Crippling Intellects

[Relevant reflections on this topic appear in Appendix section D.6 of the Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet (free) textbook.]

Star Trek brainiac

People can be individually smart and collectively dumb. Or some may argue that people can be individually dumb yet collectively smart. When it comes to plotting a future path, I think we often get the worst of both worlds. In this post, I’ll look at the role that mental horsepower plays in our societal narratives, for better or for worse. We’ll explore two aspects to the problem: people who are so smart that they have dumb ideas; and smart people who are held captive by the manufactured “dumb” of society.

A word of warning: “smart” and “dumb” are loaded words, and even impolite. We place so much value on intelligence in our society that being called smart can make a person’s day, while being called dumb can cut to the core. We’re very sensitive to people’s perceptions of our intellectual standing, and some of the choicest insecurities are laid upon this foundation. I use “smart” and “dumb” as blunt instruments in this post, so if you’re particularly touchy on the topic, either steel yourself or skip the post and call it the smartest thing you did all day.

Let me preface what I am about to say by the disclaimer that most of this is conjecture. I have little data, relying instead on hunches about what makes people tick based on personal observations.

One other disclaimer: this isn’t a post whose veiled message is how smart I am. I might once have thought so, but then I met bona-fide geniuses when I was in grad school at Caltech. Fortunately, I was mature enough at that point for it not to cause a crisis of confidence or identity, and rather enjoyed the window I had into the off-scale brilliance of some individuals. So let’s go ahead and put me in the dumb box so we can move on to what I want to say.

The Smart Handicap

Some people are so freakishly smart that they have little insight into the minds of us mere mortals. It can therefore be hard for these individuals to navigate the world of ordinary people; like trying to get somewhere fast on a bicycle, hemmed in by throngs of sluggish pedestrians on the sidewalk. In theory, the bike is fast. In the real world, it has limited effect. It is, of course, possible to build a model for how people are likely to behave, and cope with the result. But I imagine smart people still often get caught off guard when someone stubbornly fails to understand what is obvious to them.

This is similar to a condition that I call the libertarian fallacy: “I can imagine a world working almost entirely on a market system, with very little role for government aside from defense, police, punitive services, etc. I don’t personally need a lot of rules or structure to stay in line, so nor should anyone else—so let’s back off on the governmental grip, huh?” It’s pretty similar to the line of thinking that “if everyone were as centered as me, the world would be a better place.” Next step: wish that world into existence. What I think is missing is that most of what government provides is so effectively accomplished as to be practically invisible, so that it becomes easier to envision a world without the bloated, obstructive government. Lost is the fact that successful countries with good jobs, social mobility, a well-functioning infrastructure, and humming economies all have substantial governments. No accident. Taxes (government) or warlords, I like to say: you pick. But I have veered into the political, albeit in a way tied to my overall point.

I got some personal insight into the “smart handicap” when I was a grad student. A friend and I were interested in taking an introductory course on the environment. What the heck: it would be a nice break from all-physics, all-the-time. Only we found out just before the beginning of the first class that it had been cancelled for the quarter. So we popped open the catalog, shopping for something else with which to entertain ourselves for the next hour, having already cleared the time. We spotted a course on Game Theory in the economics department, and minutes later walked into a dimly lit classroom of maybe 15 students sitting around a large U-shaped table. To illustrate one of the motivations for game theory, the professor pulled out a $20 bill and proposed a game to select a winner.

The game went like this: “Pick a number between 0 and 100. You’ll write down the answer on a sheet of paper and pass it forward. After you do so, I’ll take the average of the numbers and give the $20 bill to the person whose number is closest to one-half the average, so chose your number accordingly. Now go.”

I set about working my way through what would happen if people chose numbers randomly between 0 and 100, deciding that 25 would be the right answer in such a case. But wait, everybody’s probably thinking similar things. What if they all pick 25. Then 12 or 13 would be a good pick. But they’re right there with me, aren’t they? I should just go lower and lower. But wait, is everybody really pursuing this same line of thought? Are they second-guessing like I am? This is really a game about guessing how deeply others are thinking about it, or how deeply they judge the rest to be thinking about it. Oh heck; I’ll just put down 11 and be done with it.

There were some ridiculous guesses in the class. I recall that someone—no joke—picked 50. There might have even been a higher guess than this, but now it seems impossible that such a memory could be correct. There were a few 25’s and other guesses in that range. A few individuals picked zero, figuring that everyone would catch onto the downward convergence, and we could all split the money. They were incredulous when I won the $20 with my guess (and an outcome around 9, I believe). I recall that someone voiced utter disbelief that his zero wasn’t the correct answer.

Actually, I must admit that while I quickly understood the downward tug, I did not recognize until the game was over the beauty and perfection of zero as the only “right” answer. Lower numbers made me nervous, short-circuiting the theoretical pull to take the game to the extreme. This corrective impulse was apparently missing in the “smartest” students in the room, attracted as they were to the “perfect” answer.

When it Comes to the Energy Challenge

So how does the “smart handicap” play out on the biggest challenges we face? Or asked another way, what do really smart people think is going to happen? I can report that many of them are not nearly as worried as I am. That said, a number of my colleagues (10–20% if I had to make a crude guess) do share my concerns—and the ones that don’t are frequently immersed in unrelated research anyway.

One characteristic of luminaries (at least in physics) is an ability to see some fundamental, unifying truth that—once understood—casts everything else into sharp relief. So powerfully successful is this line of reasoning (e.g., in physics: conservation laws, symmetries, group theory), that there is a temptation to apply similar tools to our messy world. Thus often a single principle is seized upon: market forces; transformative technologies; the simple truth that we have more hydrocarbons in the ground than the atmosphere can take, if burned (therefore we don’t face energy supply problems as much as we do CO2 problems); shale gas; thorium breeder reactors; fusion; abundant solar energy.

The incisive power of these truths are very attractive. Sometimes, the more subtle or mind-bending the notion, the tighter a grip it has on the brainiac. Market forces are a good example of this. The mechanism is dashed-clever, exercised by a host of independent operators, effectively trying every solution to a problem and letting a natural selection process determine the optimal solution. It’s beautiful. I get it. But there are a couple of gotchas.

First, psychology plays a role. These people are smart, but also have emotional needs like every other human on the planet. For many truly exceptional, brilliant, admirable, amazing people, the best succor in life is reflected appreciation for their smarts. This is not to be taken as a negative. A good bowler likes to see a high score reaffirm his or her capability, and doesn’t mind when other people notice the score as well. A talented mother likes to know that her efforts are appreciated and reflected in the quality of her children’s behavior. A crafty individual is likely to have choice creations on display. It may not be shameless or overtly self-promoting, but rarely do individuals completely conceal their finest attributes. Praise makes us feel good.

For smart folks, this can manifest itself by putting on display a command of intricate concepts, in a way that few around them could manage to do. I have already mentioned market subtleties as one example. Another is turning loose a powerful intellect on envisioning the unimaginable amazingness of life in the far future. Recognizing that only the most extreme visionaries of centuries past could possibly have had the foresight to anticipate key aspects of the world we live in today, the challenge appeals. The result is that some searingly bright individuals tend to wow us with their ability to envision otherwise unappreciated future possibilities. Freeman Dyson epitomizes this mode. There is method to the madness, resulting in some amazing insights wrapped in the crazy. Detractors can easily be characterized as dull and unimaginative next to the intellectual giant. Another way to get kicks.

[Wait, let me try! 200 years hence, most humans will: sleep through nights; enjoy eating (and discussing food); still be “using the bathroom;” experience love, anger, jealousy, and laughter; enjoy colorful things; craft, trade, and innovate. How’d I do?]

The second gotcha is that the attraction of a single key insight may overshadow a host of more mundane—but no less real—concerns. Like a raccoon pleased to be grasping a shiny object, the nails driven into the side of the knothole are of secondary concern, even if they mean that the raccoon is ill-served by continuing to hold onto the trinket for its isolated pleasure (see here if I lost you with this reference). Once you’ve got-hold of an insightful thought relevant to the situation, it is hard to abandon it as only partly valid or even rendered irrelevant in the face of real-world crud. Wishing that the world would follow pristine, elegant logic is insufficient to make it so.

Thus, while the efficient market hypothesis may be a lovely thing, and a joy to comprehend, other factors get in the way and sometimes cause market failure. If no one on the planet wants a recession (or worse), and the market is efficient enough to anticipate looming problems and deftly side-step, then why are recessions, bubbles, and other failures ubiquitous features of our economic landscape? What happens when the resource landscape shifts underneath the comparatively transient growth-based economic worldview?

Likewise, while it’s true that we have more hydrocarbons in the ground than we have atmosphere to accommodate the combustion products, this insight does not constitute a reason to dismiss peak oil or related concerns, since layers of complexity (viscous fluid in porous rock; declining energy return; best sites exploited first; geopolitical factors) collectively impose a practical rate limit on resource extraction, so that the amount of resource in the ground is not the primary metric (see earlier post).

Not all “smart” people are handicapped by attraction to singularly clever ideas, obviously, and some are exceptionally talented at managing uncertainty and complexity. Even so, I believe the fixation on gnarly concepts to be a real phenomenon, and suspect that many of us share similar attractions to ideas that just fit in our minds.

Politicians are Victims to Us Idiots

Leaving aside the prodigies among us, everyday people make choices and decisions based on personal needs and local conditions—without investing much time into researching the state of the world and future prospects as they relate to those same choices. In an ideal world, those whose attentions are focused on long-term challenges would help to chart a course for the rest of us to follow. These “smart” people—even if individually focused on an incomplete picture—would presumably collectively make some good decisions on behalf of society.

Fortunately [sarcasm alert], we live in a democracy that protects us against the tyranny of pencilheads. People vote based on common sense, political/cultural identity, and/or maximizing personal financial benefit. Long term concerns have difficulty competing for attention, not least of which because distant realities are obscured by uncertainty. Look how hard it has been to accept climate change as a no-brainer consequence of prodigious combustion of fossil fuels.

On the topic of climate change, Bill McKibben brought up some interesting points in his excellent global warming article on the subject of peoples’ political decisions (emphasis mine):

Green groups […] have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs. Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we’re certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself—it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.

The result is that it does not matter whether the President, our Senators, or our Representatives personally accept and understand climate change or any other long-term threat to the status quo. Let’s pretend they are “smart” in this context. As long as giant buckets full of voters oppose action that would increase energy costs, require reductions of energy usage, or mandate greater efficiency, the (vote-conscious) politicians have their hands tied and their feet in a sack. So here’s our companion to the smart handicap: we get a dumb handicap too, keeping smart ideas from being implemented.

Political Paralysis

I am at least as worried by this paralysis as I am about the path the future will take. I believe that an economy based on growth is on a collision course, being set on the stage of a finite and filling Earth. I believe this will manifest most sharply in the oil (liquid fuel; transportation) domain, but fossil fuels in general are also on the hook. And we face no shortage of other existential challenges associated with a growing population exerting pressure on atmospheric quality, water, agriculture, fish and species survival, etc.

