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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50 Shades of Green

A Spectrum of Environmental Thought

“You seem to spend a good bit of time slagging off environmentalists” complained a particularly earnest student to me recently. His gripe seemed to be to do with some fairly incidental comments I had made in passing about fracking being OK in principle, and Permaculture offering no silver bullet for delivering sustainable agriculture.
The thing is though, who are these “environmentalists” of which we speak? It is misleading to speak about “environmentalists” as if they all agree on things like nuclear power or GMOs; in fact, when it comes to the Green movement , we are talking about a very broad church indeed.
Here then, is a selected range of thinkers, movers and shakers on environmental issues, most of them who would identify with being “environmentalists” in some way. This also roughly equates with Professor Steve Fuller’s suggestion (see below) that we are seeing a dramatic 90-degree shift in the poles of political thought- no more so much “Left wing” and “Right wing”, much more “Down-wingers” (Dark Green environmentalists) and “Up-wingers” (eco-pragmatists and technophiles).
As we move through the spectrum, we see a shift from focus on the Precautionary Principle with regard to technology- a general aversion to any more “meddling with nature”- and gradually move closer to Fuller’s “Pro-actionary imperative”- the view that as humans, we are all but compelled to keep innovating and developing new technologies, leaping further into the unknown of the future, if we are to continue to thrive.

There are of course hundreds more writers I could have included. The exact placement of each writer is open to interpretation, and not intended to be precise, not least because many will be further one way on some issues (eg nuclear power or climate) and further the other way on others.

Here we go then- 50 Shades of Green:

Dark Green
This end of the spectrum tends to be quite extreme and ideologically motivated, characterised as:
-anti-capitalist
-Suspicious of technology
-romanticizing the past
-romanticizing “Nature”;
tends to make apocalyptic predictions- the “Doomers”;
emphasis on “over-population”;
follows “Limits to Growth” philosophy: the Earth’s resources are finite, and humanity is approaching the limits- soon there will be severe shortages of energy, minerals, food, leading to a likely population collapse;
Peak Oil= Peak Energy- humans are like “bacteria on a petri dish” and subject to the same laws of limits as other species- it is only our hubris and arrogance that blinds us to this truth;
Humans must cut back and end economic growth, restrict use of technology, live simpler lives;
Moralistic- Humans are an inherently malevolent influence on the planet
Often Misanthropic = human-hating- seeing Nature as Pure and Humans as Polluted.

At the very extreme end of the spectrum…
Eco-fascism: eg Nazi Germany- Rudolph Hess was a leading Nazi Nature Mystic who believed the purity of the German race was intimately connected with the purity of the Land and its Soil –Blut und Boden– (“Blood and Soil”)- the Nazis were the first and only movement to promote Steiner’s mystical practice of Biodynamics on a large scale, which was also inspired by this view;
The Nazi mystics believed there to be a powerful, ordained connection between Das Volk and Das Vaterland– the notion of a sort of chosen land for a chosen people, the Aryan race. This link was expressed naturally enough through farming practices, which needed to be “pure” so as not to pollute the blood through “unclean” food. Purity of the soil- the Land- meant purity of the food; purity of the food maintained purity of the Blood- and therefore, purity of the Race.
Organic farming emerged after this time as a reaction against the rise of industrial farming which was seen as polluting, not just the soil and the land, but the Race.
This kind of thinking, while not explicitly racist in content, can still be found underpinning the Darker side of the Organics and anti-GMO movement. In many ways, the foodie movement in general is best seen as versions of Kosher foods- a modern take on the age-old tradition of identifying ones tribe by the food it eats. “Pig meat unclean” and only eaten by the Infidels becomes “GMOs unclean”.
This position is perhaps best exemplified in the figure of Dr. Vandana Shiva, who, while feted widely by western environmentalists who would prefer to see themselves on the Left, in her native country is more closely identified with right-wing nationalistic interests who shun modernity and have vested interests in the maintenance of the caste system.

Deep Ecology

Anarcho-primitivsism- Derrick Jensen “The Culture of Make-Believe”

Dark Mountain

We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris. The attempt to sever the hand from the body has endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too. The resulting upheaval underlies the crisis we now face.

– from the Dark Mountain Manifesto

Thomas Malthus 1766-1834- predicted food supply would fail to keep up with population increases, leading to inevitable famines;

Paul Ehrlich The Population Bomb 1968:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

Giving society cheap, abundant energy … would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.

– Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist’s Perspective on Nuclear Power”,

May/June 1978 issue of Federation of American Scientists Public Issue Report cited here

Silent Spring Rachel Carson 1962

Limits to Growth 1972 Club of Rome report by Meadows and Randers;

Jared Diamond 2005 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Richard Heinberg The End of Growth 2011
Heinberg is an influential figure in the Peak Oil movement, which sees the peaking in world oil supplies to be happening now and leading to inevitable collapse of modern industrial society;

Transition Towns Network
A world-wide network of community projects started in Tones, Devon in 2004:

is a charitable organisation whose role is to inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities as they self-organise around the Transition model, creating initiatives that rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions…Ultimately it’s about creating a healthy human culture, one that meets our needs for community, livelihoods and fun.

TTN promotes the urgent need for a response to the “twin threats” of Peak Oil (resource depletion) and Climate Change (pollution of the Global Commons) by forming re-localisation projects. The vision appears to be a return to more-or-less self-sufficient local and regional communities growing their own food and producing their own energy and other resources, in a general move away from globalisation, technology and progress; they could be characterized as a “neo-feudal” movement.

Supporters and alliances include Prince Charles and the Schumacher College; their seems much in common with the ideology espoused by Rudolph Steiner and other early 20thCentury reactions against modernity.

Permaculture –again, closely aligned with and informing of Transition, Permaculture began as a landscape design method, but now represents a very broad movement claiming to work towards a “Permanent Culture”, Permaculture clearly began as a reaction against industrialisation and modernity and a conviction that society is surely doomed should it continue down its current path;
Also linked with Anthroposophy, Organics and the Food Sovereignty Movement.

The giant multi-national green NGOs Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth probably fit in around about here, with a strong anti-GMO and anti-nuclear stance;

George Monbiot
Monbiot is one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, and aligns strongly with the anti-capitalist, anti-corporate Left; but he also has links with Dark Mountain and the darker Greens on many issues, while at the same time breaking ranks in a rather fundamental way through his advocating of nuclear power as the “lesser of two evils” when considering the need for base-load low-carbon energy to tackle climate change.

***

Thus far those cited have tended to believe in the inherent unsustainability of the modern world and call with varying degrees of urgency and optimism for a retreat “back to Nature”;
Coupled with this is frequently found at root a rejection of Enlightenment values- which see human agency as liberating us from the confines of an often merciless “Nature”- as hubris. Instead, they argue, the escape from “natural limits” is a dangerous illusion.
Most mainstream environmentalism including the Green parties of Europe and the US tend towards this view.

Now we look at those who support conservationism and environmental protection in various guises, but who see this as best happening in the context of modern industrial society which should continue to use human ingenuity and technology to solve environmental problems without a wholesale abandonment of modernity:

Eco-Pragmatists:

Sometimes also known as “neo-Greens”;
Mark Lynas
The myth of Easter Island’s Ecocide

In this article, Lynas points to recent research suggesting Diamond (above) was wrong to point to Easter Island as a metaphor for ecological over-shoot and collapse.
Lynas falls between the two ends of the spectrum as he also has very dark views of potential climate apocalypse (viz his 2006 book “Six Degrees” and more recent “The God Species” about planetary boundaries.)

Other thinkers are less concerned about any concept of absolute boundaries.

Eco-pragmatists believe technology can really help the environment- indeed, it is unethical in the extreme to abandon the poor, and they see bringing the rest of humanity out of poverty to be the number one priority. As people become wealthier they naturally take more care of the environment and reduce family size;
See Maslow
Advanced technologies like nuclear power and genetic engineering are cleaner and can both feed and bring energy to the world and help solve some of the problems of earlier technology; “Nature” is something to conserve, but not something we should be aiming to return to.

James Lovelock

The maverick scientist is the hardest of anyone on this list to categorise- on the one hand, his Gaia hypothesis inspired a generation of Deep Ecologists, and also the broader environmental movement, to think differently about the planet; on the other hand he has in recent years made a dramatic turn-around from stating climate change will result in the end of humanity, to “noone really knows” and advocating technofixes including fracking, nuclear power and the geo-engineering.

Hans Rosling Population Growth
TED Talks: Global Population Growth

Rosling shows how development and the demographic transition is leading to a reduction in fertility rates and decline in population growth rates, which is happening all over the world more rapidly than expected.
Essential viewing: The Magic Washing Machine

Emma Marris Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

Fascinating look at changing perspectives in ecology and conservation in a world where very little if any “nature” that hasn’t been modified by humans remains.

Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
In this talk, Kareiva takes issue with the romantic notions of Nature of Thoreau and Edward Abbey.
Failed Metaphors and a New Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Stewart Brand Whole Earth Discipline

We are as Gods – and must get good at it.

Brand, one of the founders of the environmental movement and a pioneer in permaculture and appropriate technology in the ‘60s, discusses 4 Environmental Heresies:
-cities are green
-nuclear power is green
-genetic engineering is green
-geo-engineering is probably necessary to tackle climate change.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger and the Breakthrough Institute: The Death of Environmentalism
-a Key article from critics of the mainstream environmental movement

Norberg and Shellenberger reject the idea that it is human population and overall human impact that is the problem, instead embracing enlightenment values, seeing technology and human progress the key to solving climate change and other environmental issues.

Daniel Botkin Botkin challenges the “Balance of Nature” narrative in Darker Green Environmentalism

Matt Ridley The Rational Optimist

To go back to Nature would be a disaster- for Nature

Self-sufficiency is poverty.

TED talk: When Ideas Have Sex

Ridley believes human beings became the dominant species through innovation, specialization and trade, aided by our unique ability to communicate through language;
the “optimist” in his book’s title places him further towards the “upwing” of the spectrum, believing that technological innovation can continue to improve life for humans, overcoming environmental problems;
unlike most of the previous writers, he is controversial and outspoken on climate change, believing it to be less of a threat than the Darker Greens.

Bjorn Lomborg
The Skeptical Environmentalist 2001
Cool It! 2011 Book and Film

key article: Lomborg Explains how to Save the Planet

How we live today is clearly unsustainable. Why history proves that is completely irrelevant.

Lomborg was influenced by Julian Simon (d.1998)

In The Ultimate Resource (1981) Simon argued that human innovation and economic forces would always overcome apparent or temporary resource limits, as in the saying ”The stone-age didn’t run out because we ran out of stones”- in other words, we will always be able to find better substitutes long before a resource actually expires.
Lomborg continues to be skeptical of the more doom-ridden end of the spectrum, and in particular, while accepting that man-made climate change is a problem, believes the mainstream policy response is all wrong, and the key is once again technological innovation- we cannot move away from fossil fuels until we have a cleaner alternative that is also cheaper- and in the meantime there are far more pressing human and environmental problems we should be spending our money on solving.

Patrick Moore Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout 2010
http://www.greenspirit.com/index.cfm

Pure science made me a Greenpeace drop-out.

Moore believes much of the “Dark Green” environmental movement had become irrational and reactionary and anti-science.
More than other “eco-pragmatists” mentioned, Moore is skeptical of the science behind man-made climate change, tending to argue that CO2 plays little if any role in warming the planet, and is certainly not a risk.

At the extreme end- Promethean Greens
Believe technology and human innovation will ultimately lead to a better environment- there is no “Nature”- only what humans decide will remain;
Even asteroid-mining or deep space travel will be possible eventually;
Transhumanism– human-computer link-ups; nano-technology; and even eternal life after the Singularity is reached and life-expectancy advances faster than real time.
Eg Jacques Fresco’s The Venus Project
See Mark Stevenson An Optimists’ Tour of the Future for an entertaining survey of future technologies that may not be that far off.

As mentioned in my intro above, in his 2014 book The Pro-actionary Imperative Professor Steve Fuller takes issue with the dominant Left-Right dichotomy, instead positing “Down-wingers” (anarchist Deep Ecologists and Conservatives) and “Up-wingers” (Marxists and Libertarians). He himself advocates Transhumanism as a political strategy, embraces technological fixes- but, in sharp contrast to the more secular/atheist tendencies of other Prometheans, this emerges from his Christian belief that God made us in his image ie our destiny therefore is to literally become As Gods, and not just metaphorically as per Stewart Brand. Successful risk-taking is what has made us human, and the last thing we want to is allow the Dark Greens to slow this down.

***

So there you have it. Let me know if you think there are any major omissions. In truth, we are all environmentalists– once we have sufficient wealth and security to worry about things beyond our immediate survival.

