Should We All Give Up?

The frustration within the sustainability and resilience blogosphere is palpable. Oftentimes it is expressed in terms such as this: “Why even bother communicating with the mainstream, when the mainstream has no intention of listening?”

But ideas have a life of their own, and many are gradually infecting the mainstream, without the mainstream even being aware of their origin. For example, take the chart below titled “Costly Quest” taken from a Wall Street Journal article published on 28 January (behind paywall here, click for larger image):

Majors Oil Production jpeg

This is a classic case of the Red Queen syndrome, under which Big Oil has to run ever faster purely in order to stand still; that is, ever more investment for the same level of production. (A previous post dealt with the Red Queen and shale gas here.)

The Red Queen can also be described another way: a decline in the energy return on investment (EROI), under which you have to put ever more energy into an extraction and production process just to get the same amount of energy out.

EROI was first conceived of by the systems ecologist Charles Hall who later developed it more deeply into the discipline called biophysical economics, the best exposition of which can be found  in the book “Energy and the Wealth of Nations” by Hall and co-author Kent Klitgaard.

You can listen to a recent 19 January 2014 podcast by Hall talking about EROI and biophysical economics at Progressive Radio Network at the link below. Don’t get put off by the weird bird noises at the beginning. The podcast starts one minute in and Hall gets on to fossil fuel depletion issues about 25 minutes into the podcast. The first 25 minutes are still interesting as they explain how Hall got involved in biological energy systems when studying migrating salmon.

At the height of the credit crisis, the revolutionary ideas espoused by advocates of biophysical economics chimed with the times and even got an airing in the mainstream media, as, for example, in this article in The New York Times in 2009.

Five years on and this intellectual strand of thought remains marginalised, as Joseph Tainter, one of the movements most high profile supporters predicted back then:

“Of course I’m trying to send a message,” said Joseph Tainter, chairman of Utah State University’s Department of Environment and Society. “I just don’t expect there’s anyone out there to receive it.”

And many who tried to get the message out have given up, the demise of The Oil Drum being, perhaps, the most famous example. Similarly, we got a post from the blogger Question Everything yesterday making a very definitive statement:

What follows is actually something that has been brewing for a while. I started writing this a little over a year ago. A recent e-mail list exchange with some other people who have been blogging, mostly about things like climate change, energy depletion, and the collapse of civilization, reminded me of my own evolution in thinking. Several well-known luminaries in the blog and book-writing world have begun to voice a kind of remorse that their voices have been ignored. Meanwhile the world has careened toward the consequences they have warned us of. And now they are realizing that they have been tilting at windmills. Somewhere along the line I did too…..

…..In any case I plan to no longer concern myself with warning of imminent collapse or a bottleneck. In all likelihood I may, from time to time, simply mention another signpost along the way, like the current draught problems in California as indications that climate change is having its effects much sooner than expected. But I won’t dwell on how it could have been different if only people would have listened to the warnings and taken heed. I won’t complain about those in governments being so incredibly stupid and foolish. I’ve said quite enough about it already. Think of this as a kind of retirement from the role of a Cassandra.

My own position is somewhat less gloomy. Why should we be so surprised that a well-financed climate skeptic lobby would have emerged after Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  “Fourth Assessment Report” in 2007? Or surprised that, with an oil price spiralling above $100 per barrel, the fossil fuel industrial complex would throw more cash and technology at getting marginal barrels of oil out of the ground?

My optimism rests on the fact that our problems cannot be permanently ignored: the planet will continue to warm and energy prices will continue to rise. In The New York Times article back in 2009, Hall was quoted thus:

“It isn’t that there’s no technology,” Hall said. “The question is, technology is in a race with depletion, and that’s a whole different concept. And we think that we can show empirically that depletion is winning, because the energy return on investment keeps dropping for gas and oil.”

This is basically the core idea behind The Wall Street Journal article I commenced the post with.

So should we all give up? I think my answer is “no”: every idea has its time and biophysical economics is an idea whose time is just arriving. From the heretical to the mainstream in tiny incremental steps. Indeed, in the not too distant future, even The Wall Street Journal will believe in the idea of peak oil and dangerous anthropogenic climate change. You may call me stupid and naive; I prefer to see myself as patient.

7 responses to “Should We All Give Up?

  1. You ask whether or not we should all give up. But what is it that we are asking about? If it is the prospect that the race between technology and depletion is still undetermined, then you are being unwisely patient. That race was won by depletion long ago.

    If it is the prospect that individual preparations can be made to maximize the chances of at least a few people coming through the narrow bottleneck ahead of us, then I agree that there are things to be done other than watch and wait. You may have the patience of Job, but don’t rely on divine intervention to save you.

