Where There Were No Doors

Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before - Joseph Campbell

Monday, April 18, 2005

Reciprolinkage and The Problem With Optimists

Well it looks less and less likely that the white smoke soon to billow above the Vatican will bear my name. A dirty tricks campaign organised by Opus Dei did a lot of damage and the sad fact is; an idealistic independent like myself just can't compete against the well-funded vested interests in the modern ecclesiastical arena. Of course, as Nick pointed out in the comments to a previous post, campaigning is prohibited for the papacy. Ah my dear Mr. Barlow; how refreshingly and charmingly naïve of you.

Yes campaigning is indeed officially prohibited, but the Church hasn't taken a blind bit of notice of that since Leo XIII took over from Blessed Pius IX in 1878. Leo's publication of the "Let's Stay Blessed" manifesto - just after Blessed Pius died - propelled him from a nobody Cardinal from a family in Carpineto with rather shady claims to nobility, straight to the top of the pecking order.

Since then, of course, campaigning has become less about publishing doctrine and more about schmoozing the right clergy. Most analysts agree that John Paul II would never have got the top job if it hadn't been for those "fact-finding" junkets to the Caribbean that he arranged for the Council of Bishops. And this time round, Ratzinger was sending out gold Rolexes before JP2 was cold. What chance do I stand against the well-oiled campaign machines employed by the bigwigs? It's all rather dispiriting.

However, in what most analysts believe is an acknowledgement of the direction in which the papacy is heading (albeit slowly), the Council of Cardinals have requested that I "look after" the Papal Infallibility for the time being (just 'between popes' as it were). This is an honour usually bestowed on someone the Cardinals see as being the future of The Church, but as yet probably a little too inexperienced to be Infallible on a full-time basis... kind of like a Youth Training Scheme.

What this does mean, however, is that I've had a week or so of being 100% right about everything.

Which is why I've been so surprised at the comments springing up around the web about my Who Should You Vote For? bit. Over at Tim Worstall's Britblog Roundup (Number Nine) for instance, Tim openly admits that "I doubt there’s very much he and I agree upon". Any other time, Tim, and that might be OK. This week it's blasphemy mate.

Paul Davies at Make My Vote Count, says "it lapses into age-old 'anyone but the Tories' vitriol on every other line" and that I "churn out the old party cliches". It's one thing Paul, to critique my writing... but at the moment, thanks to Catholic dogma, you're critiquing The Word of God. And I happen to know He's a bit bloody touchy about that. That'll be three Hail Marys, two Our Fathers and an eternity in the lake of fire for you.

Both Cabalamat and Chicken Yoghurt took the safe option and simply linked to the original piece with little or no commentary. Him Upstairs approves of that.

While across at The Pseudo Magazine we see the emergence of the first Alternate Version of The Text. Already, as scholars of catechism will be interested to note, we see a Scriptural Shift. Oliver "Dog-Kicker" Letwin was described as a director of "Morgan Rothschild" in the original text. However, upon deeper reflection and meditation, it was revealed to me that it should have read "NM Rothschild". The correction was made, but only after the New Text was released.

And that, folks, is schism just waiting to happen.

Robert over at Consider Phlebas rails against the use of Lord Acton's dictum that "power corrupts". And actually he does have a point (I'm allowed say that, I'm Infallible. When Robert says it though, it's heresy.)

Lord Acton's dictum

Of course, we could debate Lord Acton's "power corrupts" forever and a day, and not arrive at a resolution. I fully acknowledge that fine individuals can be immune to the corruption that exercising power over others seems to cause. But history would suggest that such individuals only rarely achieve power. When Albert Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel for instance, he declined. It seems that the kind of people who may exercise power wisely, almost never want to exercise power.

Once in a while we are fortunate, and circumstances propel a Gandhi onto the world stage. But my experience in corporations and my assessment of politics tells me that almost nobody who seeks power over others can be trusted to remain uncorrupted by that power.

But the specific issue of whether or not power has an inevitable corrupting influence on all but the most remarkable of individuals is not actually the crucial point in Robert's post. Leastways it's not the point I wish to address. Robert, you see, describes that view as a
form of pessimism in the face of the mendacity, grubby self-interest, corruption and narrow focus of much of politics, a pessimism which is generalized to all possible politics, and which thus can ... leave us stymied by the unacceptable face of the world as it is, unwilling to try and change it because change will only make it worse.
and he goes on to accuse it of being a form
of conservatism, of resistance to the idea that, however complex the human world is, it is of our making, and we can, with the correct knowledge, carefully applied by people of good-will, make it better.
Robert has, in criticising my use of Lord Acton's dictum, perfectly elucidated a criticism which has been levied at my writing for several years now... something which has been haunting me for a long time, but which I have recently managed to exorcise.