From the Zone5 Archives: Five Years till Doomsday

The New Year is a suitable time to shake out the old cobwebs, so I have finally decided to retire my first blog Zone5.org, which I wrote for six years from May 2006- May 2012. As of midnight tonight or thereabouts it shall officially turn into a pumpkin and thenceforth cease to exist.
Its byeline- On the Edge between Nature and Culture- reflected my interests through much of that time which I still hold- the interaction between humans and the environment. My main focus was permaculture, sustainability, peak oil, civilizational collapse, climate change and the like.
As the years rolled by and the promised collapse failed to materialize, my views changed. Radically. Which is why I started Skepteco.
The Zone5 archives- more than a hundred posts and hundreds of comments- chronicle my gradual change from naive Deep Dark Green Doomer, through skeptical rationalist homeopathy-bashing Dawkins-fan, into, eventually, the well-adjusted and enlightened pragmatist I am to-day.
Over the next few weeks I may occasionally post a relic from those dark doomer days, an offering if you will to whatever gods of Truth there may still be out there, a testimony to show how deeply held beliefs that are in fact wrong can actually be rejected in a single lifetime. By baring all once again I hope my past delusions may serve as some kind of cautionary tale to the young radicals just getting going in life who may be open to some kind of guidance in making sense of the klaxons of environmental alarm that have scarcely quietened in the intervening years. I often wonder how my choices in life may have been different had I had someone like me as I am today around to give the younger me a kick up the back-side. It’s doubtful I would have listened, and a kick would surely have been necessary. However, I also think that many of the ideas and insights and evidence that influence me today simply never crossed my path until I painfully, laboriously uncovered them more recently. If nothing else, it shows how easy it is to get trapped in a bubble where a strong community of like-minded- and similarly deluded folk shout out any alternative views until they cannot disturb the cozy illusion of certainty. I was so wrong, yet I was so sure I was right.
We start appropriately enough with a failed prediction from 2007. Many of the early posts are pretty cringe-making, this one being a good example, in which I claimed that we may only have 5 years before the peak-oil-alypse reduces society to rubble, where only those with the largest stock-piles of beans survive. That was six years ago. Was this really me writing? What was I thinking? My only defense: I was quoting a report from the IEA. Now, they really should have known better…

Originally posted on 20 July 2007 on the now retired Zone5 blog.

Five Years

With all the interest in the mainstream media being shown recently about peak oil it seems the world may be finally waking up to the realities of the limits to growth and the beginnings of the end of the industrial cycle.
The big news has been the International Energy Agency’s report last week admitting that there may be a serious oil production crunch within the next 5 years, raising eyebrows around the world as this represents an astonishing about-turn on their stance of the past 30 years which has been to simply assert that whatever the world demands, so shall we be supplied.
Another aspect of this has been highlighted by James Kunstler concerning the crises developing in the five principle oil-exporting areas of Saudi Arabia, Iran, the North Sea, Russia and Venezuela: it seems that they will have far less to export in the near future. The declines in exports will decline far faster than actual production declines because of a rapidly growing domestic markets. In other words, the main oil producing regions of the world are using far more of the stuff themselves, so there will be less for the rest of us. This is likely to unfold also on a shockingly short time-scale- just a few years. Kunstler concludes:
“Every day thousands of new driver’s licenses are issued to Saudi Arabian men. Every day, thousands of new cars are sold in Russia (and China and India). Every day the price of crude oil on the futures markets creeps a few cents higher. Every day the US version of “money” (the dollar) loses a few clicks of value against other world currencies. The markets and the American public are headed for a collision with reality. When it happens, perhaps this fall, it is not going to be pretty.”
Ireland, remember, is considered at least as exposed to oil shortages as the US. This doesnt mean that we may still have five years to hope for something else to happen; it means we have really very little time to prepare for the inevitable: real shortages, rationing and severe economic slump. It is really time to gather your family friends and community around you and have serious discussions about how you are going to pay the mortgage, whether you will still have a job or not, and how are you going to get to see the grandparents/grandchildren once air travel becomes prohibitively expensive.
We will not simply carry on roughly as we have been up till now and then in five years’ time suddenly- Wham! -no more oil. The slide into economic recession and then depression is starting now and will merely gather pace as time goes on, with likely abrupt disruptions. Anything you can do to prepare for a time in the not-to-distant future in which we will be relatively poor and thrown back to a large degree on our own resources should be commenced now. Where can you start a garden? Have you space to store food? Have you any back-up power system for essential lights?
Become aware of the “embodied energy” in everything you might need: what has high fossil-fuel content, either in the materials used or the energy needed to create it and transport it to your door? Spend wisely now on infrastructure that will last and save you energy in the long run, like insulation and a suitable stove; avoid systems that will depend always on imports, even if they appear to be part of a self-sufficient system.(One that is often missed, for example, is imported feed for chickens and other animals.)
If you are preparing well, there is much to look forward to in the future low-energy world, but we should avoid romantic projections also: the future will be hard. So much that we take for granted is performed for us by cheap energy, and few of us have actually experienced life for any length of time without the back-up systems that the fossil-fuel society provides. So I don’t go along with the “bring it on” response that many people give me when I speak of this. We need to be prepared for things to be much harder than we expect, and in many unexpected ways.
Any spare cash you have now, invest it in anything that may help you ride the coming hard times. As far as possible, limit your needs and requirements- the Buddhists have it right: the simple life is the best. “Hedonism” has become synonymous with excessive self-indulgent consumerism, and the pursuit of endless pleasures of the material world, but in fact the philosophy of the original Hedon was quite the reverse: Hedon believed that the key to happiness was not the pursuit of pleasure, but the avoidance of pain. Therefore, he concluded, the fewer possessions and attachments we have, the less active and engaged with the material world we are, the less pain we will create, the more at peace with ourselves and the rest of nature we will be.
This has greater relevance today, as “less is more” becomes the motto for the coming times: less consumerism means less pollution and environmental destruction; less economic growth will mean less stress and waste.
So as the meditation teacher has said, “Don’t just do something- Sit there”.
But make sure you have a functioning permaculture system well established first.

