Ruthless Extrapolation

We humans owe much of our success to our ability to recognize patterns and extrapolate trends to anticipate a future state. My cats, on the other hand, will watch a tossed toy mouse travel toward them across the room—getting ever-bigger—all the way until it smacks them between the eyes (no, they’re not strapped down—I’m not that sort of scientist). But far beyond an ability to avoid projectiles, our ancestors were able to perceive and react to changes in local food and water supplies, herd movements, seasonal cues, etc. Yet this fine tool can be over-used, and I see a lot of what I call ruthless extrapolation. In almost every case, extrapolation works until it doesn’t.  When the fundamental rules of the game change, watch out!

As with many aspects of human behavior, some of the finest commentary on the matter is served up by The Simpsons. In one episode, Lisa Simpson is taken to the orthodontist to evaluate whether or not she needs braces. The “doctor” runs a simulation based on current growth rates, producing an alarming graphic of teeth gone wild.

Image obtained from

Marge shrieks and is ready to do whatever it takes to protect her daughter against this cruel fate. Extrapolation can, of course, be used to argue both for impending doom or future prosperity—sometimes based on the same data. I started this blog with an extrapolative foil to demonstrate the insanity of continued physical growth, in fact. A tangential follow-up illustrated the hopelessness of differentiating a steady-state energy future from an energy crash using current data (although a continued exponential rise is already a poor fit).

The Problem with Extrapolation

The danger with extrapolation is that it can’t work forever. Trends change. The picture I carry in my head is one I’ve shown before: the long-view history of fossil fuel energy use on Earth.

On the long view, the fossil fuel age is a blip, with a down side mirroring the (more fun) up side.

We found a one-time resource in the ground—like an inheritance—and are doing everything within our means to promote the fastest practical use of this finite deposit. By this, I mean that we have engineered a world that rewards economic growth—thus far carrying a nearly one-to-one physical/energy aspect, requiring ever more energy to keep the growth engine running. The finite nature of the underlying energy resource is not seriously under question. The overall impression of the figure above therefore must be approximately correct.

When we realize that this incredible surge—of planes, trains, and automobiles; of radio, television, and the internet; of industrialization, industrialized agriculture, and swelling population; of supersonic, nuclear, and space capabilities—in the past century or so are all reflections of the scale of surplus energy derived from fossil fuels, we come to understand that we need to stare the plot above directly in the face and recognize the peril of extrapolation.

We sit near the peak of the fossil fuel saga (the star on the plot). Our tendency is to note the incredible slope of the past century and expect more of the same phenomenal performance for the foreseeable future. It’s not a bad model. It has a pretty decent chance of being right over the coming years and possibly decades. Alternative forms of energy may take up some or all of the fossil fuel slack. But even this state of affairs does not look much like a continued skyward trajectory, even if it were possible.

I recently became aware of a story that highlights the degree to which the Earth has already been scoured for resources. In the remote, glacier-ridden Wrangell mountains of Alaska, prospectors found a certain copper-rich deposit in 1900. By 1911, a railroad was constructed and the copper bonanza began, discovering ores that were as rich as 70% copper. Compare this to typical copper ore mined today containing 0.3–6% copper (usually less than 1%). Production from the Kennecott mines peaked in 1916, declining more sharply after 1927, becoming uneconomic from 1932–1935, and reopening from 1935–1938 after which the resource was depleted. The mines and town of Kennecott were hastily abandoned. No ores this rich have been found since. It’s hard to get more remote and inaccessible than the interior mountains of Alaska a century ago. Yet if the rich resources were found and exploited so efficiently so long ago, I am left with lowered expectations for low-hanging fruit elsewhere in the resource world. Seems a bit picked-over.

Examples of Ruthless Extrapolation

We have no shortage of examples, but I’ll throw out a few to give a flavor of what I’m talking about. I think it would be fun to have readers contribute other glaring instances of ruthless extrapolation in the comments section.

To Infinity, and Beyond!

I have commented previously on the disappointment of space. Shouldn’t we be living on Mars right now? Ask an American in 1962 where they think we would be fifty years hence with respect to space travel. How many would say: “grounded, without a means to launch humans even into low-earth orbit”? No, only a lunatic would say that: the trend was clear. The space race was on, and we were tooling up for our first trip to set foot on another planetary body. Common sense (another term for ruthless extrapolation) would demand that the answer be far more ambitious than the Moon—millions of miles from the correct answer of “grounded.”

More generally, the extrapolation often goes that our evolutionary ancestors crawled out of the ocean onto land, so the next “logical step” (often substituted for “ruthless extrapolation” in casual conversation) is for us to take to the cosmos. Gibberish.

Science fiction—as inspiring and entertaining as it may be—is largely an exercise in ruthless extrapolation. Even less constraining, obeyance of the laws of physics (or grammar, in my case) is optional in this genre. For sure, I would be the last person to claim that we know all there is to know about physics. But any deviation from what we do know presently is a pretty substantial extrapolation.

Note that I’m not saying that all extrapolation is wrong—just flimsy to sometimes extraordinary degrees.

Faster than a Speeding Bullet

Logarithmic plot of transatlantic crossing time in hours. A straight line represents an exponential (compound) function on this plot. Select data points are labeled above or below the associated point. The red bar represents the era of the Concorde.  Some data are from here.

Traveling between Europe and the U.S. used to take months by sailing ship. Improvements in ship design and navigation trimmed this down slowly over time, but a decent model would have been “it will always take about two months.” Enter the steamer—a game changer, thanks to fossil fuels—and suddenly a new field opened up, ripe for development and improvement. The old extrapolation broke down. For a few hundred years, crossing speed improved at a rate of 1.2% per year. Extrapolate to now, and we would expect to be able to cross in 37 hours. Oops. This extrapolation fails in two respects. Not only is a 37 hour ship crossing not possible today, but more importantly we missed another game-changer called the airplane. After the airplane entered the picture, improvements came fast and furious, at a whopping rate of 5.7% per year! This culminated in the supersonic Concorde, crossing in typically three hours and change.

Extrapolate the progress of the aeronautical age to 2012, and we should expect crossing time to now be 19 minutes. By 2050 it would take a cool 2 minutes, and our crossing would exceed the speed of light by the year 2200. Another big oops. Not only did we saturate at 3 hours with the Concorde, we don’t achieve even that any more! Why? It was too expensive to operate: beyond our means.

Sometimes we step backwards: the space program and the Concorde are two striking examples.

There are several oopses on the plot above: sometimes missing game changers that improved things; and sometimes missing the exhaustion or saturation of a technology. Moore’s Law is today’s celebrated joy ride of amazing progress. Physical limits are bringing this ride to a stop too.  Note that the new mode of CPU expansion is in multiple cores, not intrinsically faster chips.

Visionary Virus

I attended a conference (the Compass Summit; talks viewable online) in October 2011 aimed at mapping out our future path. Its subtitle was: “what’s possible, what matters, what’s ahead.” It was here that I first put the words “ruthless” and “extrapolation” together, in reaction to many of the talks. The boiler-plate talk was: look at the tremendous advances we’ve seen in the last decades; what amazing, mind-blowing futures await if we extrapolate these trends forward? Only a few speakers rung alarm bells about soils, monetary systems, and the impossibility of maintaining growth indefinitely (ahem).

Virtually all talks failed to acknowledge the fundamental role that surplus energy has played in the amazing trajectory we’ve seen. Unlimited energy availability seems to be an unexamined assumption for most. This might be fine if we did not know that our primary energy resources are finite and are expected to peak this century. We can hope for a seamless replacement, but as I have worked to illustrate in the past, this extrapolation is far from guaranteed.

Meanwhile, we are attracted to stories of optimism. They are infectious. It’s fun to dream of a world where everyone can live like Bill Gates does today (or even better than Bill—why not?). Moreover, optimism for the future inoculates the market economy against loss of confidence—which is vital to maintain a growth trajectory. In so doing, optimism helps propagate itself—like a good little virus.

I recently listened to a radio segment on 3-D printing and the arbitrarily complex structures and devices whose fabrication by this method may soon be possible. In response to the question about whether there is anything that can’t conceivably be made by this technique, the answer was the familiar refrain that human ingenuity is unlimited—so no—nothing is out of bounds. A lovely sentiment that is all well and good in the absence of physical limitations. Again, the allure of ruthless extrapolation wins out.