Peak oil and me

My attempts to publicise the dangers of a global peak in oil production stretch all the way back to my first letters to politicians on the subject in early 1997. In the eight years since then, my opinions on the implications of oil peaking have remained largely unchanged, yet have gone from being lunatic fringe stuff to being the mainstream view. What has not changed, however, is the hostility with which those views are met by a significant majority of people.

Statistically speaking, I am due to live another 40 years. During that time, I will witness the complete collapse of free-market capitalism. The project of globalisation will fail, and the consumer culture within which recent generations have been raised will end. A massive reduction in living standards, unlike any other readjustment in history, will be experienced by 99% of us living in the industrialised world. A hundred thousand things that we all take for granted today will have ceased to exist by the time I reach my allotted lifespan. This, dear reader, will happen. And it is perhaps unsurprising that this pronouncement was not joyously embraced by the people I informed of it.

First let me point out that the problem we face is a Physical Systems problem. It's not an economic problem, despite the insistence of certain kooks who claim that The Market can find a solution to anything (apropos of nothing in particular, I was amused and bemused last week to discover that someone had arrived at my site by googling for 'Oliver Kamm tedious bore'). By 1998 large US corporations were giving me tens of millions of dollars of their Physical Systems and telling me to optimise them (now there's a euphemism for closing factories if ever I heard one!). It was said that I was a bit of an expert in the field.

But the private project with which I was becoming increasingly obsessed was far larger than saving a couple of companies in the midwest (which, incidentally, I succeeded in doing before going completely apeshit). Initially I held a secret hope of being The Great Man who discovered the solution to the crisis... who saved the world. And indeed, some may still recall the evangelical zeal with which I argued the case for a largescale increase in biomass; replacing fossil oils with plant oils.

However, by the end of 1998 the full implications of peak oil finally began to sink in. I was working 80 hours per week every week at my job and putting in another 20 hours on "saving the world". The rest of the time I spent watching US TV evangelists (sleep didn't happen very much that year). Y2K, the Second Coming and my inability to create a biomass model capable of being scaled up, provided me with one of my many Road to Damascus moments and I quit the grindstone to be depressed for a while.

If there's one thing that makes industrial engineering (for instance) a satisfying profession, it's the presence of right and wrong answers. Inevitabilities and absolutes. If a vehicle fleet is burning X litres of fuel per day and I calculate that moving the locations of three distribution centres, and eliminating two others will reduce X by a third, then I'm either going to be right or wrong when the plan is implemented. And if I gather enough data beforehand, and ensure that I analyse it in the correct manner, then I can guarantee being right, near-as-dammit, even before implementation. Because it all comes down to mathematics, and understanding exactly how mathematics can be applied to the physical world. Einstein may once have said "as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality"; but as far as engineering is concerned, you can trust maths to be near-as-dammit accurate.

Strange to think though, that all over the world there are engineers who - when pressed - would admit to near-as-dammit accuracy. That may not reassure you all that much, next time you get into a plane or drive over a suspension bridge. But it's the way of things.

The politics of pessimism

As the years passed, people stopped arguing the facts of the situation with me. What's the point when it's possible to demonstrate them on an etch-a-sketch? (as a great man once said). And here in 2005, it's almost impossible to find someone, who knows what they're talking about, who doesn't agree that we are approaching a singular discontinuity in human affairs. The US Dept of Energy, the International Energy Agency, ExxonMobil, the Saudi oil minister, everyone who has conducted serious research into the matter. All are now on board; and the biggest wild-eyed optimist of the lot (Saudi Aramco) tell us not to worry, as the problem is still 30 to 50 years away; a position which looks increasingly absurd as the facts emerge, but even if true, is still only reassuring if our generation doesn't give a damn about the next lot.

Nobody disagrees that a problem is approaching to which there is no solution beyond accepting the naturally imposed limits of the physical system within which we live. Nobody disagrees. Except the economists. But they're idiots.

So as the years passed, people stopped arguing the facts. Instead they found another way to ignore the implications. They insisted that what I was saying couldn't possibly be true because it was pessimistic. Or at least, that's what their complaints boiled down to. And at the back of my mind, I felt a creeping doubt. Maybe they're right. I was clearly suffering from depression (due to a combination of overwork, stress and a youth spent consuming anything rumoured to be psychoactive), and that was bound to colour my views.

