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Don't Peak, it's a Surprise
January 13, 2011 6:28 PM   Subscribe

The Nation recently interviewed public intellectuals including Noam Chomsky, Bill McKibben (previously), and Dmity Orlov (previously) to produce a series of videos centered around Peak Oil and a Changing Climate. The first video, online now, combines all of the people interviewed while the videos yet to be released will be longer sections featuring them one at a time.

In related news, Grist.org has a pair of articles warning of the dire state of food insecurity around the world. Contained within the articles are a free download of author Lester Brown's newest book, World on Edge: When Will the Food Bubble Burst? and a brief powerpoint meant to explain the same concepts quickly. With the world's population expected to reach 7 billion and an end to growth hoped for around 10 Billion how will we feed these extra mouths?

In 2009 NPR reported that the food production methods exported to India in the 1970s known as the "Green Revolution" are emptying India's aquifers and will turn India's most productive farmland into a barren desert within "10 to 15 years." The same method of over pumping aquifers is used all around the world and has already led to Saudi Arabia switching from growing its own food to importing it and will inevitably lead to peak water worldwide.

While anthropogenic climate change is clearly a serious problem for mankind in the 21st century - with many scientists, politicians, and journalists stopping just short of saying climate change is responsible for disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, The European Heat Wave of 2006, The Russian Heat Wave and Pakistani floods of 2010 - mankind's overindulgent use of fossil fuels and overpopulation could potentially lead to disaster on a much larger and immediate scale (for humans that is) for economic and political reasons rather than climatological ones.
posted by Glibpaxman (91 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
Depressing... Any chance for a transcript for those Nation interviews?
posted by pakoothefakoo at 6:50 PM on January 13, 2011


I am so getting business cards printed which list my occupation as "Public Intellectual."

They will be especially handy in bars.
posted by Scientist at 6:50 PM on January 13, 2011 [6 favorites]


Note to self: get out in 11mpg car on paved highway with big drivethrough bag of overpumped aquifer grain-fed hamburger and high-fructose corn syrup soda while still can. Americas come once in a blue moon and dont last forever kids.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 7:29 PM on January 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


And the earlier front runner for the "Most Depressing MeFi Post of 2010 is..."
posted by COD at 7:34 PM on January 13, 2011


Actually an incredibly late entry into any contest for MeFi in 2010.
posted by hippybear at 7:36 PM on January 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am quite puzzled by the lack of understanding and acceptance among the general population about Peak Oil. I haven't heard any sound arguments against the premise, beyond the assertion that new technology and innovation will somehow magically get us out of it. If asked for specifics, people cite wind, solar power, tidal or perhaps algae solutions. While these are very promising technologies, they are nowhere near being able to replace our dependence on oil. And as oil supply wanes, and demand from the rapidly industrializing countries such as China, India, and Brazil rise, prices are going to skyrocket.

The American and European economies are already in a sorry state, and I don't see the potential for any rapid turnaround. As those oil prices rise, it is going to drive up not only food prices, but the prices of almost everything. All the consumer goods that are made and wrapped in plastic and then shipped across the country or the globe are a prime example. While it might come across as crackpot conspiracy ramblings, I cannot seem to convince myself that the "recession" of the last few years wasn't beginning of the end. If we had the oil supply to sustain ourselves at the current levels, I think most of these other problems would be solvable. The fact is though, that we do not. And therefore, I want to preemptively welcome our new post-apocalyptic overlords.
posted by sophist at 7:37 PM on January 13, 2011 [14 favorites]


I was so depressed by the post I couldn't think straight.
posted by COD at 7:37 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Chomsky's anecdote about the majority of TV weathermen do not buy into the reality of anthropogenic global warming is awesome.
posted by bukvich at 7:38 PM on January 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I am quite puzzled by the lack of understanding and acceptance among the general population about Peak Oil. I haven't heard any sound arguments against the premise, beyond the assertion that new technology and innovation will somehow magically get us out of it.

The American Way of Life is non-negotiable - even in our thoughts.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:39 PM on January 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


There's some reason for hope. In 2007 there were 150 new coal fired power plants on the drawing boards to be constructed in the USA. As of 2011, almost every one of them has been canceled. Coal accounts for about 80% of the global warming emissions in the USA (according to Jim Hansen). There are about 600 coal fired plants in the USA. 600 is a lot easier to work with then millions of cars. If those 600 plants were shut down, we could continue to burn oil and the worse effects of global warming would be solved. Just focus on those 600 that's all we need to do, how hard can it be, 150 were just shut off (or stopped) in a three year period.
posted by stbalbach at 7:47 PM on January 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


I suddenly have a strong urge to learn farming and bow hunting.
posted by bstreep at 8:01 PM on January 13, 2011


This is simply the most important issue facing the human race. Good to see sane, reasoning people worrying about it. Too bad their hands are tied.
posted by Twang at 8:24 PM on January 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


> I am quite puzzled by the lack of understanding and acceptance among the general population about Peak Oil.

A lot of people haven't even heard of Peak Oil as a theory. Many of those who have dismiss it as Chicken Little-style alarmism, assume technology will solve the problem, or do their best not to think about it. Because...damn.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:28 PM on January 13, 2011


I suddenly have a strong urge to learn farming and bow hunting.

I was at a safety seminar, and apparently bow hunting is quite dangerous (if you don't use a safety harness), because once you figure out where the animals are, and get there early the next day and up into a tree to wait for a shot, you fall asleep and fall out of the tree.

Any "sport" where the greatest injury risk comes from falling asleep, gets officially disqualified from use of the title "sport" (hence my use of "air quotes").

But we're on the same page because you're not interested in sport so much as food. But if food is a problem, then poaching will be too, and game stocks will collapse as surely as the fisheries.

You might be better off learning to build exquisite rat-traps. There will always be rats.
Cook them well though!
I don't want you infested with rat parasites when I eat you.
posted by -harlequin- at 8:31 PM on January 13, 2011 [19 favorites]


Answer's the same as it's always been, communism. Live together or die alone. Plus all the mass murdering will help ameliorate the population pressure.
posted by Abiezer at 8:34 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Good to see sane, reasoning people worrying about it. Too bad their hands are tied.

Too bad that sane, reasoning people are completely marginalized in American political discourse.
posted by zjacreman at 8:35 PM on January 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


There's some reason for hope.

I don't see much hope. If peak oil comes to pass, we're going to need to transition to dense, walkable transit-centric cities immediately and that simply isn't possible in North America.

Every single city (including NYC) has a mess of zoning laws that limit density, mandate and subsidize car use and parking, and generally require inefficient use of land. And unfortunately, we have a system like that because that's what most people want. Most people will say that they want vibrant, affordable, ecologically friendly transit-accessible cities, but as soon as someone proposes a large apartment building in their neighbourhood, they're off to the development hearings with pitchforks in hand.

I think NA is screwed until we realize that NIMBYism hugely limits building supply in urban areas, and change zoning systems accordingly.

