Cornucopians - A Guide for the Perplexed

The Oil Drum continually attracts new readers interested in what those concerned about peak oil are saying. This story is mostly for them but also may serve as an amusing review for veteran contributors or readers. It is always a good idea to get back to basics. First time posters are welcome.

Part 1 defines Cornucopian Fallacies and gives a mainstream view from PFC Energy by way of contrasting such extreme views with a moderate voice in the center.

Part 2 presents a taxonomy of some present day Cornucopians who believe that there are no limits to growth. Bear in mind that those concerned about peak oil are sometimes labelled with a broad brush as Cassandras predicting eschatological doom. All of us fit somewhere on this scale.

The Doom & Gloomers are on the far left. The Cornucopians are on the far right. I am in the position left of center marked by an X today but that may change tomorrow should circumstances change. I believe we should never lose our sense of humor around here, a crime of which I have been guilty on occasion. Naturally, many serious points are made along the way.

This post does not deal with some optimists in the energy business like Amory Lovins, CERA, Michael Lynch and CGES who deserve a more extended treatment. That will be the subject of another story.

Cornucopian Fallacies

The Cornucopian always views the glass as half-full and being ever replenished. In his 1992 essay, Lindsey Grant (link above the fold) listed the characteristics of such thinking summarized here.

  1. The implications of endless growth are understated or rejected out of hand.
  2. Past economic trends are projected automatically onto the future.
  3. Evidence that doesn't fit growth scenarios is dismissed.
  4. There is an extraordinary faith in technology to solve all problems.
The true endless growth optimist usually has all of these properties, appealing to one or another in various arguments at various times. Underlying all of these fallacies is the presupposition that endless growth is possible because human cleverness is unlimited. It's not the case that historical arguments relying upon faith in economics or technology are completely wrong. Far from it. The point is that Cornucopians take these arguments to an irrational extreme, ignoring pertinent realities about limits. This is an important point. Moreover, one can argue that human stupidity often outweighs the ingenuity that can be brought to bear but that is a subject for another post.

In 1980, Paul Erhlich made an ill-considered bet with Cornucopian Julian Simon over the future price of some metal commodities. You will recall that this was during the period of oil shocks following the Iranian revolution but prior to the glut of new oil that occurred on the markets after about 1985. Simon won the bet, scarcity turned to plenty later in the decade and the early 1990's heralded the arrival of the SUV. For those arguing resource depletion, this was not their finest hour. Ehrlich himself started sounding the alert a bit early in 1968 when he wrote The Population Bomb which

... predicted that "in the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death", that nothing can be done to avoid mass famine greater than any in the history, and radical action is needed to limit the overpopulation.
Ahem. There was famine, of course, but hardly much worse than usual. Colin Campbell himself has been caught crying wolf prematurely. Despite these predictive failures, the Cornucopian position is fundamentally flawed and those concerned about resource scarcity will someday be right—unfortunately, it's just a matter of time.

PFC Energy—The Radical Middle

Before moving on to the Cornucopian systematics project, it is instructive to consider the public views on peak oil of a well respected, mainstream energy consulting firm like PFC Energy.

In PFC Energy's Diwan, GOP Rep. Bartlett of Maryland look at supply, price, economies, oil markets expert Roger Diwan states

Well, what we have here, in many ways, is a number of cyclical and structural issues which have brought us $50 oil. It's true that we're running at very high capacity. Right now we're producing at 98 percent. It means that we have very little spare capacity. We've rarely had that phenomenon. And in term of this issue of peak oil, if you look at the current conditions, and if you trend them up for the next 10, 15 years, you see that, you know, with the present technology and the present access to resources, it's difficult to imagine that we're going to be able to produce a lot more than 100, 105 million barrel per day, which probably could be around 2015. So we're entering that era, if we don't have two dramatic changes. One is technology, both on supply and demand, and second one is access to the reserve which do exist in the Middle East.
Others at PFC Energy are concerned as well."Over the last 20 years, the size of oil discoveries has fallen off dramatically. We are finding more fields than in the '60s and '70s, but they're much smaller," said Michael Rodgers, ex-oil geologist who is now senior director of PFC Energy, a nonpartisan energy consulting firm. "We're producing three barrels of oil for every one barrel of oil that we find."

There's more. Seth Kleinman of PFC Energy stated "there's a certain degree of hesitancy for oil companies [like BP] to go on the record and say, 'we are doing well with oil prices where they are now, but 10 years down the road things actually look pretty dire'." Finally, Mike Rodgers will speak at ASPO-USA's 2006 conference in Boston in November. Diwan's 2015 date for the peak seems to be the consensus at PFC Energy. A bit over 9 years is not so far off in the future though many believe there is not that much time to prepare. As stated above, the peak in world oil supply is just a matter of time for reasonable analysts. Not so, however, for Cornucopians who believe that fossil fuels are the gift that keeps on giving.

A Cornucopian Taxonomy

One ordering considered was to rank these optimists by increasing degrees of silliness but that approach didn't seem possible. Instead, the following order and grouping is used.

  • Abiotic Oil Enthusiasts
  • True Pollyannas
  • Blinkered Economists
The final section will end with a few remarks on the social role of Cornucopians and their role in society. This section is a bit irreverent so if that offends you, quit reading here.

1. Abiotic Oil Enthusiasts

"Hydrocarbons are not biology reworked by geology (as the traditional view would hold) but rather geology reworked by biology"Thomas Gold.

The snake oil theory of oil formation has little to do with the cooking under pressure of ancient buried pond scum—microscopic plants and animals. Rather, oil is continually formed in the deep mantle and percolates up to the upper layers of the Earth's crust where industrious petroleum engineers can extract it. This is the Cornucopian view par excellence, the literalist interpretation often found in fundamentalist religion.

A more recent manifestation of the theory comes to us from Black Gold Stranglehold: The Myth of Scarcity and the Politics of Oil by Jerome Corsi (right) and Craig R. Smith. The indefatigable notes something sinister in Rigzone's decision to remove an article by Corsi from their website:

Corsi said the [Rigzone] incident, along with many ad hominem attacks he and co-author Craig R. Smith have received, illustrate the general unwillingness of opponents to address the book's arguments.

"They don't want to debate us, they want to shut it out," Corsi said.

He added, "It's usually a good indication you're on to something."

The last section of this essay will address what it's a good indication of—not credible geology in this case. Interestly, the abiotic oil theory arose in Russia as supporter Dave McGowan tells us.
The modern Russian-Ukrainian theory of deep, abiotic petroleum origins is not new or recent. This theory was first enunciated by Professor Nikolai Kudryavtsev in 1951, almost a half century ago, (Kudryavtsev 1951) and has undergone extensive development, refinement, and application since its introduction. There have been more than four thousand articles published in the Soviet scientific journals, and many books, dealing with the modern theory. This writer is presently co-authoring a book upon the subject of the development and applications of the modern theory of petroleum for which the bibliography requires more than thirty pages.
Needless to say, the revival of the Russian oil industry in the last several years is not due to replenishment of declining existing fields like Samotlor from the Earth's deep mantle.

2. True Pollyannas

We now have in our hands, in our libraries really, the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years... We [are] able to go on increasing forever—from Scarcity or Abundance, Myers and Simon, 1994.

This "catch-all" category includes Peter Huber (right) and Vaclav Smil.

Huber (with Mark Mills) is the author of The Bottomless Well—which has the self-explanatory subtitle The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy.

Although it's true that we will never run out of energy while the Sun keeps shining, broadly speaking the key issues seem to revolve around what the future sources of our energy will be, their energy density and how much of that energy can be converted to useful work. Also, speaking of work, homo sapiens can still do manual labor or employ domesticated beasts of burden. In any case, here is some uncommon knowledge (link above) from the Hoover Institute:

... will the ever-improving technological efficiencies of the free market provide access to virtually endless sources of new energy?

Peter Robinson: Heresy--now this is a big one by the way, take a deep breath. "The raw fuels are not running out." Now here you [Huber] seem, if I as a layman may say so, to have taken leave of your senses. Everybody knows that oil, coal, natural gas, all exist in fixed amounts, therefore, the more we use, the less remains.

Peter Huber: Fixed amount is a very elastic term. We have centuries' worth of coal in this country.... we could burn coal for a century. We can make unlimited amounts of electricity with coal if we want to. We have tar sands in Canada and in South America that have a century's worth of oil locked up in tar. The issue isn't whether the planet itself is very limited in buried hydrocarbons. It clearly is not. The issue is do we want to get them out? Do we have the technologies to get them out? At what price can we get them out and what are the environmental impacts of doing so?

Most of us, one hopes, are bit skeptical about the statement that a "fixed amount [of hydrocarbons] is a very elastic term". It is a breathtaking argument until you think about it. Suddenly, complexities appear. It is best to go through the standard checklist. If the answer is "No" to any of the following grouped question sets

then —

  1. Is the project doable? Does the necessary technology exist?
  2. Is the marginal energy return (EROEI) significantly greater than zero?
  3. Are the environmental impacts acceptable? Are the mitigation costs manageable?
  4. Does the project scale up? Are anticipated marginal costs favorable?
  5. Do the projected annual return rates (ROR) or return on investment (ROI) justify the project?
All of these factors require complex analysis with the possible exception of #3, which is often skipped or glossed over. The "no lack of hydrocarbons" argument espoused by Huber pays lip service to the checklist but really ignores them—after all, we will never run out of energy. A similar argument is made by the International Energy Agency (IEA)—see below.

Turning to Vaclav Smil, the Cornucopian rejection of PFC Energy and others concerned about crude oil depletion & production flows are presented in his Peak Oil: A Catastrophist Cult and Complex Realities from World Watch 19: pp. 22-24. Smil is the author of Energy at the Crossroads among other works.

[Note: You will need to download Smil's pdf file and use Adobe Acrobat to read it.]

These conclusions [about the catastrophic end of industrial civilization] are based on interpretations that lack any nuanced understanding of the human quest for energy, disregard the role of prices, ignore any historical perspectives, and presuppose the end of human inventiveness and adaptability. I will raise just three key points aimed at dismantling the foundations of this new catastrophist cult. First, these preachings are just the latest installments in a long history of failed peak forecasts. Second, the peak-oil advocates argue that this time the circumstances are really different and that their forecasts will not fail--but in order to believe that, one has to ignore a multitude of facts and possibilities that readily counteract their claims. Third, and most importantly, there is no reason why even an early peak of global oil production should trigger any catastrophic events.
Smil hates predictions of any sort. He finds peak oil predictions particularly irksome. Commenting on M. King Hubbert's correct and therefore vexing forecast that the US lower-48 would peak in 1970 —minus Alaska!, as Smil points out—
This feat led the peak-oil groupies to consider Hubbert's Gaussian exhaustion curve with the reverence reserved by the Biblical fundamentalists to Genesis. In reality, it is a simplistic "geology-only" model based on rigidly predetermined reserves and ignoring any innovative advances or price shifts.
If Smil wants a Gaussian, he should get one.

Average annual oil production on a semilog plot with quadratic (ie Gaussian) fit in addition to piecewise exponentials. Click to enlarge. Believed to be all liquids, but excluding refinery gains. Data sources: API, ASPO, and BP.

[Update by Dave Cohen on 08/28/06 at 12:29 PM EDT] I wish to point out that in my role as groupie and member of a cult, the essential but unfilled social role is that of the leader. It boils down to this: Who to worship? There are many worthy candidates—so many, in fact, that I can not make up my mind.

Smil's arguments are not dissimilar to those made by some economists and energy analysts like CERA or Michael Lynch. Please read the cited paper to get a flavor for the standard Cornucopian arguments, which include the effects of future oil demand & price or fuel substitutions—projecting the economic & technological past onto the future—and his doubts about whether the Earth has been thoroughly combed by petroleum geologists looking for fossil fuels.

3. Blinkered Economists

The economists all think that if you show up at the cashier's cage with enough currency, God will put more oil in the ground—Ken Deffeyes

Well, not all economists, Ken, but we know what you mean.

The Cornucopian economists discussed here are blinkered— a word meaning "subjective and limited, as in viewpoint or perception"—and does not refer to estimable observers like James Hamilton of EconBrowser. There is no better place to begin than the International Energy Agency (IEA) and it's head Claude Mandil (right) who, strangely, was not trained as an economist. However, the figure just below indicates that trillions upon trillions of barrels of oil are recoverable solely as a function of price. Only sufficient investment is lacking to make the dream come true.

IEA hydrocarbon resource recovery as a
function of price — click to enlarge

Growth is endless; technological progress is limitless. Factors like geology, spurious reserves additions like the OPEC revisions in the 1980s and the discoveries trend are ignored. The magic of the free market solves all problems, floats all boats. Conditions in the Arctic are still a little dicey for hydrocarbon E&P but the ice will melt off soon enough. Is anything more Cornucopian than this? The graph is from the 2005 IEA report Resources to Reserves—Oil and Gas Technologies for the Energy Markets of the Future.

Not to be outdone, The Economist told us in the heady years of 1999 that we were Drowning in Oil. Has the tune changed lately? Not much. In Really Big Oil (Aug 10th, 2006) one can learn that

Saudi Aramco's proved reserves alone could keep the world supplied for several decades. But it is only exploiting ten of its 80 or so fields, so will be able to pump at the present rate for about 70 years even if it never discovers another drop of oil. In fact, Aramco and other NOCs are likely to find plenty more if they look, since their territory has not been very thoroughly explored. Only 2,000 wildcat wells have ever been dug in the countries around the Gulf, according to Leonardo Maugeri, an Italian oilman, compared with more than 1m wells in the United States.
Almost all of you—TOD's new readers, veterans or important lurkers—you know who you are—will regard this as an unexpected revelation. 10 of 80 fields? Perhaps this refers to what may be the aptly named Empty Quarter? No one can say for sure—except the much esteemed & beloved Ali Al-Naimi, The Economist and it's quoted expert Leonardo Maugeri (Italy, ENI) who wrote Oil: Never Cry Wolf--Why the Petroleum Age Is Far from over for the journal Science in 2004. The whole point of peak oil theorists like TOD's Stuart Staniford, of course, is that it's not the end of the oil supply, it's the middle.