But as I slowly began to recover from depression, I gained a deeper understanding of the psychological issues surrounding the peak oil problem and exactly why people are so hostile to taking it seriously. And I realised that the facts of the problem speak for themselves; that my depression had been at least partly due to my coming to terms with those facts; and that the process of coming to terms is precisely the painful and unpleasant experience that people are rejecting when they react with hostility to my "pessimism".

And with the lifting of my depression, I also realised, finally, that I'm not a pessimist. I was reading an essay of George Orwell's written just prior to the outbreak of World War Two. In the essay he recommended the immediate nationalisation of all industry to swiftly prepare for a war against fascism. The merits of his nationalisation proposal aren't what's important here, but the fact that the was trying to convince society that an urgent collective solution was required to a very serious problem. Orwell saw fascism rising (as did many of course) but was dismayed to find himself dismissed as a pessimist and a communist by those who were convinced of "peace in our time".

Pessimism and optimism are not natural opposites. Rather they are both manifestations of a desire to deny reality. In 1938 a realistic assessment of Europe would acknowledge the great likelihood of war in the near future, and it would not be pessimistic to recommend preparation. The pessimistic position is actually to argue that preparation is pointless because it is a foregone conclusion that fascism will triumph. The optimistic position, in 1938, is that Hitler is going to be satisfied with what he's got up until now, and preparation for a conflict with fascism is completely unnecessary. Both of these are denials of reality. And the realist is derided as a doom-monger by the optimist and as a wild-eyed loon by the pessimist. Both of whom wallow comfortably in their denial.

So it is, that our society must acknowledge the approaching fascist tide. Or rather it's 21st century equivalent; unsustainability. The problem we face is simple enough to comprehend... we have built a society which requires X amount of energy to continue existing. Energy is defined as "the ability to do work". Very soon, we will only have X - y available to us and y will continue to increase quite sharply for the next century or so, after which it will level out at a number almost a big as X.

There are plenty of pessimists out there. And at the very depths of my depression, when the full impact of how the second half of my life is likely to pan out sank in, I was one of them. People who throw their hands in the air and insist that there's nothing that can be done. That the planet will experience a human dieoff event likely to see our population drop from 6-8 billion to less than a billion within a generation.

And there are optimists who insist that there's nothing that needs to be done. That technology will save us, or The Market will save us, or Aliens will save us... anything at all that means they can continue to live in denial; to live for as long as possible as an integral part of the consumer system that's making the problem worse. And like blinkered fools in 1938 deriding the warnings of an approaching storm, the optimists of today drown out the realists with mocking scorn.

- "Did you know that the Gharwar oilfield in Saudi Arabia has recently entered production decline?"
- "Jesus Christ Jim! Why not try cheering up, eh? Put a smile on your face, a song in your heart, and a blind faith in the idea that 'someone always fixes the problem'. Then all will be well."

I believe that the approaching crisis has the potential to destroy all that is good about modern human society (and there's plenty of good out there... from health care to sanitation to recorded music). And I believe that unless we take massive steps to mitigate the effects of this crisis; effects which are undeniably going to occur; that the destruction will be near-as-dammit guaranteed. It is the pessimists (like Jay Hanson - the man who set up dieoff.org and first really opened my eyes to this issue) and the optimists (like David Dunn - a sometime commentator on this blog; guilty of the "cheer up, it'll never happen" line of logic) who are maintaining our suicidal status quo.

A person is seen as psychotic when they cease being able to function and maintain their existence within the society in which they find themselves. Similarly, a society can be seen as psychotic when it ceases being able to function and maintain it's existence within the physical environment in which it finds itself. So long as we had access to an ever-increasing pool of energy, our society remained sane. We can't rely on that any more. The rules have changed (or rather, we're finally about to learn them properly) and the denial demonstrated by the optimists is soon to be revealed as the psychosis it truly is.

I believe that steps can be taken to mitigate this problem. I believe solutions are available which could prevent a great deal of the suffering that threatens to occur. However, until the world stops listening to the psychopaths who preach business as usual, we realists still find ourselves banging our heads against the walls of ignorance, indifference and optimism which surround - and prevent us from dealing with - the real problem.


Blogger Tim Worstall said...