Yet these are beliefs. I can’t prove to anyone that this is our path: just (hopefully) that it’s a legitimate set of concerns. What I am more certain about is that if my concerns are validated in the coming decades, our political system is woefully ill-equipped to respond appropriately. If resource-imposed reductions are part of our objective future, our citizens will not go down that road quietly. Unless a majority of people understand the inevitability of downward adaptations, any politician vowing to save us from that defeatist path will rise to power on the backs of those who either refuse to—or simply do not—comprehend the physical impositions we face.

Moreover, the recognition that a politician only needs to stoke the denial and lambast the “responsible” path to gain popular support will surely incentivize deliberate misinformation campaigns and stirring of uncertainty. Gee—where have we ever seen this before? A recent book by a UCSD colleague, Merchants of Doubt, details high-profile instances of this old saw.

When we combine physical limitations with political ambition, natural aversion to a reduced standard of living, and a population insufficiently prepared to evaluate the fundamental problem, I can predict an unfortunate outcome.

Hobbled Reaction

A unifying theme here is that people across the intellectual spectrum exert influence on our future. No one is smart enough to see all ends or anticipate the path to the future. Very smart people often disagree on fundamental issues, may get trapped into narrow yet compelling lines of argument, or refrain from prognosticating on account of a high degree of uncertainty. Meanwhile, ambitious people find it easy to manipulate public opinion to stymie action—especially when such action brings easily exposed short-term sacrifices.

So we’re caught between not knowing which smart people to believe (they can’t all be right), and a population predisposed to being misled by intellectual “superiors.” In the post, I offered some speculative psychological mechanisms by which smart people can miss the boat.

My reaction is to be skeptical of anyone who expresses certainty about our future, whether it’s on the doom side or the “infinity and beyond” side. Meanwhile, I see a plausible reason to worry about the pitfalls accompanying the decline of the fossil fuel age, and sense a reality disconnect in those who see our upward march continuing indefinitely. Given the structural challenges stacked against an effective reaction to the doom side of the divide, I tend to take this one more seriously, due to the asymmetric risk associated with it. If I am wrong to worry about the doom option, but in the process encourage urgent transition to renewable resources and reduced personal energy usage, where’s the harm in that? It seems much worse to deny the doom and be wrong, having advocated practices that only accelerate and amplify an eventual decline.

In truth, we may well hit somewhere in between: a trajectory that pulls up short of collapse, but not without some painful loss—possibly failing to regain the pinnacle we now enjoy. But who am I to say?! I just have to see it unfold like everyone else, while advocating that we play it safe, heed plausible warnings, and re-frame our expectations for the future. It may not be smart, but perhaps it’s as close as I can come.

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91 thoughts on “Crippling Intellects

  1. I would like to interject is that lots of ‘smart’ people make economic decisions based on current and projected economic situations before starting down a path. For instance, I know from personal research efforts that there really isn’t much point in pursuing biofuels at present because the price of the alternative (i.e., petro-fuels) are so low. For me the price point where I figure that biofuels are profitable to explore from a business perspective is around $10 a gallon of gasoline equivalent (current dollars). Smart people need to have steady jobs just like ‘dumb’ people so smart people who want to do biofuel research need to find someone to cover their expenses (research as well as personal) and when they can’t provide persuasive arguments to investors to back their line of research because the margins are too small, they move on to other projects. Thus, as the price of conventional fuels increases so will the appeal of alternatives. Of course, as you have pointed out before, there is quite likely to be a period where the price of conventional fuels skyrockets because of supply constrictions before alternatives are ready, but as has been seen recently when gasoline prices spiked, people actually can be elastic in their demand when given sufficient provocation. As a consequence, I tend to see more of a middle road where the price goes up (albeit in leaps and bounds, but always returning to a lower (but still higher on average) price as demand adjusts) and eventually smart people can convince investors to back the necessary research to produce a viable product. Until then what I see today is ‘pie in the sky’ researchers (apologies to all those so labeled) who are focused on attempting to do research on shoe string budgets and who make extravagant extrapolations from pilot scale results that lack rigorous economic analysis that includes real-world market forces. In other words, dumb smart people.

    • I had this relevant tweet this morning. Relevant source also, apropos the post…
      @vkhosla: Alternative Fuels’ Long-Delayed Promise Might Be Near Fruition; Now if capital was available to replicate 1000 times!

      • Interesting read. I’m impressed that the article detailed the failed promises from the past. That part often gets left out in these stories. I also found it fascinating that if you divide the capital cost by the number of gallons per year each of three totally different plants plans to produce, they all come within 1 unit of 15. Interpretation: at $1/gallon profit margin (after operating costs), the payback is 15 years. These numbers are so suspiciously close to each other that I wondered if this is engineered to meet some investor threshold. If they are trying to replace crude oil, at about $2.50 per gallon, a $1/gallon profit margin on top of operation seems tough to me. If the profit margin shrinks, the payback time grows perhaps beyond investor interest. But I don’t know the details of the costing: just that it strikes me as unlikely the profit margin could be so high.

        • It could also be that these are the technologies that have finally reached that magic threshold and therefore are the ones that have gotten investor support. As the trope goes, there’s likely correlation, yes, but which direction is the causal arrow pointing?


      • This response may be a bit off topic but I think this NY Times article is a prime example of what, as mitakeet says, “dumb smart people” can do. I found it to be scientifically competent, if one is taking the perspective of an engineer or businessman. But clearly the proponents of biofuels haven’t “done the math” to see how they fit (or don’t) into the greater global energy picture.

        profits also depend on continued high prices for oil, the commodity that biofuels would replace
        No! Biofuels will never replace oil. There isn’t enough biomass produced by the planet to replace oil on a sustainable basis along with all the other demands we put on the biosphere for biomass.

        Energy experts say that eventually renewable motor fuel could have a much bigger impact on the United States economy than renewable electricity from wind farms or solar cells.
        I sure hope not, because that by definition means we’ll basically be out of energy! There is no way biofuels could scale up to meet this demand. Already something like 30% of the corn harvest goes to ethanol blending with gasoline. And how energy independent has that made us? The idea that we can just throw stems and trees into a bioreactor and get enough fuel out to power our economies just doesn’t add up. Even with all of Brazil’s sugar cane ethanol, and its substantial oil extraction activities, it’s still a net oil importer!

        If we can do it with biomass (make renewable fuels from otherwise wasted biomass), then there is no more discussion of food versus fuel; it’s over
        Not a chance! If there were 10 million people in the US, then maybe. Furthermore, removing non-food biomass from corn farms further degrades soils and requires even greater use of fertilizers to make up the difference. Fertilizers come from fossil fuels.

        But new chemistry technology, like hope, springs eternal.
        Sigh. I suppose that new technology will include perpetual motion machines? The only things that will get us out of our energy predicament are education, hard work, dedication, and a full-on assault on political and corporate corruption. Hope has little to do with it except providing the initial motivation to act.

        Biofuels are in my opinion the worst option for renewable energy; they are actually beyond useless. They are like an incorrect map, providing hope and earning our undeserved attention, steering us in the wrong direction because they divert our focus away from the only real options we have once FF’s end: solar, wind and nuclear.

        • The world uses 30 billion barrels of oil, or about 5 trillion kilograms. Wikipedia says global NPP is about 100 billion tons C, or 100 trillion kilograms, 54% on land. So actually biofuels might be able to replace fossil oil, if you could shovel random biomass into digesters.

          USA uses about 1e12 kg of oil; I couldn’t find a NPP total, but eyeballing a map suggests 2.5e12 kg production. So it’d be hard to be self-sustaining, and probably for the world to use oil at US rates. But cutting back could make it more feasible.

          US corn ethanol is a bad joke and a fiasco, but not definitive of the capability of biofuels.

          “removing non-food biomass from corn farms further degrades soils and requires even greater use of fertilizers to make up the difference. Fertilizers come from fossil fuels.”

          Ideally you just need the C and H of the biomass, and the rest could be returned to the soil. And while we currently do get fertilizers from fossil fuels, that’s mostly from natural gas, not oil.

          Ideal biofuel wants a good way of turning cellulose into fuel, which is a far cry from perpetual motion machines. And we do have ways: gasification -> syngas -> Fischer-Tropsch.

          I’m not a huge biofuel fan; solar’s certainly more efficient at generating power. OTOH, it’s also more capital intensive and there’s the storage problem, and the raw numbers are there. They might not be after we subtract out food and not wrecking the biosphere, but that’s a trickier calculation.

          100 billion tons of carbon a year is about 1e14 Watts. World energy use is under 2e13 Watts. And here we’re talking about just oil, not all our energy.

          • A straight comparison of global NPP to fossil fuel use suggests that it could be theoretically possible, since we use 5.4 cubic miles of total energy (oil equivalent) per year, and global NPP is 22 cubic miles, so 4 times as much.

            But there are many complications and multiplication factors that need to be factored in that would take us to well beyond 100% of NPP if we tried to replace fossil fuels with biofuels. I argue that anything beyond about 20% is impossible for practical reasons, and even that’s stretching it.

            One of the big problems is turning cellulose into hydrocarbons which has terrible efficiency, especially the gasification -> syngas -> FT process. But other problems are fresh water, and stagnating and decreasing total NPP, and the estimate that we already appropriate 1/4 of global NPP now, so adding another 1/4 would take us to 50% of NPP!

            I made all these calculations and summarized in my “World Energy Use” page if you click my name. It needs a couple minor tweaks, and I also want to include some allowance for the case that the world has significantly more coal than originally anticipated. This would provide more time to develop alternatives, but wreck the climate.

          • There’s already more than ample carbon and hydrogen in the atmosphere, thanks in no small part to the gigatons of it we’ve pumped there from the ground. Given sufficient energy input, we can run Fischer-Tropsch (etc.) with just what’s already in the air as feedstock.

            If I remember the math right, there’s roughly enough insolation on American roofs to power the planet, petrochemicals included.

            Thus, potentially. the true breakthrough we should be hoping for isn’t some new form of breakthrough in biofuels, but rather a roof shingle (or whatever) that’s as cheap and easy-to-install as the ones we use today and as good at keeping out the elements and that lasts as long, but that’s also a tolerably-efficient photovoltaic cell. Given something like that, you’d have to be an idiot not to cover your entire roof with solar PV and thereby instantly become a net producer of energy.

            That breakthrough is basically here…except for the price bit. Dow Powerhouse fits the bill, but costs as much as traditional PV panels. Ah, well….



          • Algae biofuels could possibly replace current oil production, although I’m not betting on it.

            Algae grows 10x faster than most crops, can grow in the desert, can grow in salt water or wastewater, and does not require fertilizer (some species of algae fix their own nitrogen). IIRC, it would be possible to replace all our current oil production by converting a small fraction of the world’s deserts to algae production.

            Bear in mind that NPP isn’t constant. We could increase NPP by growing algae in high deserts like the Sahara which are barren now.