The Trajectory of Physics

Okay, this one is a little obscure as a form of extrapolation, but it’s one I relate to professionally in the world of physics. Physics has a marvelous track record of reductionism. The same thing that pulls an apple from the tree keeps the Moon moving about the Earth. Electricity and magnetism—seemingly much different—are in fact different shades of a unified theory of electromagnetism. In the latter half of the 20th century, all fundamental particles and forces (including nuclear flavors) were bundled into the symmetry-group-fashioned “Standard Model”—leaving only gravity in the lurch as a thing unto its own. But the sense of imminent grand unification (theory of everything) was palpable. String theory pounded out many-dimensional mathematics in an attempt to provide a coherent framework for uniting gravity and the quantum domain of the Standard Model.

Then things came off the rails a bit. Neutrinos turn out to have mass—in open defiance of the vanilla Standard Model. Cosmological observations indicate the existence of not only dark matter (new stuff not made of atoms on the periodic table), but also dark energy (providing a repulsive force and accelerating the expansion of the Universe). These have no place in the current Standard Model. Meanwhile, a sizable cadre of string theorists—in trying to understand the geometries of extra dimensions—stumbled on the concept of a Landscape: a near-infinite number of ways that the compactified extra dimensions of spacetime could be arranged/folded, each resulting in its own unique set of rules for physics. Most would be utterly unsuitable for the formation of atoms or stable nuclei—let alone stars, galaxies, chemistry, and life. A tiny subset of the myriad arrangements would host conditions likely conducive to life. Obviously, our Universe would have to be one of these. Because this line of thought involves the “selection effect” of humans in the mix, it is referred to as an “anthropic” view of physics (not to be confused as implying that humans are required for the Universe to exist—just that we can’t overlook our presence—and that of nuclei, atoms, stars, galaxies—as an observational fact/constraint).

There is currently something of a schism in physics. Ask any particle physicist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, etc. where they come down on the anthropic view, and you’re bound to get an earful of…gibberish (including from me). Why gibberish? Because we don’t know whether physics unravels into random instances among a Landscape of choices in a multiverse, or whether the loose ends get tied together into a coherent picture with no freedom to be anything other than what it is. Some physicists believe one thing, and others believe another. But it’s still just belief either way—a religion of sorts.

In the unification corner, the track record of success in reductionism makes a very persuasive “exhibit A.” If early physicists had decided that the energy levels of atoms were somewhat random, then we would have missed the chance to understand something deeper and more fundamental (i.e., quantum mechanics). While there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the approximately 20 Standard Model parameters (masses of particles, coupling strengths, mixing angles), the hope is that one day not only will these be understood, but the current observational anomalies will also be incorporated and explained. In addition, the hope goes, there will be no mathematically self-consistent description by which the Universe could have ended up any other way—life and all. To the unificationists, the anthropicists are throwing in the towel prematurely. The anthropicists caution against blind extrapolation, and point to disturbing examples of fundamental constants that cannot be changed very much without destroying the life-support system of the Universe.

In this case, one could argue that there is little downside to assuming that the reductionist trend of physics will continue. The potential upside for discovery is rather large. A king of old could send a few ships over the horizon, accepting the comparatively inconsequential risk that the ships would disappear off the edge of the world in exchange for the possible huge gain of a newly discovered land. There will always be scientists to push into the unknown. The extrapolative view that physics may accomplish a “theory of everything” may well be wrong (and ultimately feels wrong to me, such is my bias). But unlike extrapolating societal growth/development trends, getting this one wrong doesn’t pose a threat to humanity’s happiness.

For me, I think there are questions that are too fundamental for physics to ever touch—like: why is there something rather than nothing? So I am not willing to embrace the ultimate extrapolation that physics holds all the answers to the how and why of our Universe. Meanwhile, physics certainly offers abundant opportunity to describe our world in a systematic and prediction-enabling way. And continued exploration is bound to be fun no matter what the ultimate end.

Human Boon; Human Bane

Our ability to extrapolate is indeed a valuable adaptation for our survival. I do not claim that it is unique to humans (other animals can anticipate and prepare), but we have abstracted the practice to a real art form. Many of our greatest accomplishments owe to this fundamental skill.

Yet we’re a little too married to the concept. From a mathematical point of view, we’re first-derivative machines. We sense and react to local gradients, or current trends. It’s a powerful technique. Again speaking mathematically, Newton’s Method, Runge Kutta Integration, the Method of Steepest Descent, and many other techniques are devastatingly effective using only first derivatives.

Yet sometimes the game changes, for better or worse, and our linear—or at least monotonic—extrapolations fail. We would do better with second-derivative sensitivity—to perceive “curvature,” or the trend of the trend. But real-world complexity often throws distracting noise into the data, making it difficult to discern more subtle behaviors.

Evolutionary processes tend to satisfy minimal requirements to outperform the competition, or to edge out environmental impositions. Human cultural memes aside, there are no deluxe model organisms with far more “adaptiveness” than is needed to get the job done (and procreate). So why would we expect to leapfrog evolution and develop a subtle perceptive tool beyond simple extrapolation. The simple technique is enough to exert powerful anticipatory action relative to our surroundings.

But this human boon turns into a bane if we are collectively too shortsighted to spot abrupt and detrimental phase changes ahead, like the end of the fossil fuel age. We’re smart enough to dip a stick into the ground and have it come up dripping with oil. But we may not be smart enough to realize that we shouldn’t use the stuff (and all of it) as rapidly as our growth machine can manage. Right now, the wind’s in our hair, we’re flying faster and higher, and isn’t that just the way it will always be?

Never mind. Don’t answer that question. We’re too poorly equipped to get the right answer.

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98 thoughts on “Ruthless Extrapolation

  1. Moore’s law refers to a doubling of transistors on a chip every 2 years, not an increase in performance or operating frequency, so moving to multiple cores on a chip is inline with “Moore’s Law”. Recently we’ve begun diverging from this path however, and obviously physical limits will kick in at some point no matter how clever we are.

    • The point of Moore’s Law is not the exponential increase in transistor density, it is that this can be achieved without any negative properties (size, power consumption, heat dissipation) increasing. Adding extra cores doesn’t get around this.

      If you want to continue Moore’s Law without shrinking transistors, then within ~10 years you end up with a processor the size of a house brick (in all dimensions, as you will have to go into full 3D) that requires the entire power output of a large car engine to run (and a comparably meaty cooling system). And after that, you need to keep getting more ridiculous…

      • “Moore’s law” doesn’t reference power or other potential “downsides”. You can’t continue “Moore’s law” without shrinking transistors – that’s the only thing it describes.

        • There are a number of different exponential trends that are commonly referred as Moore’s law.

          The original formulation was about transistor density at minimum cost per transistor.

          Other common formulations are: transistors per commodity chip, transistors per dollar, primitive operations per second, primitive operations per joule (Koomey’s law), bits of storage (RAM, hard disk, external memory) per dollar, etc.

  2. “””Meanwhile, we are attracted to stories of optimism.”””

    We? Many are not. See the news headlines, the disaster movies, the cult like following of various doomsday scenarios, Malthusians on every street corner.

    The discussion on ruthless extrapolation might have started with mea culpas on the likes of this:×768.png×768.png

    • Indeed, the introduction of this post does acknowledge that this whole blog started with an extrapolative “foil”—meaning that I don’t buy the “projection” for a second. Really, it’s philosophically in line: extrapolation is ludicrous, if taken beyond its applicable realm. Too many people misinterpreted the galactic scale post as representing some prediction on my part; don’t be one of these…

      Meanwhile, look for news articles about inevitable resource limits and compare to stories about new finds and what great news the bonanza is. I sense an asymmetry.

  3. Think about buffalo hunting. At one point in time, hunting buffalo must have been a significant source of food/proteins for the american pioneers. If you plotted a chart of the consumption of “fossil” buffalo, it would probably look very similar. Does that mean that Americans are starving these days?

    The interesting question is: was it wasteful to kill all the buffalo? I think it’s hard to argue that way. It’s clearly more expensive to raise cattle than to kill buffalo at the beginning (since buffalo are very common). At a certain point though, buffalo become rare enough that hunting buffalo is much more expensive than raising cattle.At that point some hunters become ranchers. If there is no substitute technology, hunters will starve until buffalo population recovers (or they both get extinct if hunter are too good).