I love the conceit of borrowing Infallibility. Wish I’d thought of that.
On the other hand, I was right yesterday. We don’t agree on anything. Peak oil (it leading us to the collapse of civilization) is nonsense. Piffle.
Yes I do know my economics (and am therefore by your definition bonkers, so feel free to ignore my opinions) and also have quite a lot to do with fuel cells and their development.
There is no shortage of energy. There is a shortage of cheap energy, to be sure, but no shortage of energy in usable forms.

18/4/05 18:44  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

Globalisation is predicated upon cheap energy and economic expansion upon an ever-increasing supply of energy. Both are about to end.

Fuel cells do not - as yet - work on a commercial scale. However, they are 100% irrelevant to the issue of energy supply (excepting that they are an energy sink, and will make the problem far worse if widescale implementation is attempted).

If you wish to argue that there is "no shortage of energy", then I'm very interested. I've yet to hear a single argument (that holds water) in favour of the notion that we can replace the energy content of fossil fuels with a substitute. Or that our current civilisation can exist without that energy.

I recall two years ago being in a debate with someone who called me deluded. "Didn't I realise", he argued, "that as soon as oil reaches 50 dollars a barrel, all that shale oil in Canada suddenly becomes commercially viable?"

Well oil's been above 50 dollars for a while now, and there's no movement in Canada. You know why? Because it turns out that the exploitation of oil shale and tar sands both require massive amounts of fresh water and natural gas. Turns out there's not enough gas (Canada is required under NAFTA to essentially provide the USA with as much NG as it demands). But worse still; in the two regions where oil shale exploitation began, it had to close down because of serious depletion of the water table.

I acknowledge that's just an anecdote; not a coherent argument; but I don't - of course - know that your "no shortage of energy" has anything to do with Canadian shale. So there's no point in taking the time to reference any of that just now.

However, I'm very interested in where you believe the energy will come from to replace crude oil and natural gas as they deplete (and what materials we shall use to replace the thousands of other uses to which we put petrochemicals?)

18/4/05 19:17  
Blogger Andrew said...

Okay, I'll bite.

The thing is - you're the pessimist, so if you want to change things, you really have to start supplying the answers. Sitting on the sidelines and bitching, and then even saying 'I told you so' when the shit hits the fan, isn't that helpful.

I'm not an energy expert, but I know physics, and I know a bit of economics. The problem of declining oil supplies is twofold, as I see it:

i) We get energy from oil.
ii) We make stuff from oil.

i) is an easily solvable problem, in my limited understanding. We switch to nuclear, solar, or other forms of energy generation. As the price of oil goes up, these get more attractive. As R&D piles in, they get cheaper and better.

ii) is a harder problem, but still solvable. We recycle old things, we learn to synthesise materials better, we fix broken things rather than throwing them out. We substitute where we can. Again, as oil goes up, alternatives get cheaper.

So, I'm not an expert, but where is the flaw in my argument? What am I missing?

18/4/05 20:23  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

First up NTS, I'm not the pessimist. In fact, that's pretty much the point being discussed; whether my assertions about the implications of peak oil reflect reality or are simple pessimism. So stating up front "The thing is - you're wrong" is probably getting off on the wrong foot.

And as for your statement that "sitting on the sidelines and bitching [...] isn't that helpful", I can only agree completely. However, I'm concerned that the reason you mention it is to imply that I'm guilty of it. Which kind of overlooks the fact that I'm not. After quitting my career I offered my (arguably quite valuable) skills for free to a couple of research projects (one an analysis of the possibilities of sugarcane as biofuel; the other a number-crunching Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) analysis of uranium mining). I also did my little bit directly (anti-roads direct actions, etc.), took part in conferences, participated in think-thanks and wrote quite a bit on the subject.

During the past two years, unfortunately, I've been quite ill and hence my active participation has been curtailed. But I am thankfully recovered now, and with a bit of luck I'll be publishing a book on the subject later this year and hope to begin giving talks on the subject at the end of this month.

There's no reason you should know any of this of course, but nor is there any reason for you to assume that I've been sitting on the sidelines bitching. I have been supplying answers. The entire point of my post was that these solutions are irrelevant so long as the vast majority of people (yourself included) fail to see the problem.

(apologies if I come across as being a tad defensive on this; I really don't mean to be; but I hold my involvement with energy resources, and the stress involved, as being at least partly responsible for me having to spend far more of 2004 in the company of doctors than I'd have liked. So being accused of bitching from the sidelines - even by implication - rankles somewhat).