    All of us should be busy preparing for the day when physical factors such as depletion and climate change destroy our collective faith that the global market economy will somehow save us. The day that faith is lost is the day the market economy collapses. And when that day comes we will all be dependent on ourselves and our neighbors for the production of everything we need for survival. If you can’t look around you and feel confident that you could survive without money (since all money will be worthless) then you are not ready. Don’t wait; get busy.

  2. Joe: My headline was really echoing ‘Question Everything”s lament. That is, his view that we should give up trying to convince non-believers that there exists a problem: in other words, “What is the point of being a Cassandra?”. This is the sort of frustration that led to the closure of The Oil Drum: the exertion of so much effort for so little and declining effect. I completely understand this. And as you so rightly point out, the sustainability and resilience community can carry on regardless.

    Nonetheless, I think both peak oil and low carbon ideas will come to permeate the mainstream again. We saw that during the credit crisis and we will see it again. As to what degree of descent we will have reached at that point? I think climate change is a slow-burning disaster. Resource depletion is much more immediate, but there our means to mitigate it. We are so profligate with our energy use that even if it fell by half I think our existing political institutions would survive. This is a big topic!

  3. My mother, an eternal optimist, tells me how the US “turned on a dime” upon entering WW2. Virtually overnight, the productive capacity of the US economy was changed to produce war equipment. Victory Gardens were planted and huge numbers of women entered manufacturing for the first time.

    As someone who has spent much of my life in renewable energy research and application and as someone who experienced the oil shocks of the 70s, I have been waiting patiently, but hopefully, for the political powers-that-be to instigate the WW2-like transformations needed to convert our economy to renewable energy. The call-to-arms for that conversion never came. Now it is too late.

    The fact that we are still so “profligate with our energy use” is no reason for optimism. We should have been conserving our fossil fuel patrimony like misers for decades. The fact that we have not speaks to the futility of convincing people to take obviously necessary collective action.

    Once depletion really begins to bite (what we have seen so far are nibbles only), people will have to decide between the huge sacrifices needed to take some tiny remedial steps or just letting things go downhill a little slower. I am convinced that we will be fortunate to simply slide down into energy and economic destitution without resorting to massive resource wars.

    Cassandra saw the future and was not believed. All Cassandras deserve some sympathy, but it didn’t take a gift from the gods to have the ability to see our energy future if we didn’t take the meaning of “finite” seriously. Anyone with grade school math could do it. Now here we are; the future is becoming the present some of us knew was coming from long ago. All we can hope for now is to get out of the way and watch, with fascination and despair, as our “civilization” falls apart.

    • You could be right. But I am a probabilistic kind of guy. I see you as in the fat tail to the right of the distribution and my best guess being somewhere to your left (but by no means anywhere near the middle, which is why the blog is called The Rational Pessimist). But this is also a distribution we know very little about: the empirical record counts for nothing (it chronicles an age of energy abundance just ending) and our ability to model outcomes is limited. Whatever probability we attach to your future, it is a very bad future for most. And risk is probability times effect, so yours is a future which must be taken seriously from a risk management perspective.

  4. Still getting my head around this web site and all the issues it raises. I would like to see a discussion of world energy (or even just electricity) infrastructure that covers all sectors. I see a lot of coverage that touts rapid growth in the renewable sector but to me there is an awfully long way to go. For example, China’s installation of 12GW of solar PV in 2013 having installed a record 3GW in 2012, got good coverage in renewable energy web sites. World solar PV installations were 39GW. But (extrapolating some old figures from wikipedia) total generation capacity in China could be 1350GW of which 78% is coal – maybe 120GW of new coal plants were built there in 2013. There seems to be a long way to go.

    On the other hand, I met someone who had met with the person in charge of China’s carbon budget who confidently claimed their carbon output would peak in a certain year (2025 from memory) and that he had the power to enforce this.

    I like the articles on this blog regarding the Kaya equation. It seems like a good thing to emphasize, for example it would good to track its components publicly. I seem to recall that the long-term trend for energy use per GDP is -1%/year. What’s the current trend for carbon per unit of energy? Since most energy is used in transport, heating, and industry, I can’t believe it is shrinking very fast at present. Would be good to know. It should be possible to work backwards from a given target (eg CO2 peaks at 450ppm in year x) to the annual improvement in carbon per GDP that would make it possible, and what it would take to achieve that.

  5. You are so right about our ability to model outcomes, especially since most of our best economic modelers are ignoring the depletion elephant in the living room. But the longer things continue as is, the greater the probability of disaster and the greater the population at risk.

    If one thinks that the probability is nearing certainty, as I do, one must hope to minimize the effect. How to develop and implement policies that give the best chance of survival to the greatest number is a topic that should occupy our best thinkers. Too bad that so many of them aren’t paying attention.

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