(sorry to hone in on such a specific issue related to peak oil - hopefully this isn't a derail)
posted by ripley_ at 8:44 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why should I believe in Peak Oil? When oil prices go up, it allows profit making in the oil sands (30% of global oil). New technology is allowing companies to drill to places though unreachable. I hope we might find an extra incentive to wean ourselves from the juice, but I don't find the theory entirely agreeable.
posted by cman at 8:45 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm only half joking when I saw that I would like all of our research dollars to go into a Matrix-like simulation of the real world where people use very little resources and live their entire lives inside of a shared hallucination.
posted by codacorolla at 8:46 PM on January 13, 2011


From the NPR article:

When India's government launched the Green Revolution more than 40 years ago, it pressured farmers to grow only high-yield wheat, rice and cotton instead of their traditional mix of crops.

Wouldn't it make more sense to grow crops that have high yields but require less water? For example, you could focus on growing high-yield wheat and discard cotton and rice. The article mentions that these crops are market-driven, rather than need-driven ("need" being what people need to eat and sustain themselves).

The groundwater problem has touched off an economic chain reaction. As the farmers dig deeper to find groundwater, they have to install ever more powerful and more expensive pumps to send it gushing up to their fields.

The article also says that farmers are charged 24% interest when they purchase these pumps. Presumably that's why they need to grow high-yield crops.

It seems pretty inefficient. While drought and crop productivity is a major problem for India, some of it is structural rather than environmental.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:47 PM on January 13, 2011


New technology is allowing companies to drill to places though[t] unreachable.

See "BP Gulf Oil Disaster" on why this isn't necessarily a good thing.
posted by hippybear at 8:48 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've always wanted to own an Old Truck. Just an old beater with crap tires and a push button radio. But I know that high gas prices are here to stay and owning something that almost gets GPM just isn't practical. I'd never want to drive it and a conversion to electric or otherwise is outside my capabilities and affordability.

Geez, I've got a Good Dog here, all ready to go - I'd have those window cranks turned down, her head out the window, got the lawnmower in the back on the trip across town to do Mom's lawn. It would have those over-springy bench seats with crap suspension so every bump is a one inch high jolt. And then when I was done with the lawn (Trying not to think of the impact of gas on my little old two stroke) I'd put down the tailgate and sit on it.

I think about this truck a lot. But, I guess....
posted by unixrat at 8:54 PM on January 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


That PDF on food is scary shit. I'm struck more and more how the world appears to be facing not one or two but almost countless projected catastrophes, each of which will require some significant innovations, political will, international cooperation, shared sacrifice, societal change, and a nonzero amount of luck to avoid

It almost gives me a sense of detached horror and fascination to be sitting on this planet watching my species and nation commit slow motion mass suicide, with scattered bystanders and impotent observer-participants looking on, researching and describing this herd decision, made by everyone and no one

We use the last drops of easy oil to drive our SUVs from the sprawling suburbs to the soulless upscale mall. We kill the oceans because we can't stop eating tasty fish. We have mass starvation while westerners gorge on grain-fed meat and take hits of corn sugar like a drug

We give up on having a planet because we can't give up the endless, empty consumption of stuff? Will that be the epitaph for modern civilization?
posted by crayz at 9:06 PM on January 13, 2011 [20 favorites]


I wrote my undergrad thesis on peak oil last year. If anyone is interested in reading it, I could find a link for it.
posted by meows at 9:09 PM on January 13, 2011


Why should I believe in Peak Oil? When oil prices go up, it allows profit making in the oil sands (30% of global oil)

The problem is oil isn't just some shared illusion like money that we can make more of by believing in it really hard. We use oil both to store and more importantly to produce energy. The storage, it's true, could be replaced by other technologies because with enough energy you can convert all sorts of things into a combustible liquid fuel

The energy production though, not so much. We use 85 million barrels of oil a day. The harder it is to get the oil, the more energy goes into finding it. This effect actually means there's two curves - the amount of oil you get out of the ground and amount of usable energy you get from that oil, and the latter declines much faster than the former - a "shark fin" curve, as described at The Oil Drum
posted by crayz at 9:25 PM on January 13, 2011 [8 favorites]


@unixrat - if it's any consolation, the carbon footprint of driving that old truck would be less than that of manufacturing a more fuel-efficient hybrid.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 9:29 PM on January 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


When oil prices go up, it allows profit making in the oil sands

This is the argument a family member used over the holidays. The biggest problem is that as production in the rest of the world decreases and production in places like the oil sands and deep wells increases, total production has to increase at the exponential rate at which it has been increasing for the last 50 years to keep up with demand. I could see these new sources of oil replacing the drop off from lost supply in other areas, but replacing and increasing?

And as far as environmental impacts go, until recently I worked as an environmental activist. I believed that solving the climate problem and saving our planet for future generations would be the defining issue of my time. Now I'm coming to realize that as peak everything turns the stable world we know and love into something much scarier, environmentalism will get tossed aside in favor of simple needs like feeding and watering all of us. I know that the two are connected but the way humanity operates we'll choose another 10 years of "normality" before we ever ever think about what things will be like 10 years from now.
posted by Glibpaxman at 9:40 PM on January 13, 2011 [3 favorites]



The mistake people keep making with Peak Oil is in thinking it is about a lack of oil.

Peak Oil is not about a lack of oil, it's about a surplus of oil consumers and the accelerating pace of oil consuming technology... and a large but finite ammount of oil.

Certainly there's plenty of oil for the 7 billon people on this planet with current oil consuming technology this year.

But what about the 9 billion people living on this planet 30 years from now?

What about the number of 1st generations of Chinese and Indians who are buying cars now?

Those are the numbers that drive Peak Oil, not the number of barrels of oil that can theoretically be extracted... but those numbers too.
posted by j03 at 10:01 PM on January 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


When I want to gain more knowledge about a complex scientific matter, I always look for an attention-seeking linguist like Mr Chomsky! What better background to explain the earth's geology and climate than in depth studies of grammar and cheap opinion pieces in any media that will take them, on any topic under the sun?
posted by dagny at 10:23 PM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Life expectancy has consistently risen, food production has consistently risen, literacy has consistently risen, world poverty has declined. Many (but not all) environmental indicators are improving, if not absolutely, then on a per-head basis. The current rise in food prices is historically insignificant. Predictions about societal collapse from Malthus till Ehrlich have been wrong. There are problems, but they hardly seem insurmountable and many of them entail moral obligations rather than existential threats. The belief that the world or mankind will undergo a catastrophic upheaval seems to be a conviction based on observer bias more than anything else ("I am, therefore the world must be special"), not unlike some people believe Christ will return in their lifetimes. It is a complete fantasy as far as I can see.
posted by eeeeeez at 10:28 PM on January 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Life expectancy has consistently risen, food production has consistently risen, literacy has consistently risen

...and the British Empire consistently expanded until 1919, which is why it now covers the entire Earth, Moon and Mars.
posted by Avenger at 10:40 PM on January 13, 2011 [7 favorites]


It is a complete fantasy as far as I can see.

Maybe the ingenuity of humanity can move on from the finite resource of fossil fuels to another bountiful finite resource and we'll have another century or two of stupendous growth. That would be awesome. However, we live on a finite world. At some point the resources of our small planet will not be enough to sustain us. Furthermore, our society's infrastructure is built to utilize oil. Even if we found a new source of energy to power us through we would have to go through a painful transition period never minding all the other uses of oil we have come to rely on like plastics, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers and pesticides.
posted by Glibpaxman at 10:52 PM on January 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


But what about the 9 billion people living on this planet 30 years from now?

They can find their own oil, this oil is mine!