Telling Maugeri where we are
I couldn't find one in Italian

No story discussing Cornucopian economists would be complete without mentioning Freakonomics author Steven Levitt. Last year, responding to Peter Maass' excellent New York Times piece The Breaking Point, Levitt opined that

What most of these doomsday scenarios have gotten wrong is the fundamental idea of economics: people respond to incentives. If the price of a good goes up, people demand less of it, the companies that make it figure out how to make more of it, and everyone tries to figure out how to produce substitutes for it. Add to that the march of technological innovation (like the green revolution, birth control, etc.). The end result: markets figure out how to deal with problems of supply and demand.

Unfortunately, the original blog post by Levitt is no longer available. At the time he admitted freely that he knew next to nothing about oil but that was not an impediment to understanding peak oil problems.

I don't know much about world oil reserves. I'm not even necessarily arguing with their facts about how much the output from existing oil fields is going to decline, or that world demand for oil is increasing.
No comment is required but I will mention that I went to The University of Chicago where Levitt teaches and former home of the glorious Milton Friedman. That's the way they taught it then and it's apparently still the way they teach it now.

Social Role of the Cornucopian

An excellent review of Cornucopian thinking is available in Perilous Optimism. Outside of thinking, what's going on? Kurt Cobb has an insightful view of the social role of the optimist.
It's much easier to tell people what they want to hear than to tell them what they need to hear. This is the first and most important advantage a cornucopian thinker has when arguing before any audience. No one really wants to hear that the future may be filled with turbulent change and personal insecurity.
Cobb's observation is obvious and correct. At various times and with various people I have suggested a writing project—The Idiot's Guide to Peak Oil or something like that. Without exception, I have been told that this project is a non-starter. Few can tolerate the bad news and complex reality. The Cornucopian religious faith in positive lessons from history, technology and free markets obliterates the changed nature and complexity of the contemporary globalized world, thus bringing us "The Good News" of Jesus in secular form. One final story before we end.
Garrett Hardin addressed [Julian Simon's] claim in his book The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia. He noted that when Albert Bartlett, a retired physicist of the University of Colorado, tried to test Simon's statement on a desk calculator, it flashed "Error", indicating that, multiplying steadily at 1 % per year for 7 billion years, the population would soon surpass his calculator's limit of 9.99×1099. Bartlett's calculation assumed exponential population growth, with the population doubling every 43 years.
Error—does not compute.
I think many actuaries need to be added to the roles of cornucopians. Actuaries build their models, forecasting endless growth into the future, without really thinking about the implications of these models in relation to the real world. If you buy a policy for say, long term care insurance, the premiums are calculated assuming many years of continued favorable investment returns, and mortality and morbidity similar to what it is today. If this is not true, there will be real problems for the insurance companies selling these policies.
there will be real problems for the insurance companies selling these policies

Not really.

Those with the gold make the rules.
Rules can change very rapidly in this game when "expectations" fail to match up with "above-ground realities".

P.S. Actuaries are supposed to be some of the smartest people in the world, having mastered the actuary exams. Smart does not mean knowledgeable though. How many actuaries are aware of the Peak Oil "Hypothesis"? What does it do for their world model? Is there a model that allows for possibility of collapse, or is it all business as usual for the usual perpetuity?  :-)

Actuaries and in particular the reinsurance industry can be quite sophisticated about science---when it affects their profitability.

Even if the US Administration doesn't really believe in it, the insurance industry started going to climate change scientific conferences a number of years ago, and already have adjusted their risk models up for severe weather.  Florida homeowners are seeing radical increases in insurance; and the local insurers say that this is driven by the reinsurers (insurers for insurers).

In this market it is the reinsurers who have the hard-core nerds and deal at a business to business level, local insurers are often more of consumer marketing outfits.

So, you have to see if there is any direct impact of Peak Oil on reinsurance losses.   This means, of course, "risk to insured properties in wealthy locations of the world."

As opposed to climate change I don't see an obvious link to insurance losses to PO compared to climate change.

The main risk from Peak Oil---damage from insurrection and war---is already excluded from policies.

Maybe we need to be more creative?

There are quite a few peak oil issues affecting insurers and pension plans, that could lead to insolvencies. These include:

  1. Decline in asset values. Insurers and pension plans invest in bonds and in stocks. If there are many bankruptcies, or if the value of stocks decline, insurers will not have sufficient funds to pay claims when payments come due.

  2. Increase in inflation rate. Insurers collect premiums, and pay claims later, often several years later, if law suits are involved. If there is an increase in the inflation rate, costs may be higher than the insurer contemplated when setting the rates. (If benefits are fixed, as in many life insurance policies, the insurer will not have this problem. Instead, the benefits will be of less value to the policyholder, when it comes time to collect.)

  3. Arson. If oil becomes more expensive, homes in distant suburbs may be less in demand, and may be difficult to sell. There may be more fires of suspicious origin, if homes stand empty for long periods, or if collecting on the homeowners policy looks to be an easy way of getting rid of an unwanted property.  

  4. Business Interruption Claims. If businesses are not able to operate, because of utility or electric disruption, businesses may be able to collect on their "business interruption" policies.

  5. Increased Mortality and Morbidity. If oil is less available, the availability of healthcare is likely to decline. Medications will become more expensive, since most are hydrocarbon based. Poorer nutrition may also have an adverse effect. An increase in the suicide rate seems likely.

  6. Will the Monetary System Fail? Once it becomes clear to people that the amount of oil will continuously decline in the future, there is a question whether the current monetary system, based on loans and the promise of continued growth, can continue. Will banks be willing to offer mortgages and long-term business loans, if they think the likelihood of payback is low? If not, it would seem like the whole monetary system will crash. If this happens, insurers will not be able to make good on their promises, unless some outside source intervenes, and props up the whole system.

The 1974 oil shortages (which are small in comparison to what seems to lie ahead) lead to quite a number of insurer insolvencies, including the insolvency of one of my former employers.

This is a link to an article I wrote about the potential impact of oil shortages on the property and casualty insureance industry. Oil Shortages: The Next Katrina?

Appreciate the ideas.

I agree with most except healthcare re medications---the price of oil and even manufacturing itself is insignificant for medications.  The cost is in R&D and clinical trials and massive high-labor marketing BS by highly paid salesforce.

I do think that the effect on insurers of Peak Oil will be concentrated heavily through their portfolio investment side rather than their direct loss side.  

"Business interruption" may turn out to be a high-loss catch-all and I wouldn't be surprised if 'fuel and power shortages' start to get excluded or underwritten at higher rates.

Hello Gail the Actuary,

Excellent essay!  Perhaps the Ins. Industry, with their billions [trillions?]of assests at risk postPeak, will take the MSM lead in alerting everyone and asserting the need for societal change. See my Shaw's Paradox posting below.  The Ins. Cos., more than any other capitalistic corporation, should have a huge vested interest in jumpstarting Foundation.  Predictive collapse and directed decline is the bread & butter of the actuary's skillset.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Medications will become more expensive, since most are hydrocarbon based.

Yes, but not directly for this reason, for most medications the cost of production proper is zilch, it's all R&D and marketing expenses.
There might be a longer lagging time for medications costs increases than for other kind of stuff.

An increase in the suicide rate seems likely.

That's what happened in the USSR crash, but isn't this a boon to insurers?

Regrading whether suicides are a boon to insurers, it depends on what kind of coverage the insurer is selling. If the insurer is providing pension plans or lifetime annuities, suicides are a boon to insurers. It might even help with long-term-care coverage. If an insurer is selling either term life or whole life insurance, there is usually a two-year period after a policy is sold where suicide is not covered, but after that, suicide is a covered coverage.
Nice article Dave.  Those are good categories for the (at least semi) educated optimists who argue against PO being a problem.  I think the general population suffers from a milder form of cornucopianism.  They see many kinds of progress around us, and many problems.  I think the general opinion is that energy is a problem that Progress will solve.

As a moderate I say Progress is good at many things, but how good is it with the end of (cheap) oil?

It seems to me that a lot of this "debate" is essentially specious.

Modern civilization is just as unstable as prior civilizations.  It is the product of energy and other resource availability, population density and technology.  At a fundamental level, Orwell is wrong-- whoever controls the past does not control the future.  We can imagine the future-- and it is fun to do that, but it is essentially masturbation -- but we cannot control it.  Not even Cheney has much power over the future.

The Cornucopians are right in that life will always go on as long as the sun shines.  They are wrong in believing that they can specify the nature of future life.

Mad Max oil wars are one future possibility; a total turn away from hydrocarbon based industry into a neo-Puritan (or fundamentalist Islamic) Dark Age where oil is irrelevant is another.  We can't even assign probablilities to these things -- there is no science that allows such calculation.

In the absence of adequate science, I offer the Oregon Dryrotta:

Go Placidly amid the volcanic ash, and remember what peace there may be found in carpooling. As far as possible, be on good terms with your neighbor as often as the sun shines. Surround yourself with that which is pleasant, never holding onto more than an ounce of anything. Always plan on good weather, however, speak softly and carry a big umbrella. Be pure and clean, and drink ony that which is naturally brewed. Remember, you are a child of the Oregon Trail, pay not a sales tax and never litter. Be kind to the dull and ignorant, for they shall inherit the city concil chambers. Nurture your strength of spirit, for you will need it when returning your empties. Never be cynical about love, for it is as perennial as the grass, even though it gets burned once a year. Waste not your natural resources, and recycle your laundry. Be one with nature and take a possum to lunch. Be at peace with yourself and know the Cascades will be here tomorrow. Above all, strive to stay dry.

Mad Max oil wars are one future possibility; a total turn away from hydrocarbon based industry into a neo-Puritan (or fundamentalist Islamic) Dark Age where oil is irrelevant is another.  We can't even assign probablilities to these things -- there is no science that allows such calculation.

If fusion ride over the hill on a white horse a lot of people are going to be pissed.

(seriuosly, good bit on 'no science that allows ...')

"One final paragraph of advice: Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am-a reluctant enthusiast... a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much: I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: you will outlive the bastards."

-- Edward Abbey

Beautiful.  Thanks.
This is one of the best posts ever on TOD. It's also a great primer for those new to the issue. I just wonder if we couldn't put a permanent link on TOD home page to this post (along with a few other gems).
Hello Ozonehole,

I agree--great job Dave C!  I have posted this conundrum before, but it bears repeating:

Cornucopian Message helps bring the Peakdate sooner and a faster decline, Doomer Message delays the Peakdate later and helps mitigate decline.

Shaw's Paradox

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

But cornucopian fashion will keep you warm at night. [Lest this provoke another ethanol post: this is not Corn Copia magazine--her head is covering the "U." :-) ]

There is nothing new under the sun. A better term for these people would be snakeoilians.
An interesting phrase.  Let me tell a brief story.

While at a climate change conference in Sacramento, I got to listen to a cornucopian type political scientist from the Council on Foreign Relations give a featured talk on why Kyto was dead and how we could resurrect emissions reductions in the US by embracing a cap and trade mechanism and giving the polluters credits.  Since this was a lunch time talk I really had to be there!

Anyhow, afterwards I asked a question that went something like:  "Your thesis assumes we have control over our use of fossil fuels, but I am wondering if you think that ultimately geology will dictate how much is available to us.  What do you think of those arguing that we are approaching Peak Oil, such as Colin Cambell and Michael Klare?"

His immediate, rather viscious response was something like:  "Those people are snakeoil salesmen.  I believe we have plenty of natural gas and I have faith in human ingenuity and technology to get what we need."

It was a pretty stunning experience to actually have the cornucopian view spewed forth at me.  I wrote about it here:

How much of the American public, do you think, shares this exact view? And what will it take to change these deeply held beliefs?
I believe we have plenty of natural gas and I have faith in human ingenuity

It is part of human nature to have a "faith based" belief in endless possibilities.
Life WILL go on. (The alternative is unacceptable.)

"We don't have to change. Survival isn't mandatory." - W. Edwards Deming

"If we don't change direction soon, we'll end up where we're going." - Professor Irwin Corey

Some how I think that is an intesting and insightful exchange from a memeber of the CFR.  If that is what they really think(Maybe other members like J. Kerry) also believe.

Kinda scary statement.

"...I have faith in human ingenuity and technology to get what we need."

The only thing missing was "Thru any means necessary"


Mr Cohen: thank you, thank you, thank you.

If it weren't for you and westexas, I'd've been outta here a long time ago.

Excellent summary, Dave.  I look forward with eagerness to your more extended treatments of Amory Lovins, CERA, Michael Lynch, and CGES.  Paying attention to the intellectual opposition is extremely important, since the weakness of their position can be as convincing as the strength of one's own.
Nice work ...again. Any reason why you did'nt include Mr. Technofix, Ray Kurzweil?
I saw the Abiotic guys argueing with Matt Simmons once on CNBC and Matt said that it was a theological debate.   He should have told them "Put your money where your mouth is."  He would stand to make money off of their foolishiness and put the issue to rest at the same time.

Thomas Golds' well that was drilled at least was an effort to prove the concept.  I heard that a trace of hydrocarbons were found but never saw the actual documentation.  We figured that the rig hands changed the engine oil and dumped it in the reserve pit and got a good laugh at the "scientists" reaction.
It is noteworthy they never drilled another.

I say let the Abiotic guys drill a well and prove it.  It would be a good lesson for them and their foolish investors.

There has to be a computer model that shows the reserves and what the effect would be on society. But if there was government funding for it, they wouldn't reveal it. It seems that even sociological phenomena can largely be mathematical, especially when governed by one input, oil. The problem I think is that people aren't explaining how this can only happen. If oil has already peaked, why hasn't anything happened? Why does oil go up to $200 after it peaks? Why that price? What is not profitable at that price? How does one talk about disruption of supply and 50 days of food reserves? Why wouldn't it be sent even though it's more expensive? Is it because of a dollar collapse? What threshold is pushed over in dollar value and how does the peak do that? I'm preparing for the worst too, but I still don't understand everything about this stuff.    
If oil has already peaked, why hasn't anything happened?