    So the question is: is there a substitute technology? You have a pretty complete overview in a previous post. From my assessment personal transportation is the many issue (cars and planes mostly). Personally an electric car with a 100 km autonomy would cover 95% of my current needs (I live in London though, so I likely have a skewed view). Not being able to fly would be bad… But hardly the end of the world. Heat pumps could heat my house (and shower) and I already use electric mass transit most of the time… Replacing my gas heater might be a bit expensive, but I can likely afford it…

    But why would I? They still are extracting more fossil energy than the market really wants (as shown by plummeting natural gas prices). Once there is more demand than supply and prices start going up properly, I’ll change my behaviour. I will install solar panel and heat pumps.

    It’s already a good financial decision to switch all lighting to LEDs… Soon it will make economic sense to switch to other technology.

    Right now there are still too may buffalo…

    • Alessandro,

      While you bring up some good points, you don’t address the biggest issue: The Energy Trap ( If all of us wait until the “buffalo” are rare, we might not have enough energy to build a replacement infrastructure. No matter what alternative energy you pick there is significant initial energy cost to make it happen. Since you bring up electric cars think about how much energy, not to mention money, it would require to switch over to electric cars. And that does not include the energy/cost to build an electric system to handle such a large fleet of electric cars. Sure the embodied energy cost might not be too high for one car, but it is a vast amount of energy to replace the supposed 1 BILLION cars in the world. (

      • It would certainly require a lot of energy. But I think Tim is arguing about GDP not wealth. It’s a well known effect that GDP goes up after a natural disaster. Why? Because it reduces wealth but increases potential return (given that there are now new opportunities to rebuild). An energy shock is somewhat similar. Your petrol car would become worthless, but there would be lots of work for people who build electric cars.

        Now there are disaster so destructive that they reduce capital to such an extent that GDP is reduced. But this just raises even further investment returns, so that you’d get an investment boom. Bad for consumption, but not for GDP.

        I am not arguing against the fact that there is a carrying capacity. There most likely is. But the physical limits are still relatively far away (a couple of centuries given population is going to stabilize soon, without having to impose one child policies) and technology will still improve to push those limits a bit further.

        • “But the physical limits are still relatively far away (a couple of centuries given population is going to stabilize soon, without having to impose one child policies) and technology will still improve to push those limits a bit further.”

          How do you know this?

          • Alessandro,
            Sorry, I don’t see how that post supports the statement you made.

          • You can see on this link that total solar energy is 20,000 time current energy usage:
            At 15% efficiency, you get 3,000. Halve again for transport 1500. Total farmland is about 3% of earth surface (just as a comparison to other human endeavours). Let’s say 1% to solar farms, you get 15 (Luckily farmland and solar farmland have different requirement, so it’s not so far fetched). Let’s reduce it to 10 for love of round numbers. 2.3% growth equal 10 times in 100 years. Slowing down energy growth to 1.15% (given lower population growth I think that’s realistic) gives you about 200 year.

            All this is back of the envelope, but I think you can’t argue it is physically impossible…

          • You’ve done the easy part. And indeed solar is a super-abundant source of energy.

            The hard part is that the area you speak of is more than all the pavement in the world. Pavement is much easier and cheaper than solar PV. Now figure $5/Watt for a large-scale installation (willing to consider panels as essentially FREE, but structures, wiring, inverters, installation, and storage will add up to at least $5/Watt, I imagine. So the U.S. needs about 15 TW of peak PV to average out to our 3 TW demand. So price tag is $75 trillion. Balk.

            See the Alternative Energy Matrix post for a summary of why I think simply flitting over to some non-fossil source of energy is a potentially crippling challenge.

            And note that I’m speaking as a builder of things that work (including my own PV system). The challenges must not be waved away.

          • I honestly don’t think 75 trillion is a lot of money in this specific circumstance. S&P market cap is about 55 trillion I think. That’s just 500 companies (the biggest I admit). Corporate bonds are about the same. Plus you need to add all the road, homes, bridges, etc… That’s what you need to compare that number with…
            You also accused me of confusing financial investment with energy, physical constraints. I think you are doing the same.
            If we can cultivate 3% of earth surface, I don’t see why we cannot manage 1% of solar farms.
            Again I think you are arguing about limits in human organization, not limits in physical resources. Cost at a society level are a funny thing. 75 trillion are probably both the cost and the value of such investment. If you have unemployed builders (and building materials) does it cost society anything to build a bridge?
            You could argue that the difficult bit is not to build stuff, but to find something that people want built…

          • “but total asset value is about 190$ trillion.”

            As one of the comments points out, that’s a very problematic claim. Most of that number is financial assets, which are considered as something separate from tangible assets, rather than as claims on those assets. Households have financial assets such as corporate shares, and then those corporations are counted as owning things of their own — smells like double counting.

            Financial assets can be real, as in claims on future services, but also highly ephemeral, as in asset market bubbles and crashes. And, it’s not like we can simply sell off $75 trillion of assets and buy $75 trillion of solar power the next day.

            GDP has its flaws, but seems a more reliable measurement, and for the US that’s $14 trillion. So Tom’s $75 trillion would mean over 5 years of total US income. Or 20 years of total US industry value (assuming 25% of GDP is industry).

          • Well 25% investment is what you observe for developed countries. China (a country what is still building its infrastructure) has a much higher investment ratio, which would cut the time somewhat. Again even looking at GDP it doesn’t look impossible to me. You are talking about rebuilding the entire energy infrastructure.
            Let me say something else, I agree that the energy trap could happen if fossil energy production drops at a very quick pace (5%-10%). In such a scenario it will be a disaster. At rates above 10% it could be civilization ending. I don’t think that very likely. I am not sure how to estimate one way or another though…

    • Allessandro,

      When you say you will change your behaviour and install solar panel and heat pumps, have you ‘done the math’ to establish whether your particular patch of London real estate will provide you with sufficient solar energy to run an electric car, dishwasher, kettle, etc.?

      By the same token, will the makers of the electric cars, dishwashers and kettles be able to carry out all that smelting, casting, machining, fabrication, design, technology and distribution using just the energy from their own (or even someone else’s) solar panels and heat pumps?

      Or will they need the fossil fuel subsidy implicit in all heavy industrial processes? Going back to your opening point, buffalo weren’t brought to the brink of extinction by hungry pioneers; they were deliberately eradicated to make space for cattle ranching (and arguably also to undermine the way of life of the native Americans who were also in the way). Cattle ranching was and is an industrial process facilitated in the USA by the railways.

      If you want to talk about changing behaviours, think about how the native Americans and buffalo coexisted for thousands of years in a purely solar-powered society.

      Ruthless extrapolation cuts both ways, of course. Diminishing fossil fuel resources and the consequent failure of the current technology investment paradigm doesn’t mean that humans will all move on to a time where we wear buckskins, hunt, gather and practice infanticide.

      But there does seem to be a good chance that we’re approaching a point where smoking derivatives and muttering incantations like ‘GDP’ is going to stop delivering universally-anticipated goods like the right to hot showers, foreign holidays and golf.

      • Given that I haven’t got an oil well in my garden, I am not overly concerned about the lack of sunshine on my roof. Someone will trade that energy with me. Or it will be bad for me and I will have to move. I emigrated once, myself or my children can do it again.

        Native Americans had no choice but to be in equilibrium with nature. They had no other technology. If they expanded too much, famine (or disease) would cut them down…

        • Native Americans were not in equilibrium with nature – that’s a myth. They moved around and were lucky enough to have plenty of food and other resources.

          • You’re both wrong. Native Americans were highly agricultural, in many places for nearly 10,000 years, and were pretty advanced in ecosystem management. Terraforming, even. Eastern North American was fire-managed to resemble parks with trees. Amazonian Indians made their own soil. Raised-field agricultures, terraces, and artificial islands were all used. Sometimes, fertilizer like guano was mined and used, too. Many Indians were in “equilibrium” but at a high, pervasive even, level of management. Charles Mann’s books _1491_ and _1493_ are recommended reading; “1491” exists as the original essay form online, too.

