Ch-Ch-Changes*

Timberati has a nice post on changing ones mind, with a great quote from Lomborg:

I think the main point of [The Skeptical Environmentalist] was to challenge our notion that everything is going down the drain, and I don’t see any reason to revise that…I’m trying to recapture much of what the left stood for–when we believed in progress, when we believed that scientific understanding could lead us ahead and not just rely on tradition. … Unfortunately, I find that a fair amount of the left has turned towards a romanticized view of the world. –Bjørn Lomborg

I posted a comment:

That is a great quote from Lomborg.
Ive written about this myself having shifted my position radically from “downwinger” to “upwinger” some years ago- and like yourself, Lomborg and then Ridley were two of my main inspirations and influences (and still are).
I think a number of things have to converge for a radical shift like that. These are some of the factors that played a role for me:
firstly, in terms of data, the peak oil doom I was predicting didnt happen. After a few years of no collapse and things basically carrying on pretty much as normal I just had to reassess my position. Cognitive dissonance would set in otherwise and reality just seemed to trump the ideology all too clearly- even the 2008 crash didnt seem to be anything like the Mad Max scenario we had been expecting.
Secondly, I was moving away from my tribe for other reasons- the crazy conspiracy theories, the superstitions, the hypocrisy of many of their stances (they were more than happy to take the benefits of the modern world when it suited) all became too much and I started openly challenging them more and more.
Thirdly, and most importantly I think, I found another tribe to move to- in books and literature, and online mainly. Over time I came across more people in the real world who were going through similar transitions.
I think that is really important because no-one can really stand alone for long. We need community on some level, like-minded people to gravitate towards and validate our new perspective, otherwise it is too hard.
Our nomadic ancestors would die if they were ostracized from the tribe and I think that is why tribalism has such a grip on people today and why changing minds is so hard. Building welcoming communities that are able to entice people over from the Dark Side is one of the most important things we can do.

*[yes this was also an opportunity to make a small tribute to the late great David Bowie. I thought this was a nice piece about him:
David Bowie’s ‘Lazarus’ Video isn’t just A Goodbye, it’s a Harrowing Warning]

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16 thoughts on “Ch-Ch-Changes*

  1. Good stuff, as always, Graham. I, too, have found my tribe online. One might think (as you came to realize) that Peak-Oilers, like the Millerites, are just standing around long after the world-changing event was supposed to have happened and say “Hold on, wasn’t there supposed to be a catastrophe? What happened?” But they don’t. Apocalypsers just look to the next sunrise and are sure that it is a flaming meteor that will crash into our planet. Doom is always just around the corner.

    Apparently, not all are cursed with self-awareness.

  2. These are some of the factors that played a role for me:
    firstly, in terms of data, the peak oil doom I was predicting didnt happen.

    So we have this thing called peak oil. What does the non peak oil scenario look like?

      • That’s what I would have said. Another example of a discussion of current low oil prices would be:
        http://www.salon.com/2016/01/14/there_will_be_blood_big_oils_collapse_and_the_birth_of_a_new_world_order_partner/

        We’ve seen major swings in oil prices before (both ways). This current, so called, glut is certainly not due to a switch to renewables that was caused by the wondrous, wise foresight of the free market fairy. The reasons for it, instead, entail such factors as a depressed global economy (meaning China is no longer growing at absurdly inflated rates and appears to be in trouble) and “new” sources like the Bakken (sources many of which certainly will not produce very long at reasonable cost —much less make up for shortfalls elsewhere when such shortfalls do come).

        That is, we have not hit a “peak” and weathered it relatively unscathed. We have not adjusted in response to a “peak” because a peak has not happened yet (in fact, for all practical purposes, we have not adjusted fossil fuel consumption at all: not in response to an oil production peak nor in response to concerns such as global warming). Is it realistic, though, to be confident that such an adjustment will happen (as it must —since we are constrained by the reality of a finite resource) without a massive disruption? Is it not a little bit Pollyannish to think this? I doubt that you believe that renewables can so quickly take up the slack as to avoid massive economic disruption and the switch to nuclear that should be happening right now to (hopefully) make that a non-issue (or at least ameliorate its consequences) simply isn’t happening.

