apply in an absolute sense to us.

      • Like you, I had been trying to understand why Tertullian, Malthus, Ehrlich, Meadows, et. al. had not simply been wrong but had been completely and magnificently wrong in their predictions.

        Since reading Skeptical Environmentalist and then the Rational Optimist I’ve been struck by how the greens are anti-technology and anti-economics. Lomborg points out that more people die of hypothermia than heat stroke and greens go apoplectic that he’s pro-global warming. I saw a tweet that the idea that we had a century’s worth of natural gas as ludicrously optimistic, yet since 1900 we have been only a decade away from oil, coal, (fill-in-the-blank) and the experts sagely nod their heads.

        The innovation that catapulted us past our Neanderthal cousins was, again, trade. Neanderthal women hunted alongside their mate. Homo sapiens divided the tasks. Men hunted. Women gathered and cooked. Men traded the protein they brought for the starches the women collected. The innovation then is Ricardo’s principle of comparative advantage were both become better off through trade. The more trade, the more we can specialize, and the better off we will be.

        I like what Brendan O’Neill wrote on Spiked-online: “Resources are not fixed in any meaningful sense. Resources have a history and a future, just as human beings do. The question of what we consider to be a resource changes as society changes.So in Ancient Rome, one of the main uses of coal was to make jewellery. Women liked the look of this glinting black rock hanging around their necks. No one could have imagined that thousands of years later, coal would be used to power massive steam engines and an entire Industrial Revolution, forever changing how we produce things and transport them around the world.”

        We will run out of energy wen we run out of ideas.

        • logicalunatic

          Here is a question for the optimists…

          What will happen to the US Economy if for some reason the US stops receiving oil exported from OPEC?

          I only ask because it has happened before.

          I’m pessimistically expecting answers like, “Well it isn’t going to happen because blah blah blah.” and that is not what I’m asking for.

          Yes humanity will keep on keeping on even if the US is hit with a gigantic oil shock but the people IN the US will be greatly effected.

          I’m curious to see how great you believe that effect to be.


          • I recommend Robert Bryce’s book, Power Hungry in addition to Ridley’s The Rational Optimist.

            The end of our resources has been foretold before. In 1865, the British economist, Stanley Jevons predicted the end of coal. In his book, The Coal Question, he wrote that Britain’s easy ride was over and soon coal, which, powered their industrial revolution, would be gone. It was “physically impossible” to continue. Therefore Britain needed to decide “between brief greatness and longer continued mediocrity.” William Gladstone, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, found Jevons’ argument so compelling he begged Parliament to pay down their national debt while they still could.

            The ink had barely dried on Jevons’ book when the output of coal rose and the price fell. The first oil well was sunk in Pennsylvania six years later. Today, Britain still produces coal.

            As for OPEC controlling the oil market, they do not hold the share of the market they used to so oil and fossil fuel is a world market. Our largest supplier of oil is Canada. Canada now ranks No. 3 in estimated oil reserves.The US is even seeing a resurgence in discovery.

            Jevons assumed it was coal that was needed to fuel their industrial revolution, rather it was energy, and because the human mind knows no limits, there’s a lot of energy in the world. For instance, right now, in the United States, natural gas in shale deposits holds the promise of energy for another 250 years at present consumption levels.

            Each year, the world will “use about 450 exajoules (about 1250 billion kilowatt-hours of energy) of fossil fuel,” Matt Ridley wrote in the Times of London, “Total oil, gas and coal resources in the Earth’s crust are estimated at more than 570,000 exajoules.” In other words, we have over a millennium’s worth of energy left in just fossil fuels alone.

          • logicalunatic

            I’d like to point out that you completely avoided my question.

            The information in your reply is highly questionable but let’s discuss my question instead and why you chose to not answer it.

            OPEC supplies roughly 140,000,000 barrels of oil to the US per month. In recent years that number has been as high as 198,000,000.

            That is about 25% of our consumption.

            “As for OPEC controlling the oil market, they do not hold the share of the market they used to so oil and fossil fuel is a world market. Our largest supplier of oil is Canada. Canada now ranks No. 3 in estimated oil reserves.”

            OPEC isn’t a swing producer anymore because they can’t produce enough oil to effectively lower the price. How can you say that is a good thing? That means elasticity is gone from the market and the price will go up exponentially.