            I’m not saying that algae biofuels will ever become practical. Apparently algal biofuel production has all kinds of problems, like other kinds of microbes which infect the algae farms. However, algae biofuel could at least theoretically replace oil production. I don’t think this is true for any other kind of biofuel.

            -Tom S

    • Mitakeet,

      I hope it doesn’t take $10/gal for biofuels to be competitive, because then they may never come to pass. Cars which operate on batteries are competitive at less than $8/gal, and could possibly be competitive with gas at $6/gal if mass production lowers the cost of batteries for those vehicles, as some battery experts claim they will.

      -Tom S

  2. Fortunately, we live in a democracy that protects us against the tyranny of pencilheads.

    I am curious why you used the word “fortunately”. Especially given that you spent the next paragraphs very nicely illustrating the fundamental problem with democracy which is that except in the imaginary and never occurring in practice scenario, in which everybody is uniformly and correctly informed and able to reason properly, it inevitably devolves into a form idiocracy with the uninformed and not very smart, due to their sheer numbers set a ceiling for the level of discourse in a society.

    It is fairly obvious to me that a “tyranny of the pencilheads” is highly preferable to what we have at present. It may not be an ideal solution but you will certainly get a higher percentage of the decisions right than our current system does. That assumes that the “pencilheads” are not of the kind we have in economics departments today, of course.

    Yet these are beliefs. I can’t prove to anyone that this is our path: just (hopefully) that it’s a legitimate set of concerns

    That a social system based on exponential growth is unsustainable and is going to collapse eventually is not a belief – it follows directly from the laws of thermodynamics. You yourself have illustrated that beautifully in the past. I see no need to be so humble. It’s a question of when, not if.

    • The “fortunately” was a twisted attempt at sarcasm. Most people consider democracy to be a fortunate circumstance. But it is structurally impaired when it comes to downsizing. Sorry to confuse.

      • Do you (really) believe in the benovolent dictator? – I don’t!

        Democracy is a huge luxury which obviously is expensive and adds lots of friction. This has been quite useful for a number of developed countries in the past.

        Do those countries enjoy a good standard of living because of their democracies or can they afford democracy because they are rich? (Rich as in having access to capital (mostly through debt)).

        • Is democracy expensive? Dictatorship looks efficient when it’s marching toward what you want, but there’s the costs of corruption, telling the dictator what he wants to hear, stupid and crazy decision at a level democracy tends to average out, and fighting over the throne every few generations.

          Universal suffrage was adopted by societies which were rich for their time but desperately poor by modern material standards. And modern rich countries are not rich because they have access to debt, they’re rich because they’re steeped in capital — human capital, social capital, houses, factories, infrastructure.

        • No one believes in a benevolent dictator. Sure they might start out that way but as soon as they start to tell the people what they do not want to hear, they become a tyrant. A funny/true line from G.W. Bush, “A dictator is fine, as long as I am the dictator.”

          If you ask most people on the street, they will say that they are fiscally conservative (low taxes) and socially liberal (lots of services). Thats nice and all, but how are you going to pay for that??

          China might well have the right solution. A set of long term policies for the country and the ability of the people to vote on SOME things.

          The biggest problem with democracy is that everyone gets a vote. No matter how ignorant you might be. Therefore the candidate who promises good times (chicken in every pot) if you elect them almost always wins. Now we (the USA) is stuck in a 2-4 year cycle of making good times happen, even though we NEED to be looking at 10-20 year solutions.

    • “That assumes that the “pencilheads” are not of the kind we have in economics departments today, of course.”

      And there’s the problem with your anti-democratic fantasies. How do you identify the right experts? EIther they’re recognized and approved by the populace, in which case you’re actually democratic, or they’re imposing their rule by force, in which case who says the ones with the most force are the ones who’ll make the right decisdions? When I think “climate scientists”, I don’t think “,most able to wade through the blood of their fellow humans”.

      As for democracy not working, Japan has inculcated a very strong recycling culture. Germany has taken the lead in solar and wind power, despite not being an ideal location for either, and has turned against nuclear power — which is probably a *bad* idea if you care about stopping coal. Ditto Sweden. Spain’s out to exploit its solar advantage, the Scots are nattering about wind power. Biggest of all, the EU has been doing cap and trade of carbon emissions since 2005.

      In 2009 the Democratic House passed a cap and trade bill, though it died in the Senate. Some US states and Canadian provinces have talked about a scheme, though not gone anywhere yet. California passed a cap and trade bill, though a judge seems to have scuppered it.

      Australia has a carbon tax on major emitters. Finland and Sweden have CO2 taxes. And Norway, and Costa Rica, and there’s more.

      A dictatorship *can* act with great speed for some goal — though China isn’t that effective a dictatorship, lots of corruption and size effects — but overall, market democracies have a much better environmental track record. And even in China, action is often motivated by popular agitation to save the river dolphins or stop the cancer.

      So stop fantasizing. There’s no substitute for convincing your fellow citizens. And it can be done.

      • It’s also worth noting that even the most brutal dictatorship still, ultimately, only rules with the consent of the governed. Democratic elections just happen to be the most effective means yet discovered for the governed to indicate their consent.


  3. And that is why China’s model, though being entirely unsatisfactory in many regards, may prove to be better in the long run than the western democracies.

    • The fundamentals of the China model are just as unsustainable as those of the US model

      And the same was true for the former Soviet Union,

      Which is a real tragedy because if there are historians hundreds of years from now and they have a good enough account of the events, they may well say that the Soviet Union was the last chance the planet had to avoid catastrophe but its leadership was too ignorant, ideologically bigoted and power-mad to rise to the occasion and completely blew the opportunity.

      If you think about it, had Soviet society actually been true to its loudly proclaimed scientific and rational foundations, it could have set the foundation for true sustainability – the Soviets did have the necessary concentration of power to do it plus they had a population accustomed to quite severe hardship. But they lacked the understanding. And I don’t think the Chinese have that concentration of power right now – they have sold the population the promise of an ever higher material living standard, as a result the genie has been let out the bottle and it will be near impossible to put it back in – even now a lot of what the leadership is doing seems to be a reaction to the fear of dissatisfaction in society rising to the surface and sweeping them from power.

      • Yep, you might be quite right concerning the last chance.
        USSR society, particularly soviet leaders, did lacked the understanding (there were quite a few reasons for that).

        “To suppose that we can build an economy that will meet any needs of the person, tendency to which permeates the entire western (eg the U.S.) and our own science fiction, in a vulgar and literal understanding of “to each according to his needs” – is unaffordable utopia, like perpetual motion etc. The only way lies in the strictest self-restraint of material needs, based on an understanding of humanity’s place in the universe as a thinking species, absolute self-control, and indisputable superiority of spiritual values ​​over material. Understanding that intelligent beings are the instrument of self-knowledge of the Universe. Lacking such understanding humanity will inevitably die out as a species, just in the natural course of cosmic evolution, as unequipped for this task, being superseded by a more appropriate (not necessarily have arisen on Earth.) It is the law of historical development as immutable as the laws of physics.
        The desire for expensive things, powerful machines, huge houses etc. – a legacy of Freud’s complex psyche, emerging from sexual selection. The only way to overcome this complex through a comprehensive understanding of mental and psycho-physiological processes … Ergo training and education should begin with the training of psychology as a history of the development of human consciousness and history as a history of the development of social consciousness. Physics, chemistry, mathematics – required, but not sufficient discipline for the mind of modern man with huge population density and the density of information, and with the inevitable brainwashing required to maintain the current social order.”
        (c) Ivan Efremov, 1971, private archive (sry for mb poor translation)

        Some people had understanding.
        If only…

      • That might be a problem with us natural science people. No economic/political model will ever be stable! Every model and belief system is an attempt to solve some problem. Why should that be stable? Just because we scientists find systems in equilibrium more tractable.

    • The idea that dictatorships or any other kind of authoritarian non-democratic government would be better at saving us from peak oil, or environmental disaster, or really at solving any general problem, is simplistic and harebrained.
      China is worse than most democracies (with the only possible exception of the US, and even there, probably not really) with regards to its environmental record. Don’t let yourself be blinded by the trumpeted investments in clean energy, do look at how much coal and oil they are burning, and what they are doing to their river valleys etc.
      The Soviet Union, before its dissolution, consumed as much or more energy than most western democracies, all for a much lower standard of living.
      Moreover, does someone really think it is just by chance that environmental awareness, and even this specific blog, was born in the democratic world and not in the USSR or China?
      Democracy might be a messy government, one that is really not up to the task of solving our problems. Sure, but no alternative mode of government promises any better.

      • Indeed, I can’t point to a superior form of government in general. Some inferior forms of government do have some advantages when it comes to long-term planning. But other blind spots can result in unfortunate practices elsewhere, as you point out. I do think that Cuba handled the termination of Soviet oil supplies relatively gracefully (not to say it wasn’t hard, just smoother than may be possible in a democracy).

      • I clearly said the Soviet Union was as unsustainable as anyone else.

        The difference is that if you have the kind of control over a society that the Soviet leadership had until the 1980s, you can actually enforce the kind of lifestyle changes needed to make the transition, and you can embark on the massive educational campaign necessary to instill into everyone the understanding of why this is being done. The Soviet Union quite successfully practiced even more severe violations on human freedom than that, and all of this was in the name of a vague ideology that ordinary people had no greater familiarity with than they have with thermodynamics, geology, climate science, ecology, evolutionary biology. etc., (all things a firm grasp of which is a necessary prerequisite for understanding the current state of humanity). And the Chinese did implement, quite successfully, the one-child policy.

        None of this is even remotely possible in a democracy of the Western type, which is doomed to be forever locked in inaction because the small minority of people who “get it” can never enforce the necessary behavioral change onto the rest of the population.

        • What I am trying to say, and obviously cannot defend at length here, is that non-democratic government have their own cognitive problems, that makes at least just as difficult (I would say, more difficult) as in democracies to tackle complex problems were severe conflicts of interest are at stake.
          It is not a purely random occurrence that Soviet Union did what it did instead of being an enlightening centre of human progress, if you give even a cursory look at how the Soviet leaders thought and saw the world, you understand pretty easily how the kind of control that they had was very very unlikely to be used in an overall “rational” way. Observations about the intrinsic irrationality of tyrants are at least 2500 years old, and they are, on the whole, still true.
          The case of Cuba is interesting, but it is also true that they had no alternative – there and then not in their future it was either coping with less oil or perish – which is quite a relevant factor and may overrule the differences between types of government.

          • The scientific worldview has not been exactly widespread at any point in the history of the planet. Yours is not a good argument.

            Also, it is an inescapable fact that if a very small number of people is competent enough to make decisions on any given issue, while the rest of the population not only isn’t but may be so ignorant about it that their position is totally opposed to the correct one on it, it is in everyone’s best interest that the small number of experts force their view onto the rest. And this is not just an abstract imaginary situation – we have a very real sustainability crisis that will take down global civilization and probably the human species with it and it precisely matches that pattern.