          • That’s a typical nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle: a group of 100 – 150 people overexploit a small territory for few months to few years, then they move somewhere else. By the time they, or another group, come back, either the territory has regenerated its resources, or they starve.
            This keeps the population size close to the carrying capacity of the environment.

  4. I also wonder: do it really matter that we cannot extrapolate more than a few years?

    I just don’t buy the argument that we need decades to shift to a non-fossil fuel economy. During world word two, it took 5-10 years to completely change the world economy. Why it wouldn’t be possible to do the same in a post fossil fuel economy, shifting large parts of the economy from building cars and gas heaters to solar panels and heat pumps? I just don’t see the issue. Are you arguing we are less capable than 60 years ago?

    If we are arguing about long term effects of pollution, that’s a different matter, but the simple implementation of existing technology, no I don’t see it…

    • Transitioning the WWII economy from civilian to military and back again wasted lots of energy. In an energy crunch future, that’s exactly what we wouldn’t have. Indeed, as the author has repeatedly demonstrated, it’s not at all clear that renewable energy sources are physically able to meet our demand, or that improvements in energy efficiency are physically able to make up the difference.

      • I don’t think this is true at all. He convinced me that we couldn’t growth at current rates for more than 100 years. That’s it. Maybe I misread his previous post, but I don’t think that’s what he argues.
        His real fear is that, even if it is physically possible to use solar to cover an equivalent energy consumption, we might not transition to that as we would have no energy to make the investment. I personally see no evidence that such a concern is real and plenty of evidence of past transitions.
        Current renewable energy production is irrelevant. Expansion will become be logistic as with all things. The same reason that makes infinite exponential energy growth impossible makes the energy trap very unlikely…

    • War motivates action in a way that energy shortages won’t necessarily. With war, we engage the powerful human emotion of hatred, assigning demonic qualities to our enemies. When it’s our own habits and dependencies we must fight, how do we engineer the same scale of effort? I don’t think WWII mobilization—while encouraging and impressive—is the right model for how we deal with the grinding resource shortage problem.

      • I see it as exactly the opposite. I personally care much more about my right to a hot shower than fighting a far away enemy. I think most human beings share my feelings. There are few things that I value more highly. If I had to spend 20-30% of my income on energy (up from 5% now) for a period of time during the transition, I would be upset (as I would have to cut down on playing golf or holidays). But I would do it. It seems to me you are unduly pessimistic. How is this evidence based? Is there any instance in history where such inability to transform the economy has actually happened? I think there are many example of economies imploding due to more efficient competitor, but that’s it…

        Also I think you are confusing GDP with consumption. Let’s say we get to a place were there is a physical shortage of fossil fuel. In such an event, even with a shrinking economy the actual return on investment is going up. So you would expect consumption of energy to fall further than GDP and actual investment go up. You are also confusing the average investment return (which is mostly captured by GDP growth) with sector expected return. Such an energy shock would have 3 effects: lowering GDP growth, lowering even further expected return in the non-energy sector and raising expected returns in the energy sector. This would speed up even further investment in renewable energy.

        • Societies have failed to make transitions based on resources rather than competition from neighbors. Romans, Mayans, Easter Islanders, etc. Jared Diamond’s Collapse is informative here.

          • Though the accuracy of _Collapse_ is disputed, and I don’t mean by right-wingers who want to deny humans can poison themselves.

          • I would recommend Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies over Diamond’s Collapse.

      • Actually I just re-read the first phrase and I don’t think I expressed how much I disagree with it. Wars are mostly fought over resources. I just don’t know how you can make that statement. How can the cause of war be less powerful than war itself?
        You might argue that the dwindling of natural resource could cause a resurgence in conflict (as an alternative form of energy investment). But as for energy shortages not being a strong motivation…
        I don’t have the stats, but I am pretty certain that the 1973 crisis caused a rather large decrease in energy intensity. It definitely induced European countries to increase petrol taxes and further push for energy efficiency. And that was a simple temporary drop in supply…

        • It is not unlikely that we will turn energy shortage concerns into warring action, creating an enemy. But then we divert massive amounts of energy into a destructive rather than constructive approach (e.g., new renewable energy infrastructure). Seems this would only make the predicament worse.

      • Well, there’s always “who’s ‘we’?” Many other countries are trying to adapt (like Germany) or have reserves of governmental ability to organize society (Japan) or have yet to industrialize so have a chance to go solar from the start. The US, with its mix of denial and individualism and prior commitment to coal and oil, may have rather poorer odds than human civilization, as a whole.

    • I think we just spent our way to accomplish the transition. We spend quite a lot of money but also spend a vast amount of energy to make the transition.

      Look at the graph on eia’s website:

      Do you notice how steep that line is under petroleum and to a lesser extent natural gas? We might not have enough energy left over to pull off a similar trick because of the energy trap.

      It also cost A LOT of money to make the transitions. Look at how much of the United States GDP was government spending during 1940 – 1950

    • But 60 years ago we had “infinite” resources and energy. Now we are short of it.

  5. Tom, interesting post!

    One of the best books I’ve ever read in a very similar vein is “The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nicholas Taleb. I highly recommend it if you haven’t already read it.

    The problem is that humans in general tend to not know what they don’t know – if you know what I mean.

    We extrapolate, project and forecast based on what we know, but the “unknown unknowns” are all around us waiting to influence events in the “real world” and often invalidate the assumptions we place at the very bottom of our models and belief structures (I’m thinking especially about economics here though this problem is endemic to almost everything we do).

    Ironically, the more complex we make the world, the more “unknown unknowns” we create…

    Humans are great over-simplifiers of reality and when the future turns out to be different from what we predicted, we either tend to forget we ever made a prediction or we justify the failure as the “unknown unknowns” make themselves obvious in hindsight.

  6. Your mathematical metaphor for human behavior – “we’re first-derivative machines” – is elegant and spot-on. Thanks.

  7. Your comment on the current state of physics research reminds me of some of the comments in The Trouble With Physics by Smolin. I’m neither a mathematician nor a physicist, but I recall he discussed the electro-weak theory unifying electromagnetic and weak nuclear forces. He pointed out that the theory could be validated via discovery of the Higgs Boson…which he hoped would prove to be the case when CERN’s LHC came on line in 2007. If it was not found, he suggested the world of physics research was in “big trouble”. I’m curious as to your reaction to the current trends in research. Is too much time, money and energy being spent pursuing abstract notions such as multiverses and string theory, and not enough attention paid to practical solutions to life’s problems?

    • I skipped over the full unification story, but yes—electromagnetism and the weak nuclaer force are firmly unified, and the strong nuclear force unifies under super-symmetry assumptions. So the Standard Model can claim much unification success outside the gravitational regime.

      Do we spend too much time and money on researching the most fundamental aspects of physics? I don’t really think so. Firstly, it’s such a meager part of all research expenditure (much of it applied) that it probably amounts to well less than 0.1% of our federal budget (while getting disproportionate attention relative to other research because it’s cool). But secondly, we never know where fundamental research leads. Quantum Mechanics seemed pretty weird and useless in the 1920’s, but now we have lasers, transistors, and a host of other devices whose development relies on a fundamental understanding of QM. General Relativity seemed like a tiny, inconsequential change to Newtonian gravity when first demonstrated, but now the GPS system would fail to provide position fixes on Earth within an hour if we did not account for the general relativistic gravitational redshift effect (clocks run slower the deeper they are in a gravitational field).

      So I’ll always be an advocate of pushing the limits of our understanding of fundamental physics. I do not, however, assume that our challenges this century will be met by discovery of new physics—that’s a dangerous gamble. All the same, we owe it to ourselves as humans to develop the deepest understanding of nature that we can.

  8. We should remember that what seems blatantly obvious to us in this blogosphere is only obvious because we’ve spent decades studying and working in these fields. To the average person, technology really is magic and limitless.

    This is especially so in the US where so much of its industrial base has been outsourced. The economy has been turned into 300 million consumers with little “production” going on, all enabled by monetary manipulation. In this system, the health of the economy depends on consuming more, otherwise we get deflationary collapses and the whole ponzi scheme unwinds. Even our central bankers believe that wealth is “produced” by people consuming stuff.

    I’m working on some copper mine project designs. They are in the mountains and there is no water available so we have to design BIG desalination plants (using big energy) to make fresh water from seawater and then pump it 150 km up to 2000 m. So not only are copper grades dropping, but the energy requirements to get it out are also increasing.