Anyways, the above post wasn't about solutions to the crisis (a topic I have covered before and will cover again... right now in fact, albeit briefly), and it certainly wasn't about saying "I told you so" to anyone.

i) We get energy from oil.
Yes, but that's not the entire story. It's a fantastically concentrated form of energy, and it's a fantastically portable one. This combination is fairly unique. So while Uranium, for instance, may be more energy-dense it simply hasn't got the portability to be an adequate substitute for most of oil's applications (nobody really suggests we switch to uranium-fueled cars).

Also, uranium has it's own depletion problems and - were nuclear energy to be scaled up to replace the energy derived from oil - the world's proven uranium reserves would disappear faster than the world's oil. Of course, there's the old "uranium from seawater" idea, but that's simply not scalable. I've never bothered to calculate the number of reactors you would need in order to supply the electricity required to extract enough uranium from seawater to replace oil and gas generated electricity. Of course, you'd also need to build enough extra reactors to run the uranium-extraction reactors. I've never bothered to do the calculations because the number is self-evidently of such a magnitude as to make the idea into the world's largest sustained engineering project by a long long way... many thousands of nuclear reactors all over the world... being built in an environment of diminishing fossil fuel supply. As a solution to the problem of our increasing energy consumption it is sheer folly.

What the hell is wrong with people that they propose building thousands of nuclear power plants - with all of the associated problems that heaps upon future generations - rather than accept that they're consuming too much? Have we honestly become so fucking craven?

And presumably you're running the transport infrastructure on some electricity-byproduct (batteries or fuel-cells or whatever), thereby increasing the overall quantity of generated electricity required by a full order of magnitude. All of this investment in infrastructure requires a staggering amount of energy to carry out. And conveniently ignores a large number of other, perhaps insoluble, problems (nobody has even addressed the serious engineering problems involved in a nationwide hydrogen infrastructure, for instance - quite aside from the staggering amount of energy it would consume in refrigeration and/or compression).

As for gas... many believe that Natural Gas shortages will bring the US economy to its knees even before peak oil kicks in.

So it's not fair to just say "we get energy from oil" and leave it there. From oil we get energy in a unique form. It is the only possible fuel for air-transport, and the only realistic fuel for the personal automobile (fuel cells and batteries are both energy sinks). From crude oil we get a fuel of such energy concentration, that it would take an area of arable land half the size of the continental United States devoted to growing sugarcane (two crops per year, and assuming a constant supply of ammonia-based fertiliser and pesticide... i.e. a massive energy subsidy from Natural Gas is built into this) just to fuel the current US private automobile fleet.

That excludes freight vehicles, military and government vehicles, aircraft, industrial equipment and anything else that currently uses a liquid fuel. Half a continent. For one nation's private car fleet.

I mention this so that you might get some sense of scale. The energy we derive from oil is quite enormous. It accounts for 40% of total global energy consumption, and 95% of the energy consumed by the transport sector. Natural gas makes up another 30% of global energy usage (and that's got a completely different depletion curve to oil, incidentally... often described as the natural gas "cliff"). So that's 70% of global energy that requires replacement over the next 50 years.

But more importantly, the energy we get from oil (and gas to a lesser extent) is unique. It took me two years of studying this issue before I really understood this fact. Two years in which I visited oil fields and refineries and pipelines on my biomass-will-save-us tour. The unique nature of oil is not something I can pull up a simple chart to demonstrate. And I don't expect you to take it on faith. But then, I have come to the conclusion that the onus is not on me to prove this. Oil production is peaking now, or will do so over the next handful of years. The obligation is upon those who claim we can still live an oil-fueled life without oil to demonstrate how that is possible.

Your offhand assumption that we can switch to "nuclear, solar, or other forms of energy generation" is just that; an assumption. And it's far more a declaration of faith than my assertion that oil is a unique energy source. I have studied the problem of how to substitute other sources of energy for oil. And I have read the writing of just about everyone else who has studied it.

And now I am saying that when you take the oil away, your cars will no longer work. And I am saying that the implications of the cars no longer working are very serious indeed and need to be prepared for. It is not up to me to prove this (we know cars stop working when they don't have oil/petrol). It is up to the optimists, those who - I argue - are denying reality, to demonstrate exactly how the cars (and planes and industrial machinery) will continue working when they no longer have oil. That's an engineering problem, and an ERoEI problem... i.e. a physical systems problem.