            Finally, that we are not talking about the highly hierarchical totalitarian systems that we know from history here, we are talking about a system in which the most knowledgeable people on a certain topic get to make the decisions and those are obviously going to be different people for different issues.

            As I and others talked about above, the Soviet had something not that far from this on paper, but in practice it was something completely different that had nothing to do with the ideal. It is indeed not a coincidence that this happened – there isn’t enough space to discuss this properly here, but it was a combination of fundamental flaws in the ideology, the way the communists came to power (revolutions are a terrible way to change social systems as they tend to result in psychopaths taking all the power; the Soviet Union was only one of many examples) and the place it first became established (Russia was very backward place and both in the beginning and until the very end, most of the population had no clue what the ideology really was).

      • The main problem is not democrasy vs dictatorships itself (and soviet system didn’t necessarily had to be dictatorships by the way)
        The real problem here is socio-economic system. You simply can not build sustainable economy under capitalism (any form), that’s impossible, you have to wait until it fails because of the planet’s devastation consequences. Capitalism is built on this devastation (and that’s the only reason for its future demise in the prosess of self-destructing growth, like cancer cells’ inevitable demise). That’s why any attempts to pay attention to the limits to growth (and its symptoms – AGW, PO and enviromental degradation) are not able to reach the goal: cuz when you are asking to stop growth (not to mention starting contraction) of the economy -you are asking to dismantle capitalism.
        And you cannot expect ruling elites dismantling it in advance – even to save humanity.
        1.They doesn’t want. 2.They can not.

        USSR also, like West, built its economy on unsustainable principles, devastating the planet. But – and that is a big but – there was no fundamental reasons preventing restructuring the system on the basis of sustainable principles (though there was quite a few non fundamental in addition to a lack of understanding)

        • when you are asking to stop growth (not to mention starting contraction) of the economy -you are asking to dismantle capitalism.

          Well put. According to, capitalism is:

          an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, characterized by the freedom of capitalists to operate or manage their property for profit in competitive conditions

          When growth stops then “profit” will be a zero sum game. That’s ultimately one of the most important reasons why economists do everything they can to encourage growth, because growth means that everyone, theoretically, can get a return on their investments and make profit. Without growth, however, every person’s profit comes at the expense of someone else.

          So in this respect, capitalism, at least the grotesque monster it’s turned into today, where investors and businesspeople hold billionaires up as models to emulate, cannot possibly work when growth stops. It’s one thing to be rewarded monetarily for doing good work. You know, get a nicer house, flashy car, retire early. But it’s a totally different ball game to amass as much wealth as entire countries, and then be admired for doing so, and somehow argue that this wealth was legitimately “earned” and should therefore not be taxed away for redistribution. This extreme wealth concentration will not work going forward.

          • Well, that’s simple, u know
            Let’s look at a closed system. Capital is growing within, and in a finite time it overwhelmes. Within a finite system – Earth – what else u can expect

          • When growth stops then “profit” will be a zero sum game.

            Yes. And starting contraction – minus sum game.
            It’s a pity i don’t see an exit – any.

    • You may want to read this interesting opinion about the advantages of China’s model:

      I am not convinced though by this line of reasoning. The main problem, IMHO, is that “meritocracy”, i.e. the selection of the “best” people, is always dependent on the evaluation method that is in place in a given social context. For e.g., I believe the traders who recently caused huge financial losses were considered some of the “best” professionals in their organizations (no bank of financial institution would give you billions of dollars to invest if they wouldn’t think you are the best). They survived a ruthless selection process which made them the best possible candidates in order to achieve the shareholders’ objectives, GIVEN THE GENERAL ASSUMPTIONS at the base of the selection method. I would also point out that banks and financial institutions are NOT, generally speaking, run by democratic consensus.

      By the way, it is interesting to observe that the advantages of an “enlightened” dictatorships were described by the Persian emperor Xerses over 2500 years ago, much in the same terms as found in some previous posts. If you are curious about the reply of the Spartan king Demaratus, you can find the text here (paragraphs 103 and following):

  4. I think you may also be missing the large residual antipathy to the anti-science Left that existed from the ’60s to the ’80s. When the environmental movement got mixed up in the New-Age and counterculture movements, it discredited itself in a visceral way to rational thinkers (the “smart” people). The reaction has become so ingrained so that these people find themselves unable to overcome their own emotional disdain for environmentalism even when it’s backed by solid science.

    These people can become further incensed when environmental problems are approached as a moral rather than utilitarian. Why is organic food better than efficiently farmed food? It’s natural; natural is just good. Why is solar power better than clean coal? It’s good for the planet; good for the planet makes you a good person. If you’re not already convinced that lowering emissions is a critical issue, being told that doing so makes you good will only result in backlash. Moreover, the all-too-common comment here that living standards must (or even just ought) to be reduced to stave off environmental disaster does not follow for most people. To these “smart” people, a lowering of living standards must be treated as a utilitarian cost, not some kind of ascetic benefit in any kind of convincing plan.

    • Got to disagree there, being myself both a smart person and in many ways a subscriber to quite a few New Age/counterculture idea. It’s certainly an oversimplification to claim that environmentalism has, overall, discredited itself to rational thinkers. (Though of course there are points of disagreement, such as the “Omigawd, it’s radioactive! We’re all gonna DIE!” knee-jerk reaction to anything nuclear.) The largest source of opposition to environmentalism comes from the even-more-irrational religionists, who believe that their God gave dominion over the Earth to humans, and will be holding the Rapture any time now, so why bother with long-term planning?

      If you want to know why organic is (often) better than factory-farmed food, just run it by your taste buds. Solar is better than clean coal for basically the same reason that I ride a horse and not a unicorn. (Ain’t no such thing as clean coal.) And reduction in living standards only applies if you really, really do subscribe to the Panglossian notion that modern (sub)urban life is the best of all possible worlds.

  5. Capitalism, like all the other idealistic ideologies born a century or two ago, makes some over-simplistic assumptions that make certain ways of looking at the problem easier but actually often cause you to miss the point spectacularly.

    I’m sure you, Tom, as a physicist, are familiar with the jokes about how physicists like to model cattle as spheres. That’s great for certain kinds of problems but does very little to help you, for example, get milk or meat out of a cow.

    Similarly, capitalism assumes that buyers and sellers both have perfect knowledge of whatever it is that they’re buying and selling. It also assumes that both sides are honest. In many cases this is so, and, as such, it’s not a bad rough first approximation. In reality, though, of course, it’s not at all the case — which is why, in reality, we have various forms of regulation to keep the markets honest. Every regulation is an indication of a failure of the theory of capitalism to accurately model economic activity.

    Communism, of course, suffers from its own problems — namely, the assumption that people are noble enough to work for the greater good without personal incentive. Anarchism assumes that people are mature enough to spontaneously solve their problems without the forceful arbitration of a disinterested third party, and that they’re as willing to pool their resources to the common good as the Communists. And so on.

    If I may offer up my own overly-simplistic cure-all…it’s that the best way to avoid these types of pitfalls is to put much more effort into trying to break your model than you put into making it work. Start with Capitalism, or Communism or Anarchy or whatever, but then put yourself in the shoes of somebody trying to game the system. Don’t assume that everybody will cooperatively work together to build your Utopia; assume that at least small numbers, and maybe even large numbers, of people will do whatever they can to work things to their own selfish personal advantage.

    I think the scientific community understands this concept at least collectively at an intellectual level, if not always personally at an emotional level. The great goal of every scientist is to be the next Aristarchus, the next Darwin, the next Einstein, to overturn the establishment with some radically brilliant new perspective of how the Universe works. The main public purpose of the LHC isn’t so much as to discover the Higgs, but to look for it in a way that, if not found, would be definitive. It’s this process of always trying to break science that has, ironically enough, made it stronger. In contrast, religion and other dogmatic ideologies (especially economic and political ones) are at their weakest when they insist that their fundamental core theories cannot, must not be broken or bent or even questioned and rather must be taken as granted true, on faith.

    If we could universally make faith a vice, rather than a virtue, and make doubt the supreme virtue, I think most of our societal ills would melt away. And yet, ironically enough, a place like the “Show Me State,” Missouri, has instead become fertile ground for unquestioning fundamentalist religion. Go figure….



    • interesting insights my friend. i have often preached that the more doubt one can hang with, the stronger one becomes.

      i say “replacing belief with knowledge while retaining faith” is a good philosophy.

      i have faith in my doubt.


  6. Tom,
    Intersting post.

    In particular I can appreciate the notion that “smart people” often have a difficult time understanding the difference between the “perfect” theoretical constructs in their minds and the “real world”. This effect seems particularily powerful when the theoretical construct can be “proven” mathematically.
    I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a new recruit (fresh from months of kicking ass in simulation exercises) show up at work and say in frustration “This isn’t like the simulator at all” – after being humbled by their first challenging encounter with the “real world”.
    That “smart people” seem so often surprised that their expectation doesn’t match reality often makes me wonder how smart those “smart people” really are. Maybe they are “smart” by our best definitions, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t suckers. They’re “smart suckers”.

    Part of the trouble imight be that like-minded “smart people” tend to gather in exclusive groups where they are able to revel in shared visions – I sometimes call it “Masters of the Universe Syndrome”.
    MOTUS (tongue in cheek): A form of group think where refusal/inability to accept the possibility of individual limitations to understanding prevents critical analysis of an idea’s actual value to society at large – leading in some cases to destructive consequences.

    • Tom,
      I was thinking that maybe one way to sort the “smart people” from the “smart suckers” would be to make more of an effort to verify an individual’s empirical “track record” prior to assigning value to that individual’s ideas.

      Medical doctors, pilots, and engineers are examples of “smart people” who (generally speaking) must actually maintain a professional track record of succeeding at what they set out to do in order to keep their jobs. Obviously, this is because the impact of their success or failure on society is obvious (public saftey).

      However, investment bankers, economists and “expert” analysts are examples of “smart people” who (generally speaking) do not necessarily have to maintain a professional track record of success in order to keep their jobs. Why is this? Aren’t their successes or failures related to the the well-being of society at large?

      I would argue that yes, their individual successes or failures are related to the the well-being of society at large in very important ways – even in terms of public safety – but that the connections are more abstract and less obvious.
      Is it because these connections are more abstract that we (as a society) generally tend to forget to hold these “smart people” to account?
      Would any of us (individually) allow a surgeon with a track record like a weather forecaster perform surgery on us?
      Why do we (as a society) allow “smart people” with track records like weather forecasters to take such large risks at such a large scale?

      • Well, one thing is that not all fields are as predictable and controllable. Another way of putting it is that not all fields allow the development of as much expertise, though one can still be more expert than an untrained layman or random guesses. Predicting what companies will do well, or what the weather will be in more than a few days, are questions with tons of uncertainty. It’s not that we could do better but are lax, it’s that they’re hard problems.

