Sunday, January 04, 2009

No second chance

It is the mission of nearly every mainstream economist to overcome the pessimism of those who study the natural world and who don't see how the human endeavor can continue on its current course of endless exponential economic growth. "Now, now," these economists will say to the natural scientists, "you are being alarmist just like many before you. Let the marketplace work its wonders and let economic prosperity come to all parts of the world and this will enable us with our newfound wealth to address the many environmental problems we need to face."

Such arguments seem like mere nonsense to any scientist who believes that endless economic growth is the cause of those problems. But the difference between these two camps may be less than it appears. Enlightened economists do acknowledge the need to treat the environment which sustains us with more care. The main issue appears to be timetables.

Most economists believe that we are not in any imminent danger of societal collapse. We have plenty of resources and the big problem of global warming can be solved by taxing or otherwise restricting the use of carbon-based fuels. New technologies will give us what we need, in time and affordably. It has always been thus. (Except when it hasn't. But one would have to know the history of civilizations that did succumb to resource degradation and scarcity, and most economists are very much concerned with the utterly now.)

To the scientist who worries about sustainability and perhaps more urgently about the availability of enough energy, particularly oil, to run our society, this leisurely attitude seems quite dangerous. Partly, this is because the cheap fossil fuel energy we now enjoy will be needed to build the next energy economy. If we as a global society wait until the last minute to begin building that new energy economy, we may not have enough fossil fuels to do it. Those fuels may decline faster than we can replace the energy we currently get from them. This is often referred to as the rate-of-conversion problem.

Let us see how these different timetables might affect world society.

For the economist failure to grow would condemn billions to poverty, disease and ignorance. (Never mind that billions are condemned to that under the current system; but this is only because, as the economist will tell us, we haven't gone far enough with the spread of global capitalism.) If enough of the poor become middle class, their societies will undergo what is called the demographic transition. Birth rates will fall and so will death rates, and the population will level out or at least grow much more slowly. (Never mind that the true impact on the biosphere comes from per capita consumption and pollution times population, not population alone. Greatly increasing per capita consumption while slowing or ending population growth will not necessarily solve any environmental problems.)

But the path offered by my hypothetical economist is one without recourse. Once we commit to it, there is no going back. If the economist turns out to be wrong about the availability of resources or about the severity and pace of climate change, then global society could very likely face a fatal blow from which it cannot recover. There may be no second chance.

Let's look at an alternate path. If instead global society works very hard in the short term to curtail resource use and economize on energy use in an effort to reduce the throughput of physical resources radically, we may be able to build a highly efficient global economy that gives us many of the same services we have now. (Remember, it is not goods per se that we want, but the services they provide. We may want a car, but we want it because it is a convenient form of transportation. We seek the service of transportation.)

If we as a global society choose this path, and then it turns out that the pessimists in the scientific community are wrong about the severity of climate change and the availability of resources--that is, climate change turns out to be a minor problem and resource availability is much greater than anticipated by the pessimists--if this is the case, then we could choose to resume economic growth and use more resources to support it. In short, we would have a second chance to achieve the growth which the enlightened economist deems as necessary for the salvation of the poor. But we would do it within the context of a highly efficient, low-polluting system that tries to achieve all desired goals with minimal resource usage.

It is the asymmetry of risk in these trajectories that ought to give growth-oriented economists pause. Perhaps the economists will say that the risks simply aren't there. But then the record of most economists in predicting anything, even the direction of markets and market economies about which they presume to have specialist knowledge, has been nothing sort of dismal. Furthermore, the economists can give us no warranty for our society if it collapses under the weight of resource depletion and climate change. Wouldn't the more prudent path be to ensure that we don't have to face that possibility? Is the imperative for growth so great that we should risk the annihilation of our society in order to achieve it?


John Weiser said...

Kurt, you’re my hero.

Where are the natural scientists, the pessimists? I’ve heard so little from them. Would you count Stephen Chu amongst them? Even if Mr. Chu recognizes the problem, can his voice be heard up against all those ‘brilliant’ economists in Mr. Obama’s cabinet-to-be? I prefer to listen to Mr. Chu’s fellow Berkeley professor, Ted Patzek.

Further, where are the scientists and the media questioning the ‘green’ economy that’s supposed to save us? Why have they been almost silent about (and drawn the distinction between) resource depletion as compared to climate change?

Who runs Scientific American? Its role in exploring the subject (to end all subjects) has been poor. Currently, it relies on one Jeffry Sachs, another mainstream economist, to explain the connection of economics to science. The best SA has done in the past is present the article by Herman Daly, Economics in a Full World, in September 2005.

Where is the unflinching science that explains our human response to nature’s boundaries? How are we different from the proverbial lemmings? What choice was Jared Diamond alluding to in the sub-title to his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed?
(the last tree and globalization).

John Weiser
the spare can

Ralph Dratman said...

New technologies will give us what we need, in time and affordably. It has always been thus.

It is simultaneously astounding and understandable that people so easily extrapolate from "true during my lifetime and my parents'" to "true for all times past and future."

Astounding because the evidence for infinite extensibility is so thin. Understandable because people have no easy way to evaluate what has taken place in other times and places, and because the teaching of human and planetary history is, even now when we have recently learned so much about these matters, absent from most ordinary courses of study.

Ralph Dratman said...

Evolution might be said to fail in cases where the effects of maladaptive behavior are somehow delayed until insufficient resources remain for the creatures to survive and evolve further. In that case the (perhaps otherwise promising) species entirely perishes.

Exercise for the reader: discuss the phrase "otherwise promising" in the preceding sentence. Can the evolution of an intelligent species somehow find a way around the problem of overshoot?

Rice Farmer said...

Thanks as usual for a thoughtful essay. The usual thing comes to mind.