I think a lot has happened, though the rise in energy prices has been quite smooth. The loss of natural gas from Katrina led to fertilizer shortages in Pakistan the following Spring. Malaysia had a diesel shortage last year. So did (and does) South Africa.

It is the weakest countries and the countries with the worst governments and the countries with price controls who will hurt first. A quick visit to Google News today shows:

Food Shortage in Nepal

There is an acute food shortage in upper Mustang as the stock of food grains in the Nepal Food Corporation (NFC) depot there has been depleted," Chief District Officer (CDO) of Mustang, Pradeep Raj Kandel, told this daily over telephone.

Southern Africa faces food shortage: Angolan official

Director of the Agrarian Development Institute (IDA) of Angola, Afonso Canga, has said that the southern region of the continent is going through hard times, particularly in the field of food production, it is reported on Thursday.

Fuel prices a threat to traders

A STEADY supply of food in Kampala's [Uganda] major markets has continued despite a fear that rains and unpredictable fuel prices may hamper the supply, a weekly survey has shown.

Drought, poppy profits cause wheat shortage

KABUL: Millions of Afghans are facing hunger because of a food shortage that the government and aid agencies say is because of a prolonged dry spell in the country.

SA faces new fuel shortage crisis

The Moerane Commission into last year's fuel supply crisis has reported that another crisis could emerge in the second half of this year because of scheduled refinery shutdowns.

Iraq reels from acute fuel shortage

Baghdad: At gas stations around Baghdad, the line of cars waiting to fill their tanks with increasingly rare petrol now reaches 60 to 80 vehicles. Some prefer to spend the night in their vehicles on streets to maintain their turn in the long line. The nationwide fuel shortage is so severe that 20 litres now cost about $20 (Dh73.56).

Manipur faces fuel shortage

IMPHAL: As a result of the extortion notice issued by the NSCN (IM) demanding Rs. 50 lakh from the Assam Oil Division of the Indian Oil Corporation, petrol tankers have been unable to ply for over 16 days along the two National Highways. Unable to ferry petrol and diesel from Khatkati in Assam, almost all petrol pumps in and around Imphal went dry from Saturday morning while some others still continue to sell diesel.

Aman cultivation may face setback for want of irrigation

NAOGAON, Aug 17 (UNB): Transplanted aman cultivation may face a setback in the district this season for want of proper irrigation. Farmers said they were forced to install pumps to irrigate their already dried up cropland due to inadequate rainfall during the monsoon. The farmers in the district installed 24,000 irrigation pumps. Of these, 1,380 are deep tube-wells. But, the pumps could not be operated smoothly because of diesel shortage, they added.

It is the weakest countries and the countries with the worst governments and the countries with price controls who will hurt first.


High Prices For Diesel Gas Affecting Lubbock Farmers, Truck Drivers

"If we break even, it will be a miracle," he says. "It's just frustrating, because it used to be the other way around. Diesel was cheaper than gas. Must be a shortage of diesel. That's why the price is staying up."

"If oil has already peaked, why hasn't anything happened? "

Ever hear of the "war on terror" which just so happens to be focused on regions in which oil production HAs NOT peaked?

Ever hear of the "war on Iraq" which just so happens to be in the 1 country that is capable (at least based solely on geology) of becoming the world's swing producer?

Noticed the price of oil or gasoline lately? In case you haven't, I'll clue you in: it's tripled in only 3 years.

None of these things are signs the peak has passed but they are signs that at the very least our leaders (Cheney and Condi) see the peak in sight.

"At various times and with various people I have suggested a writing project--The Idiot's Guide to Peak Oil or something like that. Without exception, I have been told that this project is a non-starter. Nobody want to hear the bad news and complex reality."



I am working on an article entitled "A Day in the Life of a Professional Prophet of Doom." (the PPOD being yours truly)

The article is not just about me though, I actually am attempting to make some bigger points about out situation, the psychology of bad news, societal collapse (or "transition" for you oppies). One of the issues I"m addressing is what I call "the market for doom" which is really about human psychology. What causes people to go looking for explanations of "why things aren't the way their suppossed to be." Ultimately, I think the market for non-religious, non-hate mongering, non-scapegoating explanations of our situation is a small one.

Regarding "The Idiot's Guide": to a certain degree it has and is being done  . . . to death. If you take a look at the right hand side of my site you will see several new titles coming in October. There are another 4 or 5 new titles coming out that I don't have up there. All together there are about 25-30 beginner's guides published in the last 3 years, the most prominent being The Party's Over and The Long Emergency.

Monthly sales of my own "idiot's guide" have gone from 150/month to about 30/month and most of those are from repeat customers or institutions. (My "flock" if you will.) This is despite a 30-50% increase in web traffic over the last year. The decline could of course be to literary defeciencies on the part of yours truly. However, I've seen similar propotion declines for other books though such as The Party's Over. From 30 copies per month to 5. Same thing for End of Suburbia. From 50/month to 10 or so. So I think there is something to do with the market for this meme simply being at it's peak.

The idiot's guide project would not necessarily be a "non-starter" but the commercial viability would likely not be enough to justify the awesome outlay of time and energy that would go into such a project. If somebody was willing to work for next to free with out much promise of a signifcant financial payoff, the project could get it done. If somebody like New Society picked it up and gave it one of their awesome covers maybe it would sell 20,000 copies. If a bigger publisher picked it up maybe 100,000 copies, but that is a big if. Somebody would have to be willing to take the risk of investing a lot of time with a small chance of a significant payoff. That's actually true for most publishing endeavors.

Now why is this? I exchanged some email with Barry of End of Suburbia and we both suspect the PO meme has reached the vast majority of everybody who it will ever reach minus some MASSIVE crisis one large enough that us in the peak oil publishing corps will not be able to make a living from saying "hey there's a big crisis on the way" or having the time to blog on it for that matter. Imho, 80% (just to throw out a number) of people who will EVER buy a peak oil book have already bought one. In 2004, this number was perhaps 20%. (again just to throw out a number)

The vast majority of the population will never accept the idea of there being fundamental physical limits to what we can do. Even when gas is $20 a gallon and we're living in abandoned gas stations chasing rats for food while evading Halliburton built robotic soldiers with strangely familiar Austrian accents, most people born between 1940 and 1980 will still be clinging to the idea that "things will get better if (insert cornocupian idea)"

(BTW, "Idiot's Guide" is a trademark of John Wiley Publsihers, the publishers of Simmons' book.  They WILL get medieval on your ass if were to try to use their trademark)

The vast majority of the population will never accept the idea of there being fundamental physical limits to what we can do.

Once we start down this dark alley, we meet our fear of mortality face to face.

The average human figures out around age 3-8 that life is finite (after having killed X number of bugs, oh you sicko's) and that perhaps, just perhaps, the Ultimate Mwa may have limited time in this existential form of conciousness. After that, the infant mind develops defense mechanisms --methods to cope with this unfortunate, "rational" conclusion. How about "an after life"? Yeah, that one sounds good. How about, it just ends? Nope. That one is unacceptable. It is a non-negotiable non-starter.

"most people born between 1940 and 1980 will still be clinging to the idea that "things will get better if (insert cornocupian idea)""

That assumes the only alternative to idiotic economist cornucopianism is nihilistic doomerism.   I'm just about the same place on the "X" on the original poster's graph.

There are plenty of things which qualify, legitimately, under the "Things will get better if ...." which do not violate laws of physics or geological facts.  

I think it is essential to identify them (actually been done really) and convince people that these, and not other spurious diversions, are the ones to pursue with the energy that we have left.

Frankly things WILL get better if

  • we quickly get good lithium-ion pluggable hybrids, personal vehicles and industrial vehicles

  • we build lots of nuclear reactors and wind farms, and

  • we get really cheap photovoltaics

Things will get worse if

  • we pursue excess biofuel develpment which screws up the ecology and isn't energetically efficient.  {Personally I think ethanol is an OK idea exactly until high fructose corn syrup becomes to expensive to use in food---a health not energy issue}

  • we burn or convert coal like madmen.

I worry the most about that last scenario.

Cheap batteries and photovoltaics, though difficult, don't violate laws of physics, and we know how to make wind turbines and nuclear fission reactors today.   We will have to be a little cornucopian and assume that we'll have actinide burners to clean up the waste in a few decades, but that's not entirely unreasonable either.

I know PV doesn't provide the energy density needed for heavy industry but there is the large advantage that the capital decisions can be made individually by people and don't require massive regulatory tie-ups.

so what will happen if instead of doing all that we just:

  1. go to war to get oil while

  2. artificially pumping up the housing market to absolutely criminal levels and

  3. more or less ignore the real issue in the mainstream  media?

Hypothetically speaking, of course, if we do numbers 1,2, and 3 listed above will things get better or worse?
All of those things are 1/2 true, which leaves room for other things to be 1/2 true as well.  Hybrid cars, energy star programs, expanding wind power, California's (half-assed) solar initiative, ...

As usual, I must thank you for setting me straight. Now that I thinkk about it, you're right. A few more hybrids and some more windmills and multi-trillion dollar global "war that will not end in our lifetimes" I'm sure will be shut down.

This is a miserable war and culture clash, and it has already dragged on longer than I'd like to have seen.  But subract the oil and you've still got Christian fundis versus Islamic fundis in a Crusade reinactment.

Be nice if the world really just had one problem (oil) and fixing that fixed everything.

(but good move, 'simplifying' like that.  always works in the prophet business.)

You really think people fight over religion? Common misconception. They are fighting over resources (be it land and trading routes 1,000 years ago or oil and currency today) and the religion is just a good martial (mililtary) organizing strategy.
I think people have a lot of motivators in their heads.  Religion definitely greases the works in run-up to some wars.  We see it most easily on the Moslem, martyrs, side of things now, but I also remember a very unfortunate quote from a woman on the street at the outset of Iraq II.  She said that we should win the war and teach them to be Christians.  Something like that doesn't come out of someone's mouth without it also being part of their internal logic for war.

Maybe we agree in some sense.  It is good martial strategy because our brains work that way.  But if our brains work that way, it sometimes might motivate us without the resource angle, etc. ...

Oh, and I think it is a very interesting coincidence that we have a Christian fundamentalist in the Whitehouse at the outbreak of this 'oil' war.

Past Presidents maybe had the same resource concerns, but didn't have their internal skids greased by a little Biblical certainty.


Several days ago I sent you an e-mail about getting some sort of announcement etc. on LATOC about the ASPO USA Conference in Boston.  With your site being far up the hit list it is a natural. So far you haven't gotten back to me. I'm sure you have a full inbox so you may not have seen it. If you are interested in doing something contact me at


It's been on the breaking news page every day since as in EACH DAY except this friday which was an excpetion due to the publication of Dmitry's article.

Thursday's update as an example:

Scroll to "Upcoming Events:


I read "The Breaking News" three times a week but not always to the bottom so didn't see it. Thanks for putting the news about it on.

How is the "Kill a Watt Monitor" selling? I wish they had them at that price years ago when I really needed one for a business I was in. Will be ordering one shortly to use at home.


Re #2 look here for a (literally) graphic representation thereof.
Thanks, Rick (below) But now I guess you need to tell me how to resize...
Now you're scaring me.

10% inflation for 7 years with flat home prices will get us back to the norm.

Personally I think we're running at 7-8% inflation right now.  Officially it's what, 4%?


Maybe life can get better without exponentially increasing gross energy and material consumption. Maybe whoever dies with the most toys doesn't win. Maybe a culture that is "simple in means and rich in ends" is possible. Is it  cornucopian to imagine a culture that shifts its focus to human development -- increasing happiness, wisdom, knowledge, and compassion -- while using energy and resources wisely and sustainably?

There are people here who agree with every word of that. And I am one of them.

I would only add to the good things: electrify the rail systems for freight, and build trolley buses, streetcars, light rail, and other forms of electric transport. You could even add high speed electric rail and maglev to replace domestic airlines.

we burn or convert coal like madmen.

Yeah! Nothing will stop us, not Nasreen Huq at least.
I cannot see why AMPOD worries about Blackwater, they were not directly involved.

"That assumes the only alternative to idiotic economist cornucopianism is nihilistic doomerism."

I would say, rather, that nihilistic doom is the inevitable consequence of idiotic economist cornucopianism.

Unfortunately there are no real signs of sufficient people waking up to the probable reality.

Perhaps, Matt, what is really needed is "An Ostriches Guide..." - would get round the John Wiley trademark prob, too ;)

I agree with your positive suggestions, but it seems more likely to me that instead of "Things will get better" (in what sense, better than what) that those things might enable some level of civilization to survive, albeit at a vastly reduce population.

But the loss of knowledge is a severe risk. Did you read about the massive long term leak of radioactive waste from Hanford in western Washington state? It has the consistently of ketchup, and it's moving slowly underground towards the Columbia, which it will poison and then the poison will move down the coast. After $4 billion and a couple decades, the project to convert the massive quantities of waste to an insoluble glass has failed to make any real progress. (Not one gallon) And they are short of nuclear engineers, as society is short of petroleum engineers, and as NASA is short of competent space engineers (well, maybe that doesn't matter).

But society's technical expertise, America's technical expertise, the ability to build and repair mechanic and chemical systems has been hollowed out and exported over the last few decades.

"The vast majority of the population will never accept the idea of there being fundamental physical limits to what we can do."

I herewith submit the quote from my favorite PhD geologist, Scott Tinker, the Texas State Geologist, who in response to a question from me, said in 2005 that "Texas, while it may not be able to equal its peak production, can significantly increase its production through the use of better technology."  Texas production of course has fallen by about 75% since 1972.

If pressed, Peter Huber and Michael Lynch will admit that discrete regions, Lower 48, North Sea, etc., will peak and decline but Huber especially asserts that the total energy production rate will never decline.  

