Olduvai Theory,petroleum energyand mineral depletion stone age
December 22, 2002 2:13 AM   Subscribe

The life-expectancy of Industrial Civilization is horridly short according to Richard C. Duncan and his Olduvai theory. Like all of these weird theories it can be found on the outer fringes of the Internet. Duncan's theory kind of tracks the Hubbert Curve model of petroleum depletion that has been posted before on this site. As Isaac Asimov has stated "Indeed, the ability to control energy, whether it be making wood fires or building power plants, is a prerequisite for civilization." Only time will tell if Duncan was on to something we should have paid attention to.
posted by thedailygrowl (20 comments total)

That was a well-plotted piece of non-claptrap that never made me want to retch.

Two words: Nuclear power.
posted by shepd at 4:08 AM on December 22, 2002

Or hydrogen, etc. Seems like an interesting premise if you think there's nothing other than oil and coal...
posted by jalexei at 4:15 AM on December 22, 2002

For all the talk about the end of the world as we know it,. few times does the suggestion of limiting human population so that the remaining humans would have a 'good standard of living'.

If the normal 'worst case' viral/bacterial 90% mortality rate holds, overpopulation won't be an issue at some point.
posted by rough ashlar at 4:18 AM on December 22, 2002

Shepd's Two words: Nuclear power comment:

http://dieoff.org/synopsis.htm Section:
Nuclear power could be viable if one could overcome the shortage of fuel.

So the non-claptrap has a well plotted pages that says 'Nope'.

(http://dieoff.org is just filled with all kinds of end of the world stuff. Weeeee.)
posted by rough ashlar at 4:26 AM on December 22, 2002

>Nuclear power could be viable if one could overcome the shortage of fuel.

Hmmmm... dare I say it? Slowpoke reactors? According to them, the world would rather starve of electricity than pay to build an "expensive" power plant. My highschool physics teacher would disagree.

Why do I find that to be a bunch of hooey (both the expense and "non" alternative)? Especially when numerous universities have these things as their local science experiments?

The last "major" incident I know of with a slowpoke-style reactor was Windscale.

[And if they can build the things in 1957, why has the cost increased so far out of proportion with inflation?]
posted by shepd at 4:42 AM on December 22, 2002

So, our getting more efficient with energy since the '70s is a symptom of our decline as a civilization? Sorry, he'll have to do better than that.
posted by pyramid termite at 4:59 AM on December 22, 2002

I take "Olduvai Theory" to mean that this guy is in the stone age in his attitude to scientific rigor. Let's accept his data as accurate, even though he came up with the theory first, and then selected the data that fit his argument. <snark>And as objective critics, we won't even mention his choice of font.</snark>

But there's no theory there. It's just extrapolation. What is there in here to justify the prediction that the down slope will be just as steep as the up slope? Just this:
Long ago Natural Selection dealt us a bad hand—we're sexually prolific, tribal, short-term and self-centered. And after thousands of years of trying, Culture hasn't changed that. And there is no sign that She will.
This is a theory?
posted by anewc2 at 5:11 AM on December 22, 2002

I love this "end of the world" bozo stuff, it's really just gloomy scifi. He seems to be ignorant of the fact that already wind energy is close to competitive maturity and that solar energy is only about 10 years back compared to wind energy when it comes to commercial viability. So calm down and cheer up. Nonetheless great site, it has some of the most awsome stat extrapolation crap I've seen for a long time: OPEC will "own" us in 2010.
posted by ugly_n_sticky at 5:25 AM on December 22, 2002

Actually, it doesn't even work on its own terms. It doesn't take into account the rate of discovery of new sources of oil are being discovered all the time, and our ability to find them (as well as the efficiency of the machines that use oil) is increasing too. I'm still crossing my fingers for the whole hydrogen fuel-cell miracle too, jalexei.
posted by RokkitNite at 5:34 AM on December 22, 2002

BTW, has it occured to this "genius" that the reason why per head energy consuption has been going down for some years is actually good news? It means we're using energy in a much more efficient way.
posted by ugly_n_sticky at 5:39 AM on December 22, 2002

Two words: Nuclear power.

One word: Terrorists. Large-scale nuclear reactors are targets for terrorist bombings, and small-scale SLOWPOKE reactors have power outputs so low (20 kw) that every house would need to have one, which would make acquiring bombmaking material much easier.

No, the real reason why Richard Duncan is out to lunch is that he misses a pretty obvious alternative interpretation of his own data. Energy use might have peaked in the 1970s because of the rise of energy conservation awareness, especially among industrialized countries, stemming from a nascent environmental movement and the oil embargos of 1973 and 1978. This alternative interpretation also accounts for a trend in the data that Duncan does not account for or even acknowledge: that each succeeding study cited in his Table 2 calculates a lower rate of average annual energy use decline. This is consistent with a high degree of initial conservation, followed by a period of lower or no conservation, or perhaps a gradual decline in new energy efficiencies. Duncan really needs to compare this with several economic and social indicators (global GDP, literacy rates, immunization rates, infant and maternal mortality) to demonstrate whether energy use decline really does correlate to a loss of real-life utility or the accoutrements of civilization.
posted by skoosh at 6:45 AM on December 22, 2002

Two words: Comic Sans
posted by norm29 at 6:57 AM on December 22, 2002

Gee, it seems like there's an awfull lot of SOLAR ENERGY hitting the Earth. Hey! it even drives life on Earth! (The biosphere). And solar energy is, ultimately, what creats fosil fuels in the first place: There's plenty of energy, until our Sun burns out.