    And it’s undeniable: 95% of the energy we use comes from burning dead carcasses. Half comes from recently dead things (food and biofuels) and the other half from fossilized dead things.

    Over the last 50 years US corn agricultural productivity has increased 4 x on a per-hectare basis, and fossil fuel inputs have increased 3 x for an overall gain factor of 1.25. To extrapolate this trend to provide the whole world with a western standard of living, how much more dead biomass are we then going to need to burn? Is there enough available? When we run out of FF’s will productivity go back down 3 x, or even more due to soil degradation?

    The idea of lifting everyone up to first world status makes people feel good about our industrious activities, it justifies environmental degradation, and of course it provides huge profit opportunities. The fact that it’s impossible seems to be irrelevant.

    I just wrote a piece of my own prompted by your Chris Martenson podcast in which a commenter argued that Microsoft created wealth. I go through the whole energy trail to show that Microsoft actually facilitated wealth destruction and that wealth, as always, comes from ecosystems.

  9. Scientists are all not like Tom who understands that “it’s still just belief—a religion of sorts.” They tend to suffer from the “we’re gods chosen people” syndrome. I’ll take science over all the other religions because it is what I believe. But I realize that I am “believing” that the data presented is actually what the scientist observed. There are plenty of cases where the scientist did in fact fictionalize the data. Believers beware. Math is a language. Sometimes you can describe what you observe with math in a more useful manner than if you describe it with English. But just because you use math instead of English (or any other language) does not mean it came from god. You can write fiction with math just like you can with English. Is string theory any different than a novel? Pick a language and tell a story. The great thing about math is that the definitions of the symbols are a set thing. 5 is always 5. Multiplication always gives a product. All is precise.
    I am stuck with the idea that there was a beginning to the universe or that there could be multiple universes. If the universe is everything then there can be nothing outside the universe. The universe is one thing and that includes everything. If you have a beginning then you have before the beginning and after the beginning and that is two things. From our perspective in the finite realm of atoms and people and planets and stars and galaxies we seem unaware that we are also in the infinite realm of the universe. Math doesn’t fit the infinite because there are no quanta; there is only one thing. Just because math can’t describe it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
    Ruthless extrapolation is a good example of using math to express fiction.

  10. I looked at your talk and wasn’t surprised that you didn’t get any questions. I’ve given similar talks to members of a political party I was involved with and I’ve found no one wants to ask questions or engage with the issue. It’s as if they simply shoved their fingers in their ears and blanked out. Did anyone show any interest in what you had to say?

    • There were a few who expressed afterwards that my message had a profound effect on them. Others described the lack of questions as a “stunned silence” or a sense that it was an inarguable, solid set of points. Who knows. But the editor in chief of Scientific American wanted me to turn the talk into a guest-blog post on their site, which I did. The FORA TV blog, in reviewing the conference, largely picked up on my themes. So some interest, but perhaps not widespread.

  11. I always find it helpful to extrapolate any thought to the point of ridiculousness and then back up to find where the paradigm fails.

    On the topic of batteries: A German company works on converting electrical power to methane. They have a 25kW system running at 40% efficiency.

    • What’s the method of converting that methane back into electricity? A heat engine at ~35% efficiency, for a round trip efficiency of <15%? or a 60% efficient (expensive) fuel cell, for a round trip efficiency of <25%? There may be reasons to pursue inefficient energy transformation methods (transportation fuels), but I'd rather put more money into battery research for now.

  12. Clean sources of energy and social skills MUST be extrapolated by virtue of their possibility, at least to their already, albeit sparingly, proven possibility.
    We CAN efficiently sustain billions of happy humans… but we won’t.

    The fact that the department of energy has (quite literally) abandoned a path to progress in favor of just dig’n more fossils substantiates a belief that “inability” is a planned event, to ever increase wealth and power within a system designed on fossil fuels, with the exception of Moore’s law.

    Moore’s law enables machine automation which is indeed a real game changer (and about to happen coincidentally at the peak of oil). One that could’ve ushered in a type of utopia (by use of a different social system?), but most probably will cause massive unemployment (within this system).

    Eventually, machines will make everything and thus the PERCEIVED energy shortage will become a cruel reality for a seemingly excess population and all their children that will (by that time) have no means to make a living, because corporate conglomerations will own the land, the water, the “remaining” energy and, of course, their fancy machines.

    Do to an inability to implement proven clean energy on a grand scale, and due to the lack of overall vision and action (except as in a WWII scenario) to collectively address machine evolution within dinosaur social systems, this is my nightmarish vision of ruthless extrapolation.

    • Interesting post. Have you read this. It is only 8 chapters.

      When you get to the end, imagine your life if you did NOT get out of Terraform housing. That would be seriously depressing.

      The worst part is how easy I can see this happening.

      • Thanks! Didn’t know that the founder of “How Stuff Works” was in to solutions to machine “unemployment”.

        I always said “We have the tech, just not the will”. When I say negative things like “we won’t” (survive or whatever) I simply mean to be alarmist, to stir attention to awareness, our major hope to prove me wrong.

        There’s another post (since ’09) about the possible implications of this fast evolving machine age (to which I posted Marshall’s link, too) with interesting and opposing views…

  13. I thought about another point.

    The graph you show is symmetric. Ergo the rate of decline in fossil energy usage is roughly constant. I would certainly agree that this is a reasonable assumption. It could be steeper than the rate on increase or not I am not sure. Up to a point, I don’t think it makes a difference.

    If human beings always extrapolate the last observation, any decrease in the rate of fossil fuel production will be quickly extrapolated at infinitum. Unless the drop in production is more than exponential (is that believable?), we will forecast it after a reasonably short numbers of negative growth observations. So the same mechanism which makes us over optimistic today, we allow us to forecast the end of fossil fuel with reasonable accuracy…

    In order to believe in the energy trap, you need to believe that the rate of decrease is massively higher than the rate of increase (I guess in the region of 10-20% or higher). Given that there are several different source of fossil energy, all with relatively different extraction costs, I find this very hard to believe…

    • The energy trap is still a viable mechanism at modest decline rates. The math is that a 10:1 EROEI resource with a 40-year lifetime takes 4 years’ worth of its eventual energy output as a short term non-borrowable investment. This steepens the decline rate whatever that decline rate happens to be. The main problem with the energy trap is that it treats energy as monolithic. But there can still be real effects even in a portfolio, because not all forms are easily substitutable into all activities. Oil and hydroelectric are not 1:1 interchangeable in terms of functional capabilities.

      As for asymmetric downsides, see Ugo Bardi’s Seneca Effect post.

      • I don’t understand this at all…
        A 10:1 EROEI over 40 years is equivalent to 25% return a year. There is almost no economic activity with 25% rate of return. Why is this a constraint?
        Not all energy is consumed (in the economic sense)… Investment is about 30% of GDP today. It’s almost 50% in China. I am guessing the ratio of energy usage is similar. So we deplete fossil fuels and instead of building car factories or homes or whatever, we build solar power plants. Likely we reduce consumption as well and build more solar power plant…
        Redirecting energy from consumption to investment is not a reduction in GDP, it’s simply a different way to use current production. It’s not even welfare reducing since people value future consumption and 25% is certainly above normal discount rates.
        I read the article and it’s pretty interesting. I agree that the pollution (I think better described as externalities) is a real problem (similar to the tragedy of the commons). That’s very worrisome, but it’s a different problem (best solved by taxes and not by slowing consumption rates).

        Anyway thanks for this blog, I really enjoy it…

        • I don’t know if I can be any clearer than the original post on the energy trap. But I’m not saying investment in energy infrastructure is a net negative: an EROEI of 10:1 makes it substantially energy-positive. From an investment mindset, this seems like a no-brainer good deal. The problem is the up-front energy investment required. In a declining annual energy scenario, this steepens a decline because there is no physical mechanism to borrow energy from the future. In the end, it may be a net positive and look like a sweet investment, but the here-and-now (energy) cost creates a hurdle that is difficult politically and socially (forcing a bad situation to be worse in the short term).

