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.

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.

(more…)

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