This is exactly analogous to saying that while individual wells in a field will decline, the total production rate from that field--which is the sum of discrete wells--will never decline.

Courtesy of UT and the Texas Railroad Commission:

Scott Tinker  2005 Texas Oil Production

I'd like to add that IMO, the bounce at the end of the Texas production curve may actually reflect that cornucopian economic motive, raising production like they say it will. Perhaps Texans are going back to old wells with cotton swabs now that the price has gone up. Will Texas ever break 1.0MMB/D again? I have no idea.

I'd also like to add that the '04-'05 graph shown by the TxRRC is in fact, the tail end of a very long decline which follows classic Hubbert lines. It remains to be seen how long the "cotton swab bounce" will last.

The bounce is already dead - Texas is down 2% year on year this year through May, pretty much par for the course considering the incentives of $70 oil and the now 3 year timeframe for higher oil prices.  The real question is whether this is just a short term reduction to the long term 4% decline rate, or whether it can be maintained...
"Mad Max oil wars are one future possibility . . ."


Mad Max oil wars are already underway.  

What was the Mad Max film about? It was about a big nasty warlord named Lord Humongous who commanded an army which rode around the desert in armoured vehicles shooting at the locals and trying to take their oil.

What is the war in Iraq about? It's about a big nasty warlord named Dick Cheney who commands an army that rides around the desert in armoured vehicles shooting at the locals and trying to take their oil.

"a big nasty warlord named Dick Cheney "

Do you mean Lord Humongous Dick?

don't worry, the picture is clean.

BTW, how do you insert a hosted picture into your post?

Insert the picture address in the tag "img src=http//www.etc", but replace the "" characters with < to open and > to close.
Lord Humongous Dick
"Bigus Dickus"
Now that you learned how to post your Dick, try this:
~ img src="" height="150" ~

The height specification will help cut him down to size.

That's pretty good. Hahhahah. You gotta get the top of his head and blend the skin tones so they match. Otherwise excellent.
sorry, i wasn't going to spend more than 2 minutes on a quick visual gag.
Just a quibble, but you are thinking of "The Road Warrior," the second of the Mad Max films. The villain of "Mad Max" was a road-gang punk named Toecutter.
Great job - I'm too busy digesting it to comment!

So give us a break! Do you want your readers to spend the whole weekend glued to the screen? :-)

Can't you just be boring for a change? :-)

Excellent post Dave!
Poor Paul Erhlich made his bet two decade to early.  Had he made that bet in 2000, he would win going away.


I agree -- superb post, Dave!

Scratch the topic of peak oil, and out bursts a Pandora's collection of our fears, prejudices, hopes, dreams, religious convictions, wisdom, and utter foolishness.

What a wonderful topic peak oil is!

Ultimately, every topic that is not simply "small talk" becomes a religious topic.  Small talk may ultimately prove to be religious as well in a variety of ways.

Our clever species is not very wise or even very knowledgeable and may never grow to be wise and full of knowledge.  We've likely already, unitntentionally waged a resource war that will take out our own species along with many others.

The resource wars may become more overt and obvious as our devolution unravels, and a few of us might say: "oops! did we do that?  Are we really doing what I think we're doin?"  Wiley Coyote as our ultimate trickster-teacher, icon of our species, running off the cliff at full speed.

Lately my attention has turned to the absurd process of trying to live a loving life where I am in spite of this larger existential predicament.

Crazy choice, but there it is.

I engage as much as possible in authentic conversation about peak oil, politics, whatever, but also try to just live it out, knowing that it is not in my power to control outcomes or to become even relatively invulnerable to the tsunami of consequences our species has likely unleashed upon itself.

I take away all of the garauntees of life.  I pull the rug out from under myself.  What is left?  What is authentic?  I don't always know, and don't always make the best decisions.

As far as the continuing conversation about the cornucopian fallacies and the deprivation fallacies, it seems good to find some clarity in our thinking and discussion.

It is good to be able to empathise with Cornucopians as well as Doomsters.  I think both are right.  I also think both are wrong.

A new synthesis may emerge  -- if we survive long enough and have the luxury to carry on the conversation!

I'm a mild doomer but I'm also a big believer in capitalism too.  I don't really like how all capitalists are lumped together on the cornucopian side.  Capitalism won't preserve our present way of life but it will prevent the cure from being worse than the disease.

In the next 20 years a whole lot of people are probably going to die.  At the end of those 20 years the world will have settled into some sort of arrangement.  So who gets to live and who dies?  

Now the smart civilizational preservers (the market oriented ones) are going to recognize that the most important thing that will be needed in the face of this challenge is creativity and ability to change.  Under their regime, the ones who will survive are the people and local economies who will be most successful at properly allocating resources through market mechanisms and visionary forward planning to ensure the survival of the members of those societies.  The more creativity and ability to change the better and we're going to need a lot of it.  The market has the unique attribute of quickly killing really bad ideas but also enabling rapid change.  In this situation the people that die are the ones who refuse to re-adjust, to plan ahead or who don't even realize what's going on on a bigger scale until they show up at the refugee camp and there isn't any food.  But what about the rich!! They should suffer.  Really...The top 5% of the population will do fine but there's a limit to how much food a rich person can eat and getting rid of all of them and their creativity and ingenuity is not going to do much good.

On the other hand, the politico-fixers (as opposed to the much maligned techno-fixers) are going to suggest that we do what the western roman empire did and try to establish a police state and ridiculous taxes, inflation and bureaucracy to keep everything the way it was under increasing strain.  This will only lead to burning the productive elements of the society on a civilizational funeral pyre leading to utter revulsion of the citizenry and collapse.  An example of a political fix that would just make things worse would be trying to deal with shortages of fossil fuels by requiring every person wanting to use fossil fuels to have to apply for a grant from the government.  Some would think that this would make sure that the fuel was not wasted and used for the social good except the situation would never gets better and the dynamic forces, looking to quickly re-organize and re-adjust the economic infrastructure would be utterly stifled and impeded by corruption and bureaucratic sloth which resists change.  In this scenario the people who live are the ones who are able to survive on the scraps of the failed civilization and possess the cunning and survivalist skills to ride their way down as the mess disintegrates.  The ones who die, and there will be a lot more of them then in this scenario, are the ones who go along with the whole thing optimistically thinking that the government will always find some new proposal or food program to keep things going.

Good point abelardlindsay,

Most governments will see the problem from a top-down perspective and by their very nature will only see solutions that leave them at the top - even if some of those solutions are not workable.

My favorite cornucopian, in the larger sense (not just Peak Oil), is George Mason University economist Robin Hanson. I've known him for 15 years. Robin started out as an AI researcher who decided in his 40s to go back to college and get a PhD in economics from Cal Tech. He recently became a tenured professor at GMU and is best known for the invention of the Idea Futures market concept. Meanwhile he dabbles in theoretical physics and recently published in peer reviewed physics journals. He's probably the smartest guy I know.

Robin's daring cornucopian idea is this: that the future will continue the trends of the past. I know, I know, it sounds crazy, it sounds insane; who could ever imagine that the future will be like the past? Everyone knows that we are unique, that we alone will experience the Apocalypse, that the world will remake itself in our lifetimes. We are the special generation who will see, for the first time in millennia, that the future will no longer continue the trends of the past.

But what if that's not true? What if we are not unique and are not special? What if the trends of the past do continue, and our challenges are no different from the equally unique-seeming and special-seeming challenges of the past?

That somewhat diminishes our importance, doesn't it? We'd no longer be the one generation that faces a historical breaking point. We'd be just like all the other generations, exaggerating our own importance, making ourselves feel more significant.

It's not a pretty picture, but let's just go with it for a moment. What would it mean? What are the trends of the past, and what happens when you extrapolate them into the future?

Robin's paper is here:

"Long Term Growth as a Sequence of Exponential Modes" argues that if you take the REALLY long view, human history can be modelled as a series of exponential curves. Each one has a certain lifetime before it is overtaken by an even faster exponential curve. Human history is a graphic example of exponentially increasing progress.

And what happens when you extrapolate this forward? The prediction is clear: within the next few decades, economic growth will switch to a new exponential mode, far faster than anything we have seen before. The economy will begin accelerating, doubling in size in a period of weeks rather than a decade or two as today. We will see more change and growth in a year than we have seen throughout all of human history.

It may seem inconceivable that any technology or advancement could support such rapid growth, but actually there are potential technologies that could do so. Computer technology already has a doubling time of one to two years, far faster than the economy as a whole. Pervasive computing, artificial intelligence, and new physical technologies like nanotech could conceivably transform every aspect of society. One would only have to ask for something and an AI could design it, then a nanotech factory could built it on the spot. In such a world, the kinds of limitations we are familiar with would be a thing of the past.

And clearly, energy will not be a limiting factor. We are surrounded by energy, vast quantities of it. Enough solar energy falls on the earth to let us vastly expand our per-capita usage levels. Fusion energy from sea water and cheap elements is another inexhaustable source. Space resources will clearly be available as well.

We only lack the intelligence to know how to access this energy. Once intelligence becomes a commodity to be created at will, once tools exist to allow us to structure matter however we desire a the molecular level, all of these sources of energy will become available. In the long run, energy and matter are effectively unlimited.

Now, obviously this sounds like science fiction, because after all, SF is that branch of art which considers how the future may change. But the point is that it would actually be remarkable if something like this DOESN'T happen, because exactly this sort of revolutionary growth transition has been the pattern of human history in the past. Only if we assume that modern times are different and that there has been a new and unprecedented change in the factors which have controlled and guided human progress, can we get off this path that leads to a vastly more powerful and capable future world.

Now, that's cornucopianism. Compared to this vision, the rest are mere pikers.

Halfin, you're on a roll today. The powerful idea that the future will look like the past is alluring and simple. I was born in 1953. The world I was born into looks little like the present. There weren't 6,541,543,790 people who want children, clothing, food, shelter, energy and a vehicle, for one thing.

However, I will give you (or your "smart") friend just enough rope to hang yourself with. Do this:

Define the past

When you're done with that, get back to me.  

As an honors graduate of Caltech, I am deeply embarassed for the institution.  I didn't even know there was an economics department, maybe that is fairly new.

As per fusion, none of the physicists I know expect commercial fusion in the next 50 years.  Effectively that means never.  If we had ITER in 1980, a prototype commercial scale fusion plant in 1990, and hundreds of fusion plants per year coming online by 2000 ... then the hydrogen economy and another century of growth would have been possible.  But that didn't happen.  By 2050 the world will be so far down the Olduvai slope that it is unlikely that anyplace will be stable and prosperous to complete the fusion project.

The really smart guys at Caltech were Harrison Brown (Geochemist), James Bonner (Biochemist), and John Weir (Psychologist) who wrote "THE NEXT HUNDRED YEARS" in 1957.   They were 15 years ahead of the Club of Rome and 49 years on are still right on target.  The book includes Hubbert's curve and is available (used) from Amazon.

Robin's daring cornucopian idea is this: that the future will continue the trends of the past. I know, I know, it sounds crazy, it sounds insane; who could ever imagine that the future will be like the past?

I thought the problem was that we all, cornucopains, moderates, doomers, think that we are extrapolating the past.  We just see the past, human nature, and human ability, in very different ways.

I for instance think we'll continue the trends of the past, and muddle through with a half-assed solution.  We'll get there, but with pain adjustment and stupidity along the way.

But what if that's not true? What if we are not unique and are not special? What if the trends of the past do continue, and our challenges are no different from the equally unique-seeming and special-seeming challenges of the past?

In other words, what if we COLLAPSE under our own HUBRIS, just like every other previously advanced and "special" civilization?

He ought to know enough physics that it isn't true.

But the point is that it would actually be remarkable if something like this DOESN'T happen, because exactly this sort of revolutionary growth transition has been the pattern of human history in the past.

No it isn't at all certain.  How long and deep were the Dark Ages compared to the technological complexity of the Roman Empire?  Over a couple of hundred years, the Roman Empire achieved enormous things in technology and economic growth, and probably some thought then as he did.

And clearly, energy will not be a limiting factor. We are surrounded by energy, vast quantities of it. Enough solar energy falls on the earth to let us vastly expand our per-capita usage levels. Fusion energy from sea water and cheap elements is another inexhaustable source. Space resources will clearly be available as well.

The problem isn't energy, but energy density and hence entropy.  Of course there's less energy available in all petroleum extracted per year than in global solar insolation, but why is petroleum so valuable?

The issue is saving entropy and that's why petroleum is so good.

It may seem inconceivable that any technology or advancement could support such rapid growth, but actually there are potential technologies that could do so. Computer technology already has a doubling time of one to two years, far faster than the economy as a whole

Why is that?  Because there was a lack of close physical limitations: the size of engineerable electronics in 1960 was many orders of magnitude larger than the size of atoms (the ultimate physical limit).   As Feynman said back then "there's alot of room down there".

And yes, in one profound and important way, modern civilization is different:  starting from Newton, when we first got our head screwed on straight, we have figured out actual and true laws of physics about the planet, and mapped it with sophisticated science-based geophysical means.  We know the periodic table.  There are no more elements to discover.  That was never true previously in history before modern civilization.

During the modern age, we had sequentially developed new technologies which each led to use of higher quality and higher energy density fuels with greater world wide capacity; going from trees to whales to coal to oil.  

For the first time, there is not something better than oil in a fundamental physical sense and available in the geophysical world.

And these same laws of physics, oceanography, biology and geology are saying the same thing:  we will have a problem.

We may yet be able to make excellent computers and solar powered robots.  But eating and health and transportation and shelter will come first for almost everybody.  In the USA, poor people today can afford a Playstation or X-box or an iPod, but they can't afford a decent college or medical plan.  

The march of artificial intelligence has been remarkably slow, in fact despite plenty of very intelligent natural brains working on the problem.  It is an intrinsically difficult problem for fundamental reasons.