          • No, it doesn’t make it worst.
            There are two ways to use the energy we produce: consumption (something we enjoy) and investment (something we don’t enjoy but we do because it will lead to consumption in the future).
            Why would we be unhappy to stop building phone factories (or flat screen TV factories) and start building solar power plants? It doesn’t reduce the benefit we get immediately (as we get no benefit from either).
            Again this is already 30% of GDP in developed countries and much higher in developing…

            You might argue: why doesn’t it happy now? My reply would be that we are simplifying and that there are several inputs in the economy and that the relative plenty of fossil energy made such investments currently unattractive. People don’t like barrels of oil that much and prefer to consume other stuff, with different physical constraints. As fossil energy dwindles, relative prices will correct and make the investment more attractive.

      • I think I raised this point before but I want to make it again.

        40-year real interest rates in UK are negative. Translated in energy terms it roughly means that people are happy to give you a barrel of oil today in order to get less than a barrel of oil in 40 years time. They don’t need the barrel today and they’d like it have in 40 years. They have no ability to store it. This means that there is actual demand for assets with an EROEI of less than one (provided that they are down by a high credit entity). This is not a possibility, it’s where the market is trading today.

        I really think you need to consider that market prices are saying before estimating the likelihood of an energy trap.

        • This mixes up financial outlay with energy outlay. The barrel of oil you metaphorically speak of may have required only 5% of its energy as investment. So I don’t think you’re talking truly about EROEI. Both E’s are important.

        • We’re in a depression. Interest rates now are abnormal.

  14. I have one more observation on EROEI ratios. If you believe that each technology has a carrying capacity (and so follows a logistic curve), doesn’t it imply that the EROEI ratio is more or less irrelevant? The ratio simply gives us a maximum steepness for the expansionary phase of the logistic curve (which we can achieve if we devote all returned energy in further investment), but the expansionary phase is a small part of the total benefit we get from a technology. By simply changing the percentage of investment vs consumption in GDP, we can also mitigate that effect as well…
    For example a technology that return 10% of initial energy invested for 20 years, would still generate 8% return, which is vastly higher than long term economic growth. But it’s a EROEI of just 2… An EROEI of 1.2 over a 20 years horizon (so 6% annually) would generate 1.8% return, which is comparable to current per capita GDP growth… Most human activity has abysmal rate of returns…

  15. The conclusions of the recent Summit in Rio should make us understand that your/our worries are misplaced 🙂 – There is no Global Warming and no end to fossil fuels. The only thing that matters is the bl**dy GDP and GROWTH.
    As there will be no action on any of the burning issues, people should start to learn how to do non-mechanized agriculture and to make sure they can defend their lot.
    My extrapolation is that the world will decay through warfare and resource scarcity into barbarism. Most of the knowledge will be lost, as it takes years of instruction to pass enough of it to the next generation. I think that a look to Afghanistan, or Somalia, or some other places plagued by war for many years can paint a clear picture of where we are headed.

    • It’s very obvious that it’s considered political suicide to talk about any of these issues. Sometimes you can hear politicians come clean after they retired but most probably are considerate of their colleagues who are still in office.
      “Sorry kids, it’s late, party’s over, please turn off the music!”

    • I get a kick out of listening to all the hot air coming out of the Eurozone these days.

      Renewed “growth” is the key to solving their economic problems…
      Now where’s that dang “growth” switch… Someone turn it on so we can get back to normal…

      Talk about grasping at straws.

      My own personal feeling is that the further we kick the “growth” can down the road, the further into overshoot we’ll be and the more precarious the descent will be.

      • But….

        Growth is possible if we grow growth. Growing growth is the future or growth.

        I agree 100%. No one has the guts to say (at a governmental level) that we need to cut back on everything and pay down our debt.

        This is exactly what a financial advisor would tell you as a person walking into their office.

        • Actually lots of people have the ‘guts’ to say that; it’s all the austerity policies running around. They’re also *wrong*, because a country and a government are not the same as a firm or household.

          In the short term, simply going from depressed mass unemployment to full employment is ‘growth’, and a good thing, too; you’re just wasting potential labor otherwise. What that labor should be doing, and how we decide or pay for that, that’s another matter.

        • It isn’t possible to pay down our debt, that’s not how the monetary system works. Money is literally made from debt in a perpetual motion machine requiring neverending growth to function. When it can’t grow anymore, that debt spirals out of control.

          The fact that so few people understand this and instead argue for austerity as a way of dealing with budget deficits is a tragedy in the making because we do not have a legitimate monetary system. Dollars are just imaginary numbers and today, due to massive monetary manipulation, they have virtually zero fundamental relevance to the underlying resources supporting our economies. The only way out of debt now is a new monetary system.

    • Post Apocalyptic living has always been a fascination of mine, along with how humans lived 500, 1000, 10,000 years ago. Look at all the knowledge that was lost when Rome fell.

      It would be wise to stock up on knives, bows and arrows. Guns are nice but can YOU manufacture gun powder and bullets from things you find in the forest?

      • Yes, you can.

        Charcoal, made from trees, will smelt iron. With a little effort, it can make fine steel as the swordsmiths of medieval Japan and Araby (Damascus sword) did. Iron ore of various grades is readily available world-wide, but simply re-using the existing iron metals in the technological infrastructure would be faster.

        Charcoal is also an ingredient in gunpowder, as are sulfur and saltpeter (KNO3). Sulfur is found freely in open deposits; nitrates are extractable from urine and manure. Chinese alchemists invented gunpowder in the 9th century.

        Nitrocellulose is a better propellant than gunpowder, however. It’s easily made from cotton and nitric acid. Nitric acid was invented in the 13th century.

        Effectively, the world would return to mid-18th century levels of technology, before the active mining of coal (which came online after the first big energy collapse when England burned up all its forests in the early industrial revolution). You’ll need to buy extra candles or lots of whale oil to power that solar cell on your laptop to see teh InterWebZ at night.

        • I’m not sure it’s so rosy. links to and summarizes an article on “peak peat”. Coal was only mined for *kinetic* energy, ‘work’, in the 19th century, but it was being mined before steam engines, for its thermal energy, and use of that was replacing peat, which had been used heavily but was running out! Heating homes, providing industrial heat, also allowing wood to be used for construction purposes rather than burned for its heat.

          You can make iron with charchoal, but not nearly as much as we’re used to. 18th century? I dunno. But even that’s kind of apocalyptic compared to our population and tech level.

  16. The thing about space travel is that most people, including educated people, have no sense of scale. Ask the next person you meet how wide the US is or how far above us the ISS orbits. It’s highly likely they’ll have no idea.

    Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy recently had an interesting exercise in visualizing the immensity of space. It turns out that if you choose a scale where 1 inch equals 1 AU, then a light-year is almost exactly 1 mile (and the Earth is the size of a paramecium). Voyager 1, which is about to leave the heliosphere after 35 years of travel, is about 10 feet away (120 AU) and the nearest star is a little over 4 miles away.

    Star Trek and other science fiction has left the impression in much of the public that we can just zip around the universe once we’ve built the right ships. T’aint so.

    On depletion: better than your example of copper (which we can recycle or find substitutes for) is phosphate. There is no substitute for phosphorus (or nitrogen or potassium) if you want to grow food. There are a number of islands in the world where all the guano was depleted a century or more ago. There’s a close race among peak water, peak phosphate and peak fossil fuels for first place among looming catastrophes (and the latter will aggravate the first two).

    • The problem with things like Star Trek is that it has created the illusion that the future is known and the galaxy has been explored. Of course everyone knows it is fiction, but it becomes a model, the only model of human progress. Then comes the complacency we feel we know the galaxy when we don’t even really know the nearest planets. The problem we have with mass media is that it is almost only about entertainment now, not about disseminating information, even if it is disturbing. So things which should ring huge alarm bells, and which once would have now have no effect. Heading into this crisis we are collectively closing our eyes and crossing our fingers. Yeah, that’ll work.

      • Imagine that, each (really small) grain of sand being 4 miles apart! Thanks for pointing out this vastness scale.
        Obviously, we are not physically capable of dealing with such empty voids… However, it is also sci-fi that helps to actually get things invented.

        Asteroid mining is made to look easy, and now recently, part of proposed business plans (just search “asteroid mining”). Does the same vastness scale applies to them? Not quite.

        Such ambitions are needed because they invoke yet more invention (even though we have not even scratched the surface of the rock we already live on). Perhaps we will learn to mine a million times the lithium and other essential element right here in an enviro friendly manner (below the biosphere).