        • and “new” sources like the Bakken (sources many of which certainly will not produce very long at reasonable cost

          people have had “certainty” about imminent peak oil for a long time, probably since oil was first a major commodity. The demise of the shale oil and gas industry was predicted almost as soon as it had began. See this post I wrote on the subject now 8 years ago:

          Five Years
          and this one:
          Peak Snake Oil
          Can you tell “with certainty” the price of these commodities this time next year? If so we can both become very rich!

          In fact I would argue the opposite- that the world is constantly making adjustments to these factors: it’s called “supply and demand”. You are correct that renewables cannot replace fossil fuels, due to the well understood physical properties of intermittancy and energy density; and nuclear could have done (see France in the 1970s, still producing >75% of its electricity from nuclear today) but was mothballed; there are signs of a renaissance, but it will take time.
          What we are seeing however is a gradual substitution of oil with gas liquids for transport and other uses. This is well over 10 years old already and has contributed to a small but significant reduction in US emissions. This seems set to continue in the US, with other countries yet to really develop shale gas to any degree, but could make use of imports from the US which are now coming online.

          Is it realistic, though, to be confident that such an adjustment will happen (as it must —since we are constrained by the reality of a finite resource) without a massive disruption

          We cannot definitively disprove that Bad Things might happen someday. Instead, Occam’s Razor asks us to consider what is more likely. Julian Simon has done this for us: why see nothing but disaster ahead when we see nothing but improvement behind? So far, rather than reach limits we, we have consistently either innovated technology and found more resources, or found better substitutions. Personally, I see no reason in particular to think this is suddenly going to change.
          But perhaps you have a clearer crystal ball than I 😉

          • skepteco writes:

            See this post I wrote on the subject now 8 years ago:

            Five Years
            and this one:
            Peak Snake Oil

            Where we get:

            This is how the world works: far from the Peak Oil view of a bucket of known resources being drained by more and more straws sucking them out, the size of the bucket is unknown and continually expands with new technology.

            This statement is a groundless fantasy. Perhaps we do not know how large the bucket is but we know that it is a finite bucket.

            skepteco writes:

            We cannot definitively disprove that Bad Things might happen someday. Instead, Occam’s Razor asks us to consider what is more likely. Julian Simon has done this for us: why see nothing but disaster ahead when we see nothing but improvement behind? So far, rather than reach limits we, we have consistently either innovated technology and found more resources, or found better substitutions. Personally, I see no reason in particular to think this is suddenly going to change.
            But perhaps you have a clearer crystal ball than I 😉

            I thought your framing of this constituted some sort of named fallacy but, if it does, I certainly cannot remember it nor do I know how find out what the name might be. Let us just call it the problem of induction.

            Julian Simon? Really? If Julian Simon informs your understanding of reality, then you have flipped from one irrational extreme to the other. Given that reasoning (which no more resembles Occam’s Razor than the Braun branded device I use to shave my face*), nothing bad can ever happen and we should never be concerned about anything.

            I imagine sentient bacteria might look back and see ideal growth conditions for as far back as can be remembered. And yet this does not mean, by application of Occam’s Razor, that what has always been will always be. You and I both know that nutrients become exhausted and toxic metabolites accumulate and that this results in the population in your culture vessel entering a lag phase which is then followed by a death phase. Likewise if you were some Jeremiah in Easter Island who might be warning others of approaching ecological doom it might be pointed out to you that our forefathers had been harvesting timber for hundreds of years and yet no ecological catastrophe ever ensued in the past. By your version of Occam’s Razor, it is obvious that total deforestation and associated microclimatic changes should never have happened on Easter Island. Looking back from the height of the Roman Empire, it is obvious that it has only grown more impressive as time marches on. By your version of Occam’s razor, we know that the Roman Empire could never decline. Etc., etc..

