Peak Oil will Never Die

In my former peak-oil days, I was a fan of James Howard Kunstler, and read both his fiction and non-fiction work, taking him seriously as a critique of the American zeitgeist. I was disappointed though to read this recent article by him in response to a recent NY Times article about the defusing of the population bomb:

One main contention in the story is that the problem of feeding an exponentially growing population was already solved by the plant scientist Norman Borlaug’s “Green Revolution,” which gave the world hybridized high-yielding grain crops. Wrong. The “Green Revolution” was much more about converting fossil fuels into food. What happens to the hypothetically even larger world population when that’s not possible anymore? And did any of the 23 journalists notice that the world now has enormous additional problems with water depletion and soil degradation? Or that reckless genetic modification is now required to keep the grain production stats up?

Kunstler obviously fails to understand the demographic transition, which is driven not by providing more food, but first by controlling the death rate: modern medicine, vaccines and sanitation lead to lowering of infant mortality and longer life-expectancy; since birth rates at this stage remain high, the population rapidly increases, which is precisely what lead to the “population  bomb” scares of Ehrlich and others in the sixties. Mathusian fears of die-off as a result of being unable to feed the consequent teeming masses were indeed solved- if not completely, but to a large extent- by Borlaug and the Green Revolution. Ehrlich was proved wrong- he said, definitively, “the battle to feed the world’s population is over”. He didn’t say “unless we figure out how to convert fossil fuels into food”.
In any case, the amount of fossil fuels that are actually used to produce food is relatively small:

In the USA in 2004, 317 billion cubic feet of natural gas were consumed in the industrial production of ammonia, less than 1.5% of total U.S. annual consumption of natural gas. A 2002 report suggested that the production of ammonia consumes about 5% of global natural gas consumption, which is somewhat under 2% of world energy production.

And of course, as Kunstler well knows, the shale revolution has massively increased the supply of natural gas in his home country -the cognitive dissonance required to ignore this as if nothing has happened in the past 10-15 years is staggering. Maybe the reality of increasing resources as a result of technological advances is simply incompatible with the narrative of Peak Oil Doom on which JHK has based his entire writing career, just as the reality of declining birth rates is just too challenging for Ehrlich.

Later in the piece Kunstler randomly mixes up turmoil in the Middle East with over-population issues, again ignoring the fact that one of the reasons for instability in Saudi Arabia is precisely  that they are no longer the world’s swing producer as a direct result of the revived US shale boom, which is decreasing the dependency of the West on OPEC.  It seems there is no pleasing Kunstler though.

Kunstler then goes onto finger “reckless” genetic engineering which displays ignorance of the highest order- all farming starts with plant breeding, changing wild plants beyond recognition to provide better yields for us humans to chew on. Far from reckless, genetic engineering is the most precise and regulated and tested form of plant breeding ever. Not only that, but GM crops have already been shown to reduce reliance on tilling, pesticides and fertilisers,

-thus reducing fossil fuel dependency and environmental impact while maintaining or even help increase yields.

Like Ehrlich- who ” still seems to think that getting rid of girls is a capital idea” Kunstler is molded in the tradition of many of the early-20th Century environmentalists, elitists who prefer peasants who know their place, harmoniously working the land and not upsetting the Natural order. This is reflected in the accolades showered on Ehrlich by environmental institutions such as the WWF, a major environmental NGO with roots in eugenics and deeply conservative and traditionalist ideologies. In another recent article on Ehrlich, author Jonathon Last writes

Of course, it’s been obvious that Ehrlich was not just misguided, but an actual charlatan, since the 1970s…..

Other people caught on to Ehrlich over the years. In her book about sex-selective abortion, Mara Hvistendahl has a long, devastating interview with Ehrlich in which she probes his errors, pushes him for accountability, and reveals him to be a doddering, foolish, old man wedded to a political ideology and with no interest in science, demographics, or even basic math. And Hvistendahl is a progressive feminist in good standing.

In a fascinating review of post-apocalyptic literature, Michael Potts shows how in Kunstler’s fictional writings, “the myth of feudal obligations and care in a hierarchical society is resurrected and its loss is related to decline and degeneration.”

Like other traditionalists like Vandana Shiva, Ehrlich and Kunstler are more about lamenting a lost world of aristocrats and peasants than they are about addressing real environmental problems.

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5 thoughts on “Peak Oil will Never Die

  1. Ron Bailey has two good essays that should flesh out and add further insight to your post:
    1. “Peak Everything” http://reason.com/archives/2010/04/27/peak-everything
    He notes that two “[e]conomists Lucas Bretschger and Sjak Smulders argue that the decisive question isn’t to focus directly on preserving the resources we already have. Instead, they ask: “Is it realistic to predict that knowledge accumulation is so powerful as to outweigh the physical limits of physical capital services and the limited substitution possibilities for natural resources?” In other words, can increasing scientific knowledge and technological innovation overcome any limitations to economic growth posed by the depletion of non-renewable resources?”

    2. “On Being a 21st Century Peasant.” http://reason.com/archives/2010/04/13/on-being-a-21st-century-peasan
    McKibben is “not wrong about everything. But so eager is he to make his case for doom, McKibben can’t resist pushing data farther than it should go.”

    • Thanks Norm, excellent! Pointing out problems is not a bad thing to do; Ehrlich and McKibben tend to ignore the fact that humans adapt and respond and innovate and develop new technology, and that we do actually solve problems, and sometimes, especially with population, the “solutions” are counter-intuitive- the likes of Ehrlich and other Dark Greens unfortunately still tend to believe that if you feed people, they will breed more and make the problem worse. Not only is this immoral, it is paradoxically completely incorrect.

  2. Hans Rosling has done some great videos explaining the “great filling in” (as I think he calls it). Even at (or slightly below) replacement rate (around 2.1 children per woman) the population will continue to grow for about 20 years (my recollection) before it plateaus.

  3. Michael Potts

    As a reader of this blog for some time now I was pleasantly surprised to see my name mentioned here! Hope you don’t mind if I point out that the link to my thesis is broken, though. For those who want to have a look, it can be found at

    http://ir.canterbury.ac.nz/handle/10092/9439

    By the way, do you ever read any of James Barker’s posts? ( https://michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com/new-age/ ) some interesting stuff there on organic / environmental history from a different point of view. Anyway, love the blog, please keep up the good work.

    • Thanks Michael, and I am very glad you came here to comment as I had been wanting to contact you to thank you for sharing your thesis, which is certainly one of the most fascinating things I have read in the past year or two. Brings together so many themes and ideas I have been exploring here over the past few years.
      Yes I am familiar with James Barker, have referenced a couple of his on Organics and Steiner some time ago I think.
      I’ve fixed the link to your thesis in the post now, thanks again and glad you enjoy the blog!

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