I suspect they will be heavy into coal->liquid hydrocarbon conversion and after than biomass-->liquid hydrocarbon.
posted by Justinian at 11:10 PM on January 13, 2011


Many (but not all) environmental indicators are improving

Not on balance of importance. I don't really care very much whether I can now see the sun in LA compared to whether global ocean pH is carbonating to below levels required to keep the food chain.

Environmental indicators are improving where-ever there is wealth - but NIMBY is in full play.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:16 PM on January 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


maybe we are so hypersensitive as a culture that what we see of as a peak is actually a molehill. any theorized potential decrease in humanity's standard of living would have to be judged based on the incredible expansion rates over the last century of living standards. i sincerely doubt that people burning anything they find for heat would be a typical situation, regardless of the circumstance.

imo, the primary question stemming out of this and other issues of stagnating socioeconomic complexity is whether civilization can live up to the civil in its name or whether greed will again fuel violence and militarism once the bounty of the earth is plundered.

my opinion is that nuclear energy will become more appealing as other resources become more difficult to scavenge for, increasing the chance of catastrophic nuclear accidents.
posted by flyinghamster at 11:17 PM on January 13, 2011


hi harlequin - I don't really care very much whether I can now see the sun in LA compared to whether global ocean pH is carbonating to below levels required to keep the food chain.

But these are not the same things at all. Mistrusting the world as it appears to us while putting great faith in calamitous prognostications about the future borders on the superstitious.
posted by eeeeeez at 12:30 AM on January 14, 2011


...and the British Empire consistently expanded until 1919, which is why it now covers the entire Earth, Moon and Mars.

The standard of living for the average Briton has certainly increased since the beginning of the Empire and this has continued through the last century. I am not sure what your point is.
posted by eeeeeez at 12:33 AM on January 14, 2011


That predictors of doom and gloom have been wrong in the past is irrelevant--if they had been right we would not be here to discuss it, so from our vantage point it is impossible that they be anything but wrong.
posted by Zalzidrax at 12:52 AM on January 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


That predictors of doom and gloom have been wrong in the past is irrelevant--if they had been right we would not be here to discuss it, so from our vantage point it is impossible that they be anything but wrong.

This is nonsense.
posted by eeeeeez at 1:27 AM on January 14, 2011


Is Dmitry Orlov considered a "public intellectual" these days?
posted by acb at 2:25 AM on January 14, 2011


> Life expectancy has consistently risen, food production has consistently risen, literacy has consistently risen, world poverty has declined.

Why? Mostly (but not only) because of hydrocarbons.


Predictions about societal collapse from Malthus till Ehrlich have been wrong.

Same as above. Also, I bet you can see the fallacy in "I'm not dead yet, therefore I'm immortal".


The belief that the world or mankind will undergo a catastrophic upheaval

This is what bothers me most: define catastrophe. Just how bad things need to get before you recognise there's a problem. Right now we have a billion people suffering malnutrition - that's more people than the total global population throughout all of our species history barring the last two and a half centuries. We also have severe biodiversity loss, overfished oceans, the nitrogen cycle out of whack, pollution (but NIYBY, apparently), etc. What else would it take to change your opinion?

If you are waiting the anything like human extinction in the next few centuries, a zombie apocalypse, or cats and dogs living together, I'll let you know that few (if any) people worried about peak oil (and all the other interdependent environmental crises) are concerned about that. If it takes any of those catastrophic scenarios to convince you of the severity of the situation, you'll never be convinced; it's like growing old, you don't notice it by looking at the mirror every day, only when you compare a picture of your 80 year old self against one taken 50 years earlier.


It is a complete fantasy as far as I can see

I'd say that wishful thinking rooted in ideology is a lot more of a fantasy then looking at present trends and applying the precautionary principle. Right now, we're enjoying the artificially increased carrying capacity afforded by fossil fuels and unsustainable use of renewable ones. Let's find the miracle solutions before we commit ourselves further.
posted by Bangaioh at 2:34 AM on January 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


"If you are waiting for anything..."
posted by Bangaioh at 2:37 AM on January 14, 2011


This is what bothers me most: define catastrophe. Just how bad things need to get before you recognise there's a problem. Right now we have a billion people suffering malnutrition - that's more people than the total global population throughout all of our species history barring the last two and a half centuries.

We also have spectacular wealth for a greater number of people than ever before. Of course there are problems, but to focus on them to the exclusion of everything else is a choice, not a given.

We also have severe biodiversity loss, overfished oceans, the nitrogen cycle out of whack, pollution (but NIYBY, apparently), etc. What else would it take to change your opinion?

All these are regrettable and perhaps reprehensible but unlikely to affect people directly, now or in the future. So some fish goes extinct. So what? We eat another fish. The disaster fantasies that have us disrupt the global ecosystem to the extent that it becomes incapable of sustaining us are riveting and necessary, but about as relevant to day-to-day existence as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

I'd say that wishful thinking rooted in ideology is a lot more of a fantasy then looking at present trends and applying the precautionary principle.

Present trends are that people are living longer more meaningful lives.
posted by eeeeeez at 3:21 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


You still didn't tell me what would it take for you to be concerned about any environmental problem.
Of course things have been getting a lot better for a lot of people - did you actually read the comment I linked? We'd have to be extremely incompetent in order to not get something good out of exploiting resources as recklessly as we have been doing.


So some fish goes extinct. So what? We eat another fish.

Words fail.
posted by Bangaioh at 3:31 AM on January 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


You still didn't tell me what would it take for you to be concerned about any environmental problem.

Nobody sets out to purposely create environmental problems. Environmental problems occur as a result of the drive for a better life. I am concerned when and whereever environmental problems impact the ability of people to improve their lives.

Words fail.

It is a matter of fact. Horrible things have happened in our name, and yet here we are, fat & happy. There seems to be no reckoning.
posted by eeeeeez at 3:46 AM on January 14, 2011


Put two rats in a cargo ship full of grain. Infinite food as far as two rats are concerned. In 10 years the ship has a few million rats and is half full of grain. The king rat says, "look at all this food, everything is cool!" And in two weeks all of the rats starve.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:02 AM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Put two rats in a cargo ship full of grain. Infinite food as far as two rats are concerned. In 10 years the ship has a few million rats and is half full of grain. The king rat says, "look at all this food, everything is cool!" And in two weeks all of the rats starve.

I won't engage arguments that portray humanity as a pest, or a plague, or a cancer. Not only do I think the argument is dumb and abrasive, but mostly it is inconsistent. If you really feel this way, stop writing comments and kill yourself.
posted by eeeeeez at 4:09 AM on January 14, 2011


>> There seems to be no reckoning.

Wow, just wow!
posted by Duug at 4:09 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is no "technological" solution to peak oil. All of our technology uses energy. Oil was a vast energy store we luckily found; unless we find another vast energy store, it isn't getting replaced. I'm amazed how few people understand this, even smart people. We have so many gadgets (and cool ones, at that) that people misunderstand the relationship they have with resources and nature.

eeeeeez, the difference between peak oil and, say, the people who fear 2012 or who thought the world would end in 2000 or 1900, is that peak oil is a projection of the effects of something which will happen. It's not a question of whether a mystical sky-man will appear and snuff out all life, it's a question of whether at some point there will be less of a finite resource easily available than we wish. It's logically impossible to avoid this.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:19 AM on January 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


hi sonic meat machine - Oil was a vast energy store we luckily found; unless we find another vast energy store, it isn't getting replaced

Oil is amazing. Cheap, convenient and relatively safe. It's unlikely we will find any substitute for it.