The same is true with controlled fusion.  Fission went from fundamental physical discovery in 1939 to production reactors in 1944-1945.   Fusion was discovered earlier, probably early 1930's, and we still don't remotely have the ability for a practical production reactor.  Why?  Laws of physics are different; the light mass of hydrogen and facts about cross section and especially turbulence in fusion plasmas make it really hard.

And as I've said before, superintelligent computers can get around energy and physics problems about as well as the chess team can beat the jocks at football.

superintelligent computers can get around energy and physics problems about as well as the chess team can beat the jocks at football.

There ain't no such things as "superintelligent computers" (yet?), but in any case they won't beat the second law of thermodynamics, hence we can safely rely on EROEI values to assess the promises of any proposed energy source.

What's the kWh draw of a human brain?

Silicon technology would have real problems reaching that power level, but at least some of the singularitists (I keep making up these words) have handwaved computers and AIs based on organic molecular computing.  There's another idea for a sci-fi novel .. genetically engineer some random species (cats, cows) until it has post human intelligence.

(Actually John Brunner got there didn't he, with GM'd dogs?)

Silicon technology would have real problems reaching that power level,

More irrelevant blather.

How long and deep were the Dark Ages compared to the technological complexity of the Roman Empire?  Over a couple of hundred years, the Roman Empire achieved enormous things in technology and economic growth, and probably some thought then as he did.

In the context of PO and the problem of resource depletion in general, it may be worth revisiting the Fall of Rome to ask: To what avail were the science of the Greeks and the technology of Rome against the dying of an empire? When the skills of utility were cultural vitality, the ability to ride a horse and bash your opponents' heads in, what was the use of reading and writing? Or of having superior military technology without the leadership, the ability or the will to use it? To stretch the analogy a bit, it might do to emulate the barbarians, who recognized a serious challenge to survival, and had the energy and will to see it through. Precious few of us today are even willing to get to the recognition stage.

And yes, in one profound and important way, modern civilization is different:  starting from Newton, when we first got our head screwed on straight, we have figured out actual and true laws of physics about the planet, and mapped it with sophisticated science-based geophysical means.

While I don't agree that Newton is "when we got our head screwed on straight" I do agree that this doesn't guarantee the survival of our culture in the least.

Haflin -

I seriously doubt that all areas of human endeavor follow some sort of exponential curve, the example of computer technology notwithstanding.

 Even human progress in the aggregate has had its cyclical ups and downs. (Could you legitimately call human progress from say 450AD to 1,000 AD, i.e., that period roughly corresponding the so-called Dark Ages, upwardly exponential? If anything, it was stagnant, or even slightly going backward.) Some civilizations ascend at the same time that others are declining.

Take seagoing shipbuilding and sailing. It was a gradual evolution taking place over a period of more than a thousand years.  The sailing ship of 1800 conceptually differed very little  from the sailing ship of 1600. There was nothing exponential about its growth.

Agriculture is a mixed bag. It too had not changed much over thousands of years.  And the so-called Green Revolution was merely the result of pumping vast amounts of fossil fuel into the agricultural system. Any responsible scientist would have to admit that increasing crop yields past what they are now is an excercise in diminishing returns.

Even advances in aviation, both military and civilian, have leveled off. The SST was a huge flop, and military aircraft appear to have reached a peak of maximum practical speed. And one can hardly call the Space Shuttle a crashing success.

In many cases technologies steadily improve and then reach a peak as the technology matures. Other technologies can take their place, but they too mature.

Political and governmental systems have fundamentally remained unchange for centuries, despite the claimed uniqueness of the 'American Experience'.  

I happen to have  many old issues of Popular Mechanic, Mechanix Illustrated, and Popular Science from the 1940s and 1950s.  If there wide-eyed, quaintly optimistic predictions about life circa 2000 would have come true,  we'd now all be working 20 hours a week, driving our own personal atomic powered aircraft, and be waited on hand and foot by our own personal robots. There would be no war and everything would be just peachy. Energy considerations were never in the picture at all, as it was assumed that all the energy we'd every need would be instantly available through atomic power.

No, I don't think it can automatically be assumed  that things will automatically get better. One has to carefully examine numerous countervailing forces to determine which direction things are likely to go.

"The sailing ship of 1800 conceptually differed very little  from the sailing ship of 1600. There was nothing exponential about its growth."

Ironically, sailing ships started to get good and change significantly when fossil fuel powered ships took over.

The shipbuilders then started to apply science of fluid mechanics and recognized that sailboats work better when using "sucking"---lower pressure behind them due to Bernoulli effect---instead of "pushing", the intuitively obvious idea of catching wind with a bag.

Hence sails of modern racing boats (c.f. America's Cup)look like a wing of a low speed aircraft pointed vertically.  

Humans made a big jump in sailing boats when we went from pre-physics to post-physics design.  There isn't going to any similar jump in the future.   Sailboats are not increasing in efficiency exponentially.  Like oil it is a physics and geophysics limited problem.

mbkennel -

Right you are!

Another example of the convergence of seemingly unrelated areas of technology: in this case, shipbuilding and aerodynamics.

Actually, up until the late 1700s, all of shipbuilding was largely a craftsman's art. Ships were generally built by taking dimensions off of scale models. Things were done by rule-of-thumb.  There was very little in the way of what we would today  call engineering drawings. It was largely a matter of trial and error. Those designs that worked well were kept; those that did not were discarded. A form of technical evolution.

The person generally being credited with being the first true 'naval architect' was F. H. Chapman, an expatriot Brit who spent his whole life in Sweden, working for the Swedish crown as its official master shipbuilder.  He was probably the first person to actually  use a crude towing tank to determine the drag on various hull forms.  He also was one of the fist to apply (then) advanced mathematics to such topics as stability, steadiness, and structural strength. Shipbuilding gradually became a science.

While you are correct in that, at least in the area of racing craft, many advances in sailing technology where made after the advent of steam, the commercial sailing ship never got past a certain point. Those large 4- and 5-masted schooners of the late 1800s were quite slow, but had the advantage of not requiring large crews.

Once a technology reaches a certain point, most further advances are more along the lines of optimizing existing designs  rather than creating true breakthroughs.  

Technical progress appears to be a combination of evolutionary development and sudden step-function changes. The development  of steam ships was rather rapid, and ran parallel with the advent of economical steel production. So, when you put the two together, you get large steam-powered steel ships.

Most technologies don't exist in a vacuum. There is more interdependency between technologies than most people realize. When A is developed; then B becomes possible; when B becomes possible, then C can be developed ... . and so on.

At the risk of getting overly philosophical: was the development of the atomic bomb and act of progress or an act of regression? What is the net result of that development?

Once a technology reaches a certain point, most further advances are more along the lines of optimizing existing designs rather than creating true breakthroughs.

Tainter - diminishing returns. Was it him or someone else that went beyond that to point of saying certain fields are more or less *known*?

cfm in Gray, ME

There are many things I disagree with in this post, but I'll just comment on the idea that people cling to the idea of a collapse because it makes us feel "special."  

I feel that it is quite the opposite.  As a human, I don't find myself all that special.  I am one of 6.5 billion people, the world would be pretty much the same without me.  My experiences aren't anything terribly unique in the large sense, my ideas have all been thought by others before.  I am part of one of millions of species that will eventually go extinct some day.  I don't believe in a God that created me and looks after me and my kind.  I don't believe in a spirit world that I will go to when I die.  I don't believe my society has found ways to defy the laws of ecology and physics and that natural limits will eventually end a long growth phase, just like it has ended in all previous civilizations.

Instead of calling myself special, I would say that I am unusual because most people actually believe that humans are unique and that their own experiences matter a whole lot (e.g., MySpace blogs) to others and to god-like beings.  

However, I do believe that if individuals work towards social change they can be effective.  I am not saying people are powerless, just that having social power is not all that special!

Being "un-special" means accepting the notion that all empires collapse. There has not been one civilization/empire that kept going from the dawn of time till now.

The word "collapse" is a vague one. Your notion of collapse may not be the same as mine. IMHO the USA began its collapse some 20 years ago when Ronald McRaygun replaced Carter Science with Voodoo Echo-magic. We (Americans) have been sliding down hill ever since. We just don't know it yet.

Agree.  Carter was a truly inept President, a bad communicator, naive about the MIC, and clueless about monetary policy.  (He appointed a Republican bond market vigilante, Paul Volcker, to the fed who proceeded to crank interest rates to  the moon before the 1980 election.  Carter was set up to look foolish by the CIA who told him the Shah of Iran had a stable government.  Finally, Carter was also blindsided by the notorious Paris "October Surprise" treason of William Casey of the CIA and George H.W. Bush.)

Yet for all his many shortcomings, Carter was at least a believer in science and planning for future generations.

I was doing molecular biology at UCLA on that black November Tuesday in 1980.  The morning after, my ashen faced colleague said, "Now the whole country is going to be run on the basis of pure stupid greed."  He emigrated to Europe the next year.  Alan, my friend, called it exact.  The past quarter century has be a disaster of pure imperial corporatism, no classic liberals or conservatives are left anywhere in power.

Ah the good old days ... the more they change, the more it seems like de javu all over again:

Question: Mr. President, as you have said, Americans, through conservation, are importing much less oil today than we were even a year ago. Yet U.S. dependence on Arab oil as a percentage of total imports is today much higher than it was at the time of the 1973 Arab oil embargo ... Can the United States develop synthetic fuels and other alternative energy sources ...?

MR. CARTER: I don't think there's any doubt that, in the future, the cost of oil is going to go up. What I've had as a basic commitment since I've been President is to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. It can only be done in two ways: one, to conserve energy - to stop the waste of energy - and, secondly, to produce more American energy. We've been very successful in both cases. We've now reduced the importing of foreign oil in the last year alone by one-third. We imported today 2 million barrels of oil less than we did the same date just a year ago. This commitment has been opening up a very bright vista for our nation in the future, because with the windfall profits tax as a base, we now have an opportunity to use American technology and American ability and American natural resources to expand rapidly the production of synthetic fuels, yes; to expand rapidly the production of solar energy, yes; and also to produce the traditional kinds of American energy. We will drill more oil and gas wells this year than any year in history. We'll produce more coal this year than any year in history. We are exporting more coal this year than any year in history. And we have an opportunity now with improved transportation systems and improved loading facilities in our ports, to see a very good opportunity on a world international market, to replace OPEC oil with American coal as a basic energy source. This exciting future will not only give us more energy security, but will also open up vast opportunities for Americans to live a better life and to have millions of new jobs associated with this new and very dynamic industry now in prospect because of the new energy policy that we've put into effect.


MR. REAGAN: I'm not so sure that it means steadily higher fuel costs, but I do believe that this nation has been portrayed for too long a time to the people as being energy-poor when it is energy-rich. ... I think, as technology improves, we'll be able to do even better with that. The other thing is that we have only leased out - begun to explore - 2% of our outer continental shelf for oil, where it is believed, by everyone familiar with that fuel and that source of energy, that there are vast supplies yet to be found. Our Government has, in the last year or so, taken out of multiple use millions of acres of public lands that once were - well, they were public lands subject to multiple use - exploration for minerals and so forth. It is believed that probably 70% of the potential oil in the United States is probably hidden in those lands, and no one is allowed to even go and explore to find out if it is there. This is particularly true of the recent efforts to shut down part of Alaska. ...

MR. SMITH: President Carter, your comment?

MR. CARTER: To repeat myself, we have this year the opportunity, which we'll realize, to produce 800 million tons of coal - an unequaled record in the history of our country. Governor Reagan says that this is not a good achievement, and he blames restraints on coal production on regulations - regulations that affect the life and the health and safety of miners, and also regulations that protect the purity of our air and the quality our water and our land. We cannot cast aside these regulations. We have a chance in the next 15 years, insisting upon the health and safety of workers in the mines, and also preserving the same high air and water pollution standards, to triple the amount of coal we produce. Governor Reagan's approach to our energy policy, ... to return a major portion of $227 billion back to the oil companies; to do away with the Department of Energy; to short-circuit our synthetic fuels program; to put a minimal emphasis on solar power; to emphasize strongly nuclear power plants as a major source of energy in the future. He wants to put all our eggs in one basket and give that basket to the major oil companies.

MR. SMITH: Governor Reagan.

MR. REAGAN: That is a misstatement, of course, of my position. I just happen to believe that free enterprise can do a better job of producing the things that people need than government can. The Department of Energy has a multi-billion-dollar budget in excess of $10 billion. It hasn't produced a quart of oil or a lump of coal, or anything else in the line of energy. And for Mr. Carter to suggest that I want to do away with the safety laws and with the laws that pertain to clean water and clean air, and so forth. As Governor of California, I took charge of passing the strictest air pollution laws in the United States - the strictest air quality law that has even been adopted in the United States. And we created an OSHA - an Occupational Safety and Health Agency - for the protection of employees before the Federal Government had one in place. And to this day, not one of its decisions or rulings has ever been challenged. So, I think some of those charges are missing the point. I am suggesting that there are literally thousands of unnecessary regulations that invade every facet of business, and indeed, very much of our personal lives, that are unnecessary; that Government can do without; that have added $130 billion to the cost of production in this country; and that are contributing their part to inflation. And I would like to see us a little more free, as we once were.


Who killed the 'American Dream'?

Back when there were about half as many humans, before Intel made the first integrated chip (1974), when mainframe computers about as powerful as modern wristwatches were just becoming available costing $ millions and were the size of rooms, I read a book. "Limits to Growth" was written by a handful of academics who wanted to try out these new computers for modelling and forecasting something. Nowadays they'd probably try it on stocks and shares, then they modelled the future of the human race and its interaction with this planet. Some people walked around with their eyes open in those days and were brave enough to look at meaningful things.

The computers were slow, the models simple, the results probably mostly inaccurate, but it was the first time people had systematically considered human and economic growth and when it would run into the natural limits of this planet to support them. There was no simple answer but the one I remembered was: things probably start to run out around 2016 give or take a few years. More than 40 years away, plenty of time for us smart humans to fix things. Ah, the optimism of youth.