The End of Peak Oil?

It would seem so if you believe the latest report by Leonado Maugeri, a prominent critic of the peakists, whose analysis claims that we could see a surge in liquid fuel production from its current level of 91 million barrels per day to an astonishing 110 mbd by 2020.

Maugeri sees new production coming mainly from the USA, Canada, Brazil and Iraq; while Mexico, Iran and the North Sea producers UK and Norway seeing net declines.

Maugeri’s analysis is hotly disputed on the Oil Drum here claiming “unsupportable assumptions”; and by Gail Tverberg, who aregues that a closer look at the realities of each region shows that oil production has not increased by much, and concludes that the more likely scenario is

at best oil production in the near future will be virtually flat, leading to more spiking of oil prices and greater world economic problems. Another possibility is that world production will begin to decline. The likelihood of decline would appear to be increased if more oil exporters encounter political disruptions, or if the world enters a major recession leading to an oil price decline.

It seems to me that Peak-oilers are somewhat playing down the fact that the world has indeed seen an increase in production last year, driven in part by new drilling technology in America, when peak-oilers have been claiming this is all but impossible. So the argument shifts- the “easy oil” has peaked; the era of cheap oil is gone; and, just in case this trend continues and Maugeri is shown to be even half-way correct, you can hedge your bets by saying, whatever about oil production rates, we just don’t want it- the real problem is climate change.

This is the tack taken by Heniberg in his response to Maugeri who carefully inserts into his piece the rhetorical question “What will be the climate impact as the world’s petroleum supply is increasingly derived from lower-grade resources?” But even Heinberg admits “some of the Peak Oil forecasts for world oil production declines starting in 2005 or 2008 have proven premature” – just as all of the last 100 years of predictions of doom have proved “premature”.

Monbiot on the other hand seems to fully accept Maugeri’s projections, but comes out even gloomier than before: energy abundance is not a blessing, allowing more human development and better lives for all, but a curse which will “fry us all”, concluding, bizarrely,

Humanity seems to be like the girl in Guillermo del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth: she knows that if she eats the exquisite feast laid out in front of her, she too will be consumed, but she cannot help herself. I don’t like raising problems when I cannot see a solution. But right now I’m not sure how I can look my children in the eyes.

(“I find crouching down a bit usually does the job” quips one commentator.)

So what to think? Are we entering a new era of energy abundance, or is this just the start of a bumpy plateau which will see ever-increasing oil prices and marks the beginning of the end of industrial society?

One thing that seems for sure is that oil prices could go down as well as up: indeed,this is Maugeri’s conclusion, that we are seeing a surge in supply as a result of unparalleled investment and new technology since 2003, and that certain combinations of events- especially political events in Iraq and Iran- could result in a price collapse within the next few years. High prices have signaled investment, and more will flock to the table than the market can support, thus resulting in a glut a few years hence.