Hopefully, with population decreasing in most of the developed world, and people moving into cities across the globe, we won't have to either, relying on electric and collective means of transportation instead, with oil reserved for industrial use.

The question is whether the world can reach "peak development" before it reaches "peak oil" (assuming we haven't hit that already).
posted by eeeeeez at 4:44 AM on January 14, 2011


I am concerned when and whereever environmental problems impact the ability of people to improve their lives.

And I am asking you again, what would it take to convince you that that moment had arrived? Apparently the fact that modern civilisation is already contingent on a constant flow of finite fuels (among many, many other things, but let's focus on peak oil for simplicity) that will eventually start to decline and reach zero isn't enough for you. What is?
posted by Bangaioh at 4:51 AM on January 14, 2011


Oops, should have previewed. Once again, you're assuming that development is only a function of human achievement, independent of natural resources. There are limits to how efficiently we can use those resources.
posted by Bangaioh at 4:55 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


My understanding is that the Saudis cut back substantially on their agricultural subsidies in the 1990s as they came to realize that producing a $30 cucumber was a bad way to spend oil revenues.

Another issue is how peak oil is defined. Those who look to oil sands and shale needs to understand that there are very high costs to pull that barrel of oil out. Right now the world runs on lost of cheap middle eastern oil. The net energy gain is much higher barrel for barrel than the oil sitting in oil shale or oil sands. The second thing you must understand is that the mch more important number is the global capacity of production in barrels per day vs. the aggregate global demand. The time it takes to bring projects online vs the declining output of existing discoveries has seen global production per day peak already even if there are hundreds of years left theoretically at our extraction rate it does nothing to block the current problem. Economic recessions cause a short term glut of oil, as the economy recovers demand goes above daily extraction rates and the price of oil goes sky high as oil prices are very sensitive to oversupply, or over demand. So don't think of this as running out of oil, instead understand that production limits in our ability to sustain a production rate. Also understand that the margin of net energy per barrel drops, such that where oil in the 70s from Saudi was almost all net new energy, it now drops every year.

Faced with this the market will move to try to find replacement energy solutions that can meet the declining net energy from oil extraction and provide the lowest cost alternative. Consumers will also have to reduce their energy usage based on what's available.

Of course if cost of usage rises to the point that you can't survive (transport/production costs of food, heating, etc); then it doesn't matter how many barrels per day are produced. Furthermore even if bpd rises at 2%, if global demand grows at 4% you are still screwed even without a peak.

The good news is with the right incentives people can dramatically reduce their energy needs. For 1500-2000 in insulation upgrades and lightbulb replacements; and simple conservation measure like hanging the wash to dry, one can reduce ones energy needs by half. Switch to public transport, even just busses for daily commutes (a very unglamorous option) could reduce personal fuel consumption dramatically. US citizens could dramatically cut their transport fuel with pretty minimal lifestyle adjustments.

The redesign of cities to accommodate changed transport profiles actually could be the thing that saves the construction industry. Do not underestimate the pace of big urban mass transit projects when the market incentives move in that direction.
posted by humanfont at 5:12 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


And I am asking you again, what would it take to convince you that that moment had arrived? Apparently the fact that modern civilisation is already contingent on a constant flow of finite fuels (among many, many other things, but let's focus on peak oil for simplicity) that will eventually start to decline and reach zero isn't enough for you. What is?

Our dependency on a constant flow of finite fuels has brought great rewards. Not wasting a resource that is available and using it to the fullest extent is efficient. By itself efficiency is not a cause for concern. The fact of the matter is (to borrow a phrase) that sufficiently evolved efficiency is indistinguishable from a permanent state of near-crisis.

What would be a cause for concern is diminished life expectancy, for example. Sometimes it is obvious, as with smog or acute poisoning of rivers or lakes. In that case you clean it up.

Re-reading your comment I think what separates us is the idea that there is a "moment". I don't think there is such a thing. There isn't any "moment" or constellation of events that you can point to and say, "that was the point of no return right there". There's just people doing things to solve problems, that themselves cause other problems, and the hope that things get better over the long run.
posted by eeeeeez at 5:35 AM on January 14, 2011


actually, seanmpuckett is quite accurate. If you look at Jared Diamond's collapse theory, societies grow slowly but collapse almost instantaneously due to resource depletion. His example was a petri dish of bacteria.

Here's a bastardised example:
Start with 1000 units of resource. Assume that 1 bacteria uses 1 unit per cycle.

Cycle 1: 1 bacteria -> 2 bacteria. 1 units consumed, 999 units remain.
Cycle 2: 2 bacteria -> 4 bacteria. 2 units consumed, 997 units remain.
Cycle 3: 4 bacteria -> 8 bacteria. 4 units consumed, 993 units remain.
Cycle 4: 8 bacteria -> 16 bacteria. 8 units consumed, 985 units remain.
Cycle 5: 16 bacteria -> 32 bacteria. 16 units consumed, 969 units remain.
Cycle 6: 32 bacteria -> 64 bacteria. 32 units consumed, 937 units remain.
Cycle 7: 64 bacteria -> 128 bacteria. 64 units consumed, 873 units remain.
Cycle 8: 128 bacteria -> 256 bacteria. 128 units consumed, 745 units remain.
Cycle 9: 256 bacteria -> 512 bacteria. 256 units consumed, 489 units remain.

Cycle 10, Part 1. 512 bacteria -> 489 bacteria. 489 units consumed, 0 units remain.
*** First loss of bacteria = 23 bacteria, 4% of population.

Cycle 10, Part 2. 489 bacteria -> 978 bacteria. 0 units consumed. 0 units remain.

Cycle 11: 978 bacteria -> 0 bacteria. 0 units consumed. 0 units remain.
*** Second loss of bacteria = 978 bacteria, 100% of population.

A few notes about this:
1) it does not compare ideally to humanity in that we do not have a 100% growth rate.
2) obviously this does not account for distribution effects.
3) bacteria are assumed not to have the ability to adapt in the given time frame.
4) this example assumes bacteria are the only organism present.

What is similar:
1) The petri dish is a closed system with finite resources.
2) Each bacteria is driven by self-interest (this all bacteria each always consumes)

Takeaways:
1) In cycle 9, almost 50% of original resources remain. In cycle 11, the population is extinct.

2) Between cycle 3 and cycle 7, the population swells from 4 bacteria to 128 bacteria an increase of 32 times. Yet at the end of cycle 7, only 12% more resource has been consumed.

The point here is that if you just have knowledge of cycle 7 without knowledge of the total system, you would say that between the start and end of cycle 7, 6.4% of the resource was consumed. Would that be enough to alert you to a problem?

If you have knowledge of the entire picture from cycle 1 to 7 and can project cycles 8, 9 and 10, it might.

3) Thus, the problem exists in between cycle 8 and cycle 9. At the end of cycle 8, if you know about all cycles, you will know that you have effectively 2 cycles left at current rate of individual consumption.