About four years ago I was seeing mention of 'peak oil' and began looking into it. Realistic estimates (from ASPO) then were that it would happen about 2012, still over 10 years away but starting to get close - time for me to begin thinking of what I should be doing, and where, when peak oil hit. Well, in these last 4 years I've watched with growing concern as that estimate has moved to 2010, 2008, 2007 - the estimated date for peak oil and the present date have been rushing together at similar speed [Note: January 2006, ASPO have put their peak oil date back to 2010 mostly due to anticipated additional non-conventional oil]. Like two galaxies colliding the first impacts have already happened and their ripples have begun to distort and rip our reality, though few have noticed yet.

Peak oil brings the end of the 'American Dream', the US economic and financial systems have minimal chance of surviving it, the next 10 years will bring at best the halving of wealth of the american people, or halving US population, or maybe both, or maybe worse.

In the latter half of the 1970s the american people elected a truly honest president, it coincided with the last energy crisis. He set out what the USA must do to become virtually independent of foreign energy supplies. It never happened, he wasn't re-elected.

Had the american people, congress and senate supported Carter and implemented the energy policy that he spelled out very clearly the world would be very different today and peak oil would be at least a decade farther away. We would have time to change further and the US would already be at least half way on that positive road. But, as Carter said "There is no way to avoid sacrifice...". That didn't sound nice so the american people turned their back on truth, embraced illusion, and postponed the (then small) sacrifice. Thus was humanity and this planet betrayed.

1970 perspective: "More than 40 years away, plenty of time for us smart humans to fix things. Ah, the optimism of youth."

Don't forget that just a year before, "we" had landed on the Moon. "Science" was at its prime. Why if "we" can land on the Moon, then we were gods! We could do anything. Here we are 40 years later, still in the wilderness, still dreaming.

True. It was an unusual time from the early 60s through to the mid 70s. The world had rebuilt after WW2, science promised much and seemed to be delivering some, in developed countries personal wealth seemed to be increasing rapidly, the 'green revolution' and global trade brought us almost unimaginably diverse and cheap food. Yet there was significant social upheaval (race, gender, sexuality), a geopolitical stand off between communism and capitalism, major conflicts like Vietnam, political upheavals like Watergate.

The oil shocks of the mid and late 70s, the ensuing recession, should have woken us but we drifted back into a pleasant dream lulled by uncle Ron. In future when historians look back the critical turning point will probably be seen as around 1980. Per capita food, oil and energy production all peaked around then.

In a sense we have been on the plateau for over 20 years, any perception otherwise is mostly delusion.

Alexis Ziegler has some fascinating writing on how resource availability underlies the social and political pendulum we more easily see as "history".  An excerpt:

The long curve in a nutshell is that, in a commercial economy, civil liberty expands and contracts as the resources available to a society expand and contract. What we call democracy is the privilege of colonial ruling powers in the last few thousand years to expand freedom among traders, producers and consumers in a manner that is economically beneficial. As warfare and colonial decline set in, democracy receded.

The long curve indicates that civil liberty expands as the flow of natural resources expands, and contracts as resource availability contracts. The short curve indicates that capital accumulates as far and as fast as the owners of industry can push the matter. That proceeds up to the point where popular movements of sufficient breadth and power force the limited redistribution of wealth. The short curve is more visible in the political moment. The long curve moves with inexorable force over time.

"IMHO the USA began its collapse some 20 years ago when Ronald McRaygun replaced Carter Science with Voodoo Echo-magic."

Ironically, 1979 was Richard Duncan's (Duncan's Peak to coin a new phrase?) of the highest energy use per capita I think.

1979 Duncan's Peak...  Ya, I like that.
2012 is where we break from the "Slide" to the cliff.

I agree that from that time things started going down hill. National Debt, Name it.


That's a bizarre concept, that we keep accelerating. Idea Futures Market. I've been doing a bit of digging into "neoliberalism" and so forth. I hope there is more to this than hyperneoliberalism.

How many people read that article, I can't reach the server. Or did we slashdot it because SO MANY of us read it??? I googled for the article too, looking for it elsewhere, and got all sorts of stuff on "singularities". Does anyone have a link to it elsewhere?

In one sense, of course the future continues the past. Imagine yourself 200 years from now looking back. Doh.

But singularity, discontinuity. Gail the Actuary, do you feel comfortable that you have factored that in? How do actuaries deal with the unknown? Someone wrote that oil is only a little bit of pharma. I don't know...oil runs the grid. What would our medical delivery system look like without the grid? Those Cuban doctors with two 100 pound backpacks - one for themselves and one of supplies? But why will they come here when the whole world needs them? What will the patent system look like without TRIPS when little states - let alone Nigeria - start to declare force majeure and assert their own sovereignty? Someone posted a couple of articles recently about how a couple of degrees changes plant respiration 100%. A crash is not linear though a powerdown could be. Hari Seldon could not predict this, except in general outline of course.

I tend to put my effort into what a reasonable powered down and relocalized community might look like (say John Howe's version - 20 mile radius, about 15% of current fossil fuel) and try to figure out what needs to be done to get there. Taking a REALLY long view, we are going to get there if we are lucky. It's only a matter of how.

cfm in Gray, ME

It looks like that server is down today. I found a copy of the article from the Google cache, don't know if this link will work:

Long term growth as a series of exponential modes

Unfortunately, this lacks the diagrams, which make for the most compelling parts of the paper. They let you see very plainly that such events as the fall of the Roman Empire are mere blips in the long term trends.

It's a poor substitute, but here's a picture from the paper of Brad DeLong's that Robin used as a basis for the data points that he modelled:

Looking at GDP per Capita from the same article.

You see that it stays more or less constant until we start using fossil fuels. As they run out one would expect a return to norm.

I remain hopefull we can maintain an advanced civilication based on electricity, but I feel that meaningless tecnobabble such as yours about fusion and space resources is only making things worse.
Any solution has to begin with a realistic look at our current situation.

The world GDP chart (Haflin) is of course driven mainly by population growth.  So the most meaningful chart is the GDP per capita (Hurin).  Vast numbers of the World's population do not produce that much - and so removing them from the statistics may actually result in the World Average per capita GDP increasing going forward.

Looking not too far into the future (2020?) and based on what we actually know is happening right now:

  • US and other OECD countries are to start using croplands to grow fuel - food to fuel.

  • Decreasing EROEI of energy production and with peak oil, reduction in gross energy growth.  At some point reducing net energy availability hits food production.  This might simply be energy costs getting too high in some countries/ energy shortages, leading to lower agricultural ouput.

  • Climate change leading to droughts in N American, European and Asian croplands - hits food production further.

  • World grain consumption is already outsripping production and stock levels are falling.

  • By using renewables, nuclear and requisition of fossil fuels, the OECD (plus some others) will feed themselves and with a bit of energy conservation it will be business as usual - maintaining the per capita GDP of the top 25%.

Therefore, it seems likely that famine on a massive scale could just be around the corner.  Growth in the world population gets halted and then it starts to fall, the poorer, less productive members of the population are first to go.  And so starts the process of increasing the avearge GDP per capita and this may go on for decades.

I am a bit to the left of Dave on his "Optimometer" and was surprised to see Dave was so far to the right.

Nice analysis. But Dave, far to the right? He's supposed to be a little bit to the left(no offense, Dave). This may be a turning point. Let's all come together in the middle.
A excellent account of the Cornucopian viewpoint.

But there is an alternate "Cornucopian" viewpoint, which I subscribe to.

First of all to be clear (this is my first post on TOD) I entirely accept Peak Oil, and believe Peak production (all liquids) will be in the range 90m - 105m barrels per day, somewhere between 2010 and 2025.

I also believe this may cause difficulties, even severe economic difficulties.

But I don't believe there will be mass starvation, or breakdown of Western society.

Rather I believe that we will adapt. We will travel much less. We will electrify much of our transport system.

We may be somewhat poorer, and there may be major changes, but we can, and will, survive on much less oil than the average US citizen consumes in a year.

Admittedly the blinkered outlook of our politicians is not yet encouraging, but I believe this will change.

So I am concerned but not pessimistic.

Call me a Peak Oil optimist, if you will.


IMO, Peak Oil is just one of many symptoms of societal failure. It is not the whole picture. There many other long emergencies developing under our noses --Global Warming/Dimming, Population Bomb, to name just two more.

Yes, society "could" deal with these emerging crisises. But each time we reach the fork in the road, we take the usual wrong turn.

We keep marching towards the cliff.

Yes.  The working title of the book I'll never write is "Full Speed Ahead Down the Wrong Damn Road".
Oh, good. Then you won't mind if I steal that title for a chapter I've already got written.
Rather I believe that we will adapt.

Can you give us more than a belief?
If not a model, some rationale.
If you have been reading TOD for while you are probably informed of many reasons why things are likely to turn sour.
Being able to back your "belief" with some arguments will surely help to move the "doomerosity index" toward more cheerful perspectives.

Can you give us more than a belief?

If not a model, some rationale.

I cannot see why we would not adapt. We are an incredibly resourceful species. Remember that only 50 years ago few people had cars. If they could live without cars then, why not now?

Currently we are consuming far more oil than we really need, simply because it has been so cheap. We are still burning large amounts of oil just to heat our homes in winter.

I work entirely from home using the internet. In future this may be less unusual. Our food supply system will adapt to higher transport costs.

I cannot see all the details. Some commentators think that our financial system will have difficulty adapting. I don't know about that.

Why do you think US citizens cannot cut their use of oil by 90%, for example? Do they really need cars? How do the majority of the third world live on this level?

We may even be happier without the motor car.

One of America's silliest pollyannas, Tom Friedman:

"Well, of course if you're talking about the oil weapon, you know, from my own personal perspective, Charlie, they cut off oil and oil went to $100 a barrel that would make my day. Because the sooner we go to $100 a barrel, the sooner we're going to have everyone in America driving a plug-in hybrid car fueled by corn and ethanol. And I think that would be a great thing and that would ultimately free us from having to worry about these people."


He's by definition not a cornucopain, because he thinks we actively have to do something to fix the problem.
I call him a cornucopian because he thinks we can farm our way out of peak oil and that we'll all have plenty of money to drop $25,000 on a utopian hybrid car.

We will have enough money to drop $2500 on a scooter, which is what people do in the 3rd world where fuel is expensive.

A cornucopian:  sombeody who think that "somebody else", a.k.a., Mister Market, will always do the right thing to make life good for one own self.

By the way, the distopian scenario is already happening in Africa.  People are to this day priced out of cheap petroleum, and they spend most of their meagre income on energy: fuel and food.

That's already happened before the Peak of Oil.  Suppose it had been different, e.g. oil industry were like microchips, and today, gasoline was three cents a gallon and hardly made any pollution and certainly no global warming.  Would Africans be better off today?   You bet!

So, why didn't it happen?  Because oil is controlled by geophysical reality which is fundamentally different than microchips.

We can see the future of Expensive Oil in Africa already.

I kind of see it as 100 guys lined up and there is only 84 buckets to be handed out.  The guys from about number 75 on in line fight amongst each other for the 10 or so barrels that are left for sale.  They are much poorer and weaker than the 1st 50 or so in line.  

The ones at the back of the line never get noticed by the one's in the first 10 positions in line.

They are something like the "Boy with the Mullberry stain on his face" in the book "Lord of the Flys".  He was the first one killed on the island, but nobody noticed he was gone.

The countries in Africa for example are like the poor people on the street.  Most people wouldn't notice if they were's there the next day.

Nobody notices that Bangadesh or other places are short on power.

So the effects of Peak Oil will move up the line from the 84th person backwards to the first.

So to Speak.


I think the argument, about whether this is going to kill us (in the industrialized countries) kind of blocks discussion about helping the less developed.

Too many people talking about lifeboats, saving themselves, friends, family ...

And the effort to flee that sinking ship is underway, African refugees arriving in the Canary Islands in August was up tenfold YoY  - from EB.
A cornucopain wouldn't need a gas tax:

"cornucopain"  Fredudian slip? Only you know.  

Friedman embraces scarcity as he believes that it will result in improvements with respect to geopolitics, specifically our need to fight war over oil and the ability of middle easterners to have undue influence over our foreign policy.  He also believes heavily in conservation so he isn't simply placing his bets on new and better alternative fuels. Eventually, he is will come around once he penetrates the fog of the ethanol industry and the propoganda of the neocons who push the 500 mpg vehicle.

I remember when I heard my first account of 500 mpgs vehicles resulting from PHEVs using cellulosic ethanol. It was seductive and gave me hope. Only after extensive research and thought about this matter did I realize that it might not be quite as simple as it seems.

Friedman is certainly capable of understanding all this. Why hasn't he become somewhat more skeptical with time?   I guess because he so desperately wants to tell his readers there are solutions, solutions that are not a mixed bag and which have no downside. Books without solutions don't sell very well.

Yeh, sure cellulosic ethanol or some other approach may yet provide significant help for this mess we call peak oil. But I'm still waiting.  

I've been lax in my spellchecking today.  Apologies to all.
A 500  mpg vehicle already exists. Actually it's 600 mpg, if I calculated it correctly. It's called a bicycle. 600 miles per gallon of lard, that is. I mean the original, purely muscle-powered type. Remember that even in the US most commutes are under 10 miles, and that means they are manageable by bike, if gasoline gets expensive enough so that the polluters/cyclist-killers are off the road.

i am a cornucopian in the sense that i am sure that we would have adequate resources for everyone born in the 21st century to have enough - food, clean water, shelter, education, medical care.

of course, that depends on how it's done.

if it's done American style, with the Ultra style of consumption, then i'm a deep doomer.

one bellwether is US government response.  we saw that on 9-11 when they ignorred dozens verging on hundreds of warnings that It Was a Bad Day to Fly.  they grounded Air France flights in December 2002, based on far fewer warnings.

what could be so serious that the US government would want to let 19 somewhat angry Muslims free in this country to fly airplanes into buildings ?

it's not having less energy that's a problem - it's our response to having less energy.

the US government has shown its response in Iraq.  every motherhood-and-apple-pie notion that we were taught as American schoolchildren has been suspended, shattered, in the pursuit of 100 Billion barrels of oil.  America consumes a billion barrels about every 41 days (24 million barrels per day).  so now we have 4100 days' worth.

sometimes i wonder if bush & cheney will be looked at as genius' by history, for commandeering the oil while it was there to commandeer.