        Kahneman notes that intuition is basically recognition, and you can only develop really good intuition with lots of experience, and hard problems don’t generate enough data to give such experience — but people tend to feel confident of their judgements even when based on crap. So we should probably learn to not take experts in hard fields as oracular wisdom, even if they’re more likely to be right than we are. On the flip side, when you have to make a decision, betting on the expert while hedging for chance they’re wrong is probably the way to go.

        • Damien RS,
          But if we can observe that uncertainty rules in the “real world” why do we not have more respect for that uncertainty?
          No sane person would pilot a boat through a thick fog, accelerating all the while – yet it appears that this is what we humans are content to do…

          I’m not saying that all decision making needs to be based on pure certainty. However, at the moment it appears we have almost the opposite. Our society allows (and encourages) the taking of enourmous risks which are often hedged in ways that threaten the public interest. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad if this risk taking occured in a magical world of small uncertainty (a gaussian world), or inside a computer model (the parameters of which are all known) but this isn’t the case.
          In the “real world” doesn’t it make more sense to let the risk takers prove how smart they really are by taking on, directly, the responsibility of failure themselves?
          If someone can talk the talk, they ought to be able to walk the walk – and if they can’t, well, exit stage left.

  7. I’m not smart enough to understand your points this time. Crippling intellect? President, Senate etc. do not matter? Those lobbyists surely are wasting their money then.

    In any case: McKribben says there is more recoverable oil than we can use, and that we will wind up using too much of it rather soon. Are his numbers wrong? Either way, his point is not to dismiss energy scarcity issues. It is that coming to grips with Peak Carbon will require is to bring forward Peak Oil problems quite a bit – unless you believe that we will not even get 565 gigatons worth of fossil fuel out of the ground? The way I read McKribben is that we will have to *choose* Peak Oil Now – that we need to elect to have fossil fuel shortages long before they are due to lack of resources, and that we have to start today. That is the opposite of “dismiss[ing] peak oil or related concerns” in my book.

    Daily dose of doom: shale bubble or not, it won’t be for lack of trying….

    ‘The bottom line for the United States is fulfillment of a goal that eluded seven presidents over nearly four decades: energy independence. “North America is at the forefront of a sweeping transformation in oil and gas production that will affect all regions of the world.” IEA projects that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will rise from an estimated 31.2 gigatonnes (Gt) last year to 37 Gt in 2035, which could cause a long-term average temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius.’

    • You’re illustrating my point nicely. Just because a number is correct does not mean that our future path is to be determined by that number: other crud can intercede. The quote I pulled out of the McKibben piece was intended to illustrate the difficulty of making tough decisions, not an endorsement of the whole. Let’s say forced (rather than voluntary) peak oil is a concern. We should take appropriate actions now to soften or mitigate its impact. Same thing: hard to pull off.

      As for questioning the effectiveness of the President, congress, etc., when is the last time the political establishment moved boldly to enact policy that had opposition from their base electorate? Sure, various interests will try to exert influence on the seat of power, but they can be effective only to the point that the politicians are not rejected by the electorate for their actions. Politicians are constrained by voters. Nothing new. Again, just because one thing is true (lobbyists find advantage tugging at government) does not mean that the idea can be taken to the extreme (government is free to follow any ideas that strike them as “smart” without thorough consideration of what the voters think).

      • Tom,

        I don’t see where you get the determinism. I can’t speak for McKibben, but the numbers seem relevant to the need for action, with action being the opposite of determinism?

        There is a quip in evolutionary biology that life has to be a “hypothetical realist” (vis-a-vis philosophical concerns as to whether objective reality exists). The eyeball is a vote of confidence regarding the consistency and invariability of the laws of optics, and so on. Similarly, human beings have to assume that their actions have some impact on the outcome – whether they run for president, or vote.

        Which brings me back to the political side – and maybe that’s where the problem is – we have to talk politics?

        “When is the last time the political establishment moved boldly to enact policy that had opposition from their base electorate?” I would say that this is your determinism, your absolute, taking an idea to an extreme. I would say recent years – if not decades – provide ample evidence for the opposite. We appear to be heading for yet another example – the Grand Bargain of the elites, cutting Medicare and Social Security – just now. Or take TARP – 1000:1 phone calls and letters opposing, Democrats in the House set to reject it, and Obama twisting arms behind closed doors to get it passed. Onwards to bailouts. Or take the Federal Reserve – an institution that is astonishingly decoupled from constitutional oversight, yet has taken bailouts opposed by vast majorities on either end of the political range to unprecedented levels.

        Compare polls and policies in the US – there is an increasing divergence between what US citizens claim to want, and what their elected representatives actually deliver. The common explanation for that is money – hence lobbyists etc. I did not say that this explains it all, I was offering an counter-example to a rather absolute claim of yours. Honestly, I see determinism in your denial that politicians – individuals – matter. I do not see determinism in McKibben’s argument. I also see a familiar trope from political discussions, the “Incompetence Dodge” (to explain Bush’s failure to deliver to his own constituency) as well as the “Powerlessness Dodge” (to explain Obama’s matching failure).

        The electorate’s approval rates of Congress are lower than even that of failed presidents – all time low. Surely that indicates that Congress does not quite do the bidding of The People? The elections are constrained by candidates in the primaries, with unprecedented bias towards incumbents. This does not explain everything, but it does explain some of the dysfunction we are living through.

        An ” idea can be taken to the extreme”, but from over here it looks like that is what you are doing – if I can grasp the idea. As I said, I do not get your point. It sounds like you want to throw the brains out with the excessive confidence? You appear to state that “things are complicated” and “hoocoodanode” and hence “nothing can be done”, and you ” can predict an unfortunate outcome”. Well, I can not, and McKibben sounds like somebody trying to convince us to work against it. Yes, it is hard to pull off. So what? What is the alternative?

        Sometimes a number determines our future path, no matter what. If your parachute fails a mile up, 9.81 m/sec^2 has a lot to say about your future. 80×365 is a number that does not apply to all of us, but it is certainly very relevant. Numbers are not destiny, but we gotta do the math?

        • My “prediction” followed a combination of three clearly stated assumptions, any of which may be wrong, rendering the prediction useless. The word preceding all this was “When,” which is so closely related to “If” that they are the same (wenn) in German. My point is that I don’t feel my feet are held to the fire on this one: rather than a firm prediction, this was a more exploratory statement.

          As to your last point, I would be the last to say that numbers have no bearing on a future path (or I would be kicked out of the physics profession). But offering the qualification that it is not always so is not a distortion nor a disservice to anyone!

          This is starting to take the tone of a spat, so I recommend leaving it here (as per discussion policy).

      • Government is doing all sorts of things that are opposed by the people who voted for it. It’s just that they don’t know it is doing them most of the time because people are either so disgusted by politicians that they have turned it all off or they were never interested in what’s going on beyond their immediate surrounding to begin with. If you explain to people what the version of the NDAA that Obama signed says, most are absolutely horrified, on both sides of the political spectrum. But it was passed pretty much in secret and there is a virtual taboo on the subject in mainstream media. And that’s just one example.

        Of course, you are still generally correct about the constraints when it comes to voting and issues having to do with lowering living standards. If you try to implement changes that actually matter, you will be voted out. And even if you are not eligible for another election, your party is so that limits your options even further.

        However, there is another angle from which one could look at this and it is the following. Why do people want to be politicians? Yes, it does bring substantial monetary reward. But there are much bigger money to be made elsewhere, after all, we have the people with that kind of money buying the politicians all the time. Desire to help people? Maybe, at least in the beginning of a political career. But the actions of most politicians give absolutely no indications this is a factor behind them. The explanation is that people want to become politicians mostly for the fame – for some reason, our brains perceive immortalizing one’s name as greatly maximizing one’s inclusive fitness (and there is indeed some correlation between those things) so there is no shortage of people trying to achieve that.

        Now, let’s say you manage to get yourself elected as the president and you are actually aware of all of the things that are the topic of this blog. What is more likely to bring you that immortality in people’s memory – being another faceless corporate pawn or coming out and telling people the truth as it is and trying to do something about the situation? Sure, you will most likely get voted out come the next election, but will another mandate really elevate your place in history that much?

        This should be a fairly obvious calculus to anyone IMO.

        There are two explanations why nobody has done that:

        1) Nobody in office has been fully aware of the situation (not at all unlikely, otherwise we’ve had some incredibly good liars in charge for quite a long time)

        2) There is a realization that if you tell people the whole system is completely unsustainable, this will automatically trigger a very fast and chaotic collapse because people in generally are totally unprepared for the kind of message and the reaction will be complete panic and the falling apart of a society which is being held together by mutual trust and the promise the pie will be bigger tomorrow than it is today, a promise that will have just been revealed to be false.

  8. While it may not yet be economical for private investors to work on biofuels, it would be reasonable for the government to sponsor research into it. In fact, I recall from school that one of the purposes of government was to invest in projects that benefit the public good but are not profitable for the private sector to do on their own. (Rural electrification was an example.) That does assume a functional government…..

    • The government has been investing heavily in biofuels – there have been biofuel blending mandates for gasoline, huge subsidies for farmers to grow corn for ethanol, etc.

      All of which was a gigantic mistake because biofuels are the worst “renewable” option.

      The only thing more unsustainable than biofuels is fossil fuels. Forget about the minimal EROEI and the very limited potential (whoever thinks biofuels can come anywhere close to replacing the amounts of oil we’re currently using is absolutely crazy), the worst part is that as with all agriculture, you are taking nutrients out of the soil and you’re not returning them, which leads to soil exhaustion, in addition to all the other ways industrial agriculture is destroying topsoil. And if cellulose ethanol becomes a reality, that process will only be accelerated because all the biomass will be harvested and not returned, unless great effort (at a corresponding EROEI price) is made to close the nutrient cycle, reduce soil erosion, etc. Which I see absolutely nobody even talking about, let alone doing.

      Large-scale biofuel production is a sure way to commit collective suicide, even if it is a very slow one

      • Biofuels may be the only option for jet aircraft and some military systems.

        • In the very long run yes. With a proper scale-down of oil use (including its use for jet aircraft and the military), we can use oil for a very long time for those purposes and then we can switch to biofuels (on a limited scale) for the most important uses.

      • I’d argue that using the amounts of oil that we’re currently using is also completely crazy. So (possibly) reaching a sane state takes two separate steps: 1) reducing the amount of fuel used; 2) seeing if that amount can be replaced with biofuels.

        Likewise, a rational biofuel industry could readily return nutrients to the soil, simply (in concept, if not in practice) by emulating biology. Plants grow in the ground, critters eat them, extract the useful “biofuel” energy, and return the nutrient-rich waste to the soil.

        • Of course, you can in principle close the nutrient cycle (do not propose to do that by using fertilizers though, that’s unsustainable too). But, as you said, it requires the people managing the process to be ecologically literate. Which, given that I have never seen that subject seriously discussed even once outside places where nobody would see it, I highly doubt any of them at present is

          • Sure. The sad truth is that although many things are doable, in principle, the idiots are in charge and won’t do them.