            Julian Simon was postulating that we are fundamentally different than bacteria. Julian Simon was, essentially, postulating that the human economy is fundamentally unlinked to the natural world, that it does not intrinsically have a physical component. It is funny to me that the people who argue similarly tend to be the same people who like to put up charts showing a correlation of oil consumption with GDP.

            I would even question the unstated premises of your question of “why see nothing but disaster ahead when we see nothing but improvement behind?”. We simply have not looked behind at anything relevant for very long. I suppose, however, that one could make an argument that looking at the stars for signs of extra terrestrial intelligence actually constitutes a way of making repeated observations looking back for a long time. If one considers this to be the case then the implications of the Fermi Paradox possibly make for a stark contradiction to Julian Simon’s naïve “looking back” approach.

            In other words, we have been around, as a species, for 200000 years or so. For most of this time, our population has been negligible and the resources we consumed would be of the sort that we would call renewable (at least at the consumption levels that corresponded to such a small population). We certainly have not been consuming oil for 200000 years. Regardless of whether the data is a relevant as you seem to think it is, we don’t even have the data looking back. The period of time during which Simon’s observation could even apply is but a small fraction of that (most of those 200000 years were spent figuring out different ways of smashing together rocks to make more useful rocks). I am not even sure we can make the assumption that things have always been well even during these times when we should have been using resources only in a renewable way (specially if one sees humankind through the lens of the “noble savage” trope). We know little more than the fact that we are here now. This does not speak to an absence of overconsumption based calamities, it speaks to said calamities, if they ever occurred, not having been total calamities. For instance, an idea that you often see tossed around is that humans may have been responsible for megafauna extinctions. If this was so, did it have no effect, negligible effect or major effect on our populations? We currently have no way to know. All we can know is that enough humans survived to be our forefathers. I suppose it is also true that other humans (Neanderthals, Denisovans, etc.) did not survive. Perhaps our survival was their total calamity? Perhaps we are here due to nothing more than contingency? But I digress.

            This “dialogue” expresses my position relatively well:
            http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2012/04/economist-meets-physicist/

            * From Wikipedia:

            Ockham stated the principle in various ways, but the most popular version, “Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity” (Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate) was formulated by the Irish Franciscan philosopher John Punch in his 1639 commentary on the works of Duns Scotus.

            When you say “sure, x will run out but magic stuff will always happen to replace x” what you are would fit the definition of multiplying entities beyond necessity if we were actually trying to explain an observed phenomenon —which is what Occam’s Razor actually applies to (but we are not explaining an observed phenomenon —we are talking about things that have not happened yet). Not multiplying entities beyond necessity would be saying something like “stuff runs out”. In any case, Occam’s Razor is not a hard rule or law of nature but rather a (usually very effective) heuristic aid.

          • Im afraid I havnt read all of your voluminous comment but just a couple of points:

            Perhaps we do not know how large the bucket is but we know that it is a finite bucket.

            yes, theoretically; doesnt really tell us anything though- the theory I am suggesting is that we either improve the technology to find more or, ultimately, find substitutes. This is what has always happened in the past.

            Julian Simon? Really? If Julian Simon informs your understanding of reality, then you have flipped from one irrational extreme to the other

            logical fallacy/ ad hominem- attacking the source, not the argument;

            …nothing bad can ever happen and we should never be concerned about anything.

            -straw man (clearly noone is suggesting that!- as I made clear, I thought, in my last comment)

            Easter Island- not a good example (a pre-scientific island is not relevant for today’s globalized world) and definitely not something that should be extrapolated from for the whole global economy. Probably what did for the Easter Islanders was infections brought by early European visitors, as is what did for more of the S American Indians

            The Myth of Easter Island’s Ecocide

            I can see you are not too familiar with these arguments, and strongly wedded to a Malthussian “Limits to Growth” ideology- that’s ok, so was I, as you can see from my earlier posts! I was a Peak Oil Prophet of Doom and spent a couple of years giving public talks to warn people! complete with slides on Easter Island! I assure you I am intimately familiar with the down-winger/doomer position.