Well, I didn't get in on this one until about the 85th post in the string, so I am probably wasting my time, but you just know I couldn't let this one go by! :-)

Overall, interesting post, Dave, and full of interesting stuff....but, of course, for those who have dealt with this issue even longer than most even know it has existed (albeit called different names at different times) we have raked this yard too many times (after about the 3rd or 5th or 10th re-raking, what's the point?) but it gives the newcomers something to work with, sources to check out, etc.

So for us non-newcomers, what was of interest or useful?  Well, there were a few items:

>Admission of errors in the past:  Almost never will any side in a philosophical debate say, "o.k., fine we blew that one, but we're still right...  In this piece, Dave, much to his credit, does it twice:  The first is a very famous case, that of what Dave recounts thus: In 1980, Paul Erhlich made an ill-considered bet with Cornucopian Julian Simon."  Now what I would want to know is, why was it ill considered?  I was 21 years old in 1980, and already well read on issues of energy and resource depletion.  Given the available press at that time, I would have made the same bet that Paul Erhlich made.  Oil was not part of the bet per se, but oil is mentioned twice in the Wikipedia article linked by Dave:
"Ehrlich believes three of the five went down during the 1980s because of the price of oil doubling in 1979".

"The price of raw and other natural commodities such as oil have risen substantially in recent years, due to increased demand from China, India, and other industrializing countries. However, this short term price increase is not contrary to Simon's cornucopian theory."

However, it is to be noted that despite 26 more years of inflation and use, oil has still not reached it's old all time inflation adjusted peak price, which occurred, you guessed it, in 1980, and at  yesterday's crude price of about $69 per barrel, is actually only at about  66% of the 1980 price, and ironically, both around Sept. (using the prices on September 29, 1980, as an index) even canceling the seasonal factor

Secondly, the link to the what Dave calls the "crying wolf" too early problem by Colin Campbell.  Now the other day, I was assured that no one who used HL, or Hubbert Linearization, had ever been in error and predicted peaks too early.  I knew otherwise, but out of politeness, really didn't want my argument to center on this point, but since Dave brought it up, he links to a paper that says " His (Campbell's) figure shows world oil production (including the Middle East) peaking in the late 1980s, and dropping sharply, from about 58 mb/d to 45 mb/d, with the comment that "Any short-term increase steepens subsequent decline."  We are now confronting the thought that peak may be about now, or before 2010 (which is the same as now) at 85 plus million barrels a day or roughly 60% above the original all time world top of 58 mb predicted by Campbell for the turn of the century, and almost twice the predicted decline number of 45 mb.

   There are further references to errors in prediction and an estimate at about the turn of the new century of "estimate of global oil resources from 1650 billion barrels to 1800 billion barrels".  Surely the consensus now is that the 1650 billion barrels was too low, and even 1800 is at the very low side of most consensus estimates, but we shall see.  Either way, this is a wide range of possible error given that one of the advertised features of HL is that it gives URR as "an output, not an input".  By the way, Dave, the pretty color chart you enclose is interesting, captioned "IEA hydrocarbon resource recovery as a  function of price", which gives a high side URR number of some 5,500 bnb (billion barrels)  Whoa!!  Happy days are here again, just watch out for that global warming from the carbon, , but the good news is the girls will be wearing bikini's in Helsinki on New Years Eve!! :-)  Even if you kick out the oil shales and heavy oils blocks, they still picture 3,500 bnb, that would definitely move the peak date back to my years in the old folks home!  Which brings us to the second point,

>Timing.  One can believe with all their heart and soul in peak oil, but when?  As we have discussed before, if the "margin of error" is say some 20 to 30 years, that really makes very little difference in human history, it's an eye blink.
But, for purposes of personal planning, it makes all the difference in the world.  That two or three decades is most of the working life of an individual, and includes his/her prime income earning years, family building years, etc.  Mis-planning for a catastrophic event that does not occur can leave one as impoverished as the event itself.  Some say, "Well, Peak is assured in the long term", which may be true, but as Maynard Keynes once said, "in the long term, we're all dead."

>Do people like bad news, or good news?  AlphaMaleProphetOfDoom, in a reply,  makes the case that, to quote him, "Nobody want to hear the bad news and complex reality."
" The vast majority of the population will never accept the idea of there being fundamental physical limits to what we can do"
"most people born between 1940 and 1980 will still be clinging to the idea that "things will get better if (insert cornucopian idea)"

This is interesting, because after the Cornucopian Julian Simon won his famous bet with Paul Ehrlich mentioned above, Ehrlich only went on to greater fame and success, while Simon remained a relative unknown, except among the business class who accepted his philosophy.  Simon argued the opposite of AlphaMale, that people liked bad news:

"[Simon] always found it somewhat peculiar that neither the Science piece nor his public wager with Ehrlich nor anything else that he did, said, or wrote seemed to make much of a dent on the world at large. For some reason he could never comprehend, people were inclined to believe the very worst about anything and everything; they were immune to contrary evidence just as if they'd been medically vaccinated against the force of fact. Furthermore, there seemed to be a bizarre reverse-Cassandra effect operating in the universe: whereas the mythical Cassandra spoke the awful truth and was not believed, these days "experts" spoke awful falsehoods, and they were believed. Repeatedly being wrong actually seemed to be an advantage, conferring some sort of puzzling magic glow upon the speaker."

But either way, peak now or peak later, or no peak, atheist or Christian, Jew or pagan, or to put in in terms of our argument, Doomer or Cornucopian, we are all existentialists in the end....the one question that still remains is, "o.k., you know your going to die, but what the helll do you do in the meantime?"

What I would most like to ask the Cornucopians is, "even if there does turn out to be plenty, what benefit is it to waste it?"  Since when did the waste of material become a free enterprise virtue?  What happened to Ben Franklin's "Waste not want not", and the values of frugal operation?  Why is it that a businessman who will fire half of his devoted staff because he cannot tolerate the idea of inefficiency through wasted manpower, would then believe that the business is somehow enhanced by wasted kilowatts?"

I don't care if there is plenty of fuel left, sloppy, wasteful, inefficient engineering and design, and stupid consumption which benefits no one WILL ALWAYS MAKE ME SICK!  

If your going to treat fuel that way you might as well flare it up the stack, and make waste of a precious resource and creation of filthy gases a sport!

Is this the "artful" design and engineering we are going to take pride in?

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

Roger:  "Now the other day, I was assured that no one who used HL, or Hubbert Linearization, had ever been in error and predicted peaks too early.  I knew otherwise, but out of politeness, really didn't want my argument to center on this point.."

The last work that Hubbert did, that I am aware of, regarding the world, showed a low case and a high case for world Qt (URR).  The high case was very close to Deffeyes' estimate of 2,000 Gb for conventional crude + condensate.  

The bottom line was that Hubbert didn't have enough data to make an accurate extrapolation--thus a low case and a high case.  It's only since 1983 that the world started showing a steady linear progression.  However, and this is a key point, the world has shown a steady linear progression for 23 years.  As expected, world oil production--just like the Lower 48 and the North Sea--has started trending down.  

As I said before, I am not aware of anyone using the HL method who who has been predicting a peak before 2004.   What was implied, but unsaid, was that I was talking about people who have been using the past 20 years or so of world production data.  In the recent Peak Oil debate, taped for PBS, I made this very point--that Hubbert did not have enough data to make an accurate prediction for the world, but Deffeyes does.  I said that Hubbert was to the Lower 48 peak as Deffeyes is to the world peak.

Insofar as I know, I don't think that Campbell has used the HL method.

One final note about Hubbert.  In 1956, he did say that he estimated that the world peak would be no later than 2006.


The case of the lower 48 call is still one of the greatest and undeniable feats in predictive geology I know of.  It is still the thorn in the side to the cornucopians, and to those (who frankly, like me) worry that "it" can't be done, "it" being gaining a clear picture of production future and peak some 14 years in advance! It basically cuts up my theory of "running in th blind" better than any other piece of evidence!)  I am still of the opinion that the data base for the lower 48 and the North Sea have been so much better and more reliable than it is for OPEC and the world, that it is a difference not only of degree but of kind, however, and I think that makes a world of difference.

One thing I can say in tribute to M. King Hubbert....the Hubbert method still seems to have worked best and most when used by Hubbert himself!

"In 1956, he did say that he estimated that the world peak would be no later than 2006."

The truth is, will still don't know that is not correct.  When we peaked in the lower 48 states in 1970, the U.S. government did not admit it until, amazing this, 1979, (!) and even then would not make it a final call, the Secretary of Energy fudging, sayng we "it appears we may have peaked in 1970".  And there were fewer ways and places to hide peak in the U.S., a smaller region than we are now dealing with, and without such things as GTL, introduction of heavy oils and other methods to hide the event.

If we peaked in 2006, I don't think it will be clearly admitted or provable until 2016 to 2020, if ever.

I want to say once more that I am simply looking to try to reduce the "margin of error" in my own mind.  As said, the underlying math and the curves and graphs drawn from them could be very correct, but if there is are even modest (by historical standards) errors in only one or two assumptions, it could move the dates around a couple of decades.  My focus has zoomed in for the time being on the URR number, which, however extracted, I still distrust.  

I am not, repeat that NOT attempting to undercut the Hubbert Linearization ideas and methods...I have said many times that if you gave me Standiford's numbers, Khebob's numbers, your numbers, etc, and on the other side gave me EIA, IEA, USGS or CERA's numbers, I would take you, Khebob's and Standiford's calculations any day of the week over their's!

Either way, I still stick to my belief that the we should be making the changes, and, diversifying fuel supply and engaging methods of conservation and consumption reduction and waste reduction NOW.  All the arrows point to the truth that we must be getting late in the day on oil production, carbon release, and waste.

Living good to me is no sin.  Waste, outright idiotic wase always will be.  Let's go after that first, and work from there.

Thanks again for what has been and is a fascinating and engaging discussion!

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

I look forward to volume 2
"Doomers -- A Guide for the Bewildered"

After all there are many strange variants of Doomer:

  • The Greenie: Who looks at peak oil as a way of forcing everyone to grow their own organic carrots.
  • The Technophobe: Who seeks a world somewhere around 1800 and believes peak oil will do away with all those nasty computers and machines.
  • The Chicken Little: Who's moved from Y2K, to peak oil via bird flu.
  • The Never Never: The pessimist that seeks one tiny problem with an alternative technology as a reason why the whole thing will never work, shouldn't be considered, stick fingers in the ears the hum "la la la, I'm not listening".
  • The Survivalist: Who loves his guns and is looking forward to the opportunity to protect his homestead from the Mad Max hoards.
  • The Statistician: Who takes one version of a technology process, a few handwaving numbers and says "the EROEI is 0.823 so the whole technology is bunk". In a past life he was happy to prove a bee could never fly and spent many a happy hour swatting those bees that didn't listen.
When do you think we might expect your taxonomy of that end of the spectrum?
We have other doomers too such as:

The Geologist Doomer (folks like Jeffrey Brown, Ken Deffeyes, etc.)

The Alpha Billionaire Doomer (Richard Rainwater)

The Investment and Banking Doomers (Stephen Leeb, Matt Simmons)

The Overlord Doomer-In-Chief (Dick Cheney)

in other words, there's lot of flavors of doomer, not all of them as nutty or fringy as the ones you list. Although yes, those do seem to exist in abundance. But having an agenda that predisposes you to a certain belief does not by default mean that belief is false or not fact-based and grounded in reality.

Are Deffeyes and Simmons really doomers in the die-off sense?

Deffeyes clarification of his "stone age" comment (bottom of the page linked below) backs him off a hard crash position ... is there something else that still puts him in crash territory?

Are Deffeyes and Simmons really doomers in the die-off sense?

No, no, no, ALL IS WELL!

Darn! Gas at $3 a gallon.
But it has been known to the French since 1936 that there is no need to worry about minor problems.

An approximate Google aided translation below.

All is very well, Madam the Marchioness.

Hello, hello James!
Which news?
Has gone away for fifteen days,
At the end of the wire
I call you;
What will I on my return find?

All is very well, Madam the Marchioness,
All is very well, all is very well.
However, it is necessary, it is necessary that one says to you,
One deplores a small whole nothing:
An incident, a silly thing,
The death of your gray mare,
But, besides, Madam the Marchioness
All is very well, all is very well.

Hello, hello James!
Which news?
My gray mare, dead today!
Explain me
Faithful servant,
How that it occurred,

That is nothing, Madam the Marchioness,
That is nothing, all is very well.
However it is necessary, it is necessary that one says to you,
One deplores a small whole nothing:
It perished
In the fire
Who destroyed your stables.
But, besides, Madam the Marchioness
All is very well, all is very well.

Hello, hello James!
Which news?
Did my stables thus burn?
Explain me
Model servant,
How that did it occur?

That is nothing, Madam the Marchioness,
That is nothing, all is very well.
However it is necessary, it is necessary that one says to you,
One deplores a small whole nothing:
If the stable burned, Madam,
It is that the castle was in flames.
But, besides, Madam the Marchioness
All is very well, all is very well.

Hello, hello James!
Which news?
Our castle is thus destroyed!
Explain me
Because I stagger
How that did it occur?

Eh well here is, Madam the Marchioness,
Learning that he was ruined,
Hardly had he overcome his surprise
That Messire the Marquis committed suicide,
And it is by collecting the shovel
That he knocked down all the candles,
Putting fire at all the castle
Who was consumed upwards;
Blowing wind on the fire,
Propagated on the stable,
And thus in one moment
One saw perishing your mare!
But, besides, Madam the Marchioness,
All is very well, all is very well.