You see, my solutions all require a massive upheaval. Things like declaring global fossil fuel reserves to be the property of the commons and placed under the administration of an international non-profit agency. Things like banning the use of the private automobile. I know that we face a problem of this scale. And I know that these things will happen eventually. However, I worry that they will only happen after we have spent a decade fighting pointless resource wars in order to suck dry the last of the underground riches. After we have squandered what oil we have left on absurd military adventures, rather than investing it in a powerdown strategy.

See, I don't think this has to end badly. I'm not a pessimist. I think we can use our remaining resources to build a sustainable post-consumerist / post-capitalist infrastructure. But optimists who suggest that all is well... that we can simply switch from oil to magic spacedust... are recklessly destroying all chances of a sane solution.

ii) We make stuff from oil.
And we'll just make the same stuff out of something else right? It's really not that simple. I mean for starters NTS, what do we make ammonia fertiliser from when the natural gas runs out? And without petrochemicals where do our pesticides come from? When you respond that Market Demand will stimulate Supply and "alternatives will be found", are you aware that you're not actually proposing a solution to a physical problem but merely reciting a modern religious dogma? What alternatives?

Those willing to bet the world's food supply on price mechanisms solving the oil problem are the ones with an obligation to explain the details of their plan.

19/4/05 00:27  
Blogger Andrew said...


Thanks for replying - you're right - my comment was unnecessarily bitchy, so apologies for that. I may reply in more detail on my own blog, but as I said, I'm not an expert, so underequipped in this debate, but I love a good ruck...

You say oil is tremendously concentrated - fine, but we can use other forms of power generation to fuel those energy sinks we will use to power the transport infrastructure, or where portable energy sources are needed. Yes, there are large scale engineering problems involved, but the point is: There is no alternative. As you say, oil is running out. As the price of oil increases, it will make a lot of sense to solve those engineering problems, because the person that does will get very rich. Your solution - global socialism, essentially - is a non-starter. People will not decrease their consumption without an incentive.

On the 'making stuff' bit, I expect developments in nanotech to solve a lot of these problems, but I'm not an engineer, so it isn't up to me to propose a solution. Again, the price incentive will ensure that R&D money floods into the necessary sectors. I'm aware that sounds dogmatic, but I'm not in a position to personally solve the problem. I wish I was - I would end up extremely wealthy. It's not even really one problem - it is thousands of little engineering / technology problems, but we're getting there, one step at a time. Solar cells get more efficient every year. Batteries get smaller in size and larger in capacity. What makes you think this tide of innovation will reverse at the exact moment when we need it not to?


19/4/05 12:08  
Anonymous Paul Davies said...

haha. In my little world, the phrase "it's really rather good" grants me immunity from lightning bolts and other exciting ethereal things...

but thanks for noticing :)

19/4/05 13:08  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

Paul, Him Upstairs is having one of his more Old Testament moments right now (something to do with false idols and mammon). So I wouldn't take anything for granted!

NTS, your comment illustrates what I see as a major problem that we face. You acknowledge this "I'm not an engineer, so it isn't up to me to propose a solution" which is at least an implication that the problem we face is an engineering one, and that it's the engineers who need to propose the solution. However, you are very clearly and openly deciding to take advice on it from economists and not engineers.

Can you see the fundamental problem? Exactly why I devoted a post to the frustrating denial in which most of the world appears to be living.

I have worn many hats in my life, and I'm smart enough to know which is the most appropriate for any given occasion (just imagine how confusing that line must be to someone unaware of the whole "hats = roles" metaphor). When faced with an engineering problem, it makes sense to address it from that perspective. This is why; on precisely none of the projects that I ran, did I ever propose basing the success or failure of the entire venture upon the expectation that "developments in nanotech" will "solve a lot of ... problems". See, that's just not how engineers work.

You don't know the owner of the company I worked for of course... but try to imagine an East End Boy made very good... started a small contracting firm and saw it explode into a major global consultancy employing some of the best in the world, but he himself never really left his pipe-fitter roots; a ruthless man who was never ever going to let go of his little bit of success. Right now I'm picturing his face as I tell him that I've just lost 35 million dollars of the Saudi Packaging Company's money because the developments in nanotech that I expected failed to materialise.

See, there's a damn good reason engineers don't think the way economists do. It's because the real world quite often fails to supply demand. And if engineers thought like economists we'd all still be hunter-gatherers waiting for those expected developments in nanotech to kickstart the irrigation system. Engineers build with what they have today. Because that's how you solve engineering problems.