The 'bottleneck' may be deficiences in overall human imagination and intelligence, coupled with an excess of inter-species competitiveness. and a lack of appreciation for 1) the combined "weight" (ecological footprint) of the human species on the Biosphere and 2) severe ignorance about nonlinear, "chaotic" phenomenon (like the Earth's climate system).

I'm not completely antagonistic to the "Die-off" scenario. A nonlinear climate change ["The problem is so large that the consequences are intrinsically terrifying. There is reason to expect that the warming will feed on itself, accelerate, and bring big giobal surprises such as changes in oceanic currents that control regional climates......the public should raise hell" -George Woodwell, Director of the Woods Hole Research Center, Woods Hole, Mass. Boston Globe Magazine interview 4/22/2001]
which occured simultaneous with a downturn in fossil fuel production (Hubbert Curve prediction) would probably sharply limit world food production. Global scale conflicts might then ensue, leeding to negative feedback....

But I think "Olduvai Theory" needs a bit of ....errrrr revision

posted by troutfishing at 7:27 AM on December 22, 2002


["The extreme and erratic weather events which charactorized the decade of the 1990's are consistent with scientific computer models of Global Warming and can be, accordingly to these models, expected to grow increasingly severe in the decades ahead. And under the weight of the current world population, all major biological systems - on which our lives ultimately depend - are declining. One recent computer model has, far example, predicted the beginning of an unstoppable unravelling of the Amazon Rainforest within a decade. Such massive changes in the Earth's coupled biological and atmospheric/climatic systems will certainly have unexpected consequences.

Furthermore, in the 21st century - according to the biologist E.O. Wilson of Harvard University - half of all species now living will disappear from the Earth, as a result of Global Climate Change and direct human pressure. It is also likely that the 21st century will see the collision of growing human numbers with a global decline in ecosystems.

To make the situation worse, it is now known that even without human interference there are great instabilities inherent in our climate system and that human caused stresses on the climate system can trigger powerfull, amplifying feedback loops which lead to sudden climate shifts

As the global human population creeps toward the ten billion mark, the global proliferation of technologies of mass destruction continues. And as the number of nations able to threaten widespread, or global, destruction through the use of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons grows, localized climate changes caused by humans directly -- deforestation, desertification, the depletion of water resources, and larger scale climate changes driven by Global Warming -- droughts, heat waves, floods, and increasingly powerfull storms, will cause a decline in global food production. -- In short, a world teeming with human beings who are starving and heavily armed.

This explosive scenario points towards the growth in negative feedback processes whereby wars - over dwindling resources, and the further localised environmental degradation resulting from those wars, accelerates global climate change. And so on................"

posted by troutfishing at 7:47 AM on December 22, 2002

POSTSCRIPT ON THE BIPEDAL CARBON BASED SPECIES #X353H6^^C3~?!463.1 [by SQLUBA^^+**312, Prefect, Local Area History Division]

"The behavior of the bipeds would have, no doubt, soon led to their decline or even demise as a species. But their actuall downfall, in fact, occured due to the over-use of a certain "typeface" or "font" known as "Comic Sans MS". Certain charactors in this "typeface" or "font" were highly offensive to the ______ (which - to them - constituted a slander of the highest order). The ______ (who already had previous currency with the council due to the "Blewquaddxz_71" incident), petitioned the council for the rights to 'temporarily retard' the technological advance of the bipedal species (already under consideration for other reasons - their excessive interest in the potentially devastating physics of "Scalar field collapse"). The petition was granted by the council: however, the 'retardation' method chosen by the ______, a large meteor diverted for collision with the Biped's planet, was later deemed, by the council, to be 'unnecessarily aggressive' and resulted in the overall demise of the species. Specimens were, however, collected for archival purposes."
posted by troutfishing at 8:39 AM on December 22, 2002

Pure tripe... hyrdogen fuel cells are obviously the answer to this dilemma and are already being implemented in Iceland. The supply of hydrogen fuel is practically endless... no need to fear....

However with the advent of hydrogen energy energy companies would pay more attention to Scandinavia, Russia, or even Canada rather than the Middle East...
posted by Aikido at 11:07 AM on December 22, 2002

Hydrogen fuel cells are a form of storage, you still have to a) obtain hydrogen (at an energetic cost) b) store it and transport it (again, using energy) c) build the fuel cells (more energy spent).
Jay Hanson's website may be gloomy, it is, but it hits home in many instances: when he says that our economy is "inside" the natural world and not the other way around (classical economic theory), when expresses his concerns with overpopulation and the consequences of resolving the "gap" between the 10% of the planet population (the rich) and the other 90% (the poor). Closing this gap means more energy consumption, and oil wouldn't last forever.

I don't want to sound repetitive, but there's at least one "oil industry insider" shouting "wolf". A few days ago in another oil scarcity related post I pointed to him:

To get a clearer picture of the real situation of oil and its future I recommend you the Simmons & Company International website. They are an investment bank specialized in energy.
Its founder, Matthew R. Simmons tours frequently giving conferences. His speeches are very interesting coming from a texan oil banker that is also friend of the Bush family.
It's a good start to understand concepts like oil depletion, energy shock and others issues that torment the energy industry.
posted by samelborp at 12:03 PM on December 22, 2002

Sorry, forgot to put links to the Simmons & Company International website and Simmons's speeches
posted by samelborp at 12:06 PM on December 22, 2002

I hereby revoke his right to use the word "Olduvai," lest it become associated with "crackpot" and "no evidence."
posted by The Michael The at 8:10 PM on December 22, 2002

the life-expectancy of Industrial Civilization is horridly short

He's no scientist and he's no writer, either. Who hyphenates 'life expectancy" anyways?
posted by shoos at 9:19 AM on December 23, 2002

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