            As for returning nutrients, I spent many hours as a teen driving a tractor pulling a manure spreader around the fields.

  9. Applying game theory to the question of CO2 emissions really puts in to context the scale of the problem we face. So much is stacked against us.
    Firstly everyone (or at least the majority in democracies) have to be fully convinced that this is a real problem, not an easy task.
    Even if this is achievable we then have to get over the the shape of our utility curves – most people act under the assumption that they will grow old, but yet many still smoke and more don’t save for their own retirement. We need to convince them to sacrifice current consumption for something that may not even be of benefit in their lifetime.
    Finally we need to put in place a global structure on an international scale which actually has the power to enforce. Given the current geopolitical situation of the planet organized by nation states, which are reinforced by patriotism both on historical and emotional bases, this seems an extremely high hurdle as it would be seen as a loss of sovereignty and require a level of cross border trust we are nowhere near at the moment.
    Once all these were in place a successful cap-and-trade model would be implementable and provide individual motivation to achieve the mutually beneficial goal. My conclusion having thought about this is that this is not a realistic outcome.
    I think we have to hope that we get lucky – (ie shale drilling is banned or at least made more expensive in the US, coal use is drastically reduced in China because of local air pollution problems and the Middle East keep their supply of oil severely restricted for political reasons. This could push up the price of fossil fuels to make carbon neutral alternatives more realistic. I think though the reality is that the global warming/oceanic acidification situation is going to have to get a lot worse before it gets the political will to address it directly.
    On sort of a side point, I would be very interested to see a post from you assessing either the Solar Thermal Electrochemical Photo (STEP) carbon capture process or Donald Sadoway and his molten sodium battery, thanks.

  10. Is there really no way to “do the math” on global warming? It’s hard not to contrast the approach of this post with those on alternate energy sources, which used easily verifiable facts, physical intuition, and rough but reasonable calculation.

    Given that we should expect *some* warming from an artificial increase in CO2, is there no way to render some climate predictions at least plausible without using huge, opaque, semi-empirical supercomputer programs, or complicated statistical adjustment of what seem to be simple temperature data, or the use of several arcanely computed temperature proxies in the same graph?

    Is there any simple way to motivate the prediction that global temperature may “fall over the edge” into catastrophic change, when Beer’s law leads us to expect only logarithmic warming?

    Surely those of us crippled by sub-standard intelligence might be excused for some skepticism concerning research that is conducted more as a propaganda campaign than an investigation.

    Where’s the math?

      • I had not, or had forgotten. Step one was pretty good — I can see that we have in fact put enough fossil carbon into the atmosphere to make a difference on a planetary scale, and will almost certainly continue to do so.

        Step two was, in my opinion, weak, particularly when the difference between a logarithmic and a linear dependence was quickly glossed over. Little scorn is spared here for those who confound an exponential increase with a linear one; why the difference?

        Step three was an appeal to authority, in the form of the IPCC, quite an uncharacteristic tack for this blog.

        I would still like to see an engineering sort of analysis of the climate problem — perhaps that’s just not possible at this time.

        • Taylor expand a logarithm for small deviations and you’ll see that linear is a decent fit. Or just try in the calculator: ln(1.0) = 0.0; ln(1.1) = 0.1; ln(1.2) = 0.18; ln(1.3) = 0.26; ln(1.4) = 0.34. So for small increases at the level of CO2 we’re dealing with here, logarithmic and linear are interchangeable.

          And if you mistake scientific consensus as a bow to authority, I recommend you read a recent post on how science works, always trying to tear it apart. A consensus in science is not so easily dismissed if the result is unpalatable.

    • If you don’t like math, a really simple way to motivate the prediction is to look at one of the leading theories for the cause of the Permian-Triassic extinction: large volcanic eruptions setting fire to coal deposits.

      It also amuses me that the same people who object to “huge, opaque, semi-empirical supercomputer programs” being used to predict the consequences of adding large amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere seem to have no objection to riding in cars & airplanes designed, and often controlled & navigated, by similarly opaque (at least to those who won’t trouble themselves to learn) and semi-empirical computer programs.

    • Radey,

      I’m outside of my area of expertise here. However, I’ve been reading some mildly technical books about global warming by Archer, Hansen, and others.

      I don’t think you need a complicated model to understand the basic effects of global warming. CO2 absorbs outgoing infrared radiation and re-radiates it as heat. This will cause a 1 degree centigrade increase in temperature; this much is a verifiable, simple calculation. In addition, the 1 degree centigrade increase will have several “positive feedback” effects. First, it will cause greater overall humidity in the air, which traps far more heat than the original CO2. Humidity is tightly controlled by temperature, and goes up and down predictably with temperature and water. Second, it will cause some ice to melt, exposing earth and sea which are much less reflective. These two positive feedback effects (humidity and ice melting) cause more warming, which causes more humidity and less ice, which causes more warming, etc, until a new equilibrium is reached. So far, everything can be calculated using fairly simple calculations, plus simple estimates of ice thickness in various areas. None of these things are disputed. The net effect is a warming of 4 degrees centigrade or so by 2100, assuming expected CO2 increases.

      The difficulty arises when dealing with very complicated things like: what will tropical clouds do? Will they increase or decrease? What about methane trapped beneath the permafrost? How much is there? When will the Greenland ice sheet break apart into pieces and start sliding down hilly surfaces, thereby hastening the ice melting and reducing reflectivity? These things are very complicated, and not subject to simple mathematical calculations. These things require complicated models. They could exacerbate or reduce global warming.

      I think the few scientists who dispute global warming are focusing on complicated things like tropical clouds, etc. I think they assert that a higher temperature will lead to far more tropical clouds, which will increase reflectivity and counteract the original warming, overcoming the positive feedback loops. In short, they think there are large unknown NEGATIVE feedback loops which will counteract and overwhelm the obvious positive feedback loops of humidity and reduced albedo.

      The view favoring positive feeback loops and global warming has empirical data to support it. Scientists can tell what the temperature was on Earth in the past, using ice cores etc. Past ages which should have experienced slight warming due to greater proximity to the Sun, have in fact undergone far more severe warming than would have been anticipated. SImilarly with cooling: the effect has been exaggerated compared with the original cause. Thus the recurrence of “ice ages” etc, based upon fairly slight triggers. This suggests that positive feedback loops do operate, and are not overwhelmed by unspecified negative feedback loops.

      Don’t take my word on any of this, though, since I’m not a climate scientist.

      -Tom S

      • “The net effect is a warming of 4 degrees centigrade or so by 2100…”

        The flaw here (or at least the most obvious one) is that the processes do not stop in the year 2100. What happens in 2200?

        • “The flaw here (or at least the most obvious one) is that the processes do not stop in the year 2100. What happens in 2200?”

          Read the post carefully. The post doesn’t claim that the process stops in the year 2100. It claims that we don’t require a complicated computer model to show 4 degrees centigrade warming.

          By “net effect” I meant the cumulative effect of the warming caused by CO2 plus the feedback loops (humidity and albedo) until a new equilibrium was reached.

          Also, when I say “this will happen by 2100”, that’s not the same as saying it will _stop_ in 2100.

          -Tom S

          • Sure, but I’m talking about the larger discussion, which is almost always presented as “X degrees of warming by year Y”, as though either everything stops at Y, or whatever happens after Y just doesn’t matter.

            It’d be interesting to see a model of what happens following “business as usual” – that is, digging up & burning fossil fuels at rates extrapolated from current use & known reserves – and carrying the effects forward at least a couple of thousand years.

          • Predictions are hard, especially into the future. The uncertainties can balloon to the point that scientists do not feel comfortable with that degree of extrapolation (esp. given complex and incompletely understood feedback mechanisms).

          • But it is those extrapolated into the future scenarios that are important, even if they have considerable error bars. After all, a prediction of 4 degree warming by 2100, even if it’s 95% confidence, just doesn’t carry the same weight as saying “30% chance of Permian/Triassic level extinction event in the next thousand years.”

      • Tom,

        I do have some confidence in past estimates of global temperature, which show variations on a range of scales from the diurnal to the seasonal, the decadal, the 100,000 or so years of the Milankovich cycle, and beyond. We are just beginning to understand the decadal oscillations, which makes me skeptical of longer term predictions. What is needed is some indication of skill — verification of falsifiable predictions — on the part of long term climate forecasting. That is what science is about, after all.

        As far as I can tell the expected rate of global warming due to atmospheric CO2 is somewhere between 1K and 2K per doubling of concentration, in the absence of feedback. Probably nearer 1K than 2K. I haven’t read any convincing argument in favor of positive feedback, although of course that does not rule it out. It is known that the Earth was warmer during the previous interglacial, the Eemian, than during this one; if runaway positive feedback was likely, why hasn’t it happened yet?

        General public discussion of climate science has unfortunately become almost entirely ideological — positions are taken not on the basis of observable facts, but rather on philosophical or political grounds. The end result is likely to be decreased public confidence in science generally, and decreased influence by savants on public policy.

        • “I haven’t read any convincing argument in favor of positive feedback, although of course that does not rule it out.”

          To me, the positive feedbacks seem convincing and relatively certain. Actually, I don’t see how the two feedbacks I mentioned (humidity and albedo) are seriously in doubt. Global humidity is tightly controlled by temperature, and I don’t see how temperature could increase by 1K to 2K (as you claimed) without any increase in average humidity whatsoever. Also I don’t see how the ice meltage would be absolutely zero in the face of higher temperatures. Ice will melt, and water will evaporate, in the presence of higher temperatures. Furthermore, I don’t see how higher humidity would fail to trap more IR radiation, or how ice meltage would have no effect on reflectivity.

          “Earth was warmer during the previous interglacial, the Eemian, than during this one; if runaway positive feedback was likely, why hasn’t it happened yet?”

          Nobody was talking about _runaway_ positive feedback. Earth isn’t going to end up like Venus.

          During the Eemian, the temperature increase was far more intense than would have been expected from the orbital eccentricity which caused it. This requires _some kind_ of positive feedback mechanism to explain it.

          -Tom S

  11. In a market economy, it’s not strictly true that you need 50% of the population to agree in order for energy consumption to be reduced. You just need to convince producers to reduce supply. Given the finite supply, it’s likely the fossil fuel market will become more and more monopolistic. Monopolies have better incentives to reduce supply. I think this is good reason to be more optimistic about market economies than planned economies.

    I would also like to point out that while convincing 50% of the population is a tall order, it’s still much easier than convincing 100% of the population. So I still think supporting carbon taxes is more viable than arguing for personal responsibility/moderation. More modest energy consumption by a significant percentage of the population would depress consumption and prices, inducing the rest of the population to consume more. I think it’s likely that a significant percentage of the energy you save is wasted by some else who is even less careful given that prices are lower. There will be a benefit, but it’s likely less than the energy directly saved. A carbon tax (set to raise over time in order to diminish initial disruption, but still able to influence long term investment plans) is a much more likely to have an effect.