To avoid collapse, the only option you have as King Bacteria is to reduce consumption. Thus, you have to explain to your bacteria that they should NOT reproduce this cycle.

Further complicate that by explaining that only SOME bacteria can reproduce.

4) Now bacteria don't have that problem but we do.

5) It's horrifying.

6) e...z makes a decent point. The science of seanmpuckett doesn't matter if it offends e...z's sensibilities. seanmpuckett is trying to explain that both e...z and seanmpuckett are both very f*cked if they don't change their habits but e...z does not like the format of the message.

Thus, in order for seanmpuckett to survive, he must someone find a way to engage with e...z.

seanmpuckett has three forms of power at his control:
A) Force (Violence) – Physical
B) Coercion (Wealth) – Rational
C) Incentive (Knowledge) – Emotional

seanmpuckett has tried to offer e...z knowledge and that has been refused. Thus, next, seanmpuckett can try offering e...z an incentive.

Perhaps seanmpuckett will offer to pay 2% of e...z's taxes for the year if e...z will support seanmpuckett's argument regardless of e...z's own beliefs.

If that fails, seanmpuckett will have to result to force and threaten to beat e...z up if he will not support his argument.

Now each level of power certainly has sub-levels. And this is not at all a threat against e...z by nickrussell. Sorry, e...z, it's just a very prescient example at hand.

This happens in the real world all the time.

For 30+ years, the knowledge aspect has been tried. Greenpeace, WWF, science, academia have all been raising the alarm and attempting to educate people.

They didn't reach enough people to create a step-change BUT they did reach enough people in government who have begun modifying the laws (in Europe and California at least) to create financial incentives and dis-incentives around sustainable and non-sustainable consumption.

This is working effectively at developing the capability for change and capacity for more sustainable consumption however the rate is not yet fast enough.

Thus we hang in the balance between financial incentive and use of force. And believe me, I think we as a whole, nickrussell, seanmpuckett, and e...z would all much rather pay some small financial price than have to bow to the results of use of force.

7) This post has become unsustainable in itself, thus, I am coercing myself to finish it.
posted by nickrussell at 5:42 AM on January 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Re-reading your comment I think what separates us is the idea that there is a "moment". I don't think there is such a thing."

I'll tell you what the moment is: it's when oil becomes too expensive to use it develop replacement sources of energy, plastics and fertilizer, projects only the energy density of oil allows now. Boom, no more money to fund replacement technologies. And that's not to mention what happens to the financial markets just prior to this.

This is your moment, and it's the one everyone - including big oil - are trying to avoid.

Do your research: figure out where big oil is spending their CapEx right now at this very moment then come back and tell us all that the oil companies themselves aren't aware of this and actively working their assess off to address it. You clearly have no grasp whatsoever about the basic facts of how upstream petroleum works, the economics of oil or how financial markets work. Go read a few 10-Ks from the last five years.
posted by digitalprimate at 6:03 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've observed lately that the debate about peak oil seems to have mostly moved on from questioning whether it will happen soon or at all, to arguing about just how catastrophically disruptive it will be. Even before there is clear evidence that it's already past the peak. It's genuine progress, there. A little encouraging.

Re-reading your comment I think what separates us is the idea that there is a "moment". I don't think there is such a thing. There isn't any "moment" or constellation of events that you can point to and say, "that was the point of no return right there".

The US economy has been observed to do rather badly after oil shocks. If another comes along while it's still up near 17% U6 unemployment, the adaptation to expensive oil might well be a long and difficult one. Jeff Rubin, who I think is pretty good at thinking about this stuff, seems to think it might set off a sovereign debt crisis (or several, around the world) in the near future. That would be a fairly well-defined moment, if the previous financial crisis wasn't enough of one for you.
posted by sfenders at 6:15 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


hi digitalprimate - Boom, no more money to fund replacement technologies

Right, because before oil we all lived in trees.

If you get off on decisive moments narratives, go ahead, have fun. It's just alien to me. Life goes on, mostly.
posted by eeeeeez at 6:23 AM on January 14, 2011


Predictions about societal collapse from Malthus till Ehrlich have been wrong.

Malthus wasn't wrong. He was just writing from a pre-industrial standpoint. There are finite resources; the Industrial Revolution just made us more productive and expanded the range of resources we can use. The are still finite, however.

Industrialization bought us time. We will, sometime in the next century (probably) or two centuries (if we are lucky), reach the limit of complexity, production and consumtion allowed with our technological sophistication. If we do not achieve a technological or societal revolution of a similar scope to the Industrial Revolution, we will find ourselves in some level of collpase. This could be gradual and limited or swift and catastrophic.

Malthus has been correct in the past. Rome, and a thousand years later, Song China found themselves over-stretched and watched their technological leads over rivals and "barbarians" dwindle. Despite some tantalizing baby steps, both of those societies failed to industrialize and stagnated and collpased. The Malthusian trap was encountered at earlier stages in Mesopotmia, when city-states failed to adopt the large scaled organization needed for complexity in a drier world; sophistication that Rome and China mastered.

In the 18th century, Europe found itself in the same trap that Rome and China faced eariler. Europe was able to -just- escape with technological sophistication.

We likely stand at a new threshold, and it's not at all obvious that a radical technological revolution will save us. For all our iPhones and computers, we're still boiling water spinning turbines. And, with a globe-spanning civilization, nuclear weapons and global warming, the stakes have never been higher.
posted by spaltavian at 6:28 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


hi sfenders - That would be a fairly well-defined moment, if the previous financial crisis wasn't enough of one for you.

Seriously, having all financial crises be like the last one, that would be more than one could hope for. By and large it was a non-event.
posted by eeeeeez at 6:29 AM on January 14, 2011


hi spaltavian - We likely stand at a new threshold, and it's not at all obvious that a radical technological revolution will save us. For all our iPhones and computers, we're still boiling water spinning turbines. And, with a globe-spanning civilization, nuclear weapons and global warming, the stakes have never been higher.

The idea that we are standing at a treshold is alluring but suspect. Every generation feels this way (and in their own way, each generation does face a treshold - just not the treshold they think they are facing).

Odds are we'll muddle through, as our ancestors evidently have. Perhaps we won't.
posted by eeeeeez at 6:36 AM on January 14, 2011


> I think what separates us is the idea that there is a "moment". I don't think there is such a thing. There isn't any "moment" or constellation of events that you can point to and say, "that was the point of no return right there"

I actually agree with you on this, hence my remark about getting older and not realising it; where we differ is that you seem to be assuming (apologies if I'm interpreting you incorrectly) that just because we've sorted things out for the best so far for some people, that will always be the case and things will always get better for everyone.


> Seriously, having all financial crises be like the last one, that would be more than one could hope for. By and large it was a non-event.

For YOU. And also for me, fortunately. Try telling that to someone who is unemployed and barely making a living. Stop focusing on your backyard.


> Right, because before oil we all lived in trees.

You're missing the point.
posted by Bangaioh at 6:40 AM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Nickrussell: You can't make up assumptions and then extrapolate from your made up example that things occur the same way in real life.

Bacteria in closed cultures do not achieve 100% death. The death phase in a traditional growth curve occurs when more cells die than reproduce. Cultures then enter very long term stationary phase - although there are only a few cells, they can persist indefinitely, sometime for years (see figure one). They mutate at astounding rates and become ever better at extracting energy and nutrients from waste. We're starting to think the majority of bacteria persist in this state in the environment for the majority of their lifespans.