Hey, buddy. Me and you go way back. I don't know if we are friends. I would characterize us as allies. I'm asking for permission to respond. Of course I'll keep it friendly. You did.

Just for fun, I thought you folks might want to see some of the ways in which "Peak Oil" comes across to the public, and some of the wacky ways in which it is linked to the ultimate "doomerism"...Now this is one I had not thought of, and what will happen if we beat peak oil AND emission of carbon with a "miracle new energy source"....if you think that would be a good thing, read on!

"Oh, but  surely, there has to be SOME way out? A comforting punch-line,  or a soothing, concluding remark? Actually, even we at Exit Mundi are at a  loss. Looks like we have to brace ourselves and face the Big One this time.  We'll see death and destruction, and see our world change forever. Can't  say we're looking forward to it, either."

"And even then, we'd have to  have some luck. There's a particularly nasty glitch in the theories even the  economists don't know about. For in fact, the biggest risk we're facing is  not even the Oil Crisis itself -- but rather, the invention of some kind of  new energy source!"

"Say  we all stop using oil tomorrow. That would mean that suddenly, we will stop  putting huge amounts of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. Now, this is  probably not a good idea. Over the years, we've got huge amounts of green plants, plankton and  algae on our planet, courtesy to the greenhouse effect. If we suddenly stop  producing greenhouse gases, these plants and algae will suck all of the carbon  dioxide out of the atmosphere."

"This  will kickstart an instant, all-out Ice Age, as our planet is robbed from  its protective carbon dioxide `coat'. The Earth would freeze over. It  would turn into a huge snowball."

 Now, who wants to have an Ice Age without any heating to keep us warm?

Well, I thought I would never say this, but that even tops Kunstler!! :-)

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

Looking through the comments on this above average discussion, I thought I would post some replies all in one place.

To garyp, who questions why I don't do a Doom & Gloomer post, my answer is -- I could but I have more sympathy for them since there's little doubt in my mind that humankind is trashing the Earth's habitat. See climate change, sixth extinction, peak fish, fresh water scarcity, et. al. Also, I don't think it's a good idea to alienate everybody. You many recall that I took Bryant Urstadt to task for using the words "peak oil" and "the Rapture" in the same sentence. Also, the D&G view is not nearly as dangerous as that of the Pollyannas who say there's no problem.

capslock quoted from the unusually gifted Tom "the Earth is flat" Friedman. My view of Tom is that he's not a Cornucopian per se -- he's just a fool.

I'm glad joule brought up the Dark Ages. Though this graph is already inaccurate -- the red line does not reflect that the world used 30.8 Gb in 2005 -- it's still a good reminder of the bigger picture for oil.

I had said

It's not the case that historical arguments relying upon faith in economics or technology are completely wrong. Far from it. The point is that Cornucopians take these arguments to an irrational extreme, ignoring pertinent realities about limits. This is an important point.
There are limits, the world needs to work harder on developing substitutions for oil, and eventually natural gas, while not burning inordinate amounts of coal without sequestering the CO2. What reasonable person could disagree with this position?

As usual, we must consider Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies and more recently Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

What was left after the trees were gone

Also, the D&G view is not nearly as dangerous as that of the Pollyannas who say there's no problem.

If "peak oil" gets co-opted as a disaster cult, it will be marginalized.  I mean literally marginalized.  It will be pushed off to the side, and another term acceptable to the general public will be used to describe "working through the end of the oil age."

Maybe Tertzakian was smart to never freaking use the words "peak oil" in his book.

You are right, of course. I reviewed Tertzakian for Matt (LATOC) and also noticed his shying away from using "peak oil".

That's why I was so annoyed with Urstadt -- his Harpers piece was largely an exercise in marginalizing our concerns. This always raises my ire because I spend a lot of time looking at reserves, production, various countries, new discoveries, geopolitics -- you name it. I will debate anyone, anytime on the issues. Working through? The world needs motivation and a plan. We will not muddle through.

Perhaps now would be a good time to start because yesterday, when we burned through about 84.5 million barrels of oil at about Tertzakian's 1000 barrels a second, is gone.

PS: I despise cults of any kind.

I think I said "muddle through" yesterday.  I'm speaking as a semi-cynic.  In that same post I said something about California's new solar program being a half-assed solution.  To me that's a typical example of our response.  We are going to do something about alternative energy, but it is probably less efficient and more special-interest friendly than it has to be.  Isn't solar trough thermal electric power generation still better (cheaper, more efficient) than photovoltaic?  If so, then wouldn't the $14/year (or whatever we actually end up paying), be better spent there?

On the other hand, it is a response.  It does add a bit of solar generation and it will reduce slightly the amount of natural gas we need to burn making electricity.

Is that motivation?  Is that a plan?  Will the interlocking set of half-assed plans we have (ethanol, CAFE) allow us to muddle through?  I hope so, just because a plan in the sense of a national WWII style mobilization assumes a significant event as its trigger.  And by its nature, such a trigger comes late.

Oh, and of course it will slow response as people shrug off the disaster cult.

Thanks for your reply, although I would say that I don't agree that Doomers are not as dangerous as Cornucopians. In fact I'd probably say they were more dangerous because:

a) they tend to ensure that Peak Oil gets dismissed as not worthy of consideration, since its a more productive viewpoint for most people to ignore what they can't affect and file 'peak oil' with Y2K, rapture, etc.

b) they have a tendency towards no action. Many will say they are acting, just with permaculture and powerdown. However since this basically requires die off their approaches tend towards small scale and "I'm all right jack" - not solutions which encompass everyone. Making do, not making it work.

c) its an article of faith, not cast iron fact, that there are no possible routes to a solution that maintains lives and lifestyles. Many arguments put forward by the types I outlined above are weak and have appeals to "because this one instance has problems, the whole idea is dead" (ethanol arguments, I name you). In general, in life, its better to try and fail than not try at all and doomers tend not to want anyone to try at all.

d) what you have written is in many ways preaching to the choir, you will get general agreement. However its when the cold glare of justified critism hits the everyday viewpoints that something can be learnt and arguments can move on. Most peak oil doomers have a significant degree of self satisfied smugness about the way they view the arguments - "I understand this, I'm not going to be one of those that die off". That smugness has to be 'popped' if we are to move beyond counting the days to the apocalypse. Stage 1 is understanding, stage 2 planning, stage 3 action - we've stuck at stage 1.

e) there are more examples of doomers being proved wrong than being proved right. Many more.

I would suggest that you, or someone, should do the balancing article - it would I think be illuminating to many.

I'm sympathetic to much of your point of view, though not all of it. I'm more worried about your point a) than the others. Concerning e) -- end of the world prophecies are a dime a dozen. They've been standard fare in Western Civilization since Biblical times. Finally, ethanol (at least from corn) is like putting a band-aid on a broken leg. Other solutions that I favor, like manufacturing liquids from algae, may be better.

The problem with ethanol is simply this: it's the latest in a series of pseudo-solutions that seek to maintain "business as usual" and do not address fundamental problems. So, when "Doomers" diss these ideas, they are 1/2 right. As you point out, what's often missing is a constructive response.

I am "preaching to the choir" but when you consider that the IEA, CERA, many respected economists, etc. are singing a Cornucopian tune based on flawed arguments, it still seems important to provide some ammunition to opponents of such thinking in the war of ideas. In addition, there is a spate of newstories every day pointing the way to "salvation" -- not from optimists but from the daily press. Consider the report about the Falkland Islands having 60 billion barrels of oil from Spiegel Magazine. The claim is completely unsubstantiated; the press throws out these false hopes all the time. Who are the ones living in a fantasy world?

When the Earth's global mean surface temperature is 3° higher than now, little of this will matter anyway.

I'll consider doing a Doomer post. Some good points have been raised here.

-- Dave

Your right that most of the 'government' datasets, etc. err on the side of extreme optimism. I've tended to discard them from this discussion mainly because there are so many holes.

However its interesting to recognise why and how they arise.

Firstly they are as a result of political action, and politicians by training assume that everyone is lying to them. Where those lies help to make life easier for them, they are incorporated. Where they cause the need for uncomfortable decisions, they are shelved, restudied and generally pushed out beyond the policital term of office. Truth is a quaint concept.

Thus if you want to be taken notice of, say what the politicians can deal with and look good. That's what these oganisations learn. In addition, if you were not to take the Saudi numbers as gospel that's equivalent to calling them liars - not good politics and likely to end up on the front page of the newspapers.

Lastly, its much easier to get heard if you come with problem AND solution, rather than just problem. Its a package deal the politician is looking for, make them look good with minimal effort and no negative effects on them.

Compare and contrast that set of requirements with the peak oil message if you want to know why the corn ethanol people get so far.

its an article of faith, not cast iron fact, that there are no possible routes to a solution that maintains lives and lifestyles.

Neither "faith" nor "cast iron fact", really, just like 99.999% probability that there are "no possible routes" to solutions "which encompass everyone", barring nuclear fusion (MicroHydro in this current thread), perpetual motion machines and the like.

Most peak oil doomers have a significant degree of self satisfied smugness about the way they view the arguments - "I understand this, I'm not going to be one of those that die off"


Dude, you are soo projecting here.

I'm the Alpha-Doomer here and I can assure you I have no such smugness. Why not? Cause I know I'm dead meat the day the services go out permanently.

Can some of the other Doomers chime in here? Bob Shaw, I think realizes his goose is cooked being 50 plus and in a concrete and asphalt jungle in Arizona.

As far as doomers being proved wrong: WRONG. What were all those doomers dating back to the 50s saying? Well sometime around 2000 (gave or take 15 years) we're going to see sky-high oil prices, ots of oil wars, and catastrophic weather events, as the world goes past the point of no-return in regards to energy and climate.

Good for you then.

Its just something I've noticed in general. The immediate response to a problem the size of peak oil is to want to find a solution that keeps your hide alive. Some imagine their farm in the hills, think that's the solution and get no further. They become doomers by default, with the added mix of 'I'm OK'. Its an implicit smugness, rather than explicit.

Others think on to the consequences of society breakdown (civilisation is 4 meals from anarchy) and realise that singletons, or even small groups, aren't tenable in the long term. They start thinking larger groups until they realise that unless a substantial percentage of today's infrastructure survives, they won't. They become not so much 'business as usual', but more 'support and reform' along sustainable lines in the broadest sense. These are forced away from the doomer camp by their wish to survive.

Some just give up, taking a fatalistic attitude that says nothing can work.

BTW the point about doomers being wrong is that all those people who believed in those potential dooms were convinced they were right. They had the data and the concept that showed there was no escape. They were wrong.

However correct you consider your chain of reasoning, you have to take into account the possibility that you've missed something, some left field effect, and that you will join their ranks. Because they were wrong doesn't mean you are - but it does mean you should question your assumptions again and again.

Thanks Dave for that post. I would have add another category in your taxonomy: "the ingenuity optimists" as defined by Thomas Homer-Dixon. A good representant is Jesse H. Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University:

As I will report, my search of the book of history and my projections for the 21st century based on the historical patterns I find suggest that many of the usual specters of shortage and fallout are phantoms. Instead, I see a society learning to use resources efficiently and cleanly. Keys described along the way include market substitution, precision agriculture, dematerialization, decarbonization, and industrial ecology. Unfortunately, I will not leave you, the reader, without worries. But, I hope to shift attention from the spell-binding phantoms to real stresses that we should sweat to relieve. Let us not exhaust ourselves chasing phantoms, when the race before us is anyway long and hard.
src: Resources and Environment in the 21st Century: Seeing Past the Phantoms


First thank you for the link to the speech by Jesse H. view, it's a damm good speech, undercut by what we now realize, at least for the time being are glaring flaws.

The most notable is an assumption that Ausubel makes concerning natural gas, but his view was the "consensus view" at that time in 1998, showing how quickly conditions can change.  

Ausubel obviously accepted the assumption that cheap and easy natural gas was a given.  This is turning out to be greatly debatable, and may actually have a greater impact in the future than the crude oil problems  (Matthew Simmons himself has stressed this), in that so many of the "frontier energy" plans rely on cheap input of natural gas.  Fuel cells, ethanol, the "hydrogen economy", tar sands extraction, affordable agriculture, GTL (gas to liquids) all rely on cheap natural gas imputs to be viable.  

Given Ausubel's absolute relience on the substitution of gas for older less clean fuel sources, we have to now question hard his underpinning assumption.  His discussion of nat gas in the price range of $3 or $4 dollers per MM/btu (and this considered the absolute top price range) now seem quint and sad....:-(

The question everyone is now asking is "How much world natural gas is out there, and will it be available to all customers on a worldwide basis?"

Gas is not "fungible" in the way crude oil is hard and expensive to transport, and political and logistical issues are of extreme importance.  It is an industry that relies on long term trust, commitments, and long lead times.

A nation with NO home natural gas can prosper, witness Japan and Korea, but it requires very sensitive and precise relations with the nations of the world, not America's strongest suit, especially right now.

The gas industry may be "where it's at" when we talk about the future of meeting energy demand and need in the world.

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

Re: This [natural gas supply] is turning out to be greatly debatable ... Ausubel obviously accepted the assumption that cheap and easy natural gas was a given.

I'll get back to you on this one, Roger, but for right now I can't stop laughing...

Anyone (including Ausubel) can read any of my posts on natural gas supply in North America... Just click here and do some research... It's not so hard to do (memory and intelligence being crucial here) rather than fantastic projections ignoring geology... When will they learn???

Check it out from last year:

After weak prices in the 1990s due to oversupply, natural gas production in North America will probably continue to decline unless there is another big discovery, Exxon Mobil Corp.'s chief executive said on Tuesday.

"Gas production has peaked in North America," Chief Executive Lee Raymond told reporters at the Reuters Energy Summit.

Asked whether production would continue to decline even if two huge arctic gas pipeline projects were built, Raymond said, "I think that's a fair statement, unless there's some huge find that nobody has any idea where it would be."

When, I mean when, will the Jesse Ausubels of this world understand what's going on?

-- Dave