    I am also not really sure that I find the “responsible” behaviour morally superior. It reminds me of the tale of the ant and the grasshopper. I think most people would consider the ant to be the “correct” behaviour, but I am not sure it’s necessarily so. If the grasshopper wishes to live large today and not worry about tomorrow, can we really judge? Most people accept that terminally ill patients should live their last days as well as they can rather than extend their life while lowering its quality. Can we make the decision for other people about the acceptable trade-off? I think it’s difficult. The only imperfect method we built to make this kind of decision is democracy.

    • Yes, campaigns to reduce consumption of underground carbon, instead of inderdicting oil and coal fields, are like campaigns to reduce eating fish, instead of interdicting fishing areas. The latter policies have a real chance of reducing the supply, the former policies have little chance of decreasing consumer demand.

  12. “The result is that it does not matter whether the President, our Senators, or our Representatives personally accept and understand climate change or any other long-term threat to the status quo. Let’s pretend they are “smart” in this context. As long as giant buckets full of voters oppose action that would increase energy costs, require reductions of energy usage, or mandate greater efficiency, the (vote-conscious) politicians have their hands tied and their feet in a sack. So here’s our companion to the smart handicap: we get a dumb handicap too, keeping smart ideas from being implemented.”

    My stab at optimism is this: climate change is a physical process, one which is obvious to people paying attention, but not so obvious if you’re not. yet. Of course the main implication of climate science is that warming will become progressively more obvious (otherwise who cares, right?). In twenty years time you it will be as easy to find somebody who goes around saying ‘but the planet isn’t really warming because of something something 1997’ or ‘it’s the sun’ as it is to find someone who will tell you passionately that Saddam has chemical weapons now.

    Markets may be flawed, but they are certainly the number one tool to reduce our emissions when driven by Pagovian taxes. Sure these aren’t popular. Find me a tax that is. But we need SOME sort of taxes to run the public parts of our society (even in the Libertarian utopian ideal of ‘just an army and police and courts’). So riddle me this. Can you think of a Tax that would be less unpopular than a Carbon tax? Don’t like carbon taxes? Should we raise your income tax instead? I didn’t think so. Once a government bites the bullet and introduces a carbon price, once people get used to it, it becomes the new normal, and doesn’t go away. Once you have a high enough carbon price, the problem goes from being one of personal denial of lifestyle to finding a billion ways to maintain our lifestyle at low cost (so no emissions), which is exactly the sort of thing markets excel at.

    Speaking of optimism, I’d like to make a quick complaint about an article you linked to in your ‘science is a conveyor of bad news post. That thing was terrible, and a good example of what you’re talking about here. They’ve (I believe wrongly) assumed that correlation is causation, and as a physicist you’ve latched onto it and not questioned it. Why should high energy be a prerequisite for low population growth? I can’t think of any direct mechanism here. Better explanation be that high GDP per capita correlates to both energy and low population growth, but even that, I think misses the real drivers here.

    • Your last complaint is certainly fair. For me, the study said that given the world order we see today, and all the correlations that come with it, we have an indicator that pulling the rest of the world up to the demographic transition does not appear to be in the cards, from an energy point of view. It says we can’t simply extrapolate. Some radical reordering would be necessary to make it possible, if it is at all. It’s still data, it’s still relevant, and it’s something you want to study.

  13. Infrequent poster on this blog here.

    What I am about to say might be taken as only peripherally related to the topic you’ve posted.

    I think you need to perform a thought experiment. Ask yourself what would be possible, within the constraints of current technology if you had absolute power to reorder thing as you saw fit.

    I mean by that, that if you want to start a decades long trillion dollar program to build solar power arrays in Arizona it will be done. If you need a right of way for a transmission line, it will be done. If you need people to move back to cities from suburbs, and abandon cars, it will be done.

    In other words ask yourself what it is possible to do with what we currently know how to do, though technology will advance. I’m not asking you to construct some theoretical utopia, simply to ask the question of exactly what it is possible to create now.

    I don’t necessarily think some of these things are unworkable. The years since 1945 alone saw a massive migration to the Southwest. No natural law says it can’t work in the opposite direction for example.

    • Heh. From the point of view of an external observer our problems are solvable. The understanding was available as long as a century ago – at least. F.Soddy and his “Wealth, virtual Wealth and Debt” as an easy example.
      Within the system we have predicament, not some problems. Curing symptoms and ignoring the global picture only makes things worse in the long term. Alas.

  14. Wow…some serious problems in logic, that being said, at least a straight up condemnation of freedom and more than a few votes for outright authoritarianism. Which brings me to my first point, my second point having to do with another article.

    Many have suggested that “the problem” is too many people, followed by various solutions being offered to solve that problem. I’d suggest that should the “climate change” people be correct the irony is that the problems will solve themselves.

    Next, I chose to come to this article not knowing if a comment on a previous article would receive a response.

    Unfortunately, as with this one, I had to wade through quite a bit of left wing nonsense, but the bottom line question is whether enough electricity can be generated from the roof to power the house and even sell some back to the grid. I hope that was my original question, as I said, the political spin really gets in the way of focusing on the subject itself.


  15. For those of you who have doubts about benign dictatorships, I suggest that you travel to Hong Kong or Singapore first and experience it first hand. It’s not all that bad.

    Dictatorships are sometimes the only way to accomplish major reforms. For example, in the US almost everybody knows that Medicare and Social Security will bankrupt the country. Certainly all the politicians knows it. Are they fixing the problem? Of course not. Any solutions they propose will get them voted out of office. And so the solutions all involve kicking the can down the road.

    Which country has successfully reformed its social security system? Chile! It was done under a dictatorship. To change social security from a pay-as-you-go to defined contribution private plans simply cannot be done under a democratic society.

    • Hong Kong was administered by the democratic government of Britain and has a local flawed democracy of its own; “Communist” China hasn’t been in charge long and has stayed hands off. Singapore straddles the line betweena authoritarian and flawed democracy, also the line between economic utopia and personal freedoms dystopia; both ministates have very unusual circumstances, as well.

      Meanwhile there’s all the *other* dictatorships. Do The Math; the odds are poor.

      “everybody knows that Medicare and Social Security will bankrupt the country.”

      What ‘everybody knows’ isn’t always true. Social Security is fine or easily fixable. Health care costs in general — not Medicare in particular — will bankrupt the country or make health care unaffordable if their soaring trends continue. Obamacare took some small steps toward fixing that, though it wasn’t the main goal of the bill. Massachusetts has started inching toward cost controls of its own.

      “Chile! It was done under a dictatorship”

      It was also deeemed a failure by most Chileans and has been recently re-reformed by the democracy.

      “To change social security from a pay-as-you-go to defined contribution private plans simply cannot be done under a democratic society.”

      That’s a good thing. The vagaries of the stock market should not be all that stands between seniors and eating cat food. And at a society wide level, you can’t avoid do-the-math analysis that looks like pay-as-you-go, but we’d be getting off topic. (Basic idea: you can’t eat money, only use it to hire younger workers who provide food and change bedpans. Privatizing social security can’t change the worker/retiree ratio, which is what actually matters, along with worker productivity.)

      • It seems to me that these abundant anti-democratic comments exhibit their own form of the “Crippling Intellect” problem highlighted by the post.
        That is to say:
        1. I/we am/are smart
        2. the only problem is implementing the solution over the objections of the stupid people
        3. let’s have some efficient dictatorship

        This is a typical, simple, means/end framework, and it works very well for engineering problems. It is the attempt to channel this single-minded framework in a different realm (politics) that creates problems. Problems that the people thinking in this way will have a hard time comprehending, because they are just outside their path, a path they are quite smart at following. Crippling intellects, indeed.

      • “The vagaries of the stock market should not be all that stands between seniors and eating cat food.”

        I don’t believe you can have priced cat food lately. If “seniors” are in fact eating it, it’s not because it’s all they can afford – Do the Numbers!. Perhaps it’s because the sense of smell & taste deteriorates with age, so that what is too strongly flavored, even stinky, to young people are the only things that older folks can taste.

  16. tmurphy,

    “If no one on the planet wants a recession (or worse), and the market is efficient enough to anticipate looming problems and deftly side-step, then why are recessions, bubbles, and other failures ubiquitous features of our economic landscape?”

    I definitely see your point here. Obviously people make mistakes. Often these mistakes are made by new investors who were tempted into investing by the bubble and who don’t know how to estimate the value of the assets they’re investing in. However, experts sometimes make mistakes too: look at mortgage-backed securities, Lehman Bros, junk bond funds, portfolio insurance, and other examples. Most of the mistakes made by experts are within investment banks, which do very complicated things and purposefully take enormous risks and walk a fine line with disaster. However, it still shows that experts don’t always anticipate what will happen.

    However, even in cases like bubbles and crashes, the error does not persist. The housing bubble is no longer going, and was actually a fairly brief phenomenon. Mortgage-backed securities have been severely curtailed. Lehman is gone. By now, we have backtracked and gone a different direction.

    One reason I believe we will adjust to different energy sources is because doing so only requires basic asset allocation decisions. I’m not trivializing the effort and resources needed to transition to other sources of energy. Clearly, trillions of dollars and decades will be required. However, it’s a basic asset allocation decision. When oil becomes scarcer, it’s cheaper to electrify rail routes (this is one example out of about 10,000). Most businesspeople would scream for an opportunity as obvious as that. This is the kind of decision which experts in industries carry out routinely. We’d be making a big mistake if we think that everyone who works for Exxon or Southern Pacific or Maersk or Toyota is an idiot. In fact, the engineers, geologists, economists, etc who work for those companies have turned out to be far more effective than almost anyone in the energy decline movement anticipated (think fracking, shale oil, hybrid cars, electric cars, larger and slower (and thereby far more fuel-efficient) ships, etc). They made preparations _long before_ the decline of oil or gas.

    Furthermore, the economy routinely redirects resources to their most important uses, as a function of networks of prices. This is happening every day, all the time. Oil supplies in the USA have declined by 0.7% per year for a decade now (because of higher demand from China, not just peak oil) yet there was enough oil to deliver the equipment necessary for fracking.

    Furthermore, markets ANTICIPATE obvious events and take corrective action beforehand. Futures markets started pushing up the price of oil about 5 years ago, making alternatives like shale oil plausible, long before any decline has occurred.

    I don’t see why everyone in those industries would fail to carry out basic asset allocation decisions which they perform all the time. These are simple optimization problems. Bear in mind that we don’t require everyone to be right; we require SOME PLAYERS to be right, and the firms which are right will expand. There is an evolutionary mechanism which doesn’t require every firm or investor to survive. In fact, we don’t even require any of the _current_ players to be right because they could all be replaced, given enough time (other firms can enter into those industries).

    As oil becomes more expensive, these basic transitions will become better and better compensated. The asset allocation decisions would become OBVIOUS. Bear in mind that the market is constantly looking for solutions, and obvious decisions are usually made within a fraction of a second. Just try trading commodity futures (and compete against experts) based upon obvious political developments and see how fast you need to be. If you are one second behind, you have lost.