  17. You want extrapolation. How about Earth’s population. Do a linear fit to recent data and what do you get.
    By 2500 AD there will be just enough room for everyone to lay down.
    By 3000 AD humanity will be a layer 13.5 metres deep over the entire Earth.
    By 5000 AD humanity is a ball almost 8 million kilometres in diameter and by 6000 AD we will be expanding out into space at the rate of 1750 Km per hour.

    I always think extrapolation is so useful.



    • Maybe my sarcasm radar is broken, but I would have thought this proves the point of extrapolation being useful…
      You formed an hypothesis (population growth is exponential), extrapolated the result to the future, reached a manifestly impossible conclusion and falsified your hypothesis. Ergo progress…

  18. I think shortening the travel time across the Atlantic ocean is quite possible, perhaps even a cut in the energy consumption could be achieved. My hopes are that a vacuum tube train will be built within short. Researchers at Southwest Jiaotong University in China are already conducting development according to the wikipedia article on the subject.

    • My gut says trans-Atlantic travel will revert to ships and airships before we try to build a 4,000 mile evacuated tunnel.

      • Imagine two different scenarios.
        1, “We the people” prevent corporations from buying the governments. Or
        2, We become lazy and allow them to buy out the government so that they can minimize or even eliminate “costly” environmental and labor laws.

        Which best fits an extrapolation exercise?

        Anyways, I want to be hopeful and assume that we all start to realize the trend toward Chinese “slave” labor and MACHINE automation. Hopefully, we can then figure out the (seemingly dreadful) economic repercussions and thus retain our freedoms.

        (With that), automation will DEFINITELY mass produce things in utmost efficiency, using the least amount of energy to make things (that gather and store energy, for instance), for pennies on the dollar.
        From there, automated tunneling machines could help to build “suborbital” tube transport. Yes, passengers could really feel weightless!

        Wait, this type of engineering would most probably advance other concepts, like geothermal, however,
        I imagine the suborbital tubeway would be completely destroyed in an earthquake…

  19. Alessandro Carraro seems to be representing the economists’ view – essentially that Adam Smith’s invisible hand will fix the energy conundrum. Tom Murphy is the skeptic noting the many cases where social conditions did not allow for a graceful transition when societies were under extreme stress as described by Diamond and Tainter.

    I am skeptical about the economists’ optimism – as much as they try to be a “real” science with their mathematical models, the real economy is subject to human greed, irrationalism and other human foibles, not to mention the realities of resource depletion and pollution. The financial bubbles, frauds and the financial manipulations that we have witnessed over the last twenty years are more than adequate proof that the economy does not just follow the idealized rules of economists where people make rational decisions on a level playing field with other economic actors. In 2008 we witnessed the spectacle of Alan Greenspan essentially saying that his theories of economics had been falsified (couched in his vague language, of course), yet I don’t see any evidence that economists are doing anything to come up with replacement theories that model the real world better. It seems like they are just doubling down on their conventional wisdom. I think that the economists’ world view resembles a religion to a much greater degree than some physicists having a bias one way or another about the anthropic principle.

    My rant in the previous paragraph aside, I must admit that I have been trying to puzzle out whether the techno/econ optimists’ viewpoint is workable. In the context of Alessandro’s comments and the topic of this blog it seems that doing some math would be appropriate. Does Alessandro’s assertion that we will essentially use the energy currently used for producing consumer goods to build renewable energy systems work? Will there be enough energy that can be diverted to this purpose in a regime of declining fossil fuel supplies to make this work? It seems like this could be answerable to some degree – how much energy is used to make consumer electronics, etc. compared to what is needed for the transition to renewable energy? Of course there is the social side – will people be willing to sacrifice their short term comforts for a vaguely defined somewhat less bad future? Are there any historical cases (outside of war) where this has happened in the past? We shouldn’t accept Alessandro’s assertion that economic rules will fix this any more than we accept anyone else’s assertions without some hard evidence that it will work.

    • On economics: read Paul Krugman’s blog. Keynesian macroeconomics has been both validated and refined by the crisis. Economists already had theories that model the real world better. Unfortunately you’ve got the evidence based economists and various heavily politicized ones.

      This doesn’t mean Carraro’s right; I have no opinion on that now, as my eyes glazed over those comments. Sorry.

      • All Keynesian economics did with the 2008 crash was transfer the banking system’s insolvency onto the public’s balance sheet — privatize the profits and socialize the losses. Bailout after bailout after money printing stimulus package after another since then has now made virtually all governments beyond insolvent, all in the vain hope that what always used to work during the era of ever-increasing oil production, would continue to work — that economic growth would come to the rescue as a result of economic “productivity” increases to bury the systemic insolvency under greater GDP. Not so in the era of Peak Oil! The problem is, our economies have no productivity. They consume; they don’t produce.

        Keynsianism is as bad as austerity. They are mirror images of each other, head and tails of the same coin, Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. Neither is formulated from a sound understanding of how the world works.

        • So, I’m guessing Tim doesn’t want a digression into a fight over economics, but let’s just say that this is almost totally wrong. The US had one grossly inadequate[1] stimulus package and has had the predicted result of arresting its fall but not recovering. That’s more than most other countries did. “virtually all governments beyond insolvent” has no resemblance to reality. And Keynesian stimulus has no dependence on ever-increasing oil production, as Krugman’s model of the scrip-using babysitting co-op shows.

          [1] Projected GDP gap at the time was 6% over at least 3 years. Obama’s stimulus was 2% GDP, for two years. Even with a multiplier effect of 1.5, that’s 1/3 the size it needed to be, as non-administration economists pointed out.

      • Spurred by Tom’s suggestion that you should create a separate blog post for longer comments, I created a new blog and tried to put down my thoughts about this. You can read it here:

        I admit the mathematical model is very crude, but I think it gives some information. Obviously I cannot do experiments as Tom does, but that’s the drag about studying human behaviour.

        I would also like to clarify that I do believe the end of fossil fuel will be very disruptive, but not civilization ending. I personally think that climate change is a much bigger challenge than the energy trap (due to the tragedy of the commons).

        I also disagree with the suggestion that consumption restraint will significantly help. If it is impossible to sustain current economic conditions with renewable energy, consumption restraint will simply stretch a bit out the current time of plenty. It’s not a solution for the long run. It doesn’t encourage investment in renewable by definition. Also believing it could be implemented is believing human nature can change from one day to the next…

    • You misunderstand my argument.

      I am not saying that we will stop producing consumer goods. That would be impossible. I am saying that we would re-direct the energy we spend building new factories to building renewable energy infrastructure. There is no sacrifice in this. A factory is not more enjoyable than a solar power plant or more efficient energy grid.

      Investment is between 15% and 40% depending on the country. It tends to react positively to drops in wealth (such as the discovery that we have less fossil energy than we hoped).

      There is a fundamental difference between some of Tom’s arguments and the energy trap. The energy trap is an hypothesis about future human behaviour. That is a messy and complicated field, not because economist are less clever than physicist, but because it just is. Some areas of physics are messier and more complex than others… Even messy subjects like fluid dynamics are much simpler than economics (i am guessing here, so correct me). Just look at weather forecasts, isn’t that simply an application of fluid dynamics (uhm… I am not sure, but it must be related)?

  20. The most ludicrous extrapolation of our time, is also one of the most common. Because some humans are very very smart, that means that all humans are very very smart. As you noted about human ingenuity, it is extrapolated from the parts to whole.

    I mean humans are clever. So are crows. Humans are also ignorant lazy so and so’s…I can’t yet speak for crows

  21. This is my first comment on this blog, hello everyone. Extrapolations on peak oil have become a bit pointless, because produktion has gone up lately, lowering oilprices. I just read the latest article bij george monbiot. There has been a plateau starting in 2004, since then unconventionel oil has taken off in a big way and has recently come onstream, increasing overall oilproduction. So a fossil fuel crunch has been pushed back for decades if not a whole century. I dont have to tell you all what this means for global warming. The best use for this surplus, if any would be to use it for building more sustainable energy production. The beast called “growth” lives on!