The rate-of-conversion problem is real, but not the only problem. Even if we manage to build an extensive infrastructure for renewable energy, the cold reality is that renewables don't provide the high energy return that fossil fuels do. How will we run blast furnaces without coal? And it's unrealistic to believe that the world's huge vehicle fleets could all be converted to electric vehicles, not to mention maintenance of vast road networks.

A corollary to this is that renewable energy infrastructure needs to be maintained, and that too requires fossil fuels. Repairing damage, replacing parts, keeping access and service roads in good condition, manufacturing and running maintenance vehicles, and the like will all be impossible without fossil fuels. Same goes for nuclear power. I recently read that in a large PV installation, vehicles make the rounds at least once a week to wash off dust. And that's just the beginning.

Take away the fossil fuels, and the whole thing falls apart.

The bottom line is that we should not see renewables as a way to prop up industrial civilization, but as a way to help achieve a soft landing.

Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, University of New Hampshire said...

Here are some geophysical realities about Peak Oil.

The top story of the year is that global crude oil production peaked in 2008.

The media, governments, world leaders, and public should focus on this issue.

Global crude oil production had been rising briskly until 2004, then plateaued for four years. Because oil producers were extracting at maximum effort to profit from high oil prices, this plateau is a clear indication of Peak Oil.

Then in July and August of 2008 while oil prices were still very high, global crude oil production fell nearly one million barrels per day, clear evidence of Peak Oil (See Rembrandt Koppelaar, Editor of "Oil Watch Monthly," December 2008, page 1)

Peak Oil is now.

Credit for accurate Peak Oil predictions (within a few years) goes to the following (projected year for peak given in parentheses):

* Association for the Study of Peak Oil (2007)

* Rembrandt Koppelaar, Editor of “Oil Watch Monthly” (2008)

* Tony Eriksen, Oil stock analyst and Samuel Foucher, oil analyst (2008)

* Matthew Simmons, Energy investment banker, (2007)

* T. Boone Pickens, Oil and gas investor (2007)

* U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (2005)

* Kenneth S. Deffeyes, Princeton professor and retired shell geologist (2005)

* Sam Sam Bakhtiari, Retired Iranian National Oil Company geologist (2005)

* Chris Skrebowski, Editor of “Petroleum Review” (2010)

* Sadad Al Husseini, former head of production and exploration, Saudi Aramco (2008)

* Energy Watch Group in Germany (2006)

Oil production will now begin to decline terminally.

Within a year or two, it is likely that oil prices will skyrocket as supply falls below demand. OPEC cuts could exacerbate the gap between supply and demand and drive prices even higher.

Independent studies indicate that global crude oil production will now decline from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time, demand will increase. Oil supplies will be even tighter for the U.S. As oil producing nations consume more and more oil domestically they will export less and less. Because demand is high in China, India, the Middle East, and other oil producing nations, once global oil production begins to decline, demand will always be higher than supply. And since the U.S. represents one fourth of global oil demand, whatever oil we conserve will be consumed elsewhere. Thus, conservation in the U.S. will not slow oil depletion rates significantly.

Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. There is no plan nor capital for a so-called electric economy. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment. The independent scientists of the Energy Watch Group conclude in a 2007 report titled: “Peak Oil Could Trigger Meltdown of Society:”

"By 2020, and even more by 2030, global oil supply will be dramatically lower. This will create a supply gap which can hardly be closed by growing contributions from other fossil, nuclear or alternative energy sources in this time frame."

With increasing costs for gasoline and diesel, along with declining taxes and declining gasoline tax revenues, states and local governments will eventually have to cut staff and curtail highway maintenance. Eventually, gasoline stations will close, and state and local highway workers won’t be able to get to work. We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel and gasoline powered trucks for bridge maintenance, culvert cleaning to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, and roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, large transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables from great distances. With the highways out, there will be no food coming from far away, and without the power grid virtually nothing modern works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated building systems.

It is time to focus on Peak Oil preparation and surviving Peak Oil.

Anonymous said...

There is no future. Minerals, biomass and energy have been and will continue to be stripped at the maximum possible rate, until they are exhausted.

There will be no long-term planning. In a few more years there will be riots, anarchy, military despotism in the former first world countries.

Within the next hundred years, two-thirds or more of the human population will be completely died-off. The few that are left will live in a toxic, polluted, depleted world and will fight each other for the remaining scraps of energy and raw materials. It will be very ugly.

There is nothing you can do about this. It is all hardwired to happen, only the timescale is fungible. Be at peace and accept your fate.

Chervil said...

Good article. Unfortunately, I am not very hopeful we will choose the sensible path. There is currently no government that is taking climate change and peak oil as seriously as they should. And even among "green" economists there still is the belief that the market will fix it if we just fix the market.

mattbg said...

Some very good points!

Essentially, improving the model that we hand over to developing countries to replicate before we encourage their rapid development so that they are reproducing something sustainable, rather than something that we know is not.

At the moment, we are stuck in the trap where many (with some validity) claim that we have no right to demand that developing countries not adopt dirty, inefficient technologies because they are technologies that brought the West the prosperity that others didn't participate in. The dirty, inefficient technologies are the cheapest ones that are adopted because concerns about environmental impacts are usually lower in developing countries.

The attitude that says that we can't tell them how to develop their countries basically insists that our mistakes of the past be replicated all over the world simply because these mistakes gave us a good standard of living in the end, even if it's unsustainable.

I don't see this appetite for mediocrity going away. It has its roots in relativism and I think you'd have to injure relativism's hold on the global mind before you have a shot at this. There are simply too many people that are demanding a share of global prosperity (I am thinking specifically of China) that they won't want to wait that long.. and I'm not sure China will be stable as a country if prosperity isn't shared quickly over there.

Still, I know you are right... but I question the practicality.