    I don’t see why everyone will fail to carry out basic asset allocation decisions when they routinely do so, when they usually can do so within seconds when required, when they do so thousands of times per day (across all industries) and when we have 50+ years in this case to make the necessary decisions. It does not matter if they get the timing exactly right, because if we fall short of oil one year, then the economy sacrifices the least important uses temporarily, as a function of a network of prices. This has already happened several times.

    I realize this will seem strange to everyone outside of economics, but I consider peak oil to be “business as usual”. There are always catastrophes, adjustments, re-routing, changes, etc, happening every day. Anyone who has worked for a large company knows that it’s a managed series of disasters. It involves people SCRAMBLING based upon new information.

    I’m not saying that everyone will always act perfectly. However, I do make the following assumption: if you can think of some obvious possible solution, then the market will do that or something better (provided there aren’t externalities). If we need to start fracking, we will frack. If we need to start using tar sands, we’ll use them. If Maersk needs to build massive ships which get 2x the fuel efficiency, it will. If Toyota must build hybrids, it will. If new supply networks need to be constructed, they will. If massive oil tankers need to be built, they will be built (this is a reference to late-1970s energy decline people who claimed there was no way to get the oil from the middle east to here, since it would require a huge number “MASSIVE” tanker ships, the likes of which had never been built before, etc).

    Peak oil is yet another transition, in a long series of transitions.

    -Tom S

  17. Even smart people sometimes have to use sketchy data. When I started studying peak oil in 2002, the forward looking data was frightening. I was very worried about energy constraints. But in some ways the economists were right. Ten years later, North American fossil reserves have increased significantly, as has the price of energy. After remaining flat for decades, the percentage of household income spent on energy increased dramatically from 2001 to 2011 (7% to 12%). So the economists and the PO researchers were both right. Fossil supply is constrained and the higher prices are impacting global economic growth. Peak Oil’s economic impact is real, but energy is available.

    I know of no energy researchers in 2002-06 who were predicting the recent dramatic price drops in PV technology. But when you look at the efficiency/price curve over last three decades (doubling every 7 years or so), you realize it was probably inevitable, and will likely continue to follow the same curve for the next three decades. And when you “do the math” into 2040, PV appears to be the #1 key to humanity’s energy independence. I’ve just run numbers which show 1 cent per kwh electricity by 2040 — basically free energy.

    At that point, PV owners will no longer be receiving grid credits, but will be paying grid tariffs to keep the grid working! Today, gas-coal-nuke plants provide 85% of our electricity. In 2050, gas-coal-nuke plants will be providing less than 40%. One study shows 100% of German electricity from renewables by 2050. “Free” electricity will push advanced battery and EV development. By 2040, I expect to see EV’s that exceed the performance of fossil vehicles in every respect, including cost parity and range. Exxon forecasts U.S. oil demand to drop 15% by 2040 (19M b/d today to 16M b/d in 2040). But with PV giving us effectively free electricity by 2040, I think we’ll probably be much further into EVs, reducing our oil dependence below 15M b/d, and assuring a form of U.S. energy independence.

    Love your blog!

    Some number crunching:

    • You are extrapolating from the past trend following the assumption that it is likely that the same trend will hold in the future. An assumption grounded in the “fact” that if we look at the curve for the past years we realize how the future shall be.
      Does not seem a really solid prediction.

      • Guido, you may be right, but consider that (1) more money is being plowed into PV research than at any other time in history, (2) Beard at NREL is talking 45% commodity near-term, (3) Sharp and others have proven 43%, and most agree that current research should bring us to 50% range. A good place to start is the SCC website, under the heading “Strategies To Exceed The SQ Limit” – some really good science here.

        OK, let’s say you’re right and the 30-year PV eff/cost curve slows down and we don’t achieve 60% eff @ $0.20/watt. Let’s say we only get 1/2 way there, say 30% eff and $0.40/watt — a very conservative assumption. That still gives us electricity at roughly $0.02/kwh! And that’s FAR cheaper than coal-gas-nuke electricity. This means that by 2050, PV will have displaced at least half of U.S. fossil-nuke electricity, and by 2070, we will be nearly 100% renewable.

        But I don’t think that $0.02/kwh electricity is enough ROI to maintain a grid, so my guess is that we’ll be making changes to our national grid management, perhaps not unlike the Euro-zone has done. We’ll probably be paying a grid-service tax, with net cost somewhere in the $0.05-0.06/kwh range. Just a guess.

        • I cannot be right because I am not asserting any thesis, I am just saying that your extrapolation does not appear to be solidly grounded. How much PV will cost in the future will not depend on how its cost evolved in the past, it will depend on technological achievement, availability of resources and the demand/supply economy.
          There are many posts in this same website that deals with similar extrapolation’s fallacies.

        • Except that even now, a large chunk of the cost of a PV system is not the panels themselves, it’s the installation/supporting structure and the inverter (for grid tie) or batteries.

          • Spot on, James. And as panel efficiencies continue to improve, we will need fewer panels per install, cutting installation costs proportionally. Today, a commodity 5kW home system requires around 24 39″x66″ panels. Increasing commodity PV efficiency from 15% to 30% will halve the required panels to 12, cutting installation labor and materials by roughly 40%.

            By 2040, I think we’ll be even farther up the efficiency curve – minimum 45%, perhaps as high as 60%, cutting installation costs even further. With the rapid scaling of grid-tie micro-inversion, we should approach $0.20/watt, putting 2040 installed PV in the neighborhood of $0.60-0.80/watt, without external incentives. That’s less than $0.02/kwh, and that is nearly free electricity.

            With access to the grid, and with grid-tie credits, batteries are not necessary. A properly designed grid-credit PV system – today – will reduce an electric bill to net zero and payback its original investment in 4 to 8 years (depending on one’s sunshine density, the price of their electricity, etc..). Heavy electricity users in PG&E rate areas can now payback in 4.5 years. By 2040, average PV payback will be under two years, and possible as little as 14 months.

          • I’m waiting for them to become “plug & play” commodities that I can pick up at the local Home Depot and install myself.

            Apropos of which, I’ve been thinking that a solar system for the computers might be a good idea, but am not electrical engineer enough to figure out how. The (desktop) power supply provides 12V and 5V DC from the 120V AC supply. Now suppose you could supply the DC directly from a solar-charged battery, and have AC conversion only as a backup. You remove the inefficiency and noise of the AC/DC conversion, and get a massive UPS into the bargain.

            Then I could run a few 12V DC lights and such…

  18. I’m not quite sure what you were trying to illuminate with that post. I can’t follow your “smart handicap” argument at all. “Smartness”, however one may want to define that, obviously doesn’t guarantee being right, especially outside of one’s area of specialty. And being an expert in a highly specialized field might tempt one to overestimate one’s competence in other fields. But that is hardly a result of smartness I would think.

    “It is, of course, possible to build a model for how people are likely to behave, and cope with the result. But I imagine smart people still often get caught off guard when someone stubbornly fails to understand what is obvious to them.”

    We all operate with a (usually implicit) model of how people are likely to behave, and our models are frequently unrealistic. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that our models tend to work at certain scales but not at others. In particular, nobody so far to my knowledge has managed to realistically model social behavior at a large scale. When somebody, however smart they are, tries to extrapolate what they think they know about social behavior, they usually turn out to be wrong. The “smart” approach would be to acknowledge this inherent difficulty and to concentrate on accurately modeling the other, more predictable (physical) variables of the system, and then creating scenarios of how society might respond to the physical reality we are facing. That is in fact what IPCC for example has done with its emissions scenarios.

    • There’s a common observation that smart people can be dumb in very creative ways, or “only someone very smart could be that dumb”. One followss one’s intellect down paths of brilliant and tortured folly that lesser mortals would be unable to follow. Or sometimes, would have the common sense to not follow.

      Dungeon & Dragons’ use of separate stats for Intelligence and Wisdom, with explanations like “Intelligence tells you it’s raining, Wisdom tells you to go inside” is IMO one of its greater contributions to geek culture. The “Int 18, Wis 3” pattern becomes rather obvious once one knows to look — and can be quite inferior sometimes, practically speaking, to “Int 8, Wis 10”. (Scores range from 3-18, in a bell curve, 18 is good.)

      That’s the genus; Tom tried to provide some species examples.

  19. @James “Now suppose you could supply the DC directly from a solar-charged battery, and have AC conversion only as a backup.”

    Yes! This is a direction we’re already seeing, especially in third-world and industrializing regions. It’s about 70% less expensive to branch and regulate DC than it is to invert DC to AC. As LED lighting continues to fall in its price curve, we’ll see more non-inverted DC space lighting. We’ll see more DC water and space heating, more direct access to DC at the wall, and fewer wall-warts. Our company has a new building design in which a percentage of the PV flows as DC directly into LED lighting, with no AC inversion. In fact, there is a new trade organization lobbying for micro-grid DC infrastructure

  20. Tom,

    A long-time lurker here, first comment. I’m a physicist who now teaches in a ChemE dept. and it has been an enlightening experience.

    Before I learned engineering, I had this vision of the human world being limited by fundamental physical constraints. Very much in the spirit of this blog. Afterward, I see the world as more limited by costs. For every material and energy service ‘problem’ there are a bunch of (physically constrained) solutions, each of which has different costs….and the cost of a given technology (after scale up and learning curve effects) is frequently devilishly hard to estimate using simple physical principles. Who would think that the microprocessor in your phone might cost only $10?? Who would think a flight to Aruba at Mach 0.85 might only cost $300 round trip??

    My point? That there are many more solutions out there in the engineering world than you have considered in this blog. And many of them are likely to be cheaper than you or I can imagine. And that we are not rolling them out because of physical constraints or ‘stupidity of people’, but because (i) policy makers do not have adequate political incentive (yet?) and (ii) capitalists do not have adequate financial incentive (yet?), and (iii) investors still perceive the _risk_ of potentially profitable projects to be too high (e.g. still burned by the collapse of high oil prices in the 1980s).

    So, to stay OT, I would offer a slightly different intellectual ecosystem. Physicists form a respected intellectual elite that provides highly insightful and reliable models/predictions for issues that are within their ken. Real world problems are actually solved by engineers, but generally only at scale when funded by private enterprise. Politicians receive expert advice from both groups through the NAS and NAE (after being interpreted by their congressional staff). With notable exceptions (i.e. the politically motivated hydrogen economy nonsense) policy makers are exquisitely well informed, and fail to make good policy not due to lack of knowledge, but out of their need to get reelected. This requires them to parrot creationist credos and do their fundraisers’ bidding (to the consternation of the intellectual elite).

    So, my useless Dysonian prediction: in 2050 a lot of home energy tech and cars will be remarkably more energy efficient, planes not so much. Well-heeled humans will still burn as much fossil fuel as required to provide all their desired energy services, and the rest will make do as they have through all history. To the extent climate change or food shortages inconvenience the well-heeled, geo-engineers and agri-engineers and food-scientists will happily solve those problems in return for a paycheck.

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