            But you have forgotten the topic of the post- it is about how people change their minds, not how they entrench themselves in ideological certainties. I think we already know enough about that…

            I know it feels scary at first, I have been through it myself, but it is safe to come over from the Dark Side! There is nothing to fear! 🙂

            You forgot to tel me when peak Oil will happen. And what will the price of oil be this time next year again?

          • Here is another earlier post, review of Dan Gardener’s book, which you may find interesting:

            The Perils of Prediction

          • skepteco writes:

            logical fallacy/ ad hominem- attacking the source, not the argument;

            The argument I am attacking is that it is absurd to claim that because it hasn’t happened before it therefore it won’t happen in the future. This, and hand waving into existence magical substitutions that inevitably will happen (just because he says so) which make economies independent of physical resources, is what Simon was known for. So yes, I therefore say that if Julian Simon informs your understanding of reality, then you have flipped from one irrational extreme to the other.

            skepteco writes:

            …nothing bad can ever happen and we should never be concerned about anything.

            -straw man (clearly noone is suggesting that!- as I made clear, I thought, in my last comment)

            No, I have not read you making that argument but it was never my intention to suggest that you ever made that argument. My point was that if you follow Simon’s “reasoning” to its logical conclusion you would have to conclude precisely that. Recognizing the absurdity of this should make evident how Julian Simon is an exceedingly poor choice to use as a “voice of reason”.

            skepteco writes:

            I can see you are not too familiar with these arguments, and strongly wedded to a Malthussian “Limits to Growth” ideology- that’s ok, so was I, as you can see from my earlier posts!

            Julian Simon hand waving magical things into existence which may (or may not) happen is not an argument. Malthusian? Define that. Maybe I am and maybe I am not. I think Environmental degradation and resource utilization is linked to population numbers. This is self-evident and I doubt even you would dispute that but you probably would not apply the descriptor of Malthusian (which I imagine you used to embrace but now use as a pejorative) to yourself. I also think physical resources are actually real physical things and that their use is constrained by physical laws. For instance, if we have a major disruption to our food supply, we cannot simply materialize more food out of nowhere (agriculture has its cycles, and its economic characteristics and its own timescales). We also cannot say, “well, food seems to be a bit scarce right now but bauxite is really plentiful in the earth’s crust so we’ll eat that instead”. Instead, food prices will rise drastically (probably more in the places where people can least deal with this) and yeah, many people may even starve to death because of their inability to substitute bauxite for food.

            If anything, I consider myself a techno-utopian. I think that technology can address scarcity and solve many global problems. However, I also think it is in no way inevitable that it will do so and that societal structures may need to change too to make it possible (technology, after all, is just a set of tools).

            As for predictions, since you seem to be so enamored of them, I’ll go with something safe and predict that the 2016 Nobel Price for Chemistry will go to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuel Charpentier.

          • The argument I am attacking is that it is absurd to claim that because it hasn’t happened before it therefore it won’t happen in the future.

            straw man- noone claims that.

            Tsk tsk August! you are really being rather naughty. It is you who is enamored of predictions, not I- you claim certainty that shale will not last much longer- certainty! even though such predictions have already been proved wrong in the past! Instead, I council Occam’s Razor which you seem to misunderstand- it is about what is most likely in the absence of certainty.
            I predict in 5 years the recoverable shale resource will have grown (due to improved technology) and you will still be claiming certainty it won’t last much longer! lol -but I do NOT claim any certainty about this- it is just what seems more likely.

            thanks for conceding all my other points, that’s generous of you 😉

            If anything, I consider myself a techno-utopian. I think that technology can address scarcity and solve many global problems. However, I also think it is in no way inevitable that it will do so and that societal structures may need to change too to make it possible (technology, after all, is just a set of tools).

            I quite agree, and so would Julian Simon, though I *certainly* would not describe myself as a “utopian”- if anything you are closer to Simon than I.

          • skepteco writes:

            straw man- noone claims that.