If you're going to attempt to use rational discussion before force, you can't just make stuff up. It's better to stick to things that have actually happened. There is no need to make up examples. There were several very good examples of societal collapse in Diamond's book with Easter Island being the easiest to understand. In several cases, the people did not go extinct but entered a very long term stationary phase, complete with cannibalization of "novel" food sources. I don't have my copy to hand but off the top of my head, don't remember a single story where 100% of the people were gone.

There are also several animal, plant, and algae studies that show similar patterns of growth, die off, and long term stationary existence, but I'm running out of time.

There are a few scientists (Paul Ehrlich, for one) who think we're looking at a mass human extinction event just because if our populations are too isolated, we won't breed. However, we know human population has gotten down to as few as 2000 individuals before. If Easter Island could sustain a breeding population on seabirds, rats, and cannibals, it seems that even after environmental degradation, somewhere on the planet will be able to sustain a group of humans. We'll eat just about anything, given the chance.

Note that this is NOT the same thing as saying we'll all have lovely lives with lots of stuff and food and warmth. Also, the human suffering that's involved of going from 6.8 billion to 2000 is horrifying to consider. The silver lining is that the likelihood that we have to live through much of it is vanishingly small.
posted by arabelladragon at 6:43 AM on January 14, 2011


actually, seanmpuckett is quite accurate. If you look at Jared Diamond's collapse theory, societies grow slowly but collapse almost instantaneously due to resource depletion. His example was a petri dish of bacteria.

Jared Diamond's theories lack formal description, and a have been widely disputed by other scholars. It's pop sophistry masked as science, scholarship and economics.

The petri dish model discounts trends such as dropping birth rates and the complexity of
our economy.
posted by humanfont at 6:49 AM on January 14, 2011


The idea that we are standing at a treshold is alluring but suspect. Every generation feels this way (and in their own way, each generation does face a treshold - just not the treshold they think they are facing).

No, this is not some spiritual platitude. There is no one who thinks there are two centuries of fossil fuels left. No informed observer doubts anthropogenic climate change; only the rate. There is no one who thinks we have the capacity for Asia to consume at the rates of the West without serious dislocations of power and wealth.

Societies do not "muddle through" for long. Like entropy, the forces of disorganization are stronger and more numerous than the forces of organization. Put another way, only one or a few things have to go wrong for collpase. Nearly everthing has to go right for escape the Malthusian trap.

Our ancestors didn't muddle through. Their socities collapsed. Our ancestors merely survived.
posted by spaltavian at 6:57 AM on January 14, 2011


Malthus wasn't wrong. He was just writing from a pre-industrial standpoint. There are finite resources;

Yeah, but Malthus was writing about a system based on profound inequality (sort of like the world today). He never acknowledged that the reason for so much famine was largely due to land tenure and taxes. So he was wrong.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:19 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Bangaioh - where we differ is that you seem to be assuming (apologies if I'm interpreting you incorrectly) that just because we've sorted things out for the best so far for some people, that will always be the case and things will always get better for everyone.

Well, you seem to believe that growing old and dying is a problem. But it's just the natural order of things. We create problems and we solve them, and sometimes we're a bit selfish and leave our problems for our children to solve them. But it's sort of fair because they also get our accomplishments.

In the grand scheme of things the past 100,000 years have gone quite swimmingly for the human race as a whole. And should we fuck up then in 50,000 years time it will all be lost in the mist of time. Actually that is likely to happen even if we don't fuck up, so I simply cannot get too worked up about it. Either we will succeed or we will fumble, probably some combination of both. Nobody knows what will happen and in 50,000 years it will not matter.

For YOU. And also for me, fortunately. Try telling that to someone who is unemployed and barely making a living. Stop focusing on your backyard.

The problem is, indeed, that a single person's misery seems more real than the happiness of millions.
posted by eeeeeez at 7:24 AM on January 14, 2011


Land tenure and taxes are part are parcel with Medeval society. That's like evaluating industrial society without looking at pollution and climate change; which, incidently, is the same thing today's pollyannas are doing.

But all of the is irrelevant. Given a level of techlogical sophistication, there is a limit to how many calories can be extacted from a given amount of land and sea. Even if feudal communism were achieved, resources remain finte. There's no way around that.
posted by spaltavian at 7:26 AM on January 14, 2011


hi spaltavian - There is no one who thinks we have the capacity for Asia to consume at the rates of the West without serious dislocations of power and wealth.

This is pretty likely to happen. In fact, over the long run it seems inevitable. So the question becomes simply: do you want your children to be on the side of the winners or the losers?
posted by eeeeeez at 7:27 AM on January 14, 2011


Seriously, having all financial crises be like the last one, that would be more than one could hope for. By and large it was a non-event.

Maybe, but if things go badly it might be remembered as the beginning of something larger. Too soon to tell.
posted by sfenders at 7:33 AM on January 14, 2011


Humanfint, cites please? I'd like to read the arguments against Diamond's ideas.
posted by arabelladragon at 7:39 AM on January 14, 2011


The problem is, indeed, that a single person's misery seems more real than the happiness of millions.

No, the problem being discussed here is that the future misery of billions seems less real than the current happiness of millions.
posted by symbollocks at 7:42 AM on January 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I take the point of the issue with Diamond's theories and whatnot. What the example was intended to show is that 1) collapse is swift, and 2) collapse is devastating, and 3) collapse cannot be prevented by a few enlightened individuals.

The financial crisis as an example. A good number of people saw it coming and have even profited through it. However, their warnings and actions did not stop it from occurring because the will of the mass was in a continuous direction. And the result is that power is shifting much more quickly now.

Further, no one believes that humanity will go extinct, that is implausible. The more plausible scenario is that human society would be massively shrunken to a "stable point", which is probably less than it first appears due to the destruction that would occur in the process.

As far as alternative food and nutrient sources and whatnot, there was the lovely jellyfish thread. Crunchy and slimy.

I have no doubt that we'll adapt and the species will go on. I would just hate to see it at a cost that does not need to be bourn. To play the hypothetical game, if the same amount of money had been invested in renewable energy as in the recent conflicts, where would we be as a global society?
posted by nickrussell at 8:03 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, you seem to believe that growing old and dying is a problem. But it's just the natural order of things. We create problems and we solve them, and sometimes we're a bit selfish and leave our problems for our children to solve them. But it's sort of fair because they also get our accomplishments.

In the grand scheme of things the past 100,000 years have gone quite swimmingly for the human race as a whole. And should we fuck up then in 50,000 years time it will all be lost in the mist of time. Actually that is likely to happen even if we don't fuck up, so I simply cannot get too worked up about it. Either we will succeed or we will fumble, probably some combination of both. Nobody knows what will happen and in 50,000 years it will not matter.


"The natural order of things" is the world's oldest cop-out. Human beings are part of nature, conscious of it, able to study and manipulate and change it. And what we're talking about isn't "nature" but the effects human civilization is having on our planet and immediate future; straight-line projection

Many people in this thread are trying to discuss specific problems and their causes and the best way to tackle them, and you seem determined to avoid the direct facts of the situation we face in favor of grand sweeps of history or theories of human nature

If the discussion was instead about H1N1 or nuclear proliferation would you still be in here saying "humans throughout history have suffered epidemics and we're still here, don't worry!", "technology has threatened us with mass death for centuries" , etc?