Increase efficiency, continuation of the Euro crisis and substitution with cheap gas could all play their role.
In addition, there have been a lot of new discoveries made in recent years around the world.

It is easy to point to rising prices and the “end of cheap oil” but the Peak Oil theory is not just about figures on a graph but the idea that this means the end of the modern world, the end of Progress even. But as one commentator on the Oil Drum points out,

If I told everyone here 3 years ago that North Dakota oil production would be pushing 600,000 bpd as soon as 2012, I would have been laughed at and my pronunciation would have been dismissed as a Cornucopian fantasy!

Even if Maugeri is only half right, this hypothesis is falsified; why then does it still persist? Why are predictions of doom always premature?

Julian Simon explains it best in his 1998 book “The Ultimate Resource II”.

According to Simon, Malthussians, Peak-oilers and doomsters of all kinds use simplistic engineering methods to predict the future: take the known reserves, divide by the annual rate of per-capita use, and bingo, you have the number of years the resource will last. This provides a very static view of the world in which it is assumed things will stay pretty much the same, and moreover, assumes that we can actually predict the future.

Instead, Simon advocates an economists’ approach: look at past data: predictions of the oil (and any other mineral resource) running out have been around for more than 100 years and, using an engineering approach, they were in their time accurate enough. But they were all wrong, and even as we have used more and more resources, the “known reserves” have continued to grow.

This completely counter-intuitive fact is what the data tells us. In the long run, things are getting better, and the doomsters have been proved wrong repeatedly, as market forces combine to create new technology that overcomes the short-term shortages. This is what the data tells us: relative to the average wage, the price of commodities has been falling through most of history.

But oil is finite! There is only so much of it and so it has always been running out, and will surely get harder to extract and more expensive.

Simon (and no doubt Maugeri) dispute this, though it may be true in an absolute sense: no-one really knows how much resources there are in the earth, because generally we don’t look for resources until we need to. It is impossible to obtain an accurate picture of what the ultimate recoverable resource in any given commodity will be.

This is why it is misleading to talk in terms of “the easy oil”- sure, if there is such a category, it will be gone sooner, and be of relatively smaller supplies; but in fact in the case of hydrocarbons there are many many different grades; $20/barrel oil may only have lasted 100 years, but the supply of lower-grade $70-80 oil could last thousands of years, and each year we learn to use it more effectively and more efficiently.

Simon then explains how we should indeed extrapolate from this past experience, and assume innovation will save the day again… and again, even if from the engineers’ accounting viewpoint it seems crazy to think so. Unless there is hugely compelling reasons to think otherwise, the fossil-fuel party will continue for a very long time, and we will only give up on oil and gas when eventually a cheaper alternative is developed- this is the meaning of the saying “the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones, and the oil age won’t end because we run out of oil.”

So this is how the “cornucopians” support the apparently absurd and counter-intuitive belief that “the more we find, the more there is to find” and that we will never run out (or “peak”) in resources, including energy.

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.

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Can religion help us solve climate change?

After the interesting the debate with @DarkOptimism on doomerism a couple of posts ago, I was intrigued to see him tweeting a link to the latest BigIssue which carries an article by Adam Forrest called Climate Change: A Matter of Faith and asks the question, Can Science and religion work together to save us from ourselves? (pdf download here.)

Many climate skeptics and environmental critics have long felt that these movements are best seen as religious ideologies rather than being based on objective science; but while these charges are normally dismissed as absurd conspiracy theories, here we have an example of activists who not only freely admit to a religious dimension to their cause, but actually advocate the deliberate creation or invention of religious ideas in order to motivate the kind of change they want to see. (Simon Fairlie provides another example of this approach here.)

All the peer-reviewed studies and strategies of persuasion known to Green PR have failed to fundamentally alter the way we live… the green prophets in the persuasion business do not have an easy task

So why has the green movement failed in its stated task of fundamentally changing the way we live? The article, which references Transition Towns and the Dark Mountain Project as guides to a Post-Collapse Society, goes on to quote Stefan Skrimshire, who specializes in Theology and Climate change at Leeds University, who asks:

How do you get people to believe in the end of civilisation enough to make them hopeful and proactive enough to help forestall disaster?

Hmm difficult question that one. What is odd- or perhaps predictable- about the whole article is that it is based on an absolute presumption, total conviction, that we are facing the collapse of civilisation, and the fact that most people and society at large is snoring is a result of some kind of denial, or the usual human frailties of greed and selfishness. Alistair McIntosh, author of Hell and High Water, points to traditional narratives of doom going back to biblical times, but draws completely the wrong conclusion:

The metaphysical matters, for without it we miss the whole picture…I would like to see the use of [science] tempered with some of the wisdom the pre-modern world possessed.