Your solution is that "someone will develop a solution". Well, that's great. And you're willing to bet the food supply for exactly how many people on your expected developments in nanotech? See, if you tell an engineer to solve that problem (we're running out of fertiliser feedstock, how do we feed people?) you'll be given a solution that actually feeds the people. Of course, it might be at the expense of your right to drive an SUV. But the people will get fed.

The decision to ignore the engineering solution to the engineering problem, and listen instead to the economists who say you have an inalienable right to drive your SUV. "Economic growth! Choice!" (or whatever it is they're shouting these days) is to place your faith in dogma (that The Market will provide).

Do you acknowledge at least that much; that your "solution" places the lives of perhaps billions of human beings at risk based upon "your expectation" that The Market will provide an alternative to natural gas as a fertiliser feedstock? That whilst accepting it is an engineering problem, you are refusing to accept an engineering solution (i.e. one that does not rely upon as-yet undiscovered technology)?

That's a hell of a risk you seem willing to take based upon your personal faith. You and the rest of the industrialised west are willing to continue consuming resources at a plainly unsustainable rate in the expectation that the system you have developed (The Market) is perfect enough to sort out the problem?

NTS, I know how this ends up. I know The Market solution. I know that we in the west are willing and able to pay more to keep our air-conditioners running, than those in most of Africa are capable of paying for food. Our over-consumption is already killing people in the poorer countries for different reasons. What makes you think The Market will give a damn about them post-peak, given that it doesn't now?

19/4/05 13:34  
Anonymous Paul Davies said...

in that case, I must refer to plan b - call in the folks... knew their life-long insanity would come in useful one day...

I'm saved!

19/4/05 14:28  
Blogger Andrew said...


With respect, you aren't proposing an engineering solution either -you're proposing a massive decrease in consumption - that's an economic solution. And I'd argue that it's neither desirable, nor realistic, nor necessary. I'm quite happy to listen to engineers, which is why I believe the problem isn't as bad as you make out. You deride my suggestion that 'developments in nanotech' may save the day. Well, it may not be what happens, but look at this sort of thing: http://www.newscientist.com/channel/mech-tech/dn7081

A new, small, development in battery technology that lasts longer, is smaller, and is more resilient than previous tech. This kind of thing is happening in hundreds of different fields - incrementally small improvements, every day. That's what will fix the problem, not some global shutdown, retreating back to the caves, living in the dark.

Again, with all due respect, third world poverty is a totally different problem, one that is largely economic in nature.

Of course there is a risk that it won't all end up smiley and happy. I fully expect it not to. There are winners and losers in almost every decision. But there's a risk in everything. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. The mass-extinction asteroid may hit. Who knows? But I'd rather be positive and work towards the best solution, than be negative and start switching off the lights.


20/4/05 15:22  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

With equal respect Andrew, I am indeed proposing an engineering solution (actually quite a number of separate engineering solutions). Though obviously I'm not outlining the details of a powerdown plan as a blog comment.

The point, let me reiterate, is this: We will soon have to live with less energy unless someone comes up with a substitute for oil (which - as yet - has not occurred). The problem, therefore, is how to fulfill all the essential functions to keep the population alive and healthy but using less energy.

See, you still don't seem to get it. I'm not really talking about "reducing demand"; I'm talking about functioning with a reduced quantity and quality of energy.

I was discussing this issue with a petroleum engineer just last night. His opinion is that the world has yet to reach peak, but that demand has begun to outstrip supply even so. He's just finished a stint out on an oilfield in Africa and says that the whole industry is now buzzing with talk about supply contraction.

Also, I have never suggested returning to caves. That's a completely impractical solution. 6 or 7 billion people cannot survive using subsistence agriculture or hunter-gatherer techniques given the amount of arable land available.

I'm proposing engineering and technological solutions to physical problems, not luddism. Where did you get the impression I was somehow anti-technology? I don't hold it up as The Great Messiah, but I have been talking about engineering solutions all this time... engineers use all available technology, Andrew. That was my point.

Also; batteries? How do batteries replace the energy derived from oil? Batteries are a method of storing and transporting energy (like manufactured hydrogen or an electric current). In fact, all energy storage mechanisms and carriers are sinks. It takes energy to produce them and energy is lost during every conversion.

I accept that better battery technology will have a role to play in the future, but fail to see how they can ameliorate the peak oil problem.

Also, your assumption that "turning out the lights" is a negative thing fascinates me. I don't see an abandonment of consumerism as negative at all. I see it as a great liberation.

I guess it takes all sorts.

20/4/05 15:54  
Blogger Andrew said...