            Tsk tsk August! you are really being rather naughty.

            No, you are being rather naughty. It’s Simon who used this as his argument and justified it with the functional equivalent of “because magic”. It is laughable.

            skepteco writes:

            I council Occam’s Razor which you seem to misunderstand- it is about what is most likely in the absence of certainty.

            Not really. Again, it is about what is the most likely explanation of something in the absence of certainty. For instance, if we are seeking explanations to matters of thought and consciousness and their nature, based on observations regarding the cell biology of neurons, neurophysiology, the fact that you can manipulate consciousness by physically manipulating the brain, the fact that injuries to the brain alter thoughts and consciousness, etc., we could formulate two woefully incomplete hypotheses: that said matters are directly related to neural function or that said observations are all valid but that what is really behind all of it is some immaterial stuff (in some versions of this being created by a giant invisible person with a robe and a long beard —but I digress) that animates the neural function, making it look exactly as what we actually see. Occam’s razor would involve noting that while both hypotheses are functionally identical in their implications, the second involves a bunch of extra entities. As a result, Occam’s Razor would suggest that the first hypotheses is more likely to be true.

            skepteco writes:

            thanks for conceding all my other points, that’s generous of you

            You are welcome. I’m just that kind of a guy. What points would those be?

          • How bizarre. Simon doesnt use the argument “because magic”. That’s completely made up by your good self- someone who calls themselves a “Utopian”! -and I very much doubt Simon would have used such a word, which has more in common with “magic” than anything he ever wrote. Dont worry though- I am not expecting a rational explanation. Let’s agree to disagree and re-visit the peak oil situation in 5 years time 🙂

          • skepteco writes:

            How bizarre. Simon doesnt use the argument “because magic”.

            Silly wabbit! You are being obtuse! Since I foresaw that that you would intentionally misconstrue my metaphor I even reworded it the last time for your benefit. When Simon is expressing certainty that the exhaustion of a resource cannot ever be a serious issue because unknown things might happen that might fix the problems associated with the depletion of said resource he might as well be saying it’s magic. It’s hand waving at its worst.

          • this is now an officially pointless conversation- it has come full circle and I am only repeating the very first points I made:
            I am no misconstruing your metaphor, Simon simply does not express certainty that resources cannot run out or that unknown things will certainly fix problems of depletion, just that this is what is most likely.
            You however, in common with Peak Oilers like Heinberg, have categorically stated – and I quote:

            “new” sources like the Bakken (sources many of which certainly will not produce very long at reasonable cost —much less make up for shortfalls elsewhere when such shortfalls do come)

            – even though this is exactly what was said in 2007, for exactly the same reasons, and about oil for over 100 years, and has repeatedly been shown to be wrong. It is your own claim of certainty about the future which is more akin to magic. You discount improved technology even now, about a new industry that was not even foreseen as coming into existence a little over 12 years ago.
            Doomer predictions have been shown for over a century to fail to account for continued human ingenuity and innovation, but this does not imply certainty such will continue. The point is, there is no evidence that this ongoing human progress is suddenly going to abruptly stop now just because you are the one predicting it.

  3. Peak oil is the top of a bell curve of production.Apocalypse does not lie the other side of the curve, just a slow decline. Like it or lump it ,oil is a finite commodity and no new conventional mega fields have been discovered in decades. Technology such as horizontal drilling has helped up production from existing fields and enabled deepwater subsalt plays.Also shale plays have opened up huge reserves of both gas and oil.. However shale plays, like oil sand production requires a high oil price to be economically viable. Right now shale gas and oil is hurting a lot of companies and that is without the treehuggers bleating about environmental damage (Although having studied the statistics of leaky wells I have to concede they have some valid points) There will come a day when oil becomes extremely expensive and the equivalent work of a hundred slaves that each gallon provides will no longer be available. That is the day of reckoning when it is realised that modern society has been able to explode numerically because of cheap fuel, transport, plastics, chemicals et al and edifice that cannot survive without the oil feedstock being available..

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