There are so many garbled ideas and messages contained here that it is hard to find one’s way through. Science is not about telling stories, but about considering the evidence. The Grand Narrative of Environmental Doom being proposed here is laden with the Guilt of Original Sin and Revenge Fantasies. The problem is, environmentalists of this ilk do not value the gains of the modern world, and imagine a romantic past that never existed. There was wisdom of a sort in traditional cultures, but it was not a sort of wisdom that will do us any good now- and the last thing we need is to be dragged back into a superstitious Dark Age.

The reality is, humans have used their innovations and technologies to drag themselves out of the extreme hardships that Nature bequeathed them, and that this has certainly exacted a cost to the environment- but by and large it has been worth it because the past was in fact so terrible. Those who yearn for some kind of idyllic simple life in the stone-age should remember that life expectancy was pitifully short and infant mortality was generally very high.

The way to address environmental problems is to embrace technology and innovation. Simply developing cars with higher mileage, for example, will have a far, far bigger beneficial impact than any amount of “lifestyle change” simply because the kind of lifestyle changes Greens like to proselytize about, were they to actually mean anything in reducing environmental impact, equate to poverty. And poverty in the here and now is far, far worse than some vague and abstract notion about climate change sometime in our grandchildren’s time.

“It is, inevitably a spiritual change and we will be more and more pushed to think about these things.” muses McIntosh. “It’s bigger than anything we’ve ever faced before and we are going to have to strengthen our personal resilience.”

How can climate change sometime in the future, the effects of which are highly uncertain, our ability to adapt largely dependent on wealth and technology (not to dismiss community and “resilience”- those things are important as well) possibly be bigger than anything “we” (humanity? White Western Males with University tenures?) have ever faced before?

When, as an angst-riven teenager just becoming influenced by such post-modern ideas complained to my parents about how awful things were getting in the world some 30 years ago, I was reminded that they had grown up during a World War. I had no concept of what that must have been like. But if WW1 and 2 do not suffice, how about the Black Death? That must have been pretty bad, when some 30-60% of the population of Europe was wiped out in the space of a few years.

There have been hundreds of other plagues, famines, natural disasters and wars throughout history, but science, progress, development and technology have allowed us to mitigate many of the worst effects for much of the world. Not, of course enough- there is still 2billion too many in poverty; we are not going to help them by hand-wringing about how awfully materialistic we have become. Materialism is the result of our incredible success, and with it we have developed liberal values of the Enlightenment, democracy and, hey, we may even be becoming less violent.

Instead of celebrating these astonishing gains, and the fact that we are here to witness them, these noble Green Theologians believe that if they only tell Joe Public the right Story that we will all See the Light and mend our evil ways. Unfortunately, as another ancient myth, that of Pandora’s Box, tells us, there is no going back, we can only continue on our path of progress, and for that we should be surely thankful.

Review: Peak Oil Personalities

Peak Oil Personalities

 

A Unique Insight into the Greatest Crisis Facing Mankind

Edited by Colin Campbell

Pbck; 337pp

Inspire Books 2011

Dr. Colin Campbell has collected short biographies from 27 contributors, many of them oil geologists and petroleum engineers, who have worked with Colin over the past 20 or more years on the issue of peak oil and its implications for the world economy.

One of the most striking impressions one gets from reading this fascinating collection is what a colorful life it must have been to be an oil geologist or engineer during the Golden Age of Oil.

His own chapter makes for colourful and entertaining reading on the professional career of one of the founders of the peak Oil movement.

Colin read geology at Oxford and went on to work for Texaco, BP and Amaco, taking assignments in Trinidad and Columbia, Australia and Papua New Guinea, and later in Europe, including Norway, before taking early retirement in 1989. He continued work as a consultant, and it was during this period that he published the first book on the subject of Peak Oil, The Golden Century of Oil 1950-2050, published in 1991. He lived in France for some years and then settled in Ballydehob, West Cork, in 1999.

Much of the early oil exploration in Latin America was adventurous and risky work:

{In 1958} I then had two heroic and fantastic years doing field work in the Andes and Magdalena Valley. It involved riding mules with about twelve Columbian field workers and camping in very remote and often bandit-infested country.

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