Then post your powerdown plan (at least an abstract) in a full post, and we can discuss it. Because from what you have said so far, it sounds like you're proposing an economic solution - rationing.

We will soon have to live with less energy unless someone comes up with a substitute for oil

Sure, and the important word there is 'unless'. You think that probability is unlikely. I think it fairly likely. These viewpoints are pretty close to axiomatic - i.e. articles of faith. We just believe different things.

See, you still don't seem to get it. I'm not really talking about "reducing demand"; I'm talking about functioning with a reduced quantity and quality of energy.

No, I really do get it, I just disagree. I don't think we will have to either reduce demand or function on reduced quantity/quality. I can't prove that, but nor can you prove the converse. Let's discuss it in 20 years time?

Batteries don't replace the energy stored in oil, but increasingly efficient batteries mean that we can store energy generated by means other than using oil. Portability of energy is very important, as you acknowledged earler. This is an obvious logical step. It is also just one example of technological progress. There are, I am sure, many more.

Also, your assumption that "turning out the lights" is a negative thing fascinates me. I don't see an abandonment of consumerism as negative at all. I see it as a great liberation.

Fair enough, but you have to accept you are in a minority with that view. So if your solution is to have any traction, it has to come with a really powerful sales pitch. Carrying an 'End of the World is Nigh' sign won't cut it.


20/4/05 16:46  
Blogger Jim Bliss said...

Non-contentious / "we'll agree to disagree" comment

The powerdown plan is the backbone of a book I'm writing, Andrew. I would sincerely love to post an abstract, but distilling my ideas down to an easily digestible article without losing anything I consider essential, is proving more difficult than I'd like. Watch this space, as they say, but don't hold your breath.

(Incidentally Richard Heinberg has recently published a book called "Project Powerdown" - which takes a rather different approach to me, but is still worth a read - as is his excellent book "The Party's Over" which is really the single most important book to read on this subject).

I understand what you're saying about us "just believing different things" with regards to someone coming up with a substitute for oil. But I actually think that's an incorrect analysis.

When I talk of a "substitute for oil" it's almost tongue-in-cheek. Oil isn't a commodity that can simply be switched out for another. It is a basic resource, like sunlight or water, for which there actually is no substitute. It's a unique substance within nature (well, the petroleum family of which it is the most prominent member).

Now I'm not putting forward an argument here. I'm stating the conclusions of my research, and of course I don't expect you to accept them without seeing the evidence. But hopefully I'm at least providing extra perspective on my position, and where our differences lie, until the point that I can present my work in an accessible manner.

As for discussing it in 20 years time? How about ten? That's a more realistic timescale. I very much doubt the internet is going to be playing a major part in anyone's life by 2025. If it is, then you will have every right to say "I told you so". But if we happen to bump into one another in a post-crash refugee camp, then I reserve the right to do the same.

More than that actually, I reserve the right to say something like "if people had only fucking listened! We didn't have to end up this way."

The truth is that I don't believe I need a good sales pitch. I feel that the reality of my position will become self-evident before very long. Yes, the symptoms will be deliberately obscured by politicians and media and corporations with a vested interest in doing so. And the west will be insulated from the worst of the effects for a little while (thanks to military superiority if nothing else). But before long, it will become self-evident.

I'm just hoping to have worked out a plan that will address some of the infrastructure problems we'll face by then. The book I'm working on now is more a call to arms than a detailed solution of every problem we face; an attempt to present the evidence that convinced me.

Something I plan to cover within the next week or so in a blog entry is the issue of "replacing economics".

Economics is one way of modelling and organising the distribution of resources and energy within society. That's it's function when you boil it down to it's essence. And it's a function that is carried out (even if often analogously) in almost all the complex systems that spring to mind.

But human society (including it's various subsets) is the only system that uses economics to deliver that functionality. At the very heart of my proposal is the idea that we replace the economic / competitive distribution model with one resembling a sustainable ecology. Such a fundamental shift would not, of course, be restricted to simply "fiddling about with resource distribution", it would require a complete change in how individuals view resource consumption, view themselves and view their social roles.

Again this is just a statement of my position. I will continue to try and convince people to take action quickly, because (quite frankly) the sooner our mitigation and powerdown programme comes into effect the less suffering there'll be. As the United States Dept. of Energy points out:

"Mitigation [of the peak oil crisis] will require a minimum of a decade of intense, expensive effort, because the scale of liquid fuels mitigation is inherently extremely large."

I think the sooner we start, the better.

20/4/05 22:34  

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