The fact that history happens and we'll all be dead and dust one day isn't some ironclad argument in favor of collective nihilism
posted by crayz at 9:09 AM on January 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Is it just me or has the standard of comment on meFi gone precipitously downwards? I remember when I could read post after post without losing respect for people. I guess I have to find some random nonsense, put it in italics, and make pseudo-erudite rebukes in order to stand out, eh?
posted by flyinghamster at 9:26 AM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Eeeeeeez's challenge is that he's uncomfortable with the feeling and/or opinion that he (and by extension of his worldview, We) is powerless to act in any way that might make a difference, and hence has created a number of somewhat Godwinian rationalizations to simultaneously justify his belief and to discourage others, whose own opinions or efforts might prove him wrong.

For if the concern is unjustified, then the comfort of inertia can continue to be enjoyed.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 9:27 AM on January 14, 2011


Obvious troll is obvious.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 11:18 AM on January 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


make a good lawyer but not a sincere thinker.
posted by stbalbach at 12:48 PM on January 14, 2011


I read a book about this while I was at home over the holidays. It's a little more solution based than metafilter normally is, but it was informative, and got to the relevant points about the subject.

It's also manages to be pretty humorous, without degrading the importance of the subject.
posted by Arquimedez Pozo at 1:02 PM on January 14, 2011


But all of the is irrelevant. Given a level of techlogical sophistication, there is a limit to how many calories can be extacted from a given amount of land and sea. Even if feudal communism were achieved, resources remain finte. There's no way around that.

So does population at a given moment. Malthus is flawed for several reasons:
1-population growth follows an s curve not a geometric progression
2-resource consumption and individual productivity are static-- you need more calories to mine coal than to work a desk job.
3-transportation improvements expanding the diet options and resource availability.

The universe is an enourmous place and we should be aware that resource availability is subject to variation depending on catastrophic events and technology breakthroughs.
posted by humanfont at 1:09 PM on January 14, 2011


I won't engage arguments that portray humanity as a pest, or a plague, or a cancer. Not only do I think the argument is dumb and abrasive, but mostly it is inconsistent. If you really feel this way, stop writing comments and kill yourself.

Wow. Just wow. Talk about "dumb and abrasive" - if someone makes an argument that doesn't live up to your standards and/or makes you uncomfortable, they should commit suicide?

Sounds like somebody's been drinking the Randroid/cornucopian Kool-aid.
posted by jhandey at 2:36 PM on January 14, 2011


Despite our great love in predicting the future we are collectively very bad at it. There could or could not be an amazing technological breakthrough or new discovery or sudden natural/man-made disaster, I don't know and no one else really does either.

That said, I don't exactly understand why people are resistant to being proactive in the face of possible problems. It does seem that people will agree with the premise of 'peak oil' -- that it is not infinite or near infinite like say the sun (haha, the sun will explode in 5 billion years, we must find an alternative to solar energy!) -- but as for what 'peak oil' means for us or entails for the future seems up in the air, and in many ways it is because I cannot see into the future, or, at least, I will be unsuccessful in convincing enough of you that I actually can see into the future.

Few people want to be told to have less, to have less than their parents, to have less than what they currently have, to have less than the next country or the next person and often the narrative of doom and gloom starts there.

I think a more useful examination of this issue is more hypothetical in nature. Let's assume for the sake of an inquiry that peak oil and global climate change will within this new century precipitate the collapse of societies and hundreds of millions of deaths if nothing is done to avert it. Let us also assume that a number of increasingly horrific disasters will occur on our way towards a 'collapse'. Now, hypothetically, as things continued to worsen, what I wonder is if our current Western society, Democratic Capitalism, will be structurally up to the task of initiating policies which will soften if not outright avert collapse. If we believe our institutions and natures within them are up to the task then there really is little to fear, that market forces and democratic action will respond and the hard work of transitioning societies to another mode of living will occur and all of this is already under the assumption that peak oil etc is a serious problem.

If, however, given our hypothetical, you answer that no, our current system and its institutions are not capable (and I mean this in an almost a priori sense) of adapting, then we have a real problem on our hands.

And I will go ahead and throw my hat in the ring and suggest that I tend to believe our western institutions are becoming more maladaptive to current issues. I wonder then what systems, or changes to our existing systems, will give us the best chance at adapting to the hypothetical disaster of global climate change and peak oil.

As another commenter above said, imagine if we had invested all the Iraq and Afghanistan war monies into alternative energy R&D or "green" technologies, or mass transit, or developing carbon syncs or all of these things and more. The argument could be that the market forces suggest these things to be inefficient and a waste of resources given the current price of oil, that these activities are not profitable, that the market is best at allocating human labor and capital and since the market has not done so it is therefore ipso facto inefficient and perhaps even communist or socialist or inefficient central planning to interfere with the market.

Market forces are great, they do many things very well, but that they do everything better than anything else I am not confident.
posted by Shit Parade at 3:08 PM on January 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


We are producing 15 gW of solar panels this year thanks to market incentives and expect to cross the $1/watt threshold. LED bulbs which are vastly more efficient per lumen will be available for less than $10 in the next year thanks to the market.

Hundreds of billions are going to green projects each year. The afghan war and Iraq are not clear tradeoffs and are a US centric view of R&D and progress. It isn't even clear we have spare research capacity to use the trillion dollars more you would propose throwing at these industries.
posted by humanfont at 4:50 PM on January 14, 2011


Many (but not all) environmental indicators are improving,

I beg to differ.
posted by smoke at 5:36 PM on January 14, 2011


arabelladragon: There is no need to make up examples. There were several very good examples of societal collapse in Diamond's book with Easter Island being the easiest to understand.

Right. Even if collapse doesn't lead to extinction, we're talking about the deaths of most people in the society. A couple articles by Diamond: Easter Island's End. The Last Americans.

I attempted to summarize the dynamics described by Diamond using this "diagram of effects" (I wish we still had the img tag!). When a society is stable or growing, increased food production supports increased population and affluence, and vice versa. As a side effect, there's some environmental damage (deforestation, soil erosion).

If the environmental damage becomes severe enough to cause food production to decline--or if food production declines for some other reason, like climate change--we get a vicious cycle: when there's food shortages, people need to acquire food regardless of the long-term environmental consequences. Short-term survival takes priority over planning for the future. This exacerbates the environmental damage, reducing food production further, and leading to the collapse of the society.

Reading the summaries of Lester Brown's argument, I'm not sure how this plays out. Thinking about past famines--the Great Leap Forward in China in the 1950s, the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s--there was great suffering and millions died, but society itself didn't collapse. I suppose the key difference is that the decline in food production was temporary. If our environmental problems become severe enough to cause a permanent drop in food production, that'd be a different story.

nickrussell:
A) Force (Violence) – Physical
B) Coercion (Wealth) – Rational
C) Incentive (Knowledge) – Emotional


I like this, but it seems a bit garbled. Maybe it should look like this?

A) Force (Violence) - Physical.
B) Incentive (Wealth) - Material.
C) Persuasion (Knowledge) - Rational.