            And I like how you bend facts here. OPEC is a larger supplier than Canada. Yeah if you take it on a country by country basis Canada supplies the most (11%) but you do realize there is more than one country in OPEC, right?

            Again, OPEC provides about 25% of our daily supply which, last time I checked, is more than 11%.

            So can you guess what would happen if the US were to lose 25% of its oil imports?

            You know that there would be extreme consequences which is why you avoided my question.

            That’s why you chose to tell me a story about William Jevons and coal. At first I was curious as to why you’d use that particular example since it is a good example of a prediction that actually came true but then I realized that you probably don’t do your own thinking.

            Britain’s reliance on coal did have economic consequences.

            He claimed that even before the peak in production that Britain would have financial issues because of their dependence on coal. This turned out to be accurate.

            Then Britain’s production of coal peaked in 1913 and within the decade the balance of power shifted to the United States leaving millions unemployed. I’ll leave it to you to look up what happened to Britain’s economy in the years ahead.

            Now I’m probably going to get another nonsensical reply talking about how it was actually this or some other thing that led to Britain’s decline as a world power but I really wish you would just answer my original question.

            You’ve mastered the English language but you need many lessons in math and science. I think it would be especially helpful for you to learn about exponential growth.

          • logicalunatic

            And you also realize that the (over) estimated 15 billion barrels of oil in Kansas would only keep the world economy running for 3-6 months, right?

            When you pull your head out please let me know whether it is covered in sand or poop.

  3. I’d love to believe the techno optimist view of the world, but the impacts tell a different story. Whether it’s greenhouse gasses, biodiversity loss, chemical and plastic pollution and so on we are at the precipice.

    While the average amount of garbage produced may have gone done the cumalitve amount continues to rise, which do you think the earth cares about?

    The argument that as we get more afflent we become more evironmentally conscience is the Eco version of Regan’s trickle down effect, which modern levels of inequality shows was an economic ball and cup trick.

    I agree that we have the means to make a sustainable society, but the current path of optimisation and greater efficiency won’t get us there because we actually need to bend the curve.

  4. logicalunatic

    Worstall agrees that Peak Oil is upon us 🙂

    Here is now what…

  5. Why are “Peak Oil” believers so Fanatical? You can show them evidence that they are always wrong, but they still keep believing. Optimists believe that the glass is half full, pessimists believe that the glass is half empty, but “Peak Oil” believers think the glass is almost empty and everyone has a straw.
    I find logicalunatic’s earlier comment bizarre:

    Please don’t mistake perspective for tunnel vision. When a student of biology finally understands evolution they gain perspective and often the entire world can look different.

    Isn’t that like saying ” When a Man understands Women they gain perspective and often the entire world can look different”
    Evolutionary Biologists know evolution happens, and Men know that women are different (and they have boobs), but that doesn’t mean that anyone “Understands”. Utter hubris.

    • logicalunatic


      Remember back in April you posted something called Her Diary – His Diary?

      If that woman could just understand a single thing about how her guy works her relationship with him would look different; she would gain perspective.

      That is what I’m talking about.

      A person isn’t born a biologist but they become one by gaining understanding. Some ideas are so big that they not only change how you view your current relationship but the entire world.

      Evolution is that big.

      If you’ve never had a realization that changed how you look at the world I’m probably wasting my words. I doubt that though.

      • First of all, I believe that words are never “wasted”.
        Yes “Evolution” is a big idea, but it is also a very complex one, along with Climate Change, Limits to growth, Peak oil, Economics, and many others. Science has a somewhat basic concept on how these complex systems work, but by no means do they truly “understand” them. So next time you hear a Scientist/talking head say something like “The planet will warm 6.0C in x years, Interest rates will be x% in 3 years, Oil will be gone in x years, you can be 99.254135% (if you use lots of decimal places it makes it look more “Scientific”) sure that they will be 100% wrong.

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  7. The explosion in population very closely mirrors the growth of energy consumption over the last 150 years. I wonder which is the chicken and which is the egg? In any event should cheap energy no longer be available, or supplies be curtailed, then population numbers will probably crash as three horsemen come riding, closely followed by a fourth.

    • You are missing the point of the demographic transition- populations dont (generally) crash because of limits of resources and the population surge is only temporary- as we get more energy-secure and wealthier, birth rates decline everywhere, quite dramatically.

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