    • And there we have it, folks. The cruelest of extrapolations: based on a recent uptick in oil production, we get the sentiment that the crunch is pushed out decades or centuries. Maybe this was meant to be sarcastic, but it feels like a genuine stretch.

      • Surely you’d agree with the statement that the end of fossil fuel has been delayed by the discovery of new extraction technology.

        I don’t really think it changes your main point, as fossil fuel accumulates at a certain speed, but this is equivalent to increased efficiency. As you pointed put there is a limit to this (we cannot extract more than 100% of fossil energy), but raising the extraction efficiency increases the energy extractable from fossil fuel.

        I guess you could argue that increasing extraction efficiency simply means increasing current consumption so that the end of fossil fuel happens at the (roughly) same time, simply following a higher consumption path. I would certainly agree that some of that will happen. Is this your point?

        • Alessandro,
          I don’t think you can equate “new extraction technology” with “extraction efficiency”.

          In many cases, advanced technology is only enabling drillers to access difficult reserves – at the COST of using more energy to extract those reserves.

          If you ever have the opportunity to physically observe operations in the Canadian tar sands, you will understand – seprarting bitumen from sand then manufacturing sythetic crude out of the bitumen is about as energy intesive a process as you can get while still maintaining a positive EROEI.

          At best, new technologies may allow the “bumpy plateau” to be extended for some time but ultimately, over time, a larger and larger portion of industrial society’s capital will have to be diverted into extracting fossil fuels – simply to maintian the “bumpy plateau” – at the expense of road maintenance, public services, education, health care, etc…

          Unless, of course, you believe that humans can indeed simply create capital out of thin air by printing more and more cash…

          There’s no free lunch in this universe…

          • I meant to say that given a fixed stock of fossil energy, better extraction technology allows you to get a higher fraction as usable energy. Even if the EROEI goes down, you still get more energy out in total. If some fossil energy is currently unusable, even a technology with terrible EROEI increases fossil fuel production. I thought tar sands had EROEI around 3.
            Let’s say there are 1bn barrels in a tar sands deposit and 1bn barrels in a saudi oil field. Net extractable energy is 650m in tar sands and 950m in saudi oil field. A significant difference, but I think the 20 to 3 EROEI ratio is somewhat misleading…

          • I am not sure what you mean in the fourth paragraph. I think that what matters is the net energy balance produced by the energy sector rather then the gross. An energy sector based on fossil fuel will contract at a certain point for sure. But any discovery of a new fossil energy source (even with low EROEI) will increase the net energy balance produced over the lifetime of the energy sector. If I had an expected consumption path, my ex-post consumption path is now higher almost at all points (even if it could be lower in the beginning). As such we will have more energy resources for other activities, not less.
            Actually couldn’t you argue that the transition from oil (or high EROEI sources) to tar sands (or low EROEI sources) is in some way a trial run for future energy transitions? If we successfully manage that transition, I think it would support the “economist” view. Again I am ignoring the pollution/climate change issue (which I think is much more important).

          • The argument seems to be about whether there is a minimum net-positive EROEI that still enables a society to function. Alessandro implies that any net-positive EROEI allows net energy, saying that the absolute scale of that energy is unimportant.

            Mathematically, this is true enough. But practically speaking, there will be a minimum useful EROEI well above 1.01:1. It will differ by source. But historically, persistent societies have enjoyed EROEI values above about 5 or 10:1. Some use this as a benchmark.

            Tar sands at 3:1 are already in the low territory, requiring 50% more energy investment than, say, some 100:1 EROEI resource (early oil). This means more resources (and people) devoted to the extraction of energy. As EROEI declines, the fraction of our entire societal effort devoted to obtaining energy climbs. Necessarily, so will the price. Ultimately, we’d hit a breaking point. Right now, tar sands are subsidized by energy inputs from higher EROEI sectors (natural gas, coal, conventional petroleum, nuclear may step in). It is unclear to me whether we could maintain a “fleet” average EROEI as low as 3:1. We may never be willing to devote that much of our time, energy, effort into obtaining new energy.

            Since we don’t really know where the EROEI limit is, we can only speculate. But waving off worries about an untested regime does not feel very prudent or well-considered to me.

          • Alessandro,
            I may be misunderstanding your point…
            Let me see if I can make an analogy that clarify the point I was making earlier…

            My garden at home has 250 gallons worth of rainwater storage directly adjacent to it. Beyond that, there is a pond about 500′ away from the garden and slightly downhill that holds say 10000 gallons.
            Beyond that there is a small river about a mile away and further downhill which has more water than I could ever use.

            My garden (at this point in time) requires about 20 gallons worth of water every day.
            After 10 days, if there is no rain, I have to haul water up the hill from the pond.
            So to maintain the same 20 gallons of water per day to the garden requires a great deal more work – time and energy. That extra work comes at the expense of other things I might do – like fix something, spend time with my family, etc.

            If the pond ever went dry, my only other alternative would be to haul water up from the river – which would probably consume all of the work I could possibly do in a day and leave no time for any other activity.

            In the end it doesn’t really matter how much water is available in the river, if I can’t get enough of it to the garden at the rate that it requires.

            This isn’t a perfect analogy. But if you think of energy as being to the global economy what water is to my garden, then I think it helps to show that a growing global economy demands a certain minimum quantity of energy to grow. It doesn’t really matter how many total btu’s are stored in shale formations and tar sands if enough of them can’t be delivered to the global economy at the rate that it demands for growth.

          • Given high unemployment in most western countries I wouldn’t really worry about having to dedicate more working hours to energy extraction. Plus you could imagine a completely automated process, at which point the net output is really all the matters. This is just normal productivity growth, as we observed in agriculture (granted that this was mostly switching from muscle (renewable) to fossil energy, but we are still talking about fossil energy here anyway).
            I agree that there must be a lower limit above 1. But I observe that a lot of financial investment has has a total return ratio much lower than 3, which, while not conclusive, is at least an interesting data point.
            I am not arguing it wouldn’t be better to have infinite high EROEI sources. But we don’t. We have no choice but to adapt.
            Given that energy is complementary to almost all other human needs, I doubt there is a price at which we’d stop demanding it.
            I dispute that the economist view is to do nothing. The economist view is that we need to tax fossil energy consumption in order to lessen pollution externalities. The economist view is to encourage investment in all forms (including energy infrastructure).

          • There are lots of different physical and organizational limits in the economy. If there is a physical limit to the amount of net energy extractable from tar sands, then that’s a hard barrier. But the economy is a very dynamic system, that adapts all the time. People adjust investment allocation all the time. If I can build a pump powered by solar panels, it’s less clear that the loss of easy access water will cause a net loss of welfare, as I am simply switching from one use of solar energy (evaporation and rainfall) with another (panel and pump).
            There are always fights of this kind (depleting resources vs productivity increase) in the economy. For example, cheap labour in China is a resource that is getting consumed, as their economic system and technology level becomes more similar and we cannot extract cheap work from them any more.
            Economists care mostly about productivity and capital as the main engine for human welfare.
            I personally don’t think you can equate lower EROEI with lower productivity (in terms of human labour). As you point out, time is the ultimate limited resource. But you can increase the output with technology (plus energy, matter, etc…). I need to think a bit more about this, but I think it’s a logical error…

  22. Okay maybe a century is a bit of a stretch, but please read the latest article on for more information. This could be bad news for the planet. kapitalism is nothing if not resilient or resourcefull

    • OTOH, the oil industry has been spending trillions just to maintain production, or get relatively small upticks, and estimates of how long the new oil will keep going might be high; shale oil falls off a lot faster than conventional oil domes, or so I hear.

  23. wbokken, have you looked at a graph to see how much the recent uptick in US oil production from non-conventional sources (all only possible because of persistently high oil prices) actually represents? Over the last few years the US has gone from importing about 60% of its oil to below 50% as a result of 1) reduced demand due to the depression, and 2) a small increase in domestic production that amounts to about 6% of US oil consumption. All of your wild predictions are based on an increase that is SIX PER CENT of consumption rates!

  24. Ok, thanks for the numbers, it puts things in perceptive. A six percent increase wont stave off peak oil, but it might be ( in part) responible for the lowering price. A six percent increase in US unconventional oil production is still an increase. And the us oil consumption is quite large compared, compared to other countries so it might be enough to lower the oilprice. Also, in other countries they`ve started drilling for shale oil as well.

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