If we do end up with permanent, severe, worldwide food shortages, my guess is that violence will be used a great deal more than it is today. Democracies will collapse and be replaced by dictatorships; war will be used to settle political conflicts instead of negotiations. (Given the weapons that we have, war is likely to destroy even more agricultural capacity. To take one example, if India and Pakistan go to war, there's a good chance it'll escalate to a nuclear exchange.)

I don't think any of this is inevitable. Our leaders aren't completely stupid; they'll work pretty hard to prevent disaster from occurring. But neither is it obvious that we'll succeed in meeting the challenge. Jared Diamond talks about three factors that discouraged action in societies which collapsed: the subtlety of what's happening, short-term interests, and conflicts with deeply-held values.
posted by russilwvong at 11:43 PM on January 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


I usually don't follow a thread this long but humanfront is wrong when he writes:

It isn't even clear we have spare research capacity to use the trillion dollars more you would propose throwing at these industries.

A quick reflection removes any doubt that we have spare capacity and could very well use the money. Here is an article published today in the NY Times about a solar panel factory in America closing down and moving to China. And here is the last scholarly article I read on the discussion of transitioning off of fossil fuels. It is a lengthly article but it isn't too technical to follow. In general (& the review section is short and to the point) if we take the risks of global client change seriously it would be best to begin transitioning sooner as, like debt and interest, the sooner less carbon is emitted the less long term effect it can have. No single technology can make this transition occur, instead a basket of technology or different 'wedges' will be implemented to wean us off of hydrocarbons and ultimately it is about flattening the curve as demand and usage is increasing.

I mean, look around, we have high unemployment, do you believe none of these people can be gainfully employed on any of these projects? Page two of the article lists 15 wedges which can be implemented today and this article was written in 2004.

What I see is not our inability as a nation and as a species to improve well being but a system which perversely serves the status quo to the determinate of a very possible, if not probably, future. Another example off the top of my head is high speed rail lines and a renewed commitment to public transportation of all kinds. Do you remember Obama's $50 billion proposal to aid transportation infrastructure. Does anyone believe that this is enough? Again off the top of my head and a quick google search: a due diligence report on California's High Speed train project says it would cost more than $50 billion (final costs between $60 and $80 billion) and goes on to say that the cost savings of this project is uncertain i.e. it may not be profitable. Now I am not advocating we throw money down a black hole but the potential benefits of such projects include more things than net profit. Like going to the moon, human beings learn tremendous amounts when they employ themselves on a large, complex project. The short term job stimulus might be in itself worth while and at the end of this we get a HSR. Compare this to building additional bombs, who believes bombs and collateral damages are profitable?

How about Singapore's biotech investment? We are a rich country, we could have easily competed with Singapore to better entice the world's leading researchers to come here, and if we truly believe that technology from the sciences will save us why are we not more heavily subsidizing our own youth to attend classes in these areas? Ph.d's and labs are expensive, we could certainly incentivize one and build the other, but the simple answer I am hearing is the market shows no such interest, projects that no such profits are to be had from such endeavors.

That the market can do no wrong, indeed the market tells us that those who work in the market generate the largest profits, here i'll just quote this this time:

In the last 40 years, financial profits went from just under 20 percent of corporate profits to around 40 percent before the financial crisis. Financial company stocks became 22 percent of the Standard & Poor’s financial index by 2006, up from 13 percent in 1999. And in New York City, the capital of finance, nearly $1 out of every $4 that companies paid employees in 2007 went to a financial worker.

does it not begin to sound dogmatic when an institution suggests that it itself is the best activity? Money chasing money doesn't always seem to support our long term interests. But go on, not enough people ever argue for the status quo--it needs all the support it can get.

/yeesh and egads
posted by Shit Parade at 2:00 AM on January 15, 2011


Upon What Meat Hath Our Financial Sector Fed to Grow so Great?
And it is not all finance. Our newly redrawn map of the U.S. economy shows another leading sector besides finance. The administration of our ill-designed health care system now costs us about 4% of GDP over and above the costs of administering health care in other comparable countries.

Do not get us wrong: we do not hate service industries. But most service industries produce something of value in return for their profits. Health care administration simply produces denials of coverage. Finance as currently construed simply produces portfolios for individuals that involve them bearing extraordinarily large and idiosyncratic risks that they had no idea they were bearing. There are two ways to make money in health care: (i) by providing people with valuable treatments that they are willing to pay for, and (ii) by collecting insurance premiums and finding some excuse not to pay them out when people get sick. There are two ways to make money in finance: (i) to find people who are willing to bear risks that they understand, selling them risks that offer attractive risk-return tradeoffs, and collecting a commission; and (ii) by selling people risks that they don't understand. It looks to us very much as though our modern health-care administration and financial sectors are good at the second but not the first.
short-sighted distractions that could, from an opportunity cost perspective, well, prove costly, with the price mechanism short-circuited by externalities and shot-thru with subsidies, hidden or otherwise.

East and west converge on a problem - The biggest question of the 21st century may be whether resources prove to be binding constraints, as they so often proved to be in the past, cf. limits; are we living in a zero-sum world or aren't we? that is the question...

on the bright side?
posted by kliuless at 10:20 AM on January 15, 2011


How about Singapore's biotech investment? We are a rich country, we could have easily competed with Singapore to better entice the world's leading researchers to come here, and if we truly believe that technology from the sciences will save us why are we not more heavily subsidizing our own youth to attend classes in these areas

We have hundreds of the world leading research Universities. Other countries have only begun to build this kind of capability, except Britian which has decided to gut theirs on the altar of austerity and spend £20 million on a wedding for pair of it's citizens instead. The Bris trail OECD in college graduation rates though so clearly it wasn't needed.

Back to US public biotech investment. Perhaps you havn't heard of the NIH and the CDC.
posted by humanfont at 11:23 AM on January 15, 2011


If the discussion was instead about H1N1 or nuclear proliferation would you still be in here saying "humans throughout history have suffered epidemics and we're still here, don't worry!", "technology has threatened us with mass death for centuries" , etc?

H1N1 and nuclear proliferation are great examples of things we worried about whose disastrous consequences never happened, so I'm not sure what that is supposed to prove.

The fact that history happens and we'll all be dead and dust one day isn't some ironclad argument in favor of collective nihilism

True disasters cannot be mitigated or foreseen. That is what makes them disastrous. The rest is just day-to-day and there is no point in being hysterical about it. Life goes on.

I am concerned about the fact that we are running out of fossil fuels but I repudiate the idea that it will bring about the collapse of society or similar wish fulfillment fantasies. We'll probably have another major war or two over the next centuries, but how are you going to avoid that? As long as warfare is part of human nature the best you can hope for is for the good guys to win.
posted by eeeeeez at 10:19 PM on January 18, 2011


hi jhandey - Wow. Just wow. Talk about "dumb and abrasive" - if someone makes an argument that doesn't live up to your standards and/or makes you uncomfortable, they should commit suicide?

If somebody suggests in all seriousness that people are a rat-like plague, then I believe you should follow that thought through to its logical conclusion. If you then end up in an absurd place, the thought was probably broken to begin with.
posted by eeeeeez at 10:27 PM on January 18, 2011


and, crayz - "The natural order of things" is the world's oldest cop-out.

I agree that that part of what I said is frivolous at best.
posted by eeeeeez at 10:30 PM on January 18, 